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Authors: Greil Marcus

The Doors (7 page)

BOOK: The Doors
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That's the echo—a sonic boom. Instantly, in the dead setting the film has established as nothing, you expect everything, and you're ready for anything. But instead of the arena of the Sixties—the place open to anyone to enter and be free—this is the voice of a secret culture.
It's set forth as a secret, like kids in the 1950s listening to Little Richard on their transistor radios under the covers late at night, not so much afraid their parents would tell them to go to sleep as dreamily celebrating the fact that they had a secret to keep, something of their own that they couldn't and wouldn't share. Christian Slater's voice comes out of a tiny, Radio Shack–built pirate radio station—no sudden cultural explosion, but a single high school kid trying to come to life.
Every night at ten, he switches on his equipment and starts talking. He plays records, talks over them, blathers on, maybe for five minutes, maybe for hours. He's got nice Sixties parents who wouldn't dream of asking him what he does under the covers. They know they have to give him what they're supposed to call his space.
Unlike a DJ from 1956 who screams and shouts as if the whole world is listening, this DJ imagines no one is listening. The Sixties principle of action was “The Whole World Is Watching,” and that's what “We've gotta make the myths” is
meant to signify—the idea that you could do something and it would immediately count, become a touchstone, something people would look back to as a saga of liberation, a tale told for generations. The line sounded stupid on the radio ads for the movie, but not in the movie itself: the film builds that arena. You hear Ray Manzarek tell Jim Morrison they've gotta make the myths, and it sounds like what anyone would want to do—it sounds like the only proper ambition.
But the kid in
Pump Up the Volume
has no arena, and the idea of actually appearing in public is unthinkable—worse, it's meaningless. There is no public. His parents give him his space, but there is no public space he might share with anyone else. As Margaret Thatcher once said with such satisfaction, her words nagging in Jenny Diski's head a generation later, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” As a disc jockey, Christian Slater is a secret agent without a mission, a terrorist without an enemy. But in a world without an arena the fact that no one is listening is freedom. Because no one is listening, because nothing Slater says can have consequences, he can, with bright, dancing eyes behind his mask of a squint, say anything. He can discover what it is he wants to say.
That's the movie. That's what happens. Or rather that's where the story starts—the story that, really, doesn't happen.
A kid speaks; he becomes a rumor, then a craze among his fellow students, who haven't a clue who he is. He becomes their hero; they pass him by in the halls at school, never noticing the sad sack with his shoulders slumped. “I could be that anonymous nerd sitting across from you in chem lab,” he says on the air one night; he gives them a taste of free speech. They organize themselves into an audience, into a crowd of
fans, gathering every night in a parking lot to hear him, their car radios tuned to his signal, like a crowd filing into a concert hall to watch someone else be free.
But other listeners begin to act differently, without a purpose, with nothing more than the new notion that the life they've been given isn't what they want. Small acts of rebellion take place—grafitti on the school walls. They seem pro forma, secondhand. In a certain way
Pump Up the Volume
is no more than a 1990s version of a 1950s prom-crisis movie: the kids want to have a rock 'n' roll band at the big dance and the adults won't let them; at the end Bill Haley and the Comets show up, looking older than the parents, and everything turns out all right. But in
Pump Up the Volume
there are also small acts of rebellion that you know will change the lives of those who perform them, and leave them forever unrepentant and unsatisfied. “Did you ever get so sick of being told—” “Sick to
,” answers one of Slater's listeners, the nicest girl in school—that's the role she's been raised to play. She puts her jewelry in the microwave and watches it blow up. She appears the next night at a school board meeting called to deal with the radio menace and speaks. She has a bandage over her nose; the film doesn't tell you if she was hit by a piece of flying microwave glass or if her father beat her up.
That's less important than the fact of someone standing up in front of a crowd, in front of people she used to be afraid of, and saying what she has to say, when days before she didn't know she had anything to say. This is a transforming experience: once you've dared to stand up in public and say what others perhaps don't want to hear, you will be changed. After that, you'll be braver—or you will remember that, once, you acted bravely, and forever after feel cowardly, but not like
nothing. Not as if nothing is at stake; not as if it doesn't matter if you keep silent or speak out. It can happen at public meetings, where people in the crowd suddenly feel as if they don't recognize the person speaking, someone they've known for years or all their lives, because no one ever thought she had a thought in her head; it can happen on a stage, when a performer, knowing exactly what the people in the crowd expect, what they're there for, refuses to give it to them, and gives them something else.
Pump Up the Volume
ends with mandated melodrama. The forces of order close in around the pirate station: the FCC, the school board, the school administration. Christian Slater and his co-conspirator Samantha Mathis are chased by a government helicopter; he's arrested, dragged into a police van. He waves to the crowd that's gathered to hear him, and then there's a freeze frame.
You don't know what will happen next, said the freeze frame at the end of François Truffaut's
The 400 Blows
in 1959. Over the decades the device itself froze, into cliché, until it came to mean the opposite: it's over, now you can leave, it never happened, it was just a movie, now it all stops.
But that isn't how
Pump Up the Volume
really ends. The screen goes black after the freeze, and then voices come on: two, three, four, multiplying, talking on top of each other, fading in and out, one secret, pirate disc jockey after another, male and female, from Maine to California and everywhere in between, each one saying,
Hello—no one knows what's going to happen next, me least of all
It's a corny ending. It's a fantasy. It's the conceit of one Sixties person, Allan Moyle, who wrote and directed the film. The scene broke my heart and sparked it, which is what corny
endings are supposed to do: it made real something that is not. But it wasn't empty; it wasn't automatic. The most crucial, corniest line rang true to me: Samantha Mathis telling the DJ, in words that would echo through the country nearly twenty years later, when Barack Obama ran for president,
the voice you were waiting for

In certain moments in the Doors' best music—in, say, the last slow, inexorably quieting minute of “The End”—you can hear one person believing that what he has to say is worth the time others might take to listen. Then it all vanishes; that person leaves the stage and never comes back.
The Sixties are most generously described as a time when people took part—when they stepped out of themselves and acted in public, as people who didn't know what would happen next, but who were sure that acts of true risk and fear would produce something different from what they had been raised to take for granted. You can find that spirit in the early years of the Civil Rights movement, where some people paid for their wish to act with their lives, and you can find it in certain songs. But the Sixties were also a time when people who could have acted, and even those who did, or believed they did, formed themselves into an audience that most of all wanted to watch. “The Whole World Is Watching” was a stupid irony: people went into the streets, they shouted, gave speeches, surrounded buildings, blocked the police, and then rushed home to watch themselves on the evening news, to be an audience for their own actions. I did it like anyone else. It seemed like a natural thing to do.
Pump Up the Volume
faces this possibility, and in idealism and fantasy rejects it. Against the Sixties carnival, it insists on a desert, geographically and culturally, literally and metaphorically,
and says that where there seems to be nothing, something new can appear. It posits a trivial setting—one nowhere high school, the setting of such tepid, already-made post-1950s, post-1960s high school movies as
Rock 'n' Roll High School
—and says that out of this trivial setting can come people who are not trivial, people who the setting was never meant to make.
What does it mean to make cultural history? It means to make images and sounds, to launch ideas and sensations that feel absolutely new even if they are not. Cultural history is a matter of old forms dressed in new clothes that turn history in a new direction. Cultural history may mean to triumph—to achieve worldwide and enduring fame, even to affect the lives of countless people long after you are gone, as the Doors did; more likely it means to find yourself stranded in the history that goes on without you, incapable of killing, in yourself, the notion that things could be better, or merely different, more alive, than they are, which may have been what Jim Morrison saw when, that night in Miami in 1969, he looked out at the people in the crowd and told them, “You're all a bunch of fucking idiots! Letting people tell you what you're going to do! Letting people push you around! How long do you think it's going to last? How long are you going to let it go on? How long are you going to let them push you around? How long? Maybe you like it, maybe you like being pushed around. Maybe you love it, maybe you love getting your face stuck in the shit. Come on. You love it, don't you. You love it. You're all a bunch of slaves.” People cheered and laughed; they thought it was part of the act, part of the show. Finally, with the band keeping a count behind him, Morrison tried to go back to the song he'd started with, until he couldn't anymore.
Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance” (Streamline, 2009, #1).
Train, “Hey, Soul Sister” (Columbia, 2010, #3).
The Doors,
directed by Oliver Stone, written by J. Randall Johnson and Oliver Stone (1991).
Pump Up the Volume,
written and directed by Allan Moyle (1990).
Neil Young, “Rockin' in the Free World”/“Rockin' in the Free World” (Reprise, 1989; both versions are included on
Reprise, 1989).
p. 58, Gina Arnold, “Fools Rush In,”
East Bay Express
, March 8, 1991, 47.
Eve Babitz, “Jim Morrison Is Alive and Well and Living in Hollywood,”
, March 1991.
Elvis Costello, quoted in Mark Rowland, “Strange Bedfellows” (joint interview with Jerry Garcia),
, March 1991, 57.
Ian McEwan,
The Innocent
(New York: Doubleday, 1990).
Paul Williams, “Rothchild Speaks,”
March 1967. Collected in Williams,
Outlaw Blues: A Book of Rock Music
(1969) (Glen Ellen, CA: Entwhistle, 2000).
Kim Gordon, “‘I'm Really Scared When I Kill in My Dreams,'”
, January 1983, 55.
Dave DiMartino, “‘Uh-Oh, I Think I Exposed Myself Out There'” (quoting himself from an article published 1981),
, March 8, 1991.
When the Music's Over
T COBO HALL, in Detroit, in 1970, the band kicks off a song with what Jon Landau, writing in
Rolling Stone
in 1968, called “aimless, washed-out organ music.” “Waaaaal, we're gonna stop the show. Gonna stop the show,” Jim Morrison says, and the band stops. “Hello, Detroit.” Ray Manzarek plays the organ equivalent of a rim shot behind Henny Young-man. “Hello, Salt Lake. Hello, Washington, D.C. How ya doin'.” Robby Krieger does the same. “Minneapolis, how ya doin'? Hey, Seattle—nice to
see ya
. Dallas, Texas. Hi, y'all.”
“This was a device Jim used to keep the audience from becoming too comfortable,” Krieger said in 1997. “He wanted them to have that feeling ‘something's wrong, something's not quite right.'”
It was an instinct Morrison followed from the start. On January 6, 1967, the Doors played their first show in San Francisco, at the Fillmore Auditorium.
The Doors
had yet to be released. Not even a rumor in the Bay Area, they were third-billed under the Young Rascals and Sopwith Camel, a forgotten local band with one cute hit, “Hello Hello.” “We get up on stage, and Bill Graham introduces us,” Ray Manzarek said almost forty years later. “‘We've got this band from Los Angeles . . .' And people are booing Los Angeles,” which is what people in San Francisco automatically did: Los Angeles was cheap, it was plastic, it was money, it was Hollywood, it was fake, and it made San Francisco seem like both a small town and the last outpost of civilization and good manners. “We come on stage and Jim says, ‘“When the Music's Over.” Play “When the Music's Over.”' I said, ‘Why are we gonna start with “When the Music's Over”? It's a long song, it's slow. We want to just get onstage and kill them with “Break on Through.”' Jim said, ‘No, I've got a feeling, man. Put everything you can into your playing' . . . and it just exploded.”
This was before audiences were too cool to show up for third-billed bands, or taunted anyone who wasn't headlining: people were curious. New bands were appearing and disappearing by the day; you never knew when a show might be a historic marker, a dividing line between past and future, or a last chance. Still, fourteen or fifteen minutes of a wandering piece of music that barely was a song, random phrases and passages of near silence heading in no apparent direction, pretentious pronouncements (“What have they done to the earth? What have they done to our fair sister?”) and self-consciously poetic imagery (“I want to hear / The scream of the butterfly”) punctuated mainly by convincingly psychotic
screams—if anything was likely to produce walkouts, this was. Unless the first notes of the thing went straight through you and ricocheted back again from the other side, leaving you feeling as if your legs were water, which those notes could do.
BOOK: The Doors
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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