Re: RARA-AVIS: Could the real Men in Black stand up?

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 16 Sep 2003


"In my view, "pretentiousness" occurs when the material exceeds the musical ability of the group. This happened even to The Beatles (sacred pop icons, but far more inept musicians than The Doors)."

I'm not sure the naysayers about the Doors are claiming they did not have great musical ability. As you note, all were accomplished musicians. We, for I am a naysayer too (except for a handful of their pop "songs" like 20th Century Fox), are saying that Jim Morrison's lyrics were far from the poetry he always pronounced them to be (what's wrong with "lyrics"?). Nor was he satisfied to be a mere showmen, envisioning himself a shaman. To me, that is "material far exceeeding talent."

However, I don't believe great ability precludes pretension. Taking it back to hardboiled fiction, I have learned to become very wary of literary authors writing genre fiction. They have great writing ability, but their genre work too often exhibits a disdain for their slumming work. Either that or they are so busy displaying their ability that they forget to tell a story. (Musically, the Doors were not immune to doing the same.) For instance, as much as I like some of his other work, I have never been able to get through Madison Smartt Bell's Straight Cut. (This does not apply to all literary writers; Paul Benjamin (Auster)'s Squeeze Play was quite good.)

"A local radio station decided to have an all-Beatles set that lasts several hours. I listened to it once and was appalled at how primitive and silly a lot of those songs are."

You say that like it's a bad thing. To me, that sounds like an endorsement. For instance, "Louie Louie" is primitive and silly, you don't get much more primitive and silly, and it's a deserved classic -- and the best recordings of it, particularly the Kingsmen's, are the most primitive. I would think that silly and primitive could describe a number of the pulp writers you often praise.

And near Morrison's end, the Doors were getting more "primitive," stripping away some of the pretension and returning to simpler blues structures.

"The great bands were those that could play good music, including improvisation, not just "songs"."

What's wrong with "just songs"? This is rock, not jazz. Different skill set.

I once saw Sonny Sharrock perform. Now Sharrock plays guitar on some of my favorite jazz recordings, including Tribute to Jack Johnson, Tauhid and Supernova, along with some of his own recordings. I was psyched for the chance to see him. It was one of the most disappointing concerts I've ever seen. He showcased his great musical ability -- he played lots of notes amazingly fast -- but it was empty technique, in service of nothing.

Similarly, what's wrong with "just stories"? Someone recently quoted someone (Westlake? Gorman?) as describing Lionel White as a poor writer, but great plotter. I finished Hostage for a Hood the other day. Yes, the plotting was its strong point. But what was wrong with the writing? It did not call attention to itself, but it carried that plot along. It never got in the way. That's a good thing. As much of a fan as I once was of Ellroy, I can no longer read him. A big reason (but not the only one) for this is because his writing ability has increasing gotten in the way of the story.

"The Doors is one of those bands (with the Grateful Dead, Cream, the various combinations of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and their bands, et a few al.)."

No Zappa? Boy do you and I have very different taste in '60s rock. Although I appreciate the Beatles, I always preferred the more primitive Stones, Who and Kinks. Even more, though, I align myself with the Velvet Underground/Stooges axis (I do like CSN & especially Young). I bet you hated punk.

"I think music should be separated from pop culture (at least for musical analysis)."

It has been said, usually dismissively, that the lives of Warhol, WS Burroughs, Kerouac, among others, were their greatest works. Maybe, maybe not, but those lives cannot be separated from their art. Can Chet Baker's music be separated from his public persona and the addiction from which if grew? And why should it be? All sorts of extra-musical elements do factor in our musical choices. The enjoyment of music is a social phenomenon, even when consumed alone. Same for taste in reading.

Yes, I'm willing to admit that Jim Morrison's public persona is a factor in my attitude towards his band (that only would have improved if Iggy had taken over after Morrison's death, as was considered), just as Ellroy's is a factor in my disaffection with his writing. And I feel no reason to apologize for that, even if both hadn't worked so hard to make those personas parts of their works.


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