Edinburgh in mid-Autumn can be a cold, lonely and haunted place. The sky is blanketed by a faceless mask of cloud, and at night the orange streetlights reflect a dreary turmeric pall across the city.
And it’s windy. Irritating winds, that muffle your conversations and your thoughts. Winds that cocoon you in a morose isolation.
On Saturdays at my boarding school we were allowed ‘uptown’ for a couple of hours in the afternoons, and the typical day out would be a trip to HMV on Prince’s Street then a milkshake at MacDonalds, and then run home for a dinner of dry, chewy beef and roast potatoes. Maybe you could steal a brief conversation from a pretty girl if you sat at the right table.
All the while the breezy darkness was closing in on you. Time running out, and your rationing of privacy and freedom running out too.
On one of these horrible windy days, I walked up Cockburn Street to a newly opened Fopp. Having recently discovered The Doors, I spotted a cassette of Strange Days, which I immediately bought for £4.99.
I wish I still had this tape. In the coming weeks, huddled in my icy room with bear walls and linoleum flooring, I’d listen to Strange Days over and over again. The barren, banshee-like screaming organ lines were perfect for the strained whine of cassette, which added to the discomforting and exhilarating circus-gothic mood of the album.
September 1967, when this album was originally released, would have been the anxious comedown after the naked highs of the Summer of Love. The choice of title and the first track being all the more fascinating as a result.
Strange Days. An echoing Manzarek organ gives way to chiming guitar and a rolling jazz-march on the tom-toms. ‘Strange Days have tracked us down…’ This is not the manifesto of liberation, this is not a flower power declaration of intent. Morrison’s voice glides across the beat like a melted liquorice narcotic.
‘The hostess is grinning, her guests sleep from sinning.’ Free love anyone?
You have the feeling of falling into a death-trance, the clouded hangover vision of backstreet whorehouses and doss rooms, the lantern glow of chinatown. The word ‘strange’ repeats through the lyrics like a dance motif, a lyrical melody, and Morrison draws out is drawling vowels like he’s spinning silk.
The deep cuts are the best cuts. Love Me Two Times is on every good compilation, but Unhappy Girl is a lost masterpiece. Along with Lost Little Girl, this song paints a picture of broken innocence, urban corruptions chiselling away at the mind of the American prom queen.
Unlike Dylan’s Miss Lonely, however, Morrison’s lost girls are a little more knowing, a little more complicit in their own intoxicating demise. For Morrison, losing one’s virgin soul is not the stuff immortal tragedy, it doesn’t symbolise the unthinking hubris of a generation. It’s simply the seductive self-destruction of freedom. It’s human nature. There’s no shock of surprise realisation.
Perhaps the strange days are the days of aftermath, when the sexual revolution turns to the terror of unshackled desires and liberation becomes licentious hunger. ‘You’re charged in a prison of your own device.’
Strange Days is an album that proves psychedelia doesn’t need to be mass, sprawling guitar jams and self-indulgent riffs and muso compositions for the initiated. Strange Days is mostly made up of tight, well-written and crafted pop songs, with suggestive, imaginative lyrical flourishes and dynamic mixes of tenderness and explosiveness.
Whatever you feel about The Doors, they knew how to lay down a song. Their albums are always crafted, thematically complete and integrated works of art.
Strange Days is a kind of drug album – of its time, but the antithesis of the zeitgeist of that moment. The psychedelia exists in the open spaces of the chilly soundscapes, as well as in the open-ended lyrics, which point to unseen torment rather than laboured dread.
Minimalism is not a word associated with The Doors, but in terms of how the actual compositions relate to the overwhelming effect of the songs, it’s absolutely appropriate. The organ riffs are manic but never crammed with notes. The drumming is thunderous but equally capable of a calm, massaging accompaniment.
Krieger’s guitar takes flight when the moment calls for it, and yet he never takes centre-stage. The solos are more like country or early rock and roll solos than they are hard cock rock eruptions of sound.
Morrison’s vocal style here is studied and restrained. He is experimenting with mic technique, adopting a lullaby intimacy as a counterpoint to his trademark booze-soaked yawp.
Horse Latitudes is a poem about death, and again, human nature. The performance here still creeps me out, and acts as a kind of avant garde balance to the streamlined pop songwriting of the first side of the record.
Two back to back hidden beauties, My Eyes Have Seen You and Can’t See Your Face, are Morrison at his most uncomfortably voyeuristic.
My Eyes is a short precursor to LA Woman. It’s a song of lust and sex – go figure. But whereas The Stones’ Straycat Blues is a one-dimension and lovable testament to groupie orgies and sixties free love, Morrison’s imagery creates a cinematic noir around the urban, transactional awkwardness of sexual encounters.
‘Free from disguise,
Gazing on a city under television skies,
Television skies, television skies
Let them photograph your your soul,
Memorize your alleys on an endless roll,
endless roll, endless roll’
The city and the female form are deliberately and subtly conflated. As in LA Woman, the girl’s body is a fractured landscape, an untravelled world to be captured in time, in the ripeness of the dying moment. Imprisoned in the polished gloss of celluloid.
‘Carnival dogs consume the lines’ – no idea what that means but it is wonderfully predatory and manic. Can’t See Your Face is a paranoid song, but the delivery from Morrison is liquid elegance, allowing his voice to easefully trip off the consonants with relish, despite the almost schizophrenic nature of the words – ‘I can’t seem to find the right lie’.
Both these songs revolve around love as a doomed photographic effort, the futility of seeking to apprehend the shadowed soul of another. As a result, both these masterpieces are songs about loneliness and despair, just as much as the more overt People Are Strange is.
Legend has it that The Doors recorded the music for When The Music’s Over without Morrison, the singer being somewhere on the Sunset Strip boozing and fucking.
The lyrical improvisations in the band’s epic rock crescendos like The End and Music’s Over, were made on top of crafted spaces left by the band. They weren’t winging it, in other words.
Densmore’s drumming in particular evolves itself around Morrison’s careful, cat-like phrases. The band know when to pull back, and to push behind Morrison when the eruptions of angst come.
A great example of this is the way Densmore’s rolls curl round Morrison’s delivery at:
‘The face in the mirror won’t stop
The girl in the window won’t drop
A feast of friends alive she cried,
Waiting for me outside’
‘I want to hear the scream of the butterfly’ is said to be a reference to Chang Tzu’s poem about a butterfly, the sound being the inaudible sound of the soul beyond the veil of death. Or something like that. In any case, that’s probably what Morrison was getting at.
As life-affirming as this tour de force is, Morrison’s Birth Of Tragedy philosophy always teetered on the edge of nihilism. At times it seemed the best he could hope for was one final burst of poetic thrills before death came stalking.
However, there’s something overtly Romantic – in the Keats/Shelley sense of the word, about Music’s Over. Life is not worth living without art. Without beauty and self-expression, we are reduced to boredom and selfishness. Our vision is impaired without the primal and ecstatic growth offered to us by the ritual of rock n roll.
Without this song there would be no Patti Smith’s Horses. The poetic improv about raping the earth, points to the idea that it is the communal ceremony of togetherness and erotic connection afforded us by rock n roll, which frees us from our own narcissism.
Throughout Morrison’s poems and lyrics there is this homage to the primal and primeval. Music’s Over, like The End, reaches an orgasm before sinking back into a melodic coda. But unlike The End, there is an uplifting sense of possibility; we’ve undergone a ritualised death, a bacchanalian form of worship that helps us expunge our inwardness and exorcise hopelessness.
In that dim, lifeless study over twenty years ago, I think I was captivated by this album because of its atmosphere. Paranoia and aloneness are woven delicately with strains of fragile melodies and bluesy vocal phrasings. Pain and joy wrapped together like lovers in a tantric statue.
I was also enthralled by Morrison’s observational writing, the way he could capture a soul, photograph it, with only a few lyric strokes.
These days, it’s not as cool to like The Doors as it is to profess love of The Velvet Underground. However, Strange Days is the best counterexample to the tired and typical charges thrown at Morrison and this band. There is nothing overblown, nothing extraneous. You’ll find no extra fat on the cinematic bones of these songs.
What stops The Doors, and this album, being more popular is the fact that despite all the noir and the sexual paranoia, the songwriting is optimistic and poetically earnest.
Nothing could be more uncool these days, of course. And yet nothing could be more needed than the poise, subtlety and life-affirming craft exhibited by The Doors on Strange Days.
Strange Days will be reissued on an anniversary double disc remaster on November 17. Pre-order your copy here