Strange Days: Revisiting a classic Doors album

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

 

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NETFLIX REVIEW: Aquarius, by Kleber Mendonça Filho

Aquarius, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, tells the story of a middle aged woman defying the inevitable dominion of real estate developers who plan to buy up and rebuild on the site of her family apartment.

Clara, played by Sônia Braga, is a sensitive but stubborn former music critic (with a love of old Queen records), who has survived cancer and insists on clinging to her values in spite of the vulnerabilities of old age and the changing world around her.

The film opens with a flashback to 1980, with a young Clara played by Barbara Colen. Though it’s only a small appearance, Colen’s subtle performance sets up the character’s ambivalence and passion, conveying an ironic and reflective strength which forms the spiritual backbone of the film.

Beautiful, insightful, but a woman of few words, we meet Clara after she has just recovered from cancer, plunged back into family life and celebrating the birthday of an honoured elder stateswoman of the family, Aunt Lucia.

In the present day, the reflective and introspective beauty of Clara is still there, but she is now a battle tested elder herself.

Clara gets a knock one day from a building developer and his slick, smiling grandson Diego, who have an offer she can’t refuse. They want to buy up her apartment block to put new high rises on the beach front.

With the love of family already established as key to Clara’s character we are unsurprised by her wry refusal of the offer. She is nobody’s fool, and she sees through Diego’s friendly manner.

The apartment block is called ‘Aquarius’ and Diego tells her that the new project is called ‘New Aquarius’ out of respect for the history and sentimental value of the area. This only serves to disgust Clara more.

The camera work in the film moves from pristine, careful frame shots of Clara to a documentary style steady-cam. The shift from luxurious beauty to claustrophobic and intense, jarring close-ups, help tell the imagistic story of a woman whose hard-fought-for freedom and peace are being disturbed by anxious memories, as well as a valueless world closing in on her.

Another key scene sees Clara being interviewed by young journalists, keen to know what this veteran music critic thinks of the age of MP3s and digital downloads. She is not against them, she insists, but pulls out an old vinyl copy of John Lennon’s Double Fantasy album. Clara tells the story of her buying it, and how she found in the sleeve a cutting of an interview with Lennon published just weeks before his assassination.

The story’s significance is lost on the two writers. So, does she or doesn’t she like MP3s?

There is a simplistic interpretation of this film, that it is about the unseen significance of sentimental value, and Clara is someone clinging to the beauty of the past in the face of change. In fact, the film is about how meaning develops through grief as well as joy, and how the values of real estate development and digital technology are robbing us of this truth in the name of progress. The things that make us who we are, are under threat.

Clara is no reactionary. She smokes weed, drinks wine late into the night and even hires herself a gigolo. She commands her environment with a Queen-like beauty and grace, even after losing a breast to cancer and being haunted by the mistakes and sorrows of her youth.

The virtues of Clara’s character seem to be what the filmmakers want to celebrate. It is people like her, who see the meaning in tiny events, who see the ineffable rush of spiritual power in the soft lyric of a folk song or the crashing breath of the ocean, that are the best bulwark against corporate corruption and the ideology of progress.

Everyone tells her to move. Her family, her disgruntled former neighbours, her concerned friends. And still, Clara’s quiet but raging defiance never gives way. Those that love her worry she is putting herself in danger, causing unnecessary harm to her peace of mind.

The unspoken truth that we as the audience feel in common with Clara, but which no one else in the film seems to truly see, is that this stand against corporate bullying and the arrogant crawl of concretisation, is about far more than her own personal peace of mind. It’s about salvaging the fragile things that make life worth living.

Memories, kisses, old photographs, the winds upon the sea, the laughter of young children and the solidarity of love – these are the things that are eroded by the sinister passive aggressive creep of empty, modern morals.

Maeve Jinkings plays Clara’s hot-headed daughter Ana Paula. Ana Paula is the only one prepared to stand up to Clara and really push the idea of moving out. She feels this is just another stubborn and selfish project of her mother, and while the boys cower in silence she confronts her at a family get-together.

What follows is one of the most honest and emotionally raw scenes of family life in cinema. Ana Paula and Clara butt heads, harsh words are spoken on both sides and we learn that Clara’s past life is one of perpetrator as well as victim.

How can you stay in this old house, asks Ana Paula. Clara’s answer could be the most significant in the whole film.

‘If you like it, it’s “vintage”. If you don’t like it, it’s “old”.’

Clara continues to fight for her right to stay in her treasured home. The film’s consummation comes once Clara finds that Diego and his PR bullies have planted termites in the apartments upstairs. Clara moves into battle and the film’s denouement is as funny as it is satisfying.

This is a film about meaning, and what threatens the meaningful treasures in our life. It’s not just a film about faceless corporations and the defiance of ordinary people. There are no stereotypes here.

Clara is not perfect, and Diego is not a Donald Trump figure. Rather than being a fight between a normal woman and Gordon Geko-style bullies, this is a battle between human culture and public relations, between the slow progress of the soul, and quick, impatient phoney-progress of modern values.

Aquarius is available now on Netflix

 

NETFLIX REVIEW: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)

From the opening, dreary and drizzled scene at Checkpoint Charlie, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold creates an atmosphere of muffled, bureaucratic routine. Like all wars, the Cold War was characterised by constant waiting, a meandering sense of paranoia and anticipation, before the inevitability of cruelty and death.

The first time we see Richard Burton, we don’t confront the the Hamlet-like handsomeness of his presence, but rather his back, a rain-stained trench coat of a man in a lifeless booth, pouring whisky into his coffee. The almost contemplative, lingering shots of Burton’s concentrated gaze are then punctuated violently by a spy being gunned down after trying to sneak through the checkpoint.

Burton’s character Alec Leamas is everything James Bond is not. He manifests the strained brow and air of degeneration of the post-war British man, a rotting soul kept alive by a residual, near-forgotten sense of duty. His job is to lie and charm his way through the underworld, to forget himself, to be become a nihilistic foot-soldier, to kill, drink, abuse and deceive, all for Queen and country.

The scenes in the purlieus of Hammersmith and South Kensington are beautifully dreich, the landscape of dusty libraries, secretary’s offices, cold bus stops, dull and silent grocer shops and the Labour Exchange. Burton scowls and hunches his way through this atmosphere with a tensed, terrified glare in his eyes, the ragged emotions of a man clinging to himself.

The spies who surround Leamas are equally strained and disillusioned. ‘Control’, played with diffident subtlety by Cyril Cusack, is not the M of Ian Fleming, a far cry from the clipped, decisive, self-assured British Colonel type. Rather, you get a sense right away of a glorified clerk, a functionary, someone who is not really in control at all, but equally as beholden to murky, unspoken agendas as Leamas.

This is a theme through the whole chain of espionage. As Burton’s character travels further into the bowels of Communist Europe, he meets a string of sophisticated-seeming spies and goons, each of which turns out to be another lost soul, patronised by the next, higher-ranking link in the chain of command. The fetish of rank, and the pettiness of superiority is a subtext throughout the plot.

As a love interest, Nan Perry, played by Claire Bloom, is the only character who seems to capture anything of the idealism of the sixties. This reveals the fact that the nostalgia we have for the cultural revolution suffers from an amnesia about the boredom and ennui most people seemed to feel in that time. The Britain we see in this 1960s classic is more 1950s-kitchen-sink than the swinging London of Antonioni’s Blow Up, which came out only a year or so later.

Perry’s character is brimming with intelligence and hope, and a worldly sexuality brought to the role by Bloom saves it from sentimentality. Bloom’s kindness and womanly affection for Burton are indeed the result of an aloneness and desire for emotional adventure, and the fact that Leamas is equally drawn to her reveals the remaining streak of humanity in Burton’s otherwise tormented and condemned cynicism.

Oskar Werner plays Fiedler, in some sense Leamas’s nemesis. Werner plays what could have been a very routine and stereotype Communist flunky, as a deeply human, confused, determined and vulnerable man. He is ambitious and cruel, but Werner gives the character a positive charge, not loveable, but accessible and sympathetic. You can tell that affection for Leamas and the sense of duty that drives his own machinations are both real and rooted in a sincere vision of life. Fiedler, is far more than a product of his ideology or social conditioning.

The film is a brilliant spy movie, and a captivating example of British noir. But it is also a spiritual portrait of a society hollowed out by the collapse of empire and the punishing consequences of war. The result is a panorama of thwarted, depressed individuals who struggle to navigate a grey, prosaic Britain stripped of pretension and romance.