By Greil Marcus
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AS THE TITLE TRACK of the Doors last album, released in April 1971, three months before Jim Morrison died in Paris, his ideal of following in the footsteps of Rimbaud replaced by an image of Marat dead in his bathtub, "L.A. Woman" emerged over the years, until after four decades you could turn on your car radio and find all eight minutes of it still talking, jabbering, this bum on Sunset Strip going on about a woman and the city and the night as if someone other than himself is actually listening. You can hear it there, any-time—and you can hear it playing between every other line of Thomas Pynchon's 2009 L.A. detective novel Inherent Vice, set in the spring of 1970, just before the Manson trial is about to begin, a time when, as Pynchon calls it up, the freeways eastbound from the beach towns "teemed with VW buses in jittering paisleys, primer-coated street hemis, woodies of authentic Dearborn pine, TV-star-piloted Porsches, Cadillacs carrying dentists to extramarital trysts, windowless vans with lurid teen dramas in progress inside, pickups with mattresses full of country cousins from the San Joaquin, all wheeling along together down into these great horizonless fields of housing, under the power transmission lines, everybody's radios lasing on the same couple of AM stations."
The book is a love letter to a time and place about to vanish: about the fear that "the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness … how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good."
At the very time in which Pynchon has placed his story—about a rock 'n' roll musician supposedly dead of a heroin overdose who turns up in his old band unrecognized by his own bandmates ("Even when I was alive, they didn't know it was me"), a disappeared billionaire developer, a gang of right-wing thugs called Vigilant California, a criminal empire so vast and invulnerable even to speak its name is to make the earth tremble, the first, primitive, bootlegged version of the Inter net, and an old girlfriend—people were already talking about the great hippie detective novel. About a dope deal, of course—and an outsider version of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. Roger Simon's Moses Wine—starting out in 1973 with The Big Fix and still on the case thirty years later, wasn't it. In 1971 Hunter Thompson played the role well in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," but soon dissolved in his own aura. Pynchon's Doc Sportello somehow realizes the fantasy.
About to turn thirty, he lives in Gordita Beach, halfway between Hermosa Beach and El Segundo, though not on any real-life map. He thinks of himself as John Garfield; he's the same height. On his wall is a velvet painting he bought on the street: "a Southern California beach that never was—palms, bikini babes, surfboards, the works."
He thought of it as a window to look out of when he couldn't deal with looking out of the traditional glass-type one in the other room. Sometimes in the shadows the view would light up, usually when he was smoking weed, as if the contrast knob of Creation had been messed with just enough to give everything an underglow, a luminous edge, and promise that the night was about to turn epic somehow.
That's as good a description of "L.A. Woman" as any other. It has the textures of ordinary life, and everything about it is slightly off, because the epic is what it's reaching for, but without giving itself away, without makeup, cool clothes, photo shoots, or any other trappings of Hollywood glamour. Robby Krieger's guitar is in the front of the music, thin and loose, intricate and casual, serious and quick as thought. Jim Morrison is in the back of the sound, as if trailing the band on the street, shouting that he's got this song for them, a new-type song for a dime, it'd be perfect, and you can see the Morrison who's singing, a man who in 1970 did look like a bum, a huge and tangled beard, a gut hanging over his belt, his clothes stained. The voice is full of cracks and burrs, and an inspiring, crazy exuberance, a delight in being on the streets, in the sun, at night under neon, Blade Runner starring Charles Bukowski instead of Harrison Ford—this bum doesn't shuffle down the street, he runs, stops, twirls, runs back the way he came. Maybe the city doesn't want to see him, but he's in love with the city and that's the story he has to tell. He's not blind. "Motel money, murder madness," he muses to himself; he can see the fear the Manson gang left in the eyes of the people he passes even as they avert their eyes from his, but he's not afraid, and he knows he's not the killer they're afraid of. The whole song is a chase in pieces, the guitarist tracing half circles in the air, the singer dancing in circles around him, the guitarist not seeing him, the singer not caring.
In Inherent Vice there are set pieces lifted, as they have to be, from the likes of The Little Sister or The Chill—the visit to the big mansion, the hero doped up in the locked room. What is new is Pynchon's depiction of the economy of the hippie utopia as altogether heroin-driven, a suspicion that flits around the edges of the first pages of the story and drives the last sixty pages like a train. What's new in the detective-story novel is Sportello himself, a one-time skip tracer who's graduated into the world of the licensed PI, beach-bum division, and Sportello's nemesis, the infinitely manipulative LAPD homicide detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, who could have stepped out of H. P. Lovecraft. "It's like," he says, "there's this evil subgod who rules over Southern California? who off and on will wake from his slumber and allow the dark forces that are always lying there just out of the sunlight to come forth? … bye-bye, Black Dahlia, rest in peace Tom Ince, we've seen the last of those good old-time L.A. murder mysteries I'm afraid. We've found the gateway to hell, and it's asking far too much of your L.A. civilian not to want to go crowding on through it, horny and giggling as always, looking for that latest thrill. Lots of overtime for me and the boys I guess, but it brings us all that much closer to the end of the world"—and you can almost see Squeaky Fromme, not to mention four or five previous generations of Southern California mystics and psychics, perched on his shoulder, smiling like Natalie Wood.
Manson's shadow is everywhere, whether it's Sportello and a black militant arguing over who's hotter, Fromme or Leslie van Houten ("Submissive, brainwashed, horny little teeners," says Sportello's old girlfriend Shasta Hepworth, "who do exactly what you want before you even know what that is … Your kind of chick, Doc, that's the lowdown on you"), or Sportello and three other people in a car pulled over for no reason they can see. "New program," says a cop, "you know how it is, another excuse for paperwork, they're calling it Cult-watch, every gathering of three or more civilians is now defined as a potential cult." It's a joke people use because the punch line is all around them, until Manson changes into a story so sensational no one thinks to look behind it, into "a vortex of corroded history," into what Don DeLillo, in Great Jones Street, a novel set about the same time as Pynchon's, called "the true underground," where presidents and prime ministers "make the underground deals and speak the true underground idiom," where "the laws are broken, way down under, far beneath the speed freaks and the cutters of smack."
Out of all this, Pynchon can produce a beach joint where customers argue convincingly "about the two different 'Wipe-out' singles, and which label, Dot or Decca, featured the laugh and which didn't." He can craft a shootout that turns on a line that in any other hands would be ridiculous, but on Pynchon's ground feels right—a line that to get off the ground needs a whole book behind it, a line that hits the note the book needs to lift itself into the air. "He waited till he saw a dense patch of moving shadow, sighted it in, and fired, rolling away immediately, and the figure dropped like an acid tab into the mouth of Time"—a moment that fades into an ending so delicate and tragic in its apprehension of all that is soon to pass away it could change places with the last page of Tender Is the Night.
You can hear the last pages of the story Pynchon tells in "L.A. Woman" as the Doors played it at the end of 1970, in Dallas, on December 11, the day before their last show, in New Orleans. "It also looked like a crime scene waiting on its next crime," Pynchon writes; if you had that image in your head, you might hear it playing out as, from the stage of the State Fair Music Hall, "L.A. Woman" begins. It's spooky, immediately calling down night fog. On the tape that survives, the band sounds very far away. Morrison screams out an enormous Yeeeaaahhh! and then there's nothing, only a beat moving without a destination. Even as something like music begins to take shape, all you hear is restraint, a refusal to move—a suspension that would turn a corner the next night, the Doors' last night, when in the midst of his performance Morrison began to slam his microphone down until the boards broke, then sat on the stage and refused to move or sing. Pynchon could have reviewed that show: "It was as if whatever had happened had reached some kind of limit. It was like finding the gateway to the past unguarded, unforbidden because it didn't have to be." Or rewritten it as a dream: "Doc followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool's attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on into the future it did."
In Dallas, after almost three minutes, Morrison begins to sing, directly, conversationally, without pressure, with long waits between lines. As anyone will be able to hear months later, when L.A. Woman appears in the stores, the bum on the street is present, but not as he will be then; this man is more damaged, his speech slurred, his demeanor distracted, someone screaming at himself, tearing at his clothes.
As the performance takes shape all four of the 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. The characters in the song—the man singing, the city, the woman the man is chasing in his mind—are specters, figments of each other's imagination. And then, after the bum is replaced by a preacher, who declaims and chants, from a little bit softer now to a little bit louder now, a little bit louder now, until risin' risin' risin' risin'! sweeps through the music, a spell is broken. Everything is clear. The bum is just a bum, the city is just streets and freeways, the woman is just the last person the bum saw before he opened his mouth.
Near the end, after more than fourteen minutes, the band, playing the song like a theme, begins to drop away. You can almost see the drummer, the guitarist, and the organ player leave the stage as a stranger walks out of the wings and onto the stage as if he had no intention of being there but is willing to make the best of it. "Well," he says, just like a friend would say if you ran into him on the street, no attitude, no pose, "I just got into town about an hour ago"—what's new?
"L.A. Woman," L.A. Woman (Elektra, 1971). The first and only Doors album not produced by Paul Rothchild, who had quit; their new producer, Bruce Botnick, who had engineered their previous albums, gave the band a freedom in the studio, a sense of ordinary life, that they were ready to use.
———, State Fair Music Hall, Dallas, December 11, 1970, from Boot Yer Butt! The Doors Bootlegs (Rhino Handmade, 2003).
Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 19, 254–55, 86, 6, 209, 304, 179, 101, 327, 83, 351, 314.
Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), 231–32.
COMING OFF A SEAMLESS seven minutes of "Roadhouse Blues" in Pittsburgh on May 2, 1970—a Corvette shifting through five gears again and again, just to show off how smooth the transmission is—the band paused, and Jim Morrison took a breath. "People get ready," he crooned, holding up the Impressions nightclub brotherhood anthem like a racetrack flag—"People get ready / For that train to glory"—but that wasn't the train the group was about to take out of the station.
For more than three slow minutes, with the guitar counting off the pace of an engine picking up steam with scratchy clickety-clack and the organ moving much faster, trees and rivers and strip malls passing by as you looked out the window, the song grew until Morrison could jump it. He got on at the right time, but the music didn't need him: it was loose, taking its own shape. He sang for a few moments, the rhythm reforming thickly around his gross, slobbery voice, everything slurred, then gave the tune back to the band, then came back, then threw it away again.
The song went on, picking up new titles as it continued through ten, twelve, finally nearly fifteen minutes—"Away in India," "Crossroads Blues"—but it was all one song, all one attempt to get somewhere, to get out, to cross a border. As the music edged into its seventh minute, it seemed to have developed a mind of its own: you can hear the song musing over itself, the wheels feeling the tracks, the engine wondering at the rightness of a machine tied to a road of iron, the machine achieving a lightness, a weightlessness, that makes the tracks disappear.
As soon as Morrison came back, all of that was gone, smeared with florid vowels, shapeless words. Again the band finds its way back to its first rhythm, that scratch, and again Morrison flattens it, throwing bits of blues songs out the window, forgetting them as soon as he does; when you're picking blues lines out of the air, there's never any end to them, they're just used tickets, and worth as much.
In the mid-sixties, when the Doors began, when "Mystery Train" first entered their repertoire, Elvis Presley was a joke. The shocking black leather blues he conjured on national television for his 1968 Christmas special was unimaginable after years of movie travelogues, of hula hoops and shrimp, of a world where a racetrack was just another beach—where, as Elvis himself once put it, he had to beat up guys before he sang to them. But in 1968, when Elvis sang "One Night"—after climbing mountains and fording rivers all across the frontiers of "Tryin' to Get to You," going back again and again to Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do" as if it were a talisman of a treasure he couldn't name, each time deepening it, dropping words in search of a rhythm the song didn't even know it wanted and now couldn't live without—what returned was the sense of awe, of disbelief, that greeted him when he first made himself known.
In the years before that, his "Mystery Train," recorded in 1955 for Sun Records in Memphis—before, so the story went, the money machines in Hollywood and New York turned him into a sausage—had over time acquired a patina of purity. There was an elegance in the recording that couldn't be denied. With Elvis's direct, frank tone and the spare accompaniment, the performance was a veil of simplicity and elusiveness: how could anything so plain feel so otherworldly? The coolest DJs, the most sophisticated connoisseurs, chose "Mystery Train" as their one transcendent Elvis-object—less, it seemed, to signify the genius a poor country boy had traded for money and renown, but to show that even the dumbest rube could, for a moment, stumble on the sublime.
"Mystery Train" was the bohemian's Elvis: a small, perfectly crafted work of art, with a charge of unlikeliness that took it out of the realm of craft and into the realm of event, something that once present in the world could neither be repeated nor taken back. Those who knew celebrated it like the expatriate Argentine intellectuals and dandies in Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch obsessing in Paris over Bix Beiderbecke and Bessie Smith, but there was none of this in Jim Morrison's "Mystery Train." He had his own Elvis obsession—unlike any rock 'n' roll singer since "Heartbreak Hotel" devoured the world's airwaves, he had Elvis's Greek-god looks, his seductive vampire's hooded eyes; like Elvis he communicated the disdain of the beautiful for the ordinary world. But he faced "Mystery Train" as if it were itself an object of disdain: something that had to be wrecked. It was more than a year since the night in Miami that left Morrison facing felony charges for indecent exposure and the Doors banned across the country. Well before that, Morrison had come on stage drunk, sometimes babbling, lashing out, sometimes at the crowd, sometimes at phantoms only he could see; he appeared on stage in a fog of self-loathing, and he could hate the songs he had to sing as deeply and as expansively as he could hate his bandmates, his audience, and himself. As he gropes his way through "Mystery Train," the feeling in the performance is that the song needs someone as close to Elvis Presley as Jim Morrison could imagine himself to be to give the song the lie it always contained: Forget about art. You're a sausage. I'm a sausage. The world is meat.
Against it all, each time Morrison leaves the song to the band the band tries to reclaim it, and each time it does. So once again Morrison lumbers back to spit, to trip, to upend the beat. His disdain—the refusal to credit one kind of beauty, the abstract beauty of art, even as you trade on another kind, the material beauty of the body—was there almost from the start.
On December 10, 1967, Otis Redding's plane went down in a lake in Wisconsin. The greatest soul singer since Sam Cooke, he was only twenty-six, but in the fissures of his voice he seemed much older, someone who had lived more than one life, who had played each part in the moral dramas of "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)," "Pain in My Heart," "These Arms of Mine." In "Try a Little Tenderness," in "I've Got Dreams to Remember," he too had the elegance that comes out of Elvis's "Mystery Train" like perfume—that sense of perfect balance in the midst of music that promises it can go anywhere in any moment. And so it was bizarre, it was hard to believe your ears, when barely two weeks later, at Winterland in San Francisco, Jim Morrison took the stage with the Doors and out over the hall went a few lines recast from Lead Belly's "Poor Howard," but now smug, leering, a Lead Belly song that sounded like a frat-boy chant: "Poor Otis, dead and gone / Left me here to sing his song." As if you could!
Pissing on Redding's grave—it was beyond arrogant, it was beyond obnoxious, it was even beyond racism, or for that matter the racelessness of a white singer embracing a black singer as a brother, if any of that was even there. It was Morrison pantomiming pissing on his own grave—when the time came, he would be barely a year older than Redding was. Who knew: someone could come along one day with "Poor Jim, dead and gone—"
There's an echo of that moment—that prediction—as, after eleven minutes of "Mystery Train" that night in Pittsburgh, Morrison stumbles into "Bullfrog Blues," if that is what he's stumbling into, if instead of the perfect blues lines "Woke up this morning, bullfrogs on my mind" he's singing "Woke up this morning, the girlfriend on my mind"—as if I could tell one from the other, his tone says. "Train I ride, sixteen coaches long / Train I ride, sixteen coaches long," he'd begun, like Elvis, like the blues singer Junior Parker, recording the song he co-wrote two years before Elvis took it up. "Well, that mean old train / Took my baby he gone"—Morrison was already tripping over the song, finding himself in the Golden Chords in 1958, when then–Robert Zimmerman rewrote the song as "Big Black Train": "Well, big black train, coming down the line / Well, big black train, coming down the line / Well, you got my woman, you bring her back to me / Well, that cute little chick is the girl I want to see." As Morrison went on, there was a hint of someone taking a story from the song that the song had never told before: "Train, train, coming down the line / Train, train, coming down the line / Well, that mean old train, took the only friend of mine." Still, it was all too casual, too thrown away to pull anyone else onto the train.
But now he's waking up with bullfrogs on his mind. He translates what that might mean, and he lights up the old phrase, changing its poetry into ordinary language and back again: "Well, I woke up this morning, eight miles on my mind" (or "H-bomb on my mind," or "Nothing on my mind"). He goes back to the prosaic: "I woke up this morning, railroad on my mind." "Take a little walk with me," he says, grabbing on to a floating blues phrase that from song to song can mean love or death and anything in between, a line that is never a promise without a threat, a smile without a warning: "Everything gonna work out fine." He begins to scream the line, the soft, shapeless voice he's had throughout the performance now tearing like cardboard: "Everything, everything, everything gonna work out fine!" He presses even harder, until suddenly emotions are breaking up like a house in a storm, and each one is true: hysteria, fear, happiness at finally getting the music right. The band had pushed itself into a conventional fast, noisy, meaningless, phony frenzy; it could be that this is what allows Morrison to step forward as if what he's singing is something other than meaningless or phony. "Whoa-whoa!" he screams, stretching the vowels into the next day, throwing them out ahead of himself like a harpoon. It's a shout of pleasure, doubling back in its own echo, as if, as you listen, it's gone past death around the bend and back again—and just like that, the band is coming up deliberately behind him, that clean clickety-clack is again driving the music, even as the pace slows, crawls, as finally the train is pulling into the station. In Junior Parker's version, as a friend once said, at the end you can actually hear the air brakes; here you can feel the train go right up to the railhead and stop. "People get ready," Morrison says again—the corny device of ending a story with the same words with which you began it saying that this was just a show, but something else is there, too.
There is a genie the group can let loose that can, at any time, leave you with the sense that you have made a journey, that you have been somewhere you haven't been before, that you have not altogether returned to where you began, perhaps because you didn't want to, because the allure of what you've seen is too strong to altogether surrender. And accompanying that sense of movement is grandeur, a sense that the story you've been told is bigger than life. All through its quarter-hour, its pieces and fragments, through the singer's fatuous refusal to acknowledge the shapeliness of the song he is, in his own way, refusing to sing, you can hear that this is what the Doors were chasing; you can hear them catch it, and you can hear them let it go.
"Mystery Train," Pittsburgh City Arena, May 2, 1970, Live in Pittsburgh 1970 (DMC/Bright Midnight/Rhino, 2008). As performed in Honolulu the month before, on April 18, 1970, the song is less shapely, but for long stretches—the organ-driven middle break, Morrison digging into the wind in the word "India," the final "Woke up this morning" refrains—more explosive, the band finding itself, as an idea, a mission, a sound that remained to be tracked down, as they caught a ride on their own music. See Boot Yer Butt! The Doors Bootlegs (Rhino Handmade, 2003). The audience tape runs out at 13.48, clearly well before the performance ended.
Elvis Presley, "Mystery Train" (Sun, 1955).
- On Sale
- Apr 9, 2013
- Page Count
- 224 pages