Classic Music Review: Strange Days by The Doors

The-Doors-Strange-Days

“After ‘Light My Fire,’ people couldn’t get enough of The Doors. Funny, but the two records that really dominated the airwaves during The Summer of Love were Sgt. Pepper and ‘Light My Fire,’ not The San Francisco Sound.”

“So, what happened with Strange Days?”

“Shot up like a rocket and then just sort of floundered. I thought it was a pretty good album, but the first single was ‘People are Strange.’ Nice song but it didn’t have the explosiveness of ‘Light My Fire.’ That was a once-in-a-generation experience that they couldn’t repeat.”

I had called my father to get a better explanation of the strange fate of Strange Days than I’d found in my research. The consensus opinion regarding its relatively lackluster chart performance is that most or all the songs were written before The Doors’ first album, implying that they either weren’t good enough to appear on the first album or that The Doors were just plain lazy.

I think my father’s lens is a bit more insightful, because it clearly identifies the heavy expectations created by their amazing debut. I didn’t grow up with those expectations, and while I think the lyrics on some of the songs on Strange Days are throwaways, I think it’s a better album than the critical consensus would have you believe. It really stands out when compared to the works of many other bands operating in this time period, as I have to admit that more than once I have wished that I’d never had the stupid idea to do a Psychedelic Series, because now I have to live up to my commitment to listen to some of the shittiest shit ever created three fucking times.

Nothing like a mid-series bitch to release some of that good old-fashioned self-imposed pressure!

The Doors were simply a better band than the rest. The performances on Strange Days are exceptional, even when the material is weak. The band is tight, the arrangements clever and well-executed, and Jim Morrison is on fire. Strange Days is also a more unified album than its predecessor, and while it’s hardly a concept album, there is an underlying theme of disconnection from a world that feels strange and distant but still has the power to make us believe that there’s something wrong with us.

The Doors were also different in another sense: they never bought into the “love one another right now” mantra of the hippies. Morrison was definitely more of a “fuck one another right now, and hey, fuck me first” kind of guy. The Doors were expressionists as opposed to impressionists; Rimbaud as opposed to Wordsworth; Edvard Munch as opposed to Peter Max. Jim Morrison had genuine poetic talent and could have done so much more had he been able to deal with his demons.

And how could I not find someone who declared himself “The King of Orgasmic Rock” intensely fascinating? The sheer moxie of such a boast gives me an overwhelming urge to seize one of my favorite whips and start flailing away. I guarantee you, I would have straightened out that boy long before he arrived in Paris to meet his demise.

The title track opens the album, and while it does not qualify as orgasmic, “Strange Days” does create a discomfiting mood right at the start. The eerie organ combines with the Moog to create an ethereal tension heightened by a complex chord pattern that shifts keys three times in the verse, moving from Em to Gm to resolve on E major. The unexpected shifts make it hard for the listener to get settled, reflecting the lyrical content that all was not as cool and mellow in the world as Donovan would have had us believe:

Strange days have found us
Strange days have tracked us down
They’re going to destroy our casual joys
We shall go on playing or find a new town

The rest of the lyrics slip into gibberish territory, but the piece successfully establishes the somber and unsettling mood that dominates the album.

“You’re Lost Little Girl” is an equally moody piece that opens with studio-only bassist Douglass Lubahn playing a rather morose pattern in mid-tempo. The song is dark dream-pop with disappointing, repetitive lyrics that hint that the girl might become un-lost if she gets down and dirty with Jimmy. The mood shifts with “Love Me Two Times,” a rocker with a syncopated pattern that features a great vocal by Morrison, a muscular harpsichord courtesy of Ray Manzarek, and some nice counterpoint guitar from Robby Krieger.

I read that The Doors tried to raise the social significance of “Love Me Two Times” by claiming it’s about a guy tagged for the next shipment of human fodder to Vietnam. I call crapola on that assertion based on the lines “Love me two times, girl/Last me all through the week.” Research indicates that the typical stint in Nam was eighteen months, not a week. By my calculations, the guy would have had to have been fucked 154 times on a single day to get him through his tour of duty. Even with massive transfusions of Viagra, it’s simply impossible to fuck 154 times in a single day, for even if you’re talking about a series of 20-minute quickies with no time for sleep, that would only get you halfway there.

This is the kind of astonishing insight into music that you can only read on altrockchick.com!

Back to Strange Days, next up is “Unhappy Girl,” where Ray Manzarek has a blast on multiple keyboards, including backwards piano. The song is too similar in theme to “You’re Lost Little Girl” to really distinguish itself, but it does have more interesting lyrics. However, the lyrical improvement is nothing compared to the poetry of “Horse Latitudes,” a Jim Morrison theater piece about a sailing ship of old in serious trouble—so serious that they have to toss their horses into the briny deep:

When the still sea conspires an armor
And her sullen and aborted
Currents breed tiny monsters
True sailing is dead
Awkward instant
And the first animal is jettisoned
Legs furiously pumping
Their stiff green gallop
And heads bob up
Poise
Delicate
Pause
Consent
In mute nostril agony
Carefully refined
And sealed over

The background of human groans, screams, dissonant music and warping effects is chilling all by itself, and Morrison’s impassioned delivery paints a picture of true horror as you visualize the poor animals being swallowed by the cold sea. I researched horse latitudes and found that they are subtropical latitudes where the winds virtually die, making sailing rather challenging. It is likely that the Spanish galleons—the ships that traversed those waters to ferry Spaniards on a quest to kill the natives and steal their gold—might have drifted for days and weeks, and had to jettison their horses to preserve water. Jim Morrison’s ability to take that fragment from history and transform it into concrete imagery is truly remarkable, and makes for a very rare listening experience.

The alluring whistle of Robby Krieger’s bottleneck guitar highlights the opening passage of “Moonlight Drive,” a tango-flavored rocker with a testosterone-infused vocal from Morrison that makes my clitoris skip a beat. Robby also gives us a guitar solo where he uses the bottleneck to create some fascinating tonal leaps that sound like the little nipple tweaks I give my partner when we’re on our way somewhere and I want to reaffirm my ever-present desire. The drowning imagery at the end of the song is not a death wish per se, but the use of death as a metaphor for the orgasmic experience. The French have been known to use the term La Petite Mort as a metaphor for the orgasm, or, more accurately, the moment after the orgasm when consciousness hasn’t had time to recover from the jouissance. When you listen to Morrison’s vocal on the fade when he sings about drowning, it sounds like he’s promising both himself and his partner many “little deaths.”

I am so good with that.

“People Are Strange” takes The Doors into cabaret mode with a mood song about those moments of disconnection from humanity that we all experience from time to time in stages of growth or after crushing disappointments. The darker interpretation would explain sick fucks like that asshole who initiated the Isla Vista killings because women wouldn’t give him the time of day; he could have played “People Are Strange” as background music to his murderous rant on YouTube:

People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down

I read on Wikipedia the assertion that Morrison “may have addressed this song . . . to the hippie culture.” This brings up one of the weirder aspects of music criticism in the 1960’s: the search for messages from the “gods” in pop songs. The Beatles in particular were considered gurus who peppered their songs with hidden wisdom for the clueless. While it is true that Lennon was certainly guilty of acts of supreme self-importance, his efforts on that score are hardly disguised: “All You Need Is Love” and “Revolution” are clearly addressed to the faceless masses. I’ve always found the tendency of human beings to hold famous people in awe one of the more troubling aspects of human nature, and to believe that largely uneducated  human beings who are in the business of selling pop records somehow possess greater wisdom than the rest of us . . . well, that just blows my fucking mind. Even those musicians who have written truly timeless lyrics or beautiful music had just as many or more failures to their credit, as is true of all artists, thinkers, scientists, politicians . . . everyone. You want strange? Idolization is the ultimate in strange.

Moving right along, “My Eyes Have Seen You” is another mood song that was written in Ray Manzarek’s parents’ garage way back in 1965, and is probably the dullest song on the album, with repetitive lines filling up the space. It’s followed by “I Can’t See Your Face in My Mind,” a song that combines exotic sounds from the Far East, a touch of psychedelia and a bit of Brazil with lyrics that hint at something greater but never really get there. The concept of “the faceless girl” is something that we’ll see pop up a few times in this series, an image of fascination and fear that had its roots in the identity crises so many people experienced during the era.

Strange Days ends with the second famous album-ending opus, “When the Music’s Over.” While the poetry here is not quite on the level of “The End,” there are some very powerful lines and a gripping performance by Jim Morrison. Manzarek and drummer John Densmore open the song like they’re warming up to play “Soul Kitchen,” and even Densmore’s sudden drum attack hardly prepares us for Morrison’s bone-shattering scream, one that ranks right up there with Roger Daltrey’s outburst on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in terms of intensity and impact. Though they repeat the verse twice to open the song, somehow it feels right to do that to give listeners time to settle in before the grand passage that constitutes the heart of the song. An extended instrumental segment precedes Morrison’s poetry, a whirl of slightly dissonant sounds from Manzarek and Krieger that mark a change in tone. When Morrison comes in, he is in full command, expressing himself in a tone of defiant rejection of conventional notions of life and association:

Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection
Send my credentials to the House of Detention
I got some friends inside

Morrison then seems to pause in a state of ambivalence—of uncertain identity (“The face in the mirror won’t stop”), sexual frustration (“The girl in the window won’t drop”) and the weight of expectations (“A feast of friends, ‘Alive’ she cries/Waitin’ for me outside”). He considers his mortality while longing for sex; the line “I want to hear . . . the scream of the butterfly” is a witty reference to a pornographic murder movie, continuing the death-sex theme of “Moonlight Drive.” He then hears the “gentle sound” of conscience trying to push through doubt and achieve a moment of clarity about the mortal world:

I hear a very gentle sound
Very near yet very far
Very soft, yeah, very clear
Come today, come today

What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
And tied her with fences and dragged her down

I hear a very gentle sound
With your ear down to the ground

I’ve always found the “We want the world and we want it now” a cop-out, though; it’s so typical of the baby boomers to make vague and grandiose statements without giving them much thought. And what are you going to do with the world once you have it? Uh, uh—that’s what I thought. The final passage referring to “Persian nights” and “Save us, Jesus, save us” may be ironic references to Mithraism and Christianity, or a genuine desire to experience rebirth . . . with Jim Morrison, it’s often either-both-neither. Hardly exhausted from his poetry recital, Morrison approaches the return to the opening verses with a deep understanding of dramatic rhythms, delivering a climax that throbs with passion and commitment.

Strange Days marked the end of The Doors’ first phase, when they were on top of the world. By the third album they had run out of material and had to rip off The Kinks to get back into the Top 40. The follow-up was even worse, with its overloaded arrangements of strings and horns stripping every ounce of power from the band. They wouldn’t recover their moxie until Morrison Hotel and L. A. Woman . . . but Morrison would never recover from his self-destructive tendencies, and would wind up dead in a Paris bathtub a few months after the final release.

I haven’t mentioned the death toll from the psychedelic period, but as I’m about to review Hendrix and Janis Joplin, I might as well deal with it here. All three—Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin—died at the age of twenty-seven, as did Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. This has led superstitious idiots to believe that there is a “Curse of 27,” a theory thoroughly disproved by a 2012 study conducted by British researchers on the longevity of 1489 rock stars. A summary of the study appeared a few weeks ago in Le Monde (en Français, of course). In addition to destroying the myth surrounding twenty-seven, they found that American musicians tended to croak off a bit sooner than others, and that the leading cause of death had to do with drug and alcohol abuse.

Duh.

I really have very little sympathy with those who choose to eschew the virtues of moderation and indulge in excessive use of mind-altering, addictive substances like booze, smack, acid or cocaine. I do not consider them victims of anything except their own poor risk management skills and their inability to deal with the existential pain that is a part of every life. Yes, I drink and I smoke but I do so in moderation. I consciously accept the risks and expect no sympathy if I kick the bucket from the use of either tobacco or alcohol. I don’t look at these artists as “tragic figures.” They were human beings who did some very dumb things or chose to wimp out and avoid the challenges of growing up.

I would have made a really lousy hippie.

GO TO THE NEXT POST IN THE SERIES: PROCOL HARUM

12 responses

  1. As ever, a fine review.

    This is for me, half a great album… as is the debut. Combine the strongest tracks from both – as you pointed out, drawn from the same pool of material from before they became famous – and there would be a killer Doors album.

    “Horse Latitudes”? That’s scary shit! Play that back to back with Floyd’s “Pow R.Toc H” and a couple of tracks from “S.F. Sorrow” and you’re in real heavy ultimate bad trip mode!

    In fact, my ex-girlfriend was a big Doors fan but I remember one occasion when I suggested playing some of their stuff and she protested against it, arguing that they were “too dark and scary” and she needed to be in the right mood. She made a valid point there since the way these 4 guys could create an intense unsettling mood was fascinating. That’s why I think this album failed to do as well as the first (with respect to your Father’s view) – they were a bit too creepy for the many of the time who wanted to trip out and be mellow maaannn… The Doors’ music demanded that extra bit of attention and showed darker sides of Reality. The general public wanted more toetappers like “Fire” and instead got… well… this odd bunch of ditties!

    Did you hear that according to producer Paul A Rothschild, Jim had a little help from Pam for the first part of “You’re Lost Little Girl” – apparently she was giving him a blow job during the first couple of verses!

    I much prefer “When The Music’s Over” to “The End” – just prefer the vibe better and it again demonstrates how The Doors effectively used pauses and dynamics for dramatic effect. In fact, it qualifies as a masterclass in musical drama. So many bands today claim they love The Doors, but it’s a pity very few of them actually LISTEN or take some leaves out their books and do something dramatic and dynamic instead of one dimensional ramblings of zero substance.

    I love the title track, “Moonlight Drive” and “Love Me Two Times” – all great songs. All the tracks I haven’t mentioned I can live without.

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    1. I hadn’t heard the blow job story but am not surprised in the least. This was a guy whose dick was always hungry for more; pure sensual appetite. I too prefer “When the Music’s Over” for its dramatic command and structure; Morrison’s performance is the definition of compelling. After the rather clunky opening to the series, it was nice to hear Piper and Strange Days back to back to balance things out. I’m three weeks ahead on the reviews, so right now I’m back in what-the-fuck territory.

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  2. Like many listeners, I’ve had a uniquely difficult and ambivalent relationship with the Doors over the decades. I engage with their early albums every decade or so, then just as quickly move on. I think if they’d put just a little bit of humor into their work, it would have aged a lot better.

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    1. I completely agree. Except for parts of “Alabama Song,” they never come close to cracking a smile. Curious, I googled “Jim Morrison Smiling,” and there are a few pictures where he cracks a grin, but the effect is more gruesome than pleasant.

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      1. I dunno… there are moments of humour to be heard on some of their live albums and various outtakes where they goofed around a bit (the infamous “Rock Is Dead” has several amusing moments!) but as far as the official studio albums went, “Alabama Song” is as amusing as they got… and it’s one of my big faves too since it opened the door to the world of Brecht and Weill for me. I think that was partly what Morrison and Manzarek were hoping for, to get their listenersto check that stuff out. When I first heard Lotte Lenya singing that song… wow! Mind you… it backfired when they played Germany in 1968. The gig wasn’t going too well, the audience were rather muted so they thought “Hey… let’s play Alabama Song since Brecht was German!” As Manzarek later recalled, a BIG mistake that pissed the audience off since The Doors were unaware Brecht was a Commie! Oops!

        Jim certainly had an enigmatic smile which I think was rather impish and mischievous. I was watching a documentary on their Hollywood Bowl gig a few nights ago and somebody pointed out that during “The End” you actually see Jim smiling at one point in anticipation of the dramatic bit that was to follow. At that point he’s got his hands over his face so the audience couldn’t see the smile but the camera pointing at him from the side captured it and it’s a nice odd moment. And there’s humour when Jim mistakes a moth for a dragonfly and owns up to the audience!

        That apart, their po-faced nature was undoubtedly part of the band’s image which went well with the music. Had they been a smiley band, then their epic tracks would never had been taken seriously… imagine had Herman’s Hermits done something moody like “The End” – they’d had been laughed at and ridiculed like The Hollies and The Dave Clark Five were with their clumsy attempts at psychedelia.

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        1. Herman’s Hermits doing “The End” is a far more frightening possibility than anything The Doors ever did. “Enigmatic” is a fair word to describe the few pictures I’ve seen of Morrison smiling, for it does seem out of character. I read one theory that Morrison may have been Rimbaud reborn, which would explain much: the French (especially Parisians) parcel out smiles like they were hoarding food in the midst of a famine. They firmly believe you should not smile unless you have ample reason to do so, and that’s usually only with people you know intimately. I read that in the 90’s the government launched a “kindness training program” for Parisians—I think they called it “Bonjour”. It didn’t work. As a person with the terrible habit of greeting the world with a smile, I have found this to be the most difficult part of the transition.

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  3. Strange Days might well pale next to the Firing Line show
    posted with Buckley; Yablonsky; Ed Sanders; and Kerouac
    posted by ARC.

    Yablonsky ; who just passed away was the real deal.
    I always thought Sanders followed in Robert Bly’s path.
    Can’t decide if Buckley or Kerouac was more inchoate;
    Or maybe identical twins separated at birth.

    Not sure the Doors could ever meet the bar set by their first album.
    Politely disagree about Morrison….lots of posturing;he seemed spent
    by the summer of 67………

    thanks for the review

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    1. That video is a hoot! Love the thought of Buckley-Kerouac twins; so boorish, so full of themselves. I have never read Yablonsky, but I know my ex-sociology major father still has his books.

      I understand your position on Morrison; I think his voice was still there on Strange Days, definitely not on the abomination that followed.

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  4. […] Strange Days by The Doors, September 25, 1967 […]

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  5. How did you manage to make this review be all about yourself?

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    1. Interesting perception, but seriously off the mark.

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