In 1993, Rough Trade records put out Lipstick Traces, a “soundtrack” to the book by Greil Marcus. It’s one of my favorite CDs of all time, with tracks by The Slits, Essential Logic, The Raincoats, The Mekons, Buzzcocks, The Gang of Four, Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers, Situationist philosopher Guy Debord and others. It’s an amazing collection, but one track in particular stands out from the rest, a recitation by none other than Marie Osmond, of Dada poet Hugo Ball’s nonsensical gibberish piece from 1916, “Karawane.”
Hugo Ball was a follower of anarchist philosopher Mikail Bakunin and became one of the founders of the Zurich nightclub, Cabaret Voltaire, the nexus of the Dada art movement. He would go onstage dressed like this and basically, uh, do avant garde things:
Here’s the story behind this, I think you’ll agree, most excellent clip. From the Lipstick Traces liner notes:
As host of a special (Ripley’s Believe It or Not) show on sound poetry, Osmond was asked by the producer to recite only the first line of Ball’s work; incensed at being thought too dumb for art, she memorized the lot and delivered it whole in a rare “glimpse of freedom.”
Listening to The Doors’ second album, Strange Days, while peaking on half a tab of Purple Owsley was one of those mindbending events that alter the course of a young man’s life forever. I was 16 years old, living in the suburbs of Virginia and, with the exception of a couple of freak friends, was pretty much alone in the world. There weren’t a lot of support systems during the Summer Of Love in the American South for a kid who wanted to explore his spiritual side. Organized religion had more than failed me, it terrified me. Catholicism spooked me so bad that even the sight of a nun or priest would send me rushing in a cold sweat in the direction of the nearest mental exit sign.
Getting LSD was the easy part. Knowing the best way to navigate the experience was the challenge. You just took the trip and put your faith in the loving hands of the cosmos. At least that’s what I did. Jim Morrison and his band mates were the dark guides on my solitary psychedelic journey.
Well the music is your special friend
Dance on fire as it intends
Music is your only friend
Until the end
Until the end
Until the end!
The Doors’ apocalyptic rock might seem like an entry way to a bad trip, but for me their music echoed and expanded upon an interior shadow world I had always been drawn to and their anti-authoritarianism played into my distrust of bully gods and their black-robed hitmen. LSD gave me a glimpse into the spiraling DNA that contained everything I needed to know about the Universe and all I had to do was crack the code.The Doors provided the soundtrack in my search for the key. A search that continues to this day. Breaking through to the other side turned out to be harder than I imagined.
Jim Morrison was the first rock star that tapped into the same rich vein of poetic dreaming that had lured me into the web of the French surrealists and the American counter-culture. Here was a young Navy brat, like myself, who drew inspiration from Rimbaud, Baudelaire, the Beats, The Living Theater and cinema. He took it all in and spun it back out into lyric-driven music that was familiar and strange at the same time. Intense and filled with mystery and sex, you couldn’t call it pop, but you could dance to it….or melt to it like a pillar of Biblical salt. In my rock and roll world, Morrison was the benign high priest who led me not so gently into a dark night of the soul shot through with glistening shards of seductive light.
Along with most of the rock groups I grew up with, I don’t listen to The Doors these days. The iconic songs of my youth are etched in my genes - musical scarification. I hear them whenever I want by tilting my head in the direction of the Akashic records that spin on turntables somewhere in the Bardo. Years of hearing “Light My Fire” and “When The Music’s Over” on classic rock radio has dulled some of the magic for me. Yet I still get excited when I see a new book on The Doors, particularly when it’s written by someone who was “there.” The thought that hidden secrets might be unlocked from old songs making them feel new again or that some lost piece of history has been unearthed like a rock and roll version of the Dead Sea Scrolls triggers little jolts of excitement along my spine as electric as a Nicolai Tesla neck massage. Yes, hope springs eternal for fools like me.
Greil Marcus’s new book The Doors: A Lifetime Of Listening To Five Mean Years teased me into thinking there might be something fresh to be said about The Doors. Marcus has a rep for knowing a thing or two about rock and roll and pop culture, so I assumed he’d bring something to the mix that lesser writers managed to overlook, you know, a different perspective. But Marcus fails in almost every respect to engage the reader. Even the most devout Doors’ fan will find this slim volume of overstuffed prose and wild tangents a numbing experience. The Marcus perspective consists of bloated descriptions of Doors’ songs and performances, descriptions that are so subjective and adjective heavy that at times it’s like reading Olympia Press fetish porn by someone named “Anonymous.”
The Doors is less a book about the band than it is the experience of being subjected to Marcus’s stream of consciousness vamps on Thomas Pynchon, cult flick Pump Up The Volume, Oliver Stone’s dreadful Doors movie, Val Kilmer’s post-Morrison career, 20th century pop art, Eduardo Paolozzi, the Manson Family and so on. None of which he connects in any compelling way to the subject at hand (the subject becoming less clear as the book lurches along). It’s as if Marcus put some of The Doors’ music on shuffle and started writing whatever popped into his head - a Jackson Pollock action painting connected to The Doors by the mere juxtaposition of sharing the same room as their music. There are threads of elegant symmetry in Marcus’s writing but the center wobbles like a bead of sweat on a brooding hipster’s brow.
Read The Doors to get inside of Greil Marcus’s head if that’s of interest to you. He’s a smart guy and the book gives him an opportunity to show it off. But as a book about one of the planet’s great rock bands, The Doors is a brainy wankfest in which little of any significance is actually said. No amount of pop culture name-dropping and metaphoric over-kill in describing The Doors’ art can obscure the fact that there’s a big hole where the soul of a book ought to be. Marcus claims to be a Doors’ fan and yet there’s little love for the band between the pages of this frustratingly irrelevant book. The Doors may have been a labor of love for Marcus, but for the reader it’s just labor.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the south of France, an overweight bearded poet is writing his autobiography about his early days as a rock star: The End by J.M.
Video: The Doors interviewed in New York in 1969 for public television.
This book is about a single serpentine fact: late in 1976 a record called Anarchy in the U.K. was issued in London, and this event launched a transformation of pop music all over the world. Made by a four-man rock ‘n’ roll band called the Sex Pistols, and written by singer Johnny Rotten, the song distilled, in crudely poetic form, a critique of modern society once set out by a small group of Paris-based intellectuals.
Lipstick Traces, well, traces the critique of capitalism from the Dada art movement through the Situationist International and the May 1968 uprisings in Paris, through to the Sex Pistols and the punk rock explosion. In other words, it is the hidden history of the artistic opposition to capitalist society. It was heavily influenced by the revolutionary avant-garde punk zine “Vague” (a parody of Vogue, if that’s not obvious). I was reading “Vague” from my late teens—I still have most issues—and it had a great deal to do with shaping how I see the world. Marcus cribbed a lot from Tom Vague for Lipstick Traces, which is not to take anything away from Greil Marcus at all, but to simply give credit where its due.
Although I can recall a lot of criticism that was leveled at Lipstick Traces by reviewers when it first came out, the book’s thesis was, in my opinion, on pretty firm ground. It has certainly stood the test of time and has remained in print to this day. I’m told that it’s often used in college courses, which is unsurprising. A twentieth anniversary edition of Lipstick Traces was published by Harvard Press in 2009
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