Critics Are Strange

You know, I don’t care that most rock critics hate the Doors — I became a fan of their music at the age of seven or eight, and the greatest of their music has continued to sound good to me ever since (in the eighties, just as I was discovering and being persuaded by rock criticism, I adapted a kneejerk reaction towards them for a few years, but I got over it). But I guess I do care enough to make two brief points here, both inspired, of course, by Ray Manzarek’s death (for a few hours, my Facebook feed was aggravating; so many people making a point of explaining that they “didn’t care much” for the Doors; thank God Jim Morrison had the smarts to die before Web 2.0, else I’d have tossed myself out the window along with my monitor).

1. The idea, espoused for years (at least as early back as Dave Marsh saying as much in a Rolling Stone Record Guide), that the group is “overrated” is of course a complete fallacy — the opposite of reality, really — unless the people who call them “overrated” mean that their fans like them too much, in which case every group with any kind of following is “overrated.” Because they’re sure not “overrated” by rock critics, the genre of species we normally rely on to “rate” things — under, over, whatever. Of the many critics whose work I’ve followed over the years, I can count on one hand those who have liked the music of the Doors, by which I don’t include critics who, in that polite, critical way, “admit” that the band “were not devoid of talent” (wow, careful that limb doesn’t break while you say as much). It’s possible that there was more love towards the band in the early days of rock criticism, but I don’t think so; they were pretty much mocked from the get-go, were they not? (Or maybe the disconnect here is that the band was written about much differently in the daily press accounts than in the stuff I have access to, the Creems and Rolling Stones of the world?)

2) On the subject of mockery, sometimes you have to remind people that a critic can mock something, deride it even, and still love it, or at least love parts of it. This is always how I read Meltzer and Bangs on the Doors. In one of his early reviews of them (I forget of which album), Meltzer calls the band (not even Morrison, but the band) “ridiculous” but means it, I’m pretty sure, in a way that is entirely complimentary. Bangs referred to Morrison as a bozo, but also was intensely moved by some of their music; in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, he suggests that “Light My Fire” paved the way for “Gimme Shelter” (an argument I think Greil Marcus picked up in his recent book on the band). One of the trends I find disconcerting in so much music criticism today is that writers seem unwilling to acknowledge the idea that ridiculousness and pretensiousness and buffoonery sometimes don’t prevent great music, and in fact, sometimes lead directly to great music. Pretensiousness can be aesthetically/philosophically worthy in and of itself. This point in some ways is not just related to the Doors — I know people who simply can’t stomach their pretensions enough to hear whatever might be good in it, and that’s fine. No one is required to hear the band the way I do. All I’m saying is…? Pretentiousness CAN be a virtue?

This funny Kids in the Hall clip re: Doors fandom is also notable for its ultra-snide reference to “America’s Only…”

8 thoughts on “Critics Are Strange

  1. “One of the trends I find disconcerting in so much music criticism today…” My whole second point should be preceded by a notice in big red letters, “Strawmen Alert.” Anyway, I’ll leave it be.

    Also, I should probably acknowledge Simon Reynolds here, one of the critics I can think of who digs the Doors, but – more related to my purpose here – also someone who years ago helped nudge me towards the realization that pretensiousness is not necessarily a pejorative.

  2. Hey Scott, if you’ve got a vacant finger left on that one hand, you can count me as a critic who’s liked the Doors since first hearing them in 1967. Ray Manzarek’s keyboard sound hooked me initially, and then when I discovered ca. 1970 that Jim Morrison shared my December 8th birthday, the stars were perfectly aligned for life. And Richard Meltzer, who can be very selective in his musical preferences, has been loyal to the Doors throughout his writing career.

    John Mendelssohn, on the other hand, never tires of expressing his disdain for the Doors, while Jim DeRogatis and Lorraine Ali blasted the Doors in “Kill Your Idols”. No skin off my brain, as I’ve always a priori disliked The Band in the same way these folks dump the Doors. (Because I want my rock’n’roll to be about the SENSUAL NOW rather than dusty American-mythology seminars.) We all come up with different tastes, according to the aesthetic hoohah we’ve been through in school and society.

    When you talk about Lester Bangs’s relationship with the Doors, make sure you quote his full sweet & sour epithet for Morrison, “Bozo Dionysus,” as Lester found those two visions of Jim simultaneous and inseparable, and thus he could simultaneously praise and ridicule the Doors’ music in his criticism. And I think he always believed in them, no matter the bozo quotient.

    Thanks for posting the Kids In The Hall clip. I’d seen it on the tube years ago, and of course had laughed until the milk curdled over “your precious Creem Magazine!”, but then I’d forgotten it, until now. Still rings my cowbell.

    Style Note, Scott: I’d thought at first that your use of “pretensiousness” might be a previously-unfamiliar-to-me Canadian spelling, but then I saw you have it as the standard “pretentiousness” elsewhere. Caution is advised, as if Christgau’s reading this, he could phone you and administer a Socratic every-word edit AT ANY TIME.

    Like an actor out on loan,
    Richard R.

  3. Thanks for posting this. The Doors are certainly divisive, but I find them both overhyped *and* underrated. The musical equivalent of a post-hype sleeper, if you will. It’s easy to forget their direct influence on Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, but this magnetic Canadian TV appearance ( leaves little doubt of what they could do at the top of their power.

    Interesting discussion of pretentious as well-is pretentiousness simply ambition that falls short? I suppose one person’s Zen Arcade is another’s Tommy, or The Wall. Me, I like all three .

  4. That’s a great clip, Larry — thanks. Canada brings out the best in everyone.

    “is pretentiousness simply ambition that falls short” — I might say “failed” rather than “falls short,” if only because “falls short” implies that it didn’t go far enough, whereas I think it might be more the case that it goes TOO far. Anyway, to pretend to do something you don’t really know how to do is something I’m quite good at myself.

    Richard,you’re absolutely right about “Bozo Dionysus” — an immortal phrase I should have left intact.

  5. Think you overestimate the influence of rock critics. At least in the immediate day, rock critics had a lot less impact than FM Radio, which basically deified the Doors at the start, then somewhat neglected them, then in 1971 upon the death of the poet Jim Morrison deified them again.

    I have somewhat mixed opinions. The Doors are the Orson Welles of rock music – really hammy, sometimes incredibly effective. But I do recommend the following experiment for those who don’t think the Doors are ever amazingly exciting:

    Spend the summer (of 1975, for instance) sharing an apartment in Chicago without having brought any of your own music and the only music player is a reel-to-reel tape player, for which there are only three tapes: The Who Tommy, Simon & Garfunkel Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Doors The Doors.

    The Who, number of plays = 1
    Simon & Garfunkel, number of plays = 1/2
    The Doors, number of plays = 15

  6. “The Doors are the Orson Welles of rock music” — okay, or do you mean Morrison himself? He’d seem to be the single Door with the best hammy/effective bona fides. That way Joseph Cotten can play Ray Manzarek if we restage this as “Citizen Lizard King”.

    Lester Bangs, in his incisive “Jim Morrison: Bozo Dionysus a Decade Later” essay, quotes an anecdote from Jerry Hopkins’s and Danny Sugerman’s “No One Here Gets Out Alive” bio of Morrison, concerning the 12-year-old Jim trapping his younger sister and brother on a toboggan with him, and then zooming it downhill at the side of a log cabin, with their father stopping the runaway sled and saving his three kids at the last minute. As Jim described the stunt at the time as “just havin’ a good time,” Lester cites it as a childhood incidence of the bozo side of Morrison’s bipolarity.

    Which leads me to ask: If Jim was also exhibiting the early onset of Orsonwellesism at age 12, does that mean that the fateful toboggan was HIS “Rosebud”?!?

    Just sayin’ a good time,

  7. “Think you overestimate the influence of rock critics. At least in the immediate day, rock critics had a lot less impact than FM Radio, which basically…”

    Yeah, no doubt I do that, and for sure I agree that radio is (was) way more impactful than critics, but I guess I see critics, in a historical sense, as sort of “finishing the job” in terms of defining (or anyway, of helping to define) what bands tend to matter over the long haul. The Doors, whether loved or hated by critics, were always part of that conversation (insofar as a “conversation” existed in 1967, obviously) in a way that so many other bands of the period were not. Who am I referring to? I don’t know — Vanilla Fudge, Steppenwolf, Blood, Sweat & Tears — these guys got played lots on FM radio, too, no? (Okay, probably not as much as the Doors, true.) And yet, I don’t recall critics ever giving much of a damn about any of them.

    That’s funny, though, Frank, I had you pegged (based on something you’ve written, I think in *Why Music Sucks*, which I may well have misunderstood) as the critic who took the time to listen intently to Simon & Garfunkel. Maybe it wasn’t that album, or that year, or that context, though. (I guess everyone has listened to S&G at some point. I know some of their tunes inside out and have never owned anything other than Greatest Hits, I don’t think.)

  8. I really wouldn’t worry about being called pretentious by someone who hands out grades to Lady Gaga albums for a living and styles themselves the Dean of Rock Critics.

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