Greil Marcus is our greatest historian, but he isn’t interested in generals and battles. To Marcus, the figures who define us are the ones we can barely see. Thus in “The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice,” he all but yawns as he describes Lincoln delivering his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, because his eye is caught by a figure in the seats above the president. It is John Wilkes Booth, come to size up his prey.
“Inside the great national ceremony of continuity and renewal,” he writes, “there was a man walking alone at night through a forest as bats flew through the trees.” To read Marcus is to get a glimpse of the headless man who flits by your bedroom window as lightning crackles behind him, and if others choose to draw the curtain against that figure straight out of Irving and Poe, it’s Marcus’s job to remind us that he’s always in the shadows, waiting.
That’s why, when it comes to art, Marcus is more interested in what he calls termite art, a term he takes from film critic Manny Farber, who likes painting, movies, and music that “feels its way through walls ... with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” And that’s why Marcus is so passionate the Doors, a band known mainly to today’s listeners through the three-minute versions of their songs on oldie stations rather than the longer pieces of their albums and live shows.
Of such a song, “L.A. Woman,” Marcus writes: “As the performance takes shape all four musicians sound as if they are so sure of the song they can trust it to keep going even if they seem to stop playing it. And they do seem to stop, over and over again, less playing the song than listening to it.”
If you think that doesn’t sound like the best way to woo listeners, you’re right. Or at least it’s not an approach designed to please fans who only want to hear radio hits. Some of the best passages in The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years are the extended descriptions of what Marcus calls “the drama of a band at war with its audience,” in which lead singer Jim Morrison and listeners exchange taunts that would be unthinkable today at a concert by Usher or Taylor Swift.
Then again, in an interview with “Rolling Stone,” Morrison said, “You give people ... what they think they want and they’ll let you do anything.... [But] if instead you hold a mirror up and show them what they’re really like, what they really want, and show them that they’re alone instead of all together, they’re revolted and confused. And they’ll act that way.”
Like Morrison and the Doors, Marcus likes to set the reader up and then go his own way, and when I say he’s a writer’s writer, I mean that he has a knack for saying whatever he wants but in a way only he can pull off. Thus in mid-book he riffs on lesser-known bands (Moby Grape) and movies (“Pump Up the Volume”) and completely obscure novels (Wayne Wilson’s “Loose Jam”). He gets especially windy on art, as when he starts on a discussion of Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1947 collage “I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything” and goes on for another 16 pages, bringing in architecture and pop art and comic strips before he returns in an oh-yeah-I-almost-forgot way to the Doors, though in a paragraph or two he’s left them for avant-garde artists Wallace Berman and Shawn Kerri.
The thing is, it works. A three-minute song is comforting, and so is a tight prose argument; both distract us briefly, console us, and return us to our everyday lives. Both are escapist, whereas Marcus and his subjects want us to look at life, not avert our glance.
I bet Greil Marcus wishes the world operated according to the terms laid out by Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, “with malice toward none,” as the president said, and “with charity for all.” And I bet he wishes John Wilkes Booth had never been born. But he was, and he grew up to be a killer, and he slew the best leader we ever had. And I don’t know what kind of house Greil Marcus lives in, but I bet that, like the rest of us, he gets an annual termite inspection. That doesn’t mean he wants there to be such a thing as termites; it simply means he knows they exist, and that they know about us already, so we better find out everything we can about them.
All good artists show us what the world is like, but artists like the Doors, in Morrison’s words, show us what it’s really like.
David Kirby is the author of “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”