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Strange Days Again: Remembrance And The Doors' Sophomore Album

Updated on December 29, 2014

Christmas can bring you the unexpected, and even such a cliché as “Giving is its own reward” can take on new meanings.

This time it was my own presence in a deserted parking lot, looking at a store proclaiming itself “The future of music”--a Mad Max future, apparently, dusty and depopulated, lacking only tumbleweeds blowing by, or perhaps some sort of mutant onlooker. Searching for gifts, I’d stumbled onto a local used-CD store, an outparcel box of a building in strip-mall no longer featuring a tenant of any commercial significance. Probably the cheapest lease to be found, and probably the store was barely hanging on.

Inside, it was just me and the clerk—unmenacing, thank goodness. We ignored each other amicably as I browsed the bins of has-beens and never-weres. All in all, I suppose it was a reasonably fitting way to reconnect with Strange Days.

I bought it used the first time, too—a buck on vinyl, no cover, part of a package deal with Cream’s Disraeli Gears. I stuck it in the sleeve of a record by some Tijuana Brass wannabe band—I’d decided the original record was not one with which I really wanted to be associated.

The second time around I had to part with a fiver, but that’s less with inflation figured in—and this time I got a jewel box to hold the CD.

But what I really bought was a time machine. Not just nostalgia—actual perspective, a measure of who I was and who I am. Unlike many of my teenage favorites, I hadn’t heard this record in a good many years. I’ve still got the vinyl, I think, somewhere—but I doubt I’ve played it since long before Val Kilmer did his turn as Jim Morrison back in ’91.

I popped it into the CD player in my car and. . .

Strange Days

Ray Manzarek’s five-finger exercise of an organ part, gaining inexplicable significance from the watery, psychedelic timbre took me away—oh, to be fourteen again. . . or maybe not; it wasn’t really such a good year.

The rock steady bass brought me back, its swooping glissandos matching the strangely-effected, reverb-drenched guitar of Robby Krieger. It’s mixed right in the foreground, right in your face, and its chugging eighth notes drive the track. But bass? It's a puzzle I didn't think about, back then.

The Doors didn’t perform live with a bass player; all the low end normally came from Ray Manzarek on keys. So could this swooping bass line have been the work of a studio bass player? According to Stephen Davis in Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend:

[Producer Paul Rothchild] insisted the Doors work with a bass guitar to cushion some of the new songs, and brought in Doug Lubahn, who played bass with label-mates Clear Light, to get more swing out of the band on hard-rocking numbers like “Love Me Two Times.” (The Doors recorded with bass from then on.)

So, maybe.

Early Moog Synthesizer.
Early Moog Synthesizer.

And what about the Moog synthesizer? I'm not sure I hear it, though this track is famous for being one of the first to use the Moog on a rock song. We know from the sound engineer, Bruce Botnick, that Paul Beaver's Moog was brought in for the sessions. But Botnick only specifically mentions its use on the last track, When The Music’s Over. There’s a trippy sound on Strange Days that could be guitar—but maybe it’s really the synth?

But it’s the harmony that impresses me now. At fifteen I sensed the richness of these chords. Now I’m able to really hear them.

The song starts with a dark E minor, oscillating back and forth to the subdominant of A minor, then slipping sideways to an unexpected yet logical F#--it’s the dominant of the dominant—and from there we get a really unexpected G minor, which oscillates with its subdominant, C minor, and now we’re in quite a distant key. This harmonic twist colors the whole tune and—more than any of the sonic window-dressing—turns it surreal. At the end of the verse instrumental break, a quadruple near-unison riff, takes us back via unexpected F7 and Bb7 chords.

Strange days, strange harmonies.

You're Lost, Little Girl

Some folks think that you should try to avoid playing songs in the same key consecutively. Not the Doors; You’re Lost not only is in the same key as Strange Days, it uses the same shift from E minor to G minor—arguably, at least; there are a couple of ways to interpret the harmonies. Yet it has its own identity—basically quiet, perhaps even accepting of the pain the lyric expresses.

Its signature harmony is an E minor triad with an added "F#," announced in the first two notes of the opening bass riff—an ascending major ninth, low "E" to "F#," which might have been dramatic if not for the quiet plodding of the unaccented even quarter-note line. Once again there is a repeated chordal oscillation—this time with C major, not A minor—before the G minor shift at the chorus.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The chorus is brilliant—it opens with the same tone, "F#", which in the verse had always sagged down to E. But now, re-harmonized with a bright D major chord, it brings a hopeful thought—“I think that you know what to do”—reflected with a lift to "G", and even (at the end of the chorus) to jubilant near-climactic "A."

But the album is not music from a bright shiny happy world, and the unstated action remains potential: the little girl is still lost—and we circle back to the same quiet autumnal E minor, the same plangent "F#," the same quiet acceptance.

Love Me Two Times

This track opens with a lithe, wiry single-note guitar riff in E, around which the song is built. Its stabbing, syncopated trills set off a bluesy shuffle beat.

The sound is much brighter than in the first two tracks—the basic harmony is a major triad with the flat seventh added. It’s a familiar sound in the blues, the ‘dominant seventh’ that really functions as a tonic (key center.)

Not so familiar in this context is the harpsichord Manzarek somehow imagined onto this track. It’s as unexpected as it is effective, and probably had as much to do with the vogue for rock harpsichord in the late sixties and early seventies as any song. Some using it may have been bigger hits—For Your Love was a 1965 Yardbirds hit that was pretty hard to miss—but how many featured an elaborate harpsichord solo? The familiar harmonic frame of the blues is warped a bit, too—a flat seven chord drops in just where we might have expected a dominant.

Morrison abandons restraint—not for the first or last time!—rasping and screaming his way through the unabashedly sexual lyric. The band matches his energy without losing precision—hear how they nail the repeated series of ‘shots’—short, sharply dissonant “seven, flat nine” chords in syncopated rhythmic unison.

Unhappy Girl

Dark but brisk, Unhappy Girl gives us some new contrasts. The lyric connects with You’re Lost, Little Girl—it’s as if Morrison is now involving himself in the girl’s troubles, exhorting her to break out the “prison of [her] own devise.” [sic] But we’re in the contrasting key of C minor, and the harmonic language is more simplified and stripped down, consisting for the most part of yet another two-chord oscillation—this time between C minor and Bb major.

Adding interest to this are sonic flourishes—there’s a recurrent downward swoop, seemingly half vocal though it’s probably electronic, and time-reversed piano and cymbal parts. (Back in 1967, tracks like this had to be recorded by physically reversing the tape, and playing without having your timing thrown off by the resulting sonic weirdness.)

It’s a slight but attractive piece, wrapping up in two minutes flat.

Horse Latitudes

And then there’s the anti-pop track. No beat, no key center, not many recognizable instrument sounds—just Morrison’s declaimed poem, beginning in bombast and ending in hysteria, accompanied by ever more dense electro-acoustic graffiti, processed atonal piano scribbles, and anonymous screams.

It’s off-putting for many. It’s been called “out of place,” “bad” and “horrific”—that last may be simple description of the subject and tone, not assessment of the quality. Clearly some listeners just don’t like it—seeing it, perhaps, as an unfortunate delay in getting to Moonlight Drive, one of the pop highlights of the album.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, processed by author.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, processed by author.

But it’s also probably Morrison’s most-quoted lyric, and for good reason. The images are concise and haunting—“when the still sea/conspires an armor/and her sullen and aborted currents/breed tiny monsters/true sailing is dead.” They give us—vividly—Morrison’s sensitivity to horror, the feeling underlying, and fueling, his Bacchanalian excess and tough-guy persona.

No less avant-garde than John Lennon’s Revolution Number Nine , which would come out on the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ the following year, Horse Latitudes nevertheless packs a lot more dramatic punch. It’s said that it was included in live shows, but it’s very hard to imagine it could have been at all the same sonically.

But then again, perhaps the ritualistic strangeness and power of the poetry would have had still greater effect live. Stephen Davis gives an account of its ritual-cum-recording session in Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend :

. . . Jefferson Airplane called. They wanted to visit the sessions. They came in as Jim was declaiming the drowning sequence of “Horse Latitudes,” set to a dangerous vortex of extreme musique concrète and electronic noise. “. . . IN MUTE NOSTRIL AGONY. . . CAREFULLY REFINED. . . AND SEALED OVERRRR.” The studio was completely dark except for the instrument lights. A feast of friends, including Pamela [Courson] and Alain Ronay from UCLA film school, shrieked in the background after “Awkward instant.” Grace Slick, a hardened rock veteran, went back to San Francisco and told everyone the Doors had scared the living shit out of them.

Moonlight Drive closes the first side of the original LP version of Strange Days, and it’s a canny sequencing decision. Once again the flat seven chord blues sound forms the harmonic core of the song. The first verse is in a bright G Major; the rest of the song steps up to A major, becoming brighter still. Complementing this harmonic lift is a strutting, confident tango-inflected rhythm, flavored with snare-roll pickups.

At first it all seems another study in contrast, utterly unrelated to Horse Latitudes—but there are links. There’s the sea imagery—“Let’s swim to the moon/ Let’s climb to the tide”—that in some live performances seemed to connect to drowning via ad libbed additional lyrics. Even the studio version has a half-audible “Baby, gonna drown tonight” in the ‘outro,’ just seconds before the final fadeout. And Krieger’s slide guitar solo prominently features startlingly literal ‘horse whinny’ glissandos.

It’s not accidental; the band often did this pairing in concert. And it makes a certain sense; Morrison’s poetry often swerves between sex and death, and Moonlight Drive is nothing if not sexy.

Image courtesy Yosh 3000 & Wikimedia Commons.
Image courtesy Yosh 3000 & Wikimedia Commons.

People Are Strange

“People are strange/When you’re a stranger./Faces look ugly/When you’re alone.”

There has probably never been a shortage of lonely teens, and certainly not in 1967. Many could not help but respond to this lyric; People Are Strange would turn out to be the biggest US radio hit from Strange Days, reaching the #12 spot.

The song is theatrical and ironic—a bit stagy, even. This quality arises from several sources. There is the barrelhouse ‘tack piano’ sound Manzarek chose, and the stereotypically old-fashioned ‘oom-pah’ formed by his piano-bass and Krieger’s guitar after-beats; there is the surprisingly conventional chord progression, strictly following classical norms; there are the obvious ‘walk-downs,’ melodramatically stalking from dominant to tonic, as oblivious to their own history as superannuated movie stars. And rhythmically, there are the frequent ‘stops’ with their campy upward swoops on slide guitar. All in all, it seems to paint a slightly sinister carnival picture--rather like the (eventual) album cover.

But Morrison wails with a sincerity that is oddly pointed up by the irony surrounding it. The band really was living a strange life, in the vortex of the fame that arrived so abruptly with their debut album’s success—and, inevitably, the label’s pressure to produce a suitable follow-up. Their divided reality of success, excess, fear, excitement, bewilderment and discontent seems perfectly reflected here—right down to Morrison’s last tortured “strange,” forced out over a detuned, deliberately ‘unfinished’ dominant chord.

My Eyes Have Seen You

The tack hammer piano continues, the E minor tonality continues, and the lyric alienation continues, but the energy level rises to near-frenzy by the end of My Eyes Have Seen You. The lyric seems to chronicle a sexual encounter, but one without intimacy; the singer does not himself fully witness the ‘more’ the anonymous stranger shows him in front of the ‘television skies’—it is only “[his] eyes” which do the seeing.

The music is essentially simple, with insistent harping upon E minor triad lightened by flashes of G major, but the band enlivens it with layered musical detail precisely yet passionately delivered. Especially notable is Robby Krieger’s over-driven guitar solo, contrasting obsessed riffs (over the E minor) with a desperate soaring lyricism (for the G major.)

Inevitably, it all falls back upon the E minor once again—“more” is doomed to become “more of the same,” and the song fades out, not transcendent after all.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I Can't See Your Face In My Mind

I Can’t See Your Face In My Mind seems to continue on from My Eyes Have Seen You. It’s as if the singer, now more fully present, is addressing the girl he couldn’t quite see previously. (We presume her to have been a girl, perhaps because of the ‘girl’ mentioned in previous songs; but strictly speaking, so featureless is this partner that even gender is unspecified—for all we are told, indeterminate.)

But though he can now see her, she is not fully present to him; in his mind “Carnival dogs/Consume the lines” that should represent her face to his imagination and his memory. Nor does the lyric suggest that he is much aware of her point of view as he asks her not to cry, since “I won’t need your picture/Until we say goodbye.” Is that really why she cries?

The tempo is lazy, the melodic gestures—especially Krieger’s slide guitar—mournful. Once again Manzarek has come upon an unexpected yet fitting sound with overdubbed marimba accents. Botnick has drenched much of the sonic landscape with a dreamy reverb, and once again time-reversed percussion adds to the general trippiness. It’s gentle, yet disturbing—a hymn to loss.

When The Music's Over

The last track of Strange Days is emphatically its culmination. In some ways it’s also the very essence of what the Doors were about: the fusion in live performance of theatrical recitation, high-energy, high-contrast music, and quasi-religious ritual. As Morrison once said, “Our record album is only a map of our work.”

The story of how When The Music’s Over was recorded only confirms, back-handedly, how central the idea of live performance was at this point for the Doors. Morrison was a no-show for the initial session, irritating his band-mates—who nonetheless went ahead and laid down the instrumentals to Ray Manzarek's "scratch" vocal.

When he showed up the next day, Morrison was unhappy in his turn, fearing that he would have trouble coming in at the correct times without the live participation of the other musicians. But Manzarek, Krieger and Dunsmore were adamant: they were happy with their tracks; Jim would just have to deal with it. Morrison, with only the lamest of excuses for playing hooky, had to comply. According to Stephen Davis:

Jim Morrison nailed “When the Music’s Over”—perhaps the Door’s career-defining statement—on the second take.

Certainly his performance is full of “passionate conviction”, holding nothing back vocally or emotionally, and spending everything he had at his command. It’s the antithesis of “sustainable”—not only could Morrison not have done it today (were he still alive), it’s hard to imagine that he could have done it in 1971, the last year of his life, when he was living a relatively secluded life in Paris, trying to find a way to carry on. But what we cannot admire for self-preserving wisdom, we must admire for honesty, commitment to the moment, and even a kind of generosity.

Davis divides When The Music’s Over into five episodes, based upon the verbal content. I hear it more in terms of musical divisions; one possible way of understanding the structure is this:

  • Intro
  • Double Chorus (1:05)
  • Guitar Duet (2:54)
  • Verse 1—“cancel my subscription” (3:48)
  • Verse 2—“feast of friends” (4:43)
  • Verse 3—“scream of the butterfly” (5:18)
  • Bridge 1—“what have they done to the earth” (6:12)
  • Bridge 2—“Persian night” (8:10)
  • Chorus (9:15)


When The Music’s Over begins with Ray Manzarek’s organ, riffing, inevitably, in E minor—or, if you want to be theoretically picky, in the ‘near-minor’ mode of E Dorian. (The difference between the two is the difference between C-natural and C-sharp in the scale, resulting in chords of A minor and A major, respectively. When The Music’s Over consistently goes with the latter.)

The riff has been linked both to Herbie Hancock's Watermelon Man —Manzarek would have known it, as Mongo Santamaria’s Latin Jazz take on the song had hit the Top Ten in 1962—and to the Doors’ own Soul Kitchen. Both do have some resemblance to the introduction.

But unique to When The Music's Over is the intricate way Densmore and Manzarek build up the energy leading into Krieger’s distorted whammy-bar guitar eruption, supported by a vintage Morrison scream. The intro is a complete statement on its own terms, yet it is also a perfect prologue. It’s important that it builds from quiet to eruptive, and back—one of the band’s strengths, fully exploited on When The Music’s Over, is the ability to use dynamics to near-symphonic effect.

Herbie Hancock, live in 2006.  Image courtesy Sjaak & Wikimedia Commons.
Herbie Hancock, live in 2006. Image courtesy Sjaak & Wikimedia Commons.

Chorus I

Most often in popular song chorus and verse alternate, but that is not the case here; rather, the chorus frames the somewhat free-form verses with more formally defined music, music with its own distinct dynamic shape. A quiet beginning leads to suspense-building dominant chord interruptions like Classical half-cadences—a relatively unusual device in pop/rock music—and finally to a dramatic stop which sets up the words “until the end.” This climax is then extended by the ensuing guitar "solo"—really, as we'll see, a duet.

Guitar Duet

Live, this presumably would have been a solo, but the studio version features two intertwining over-driven guitars, one stereo left and one stereo right. There’s no build here; we’re already at a high energy level, and it’s up to Robbie Krieger to sustain it over 56 bars of static tonic harmony. As he himself noted, that is not an easy musical task.

He succeeds in part by repeatedly ‘taking it outside’ tonally—that is, bringing in tones outside E Dorian—to create suspense via the resulting dissonances, and to create a wide palette of harmonic color. That those (still!) unusual colors are both vivid and surreal only makes them more appropriate to this context—Krieger here is, in a very concrete sense, “breaking on through to the other side.”

(For comparison, compare Paul Desmond’s jazz classic Take Five; despite its very different feel stylistically and metrically, it has a similar pitch profile (allowing for Take Five's key center of Eb minor.) Coincidentally, one of the many notable cover versions of Take Five—that of jazz organist Trudy Pitts—was released the same year as Strange Days. She, too, 'took it outside’ in her solo.)

Verse 1

Harmonically just as static as the guitar solo, the verse works musically by projecting changing melodic tones against an unchanging harmonic backdrop. Largely consisting of a strongly accented chanted "B"—“Send my credentials to the house of detention”—and sagging to an equally consonant "E" only on the last syllable, the melody reaches its climax on the mildly dissonant seventh, "D," of the word “friends.”

Verse 2

The second verse is very similar to the first. The energy level rises a bit courtesy of a slightly louder dynamic and of emphatic chordal ‘hits’ punctuating the first couple of lines, but the melody (only slightly varied) and its similar setting strongly link back to the first verse.

Verse 3

This verse differs more distinctly. Though the melody begins similarly, the accompaniment subtly differentiates it at the very beginning by dropping the guitar. It turns out to be the beginning of a process of simplification, of stripping away elaboration, that again is quite symphonic—music theorists could well term it “developmental.”

On a more immediate timescale, though, it works to set up the guitar ‘moans’ that suggest, perhaps, the “scream of the butterfly.” According to John Densmore, Morrison took this striking phrase from the title of a “porno” film, spotted on an LA billboard. (There is a 1965 black and white release of this name; from the IMDB entry it seems more like a film noir thriller with a strong sexual element, but it might well have been perceived differently back in 1967.)

That the connotations for Morrison may have been sexual, though, is supported by the fact that the verse ends with the request, or command, “Come back, baby—back into my arms.”

Of course, for Morrison many things had sexual connotations.

Bridge 1

In a ‘normal’ bridge there is differing melodic material (as here) and a shift in lyric point of view. Often the shift is to a more “objective” perspective—arguably, something like that happens here with a shift in pronouns from “I” and “My” to “We” and “Our.”

Musically, the simplification of the texture mentioned above is notable. The continuity of the music is progressively entrusted more exclusively to Manzarek’s piano bass; Krieger keeps his contributions short and very much in the background, while Densmore shifts from the classic timekeeper’s role he could fill so well to a conversational interplay with the vocal. (Stephen Davis called this a “beatnik duet for voice and drums.”) Things become very quiet and very sparse.

Paradoxically, this only highlights the importance of the message of Bridge 1 yet further. And dramatically, it’s pure set-up. There's the quiet, spare playing, there's the reduction of the vamp figure to just two notes—a device called “motivic fragmentation” and very familiar in the development sections of Classical symphonies. There's the tendency of Morrison’s half-chanted vocal—contrary to some sources, he never quite abandons pitches for a true spoken lyric here—to lie more in the lower register, and often upon the 'relaxed' tonic, "E." All of this quietness prepares the surprise of Morrison's climactic screamed “NOW!” to be the hair-raising moment it is.

Argentinian graffitto image of Jim Morrison.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, processed by author.
Argentinian graffitto image of Jim Morrison. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, processed by author.

Bridge 2

Like Krieger’s guitar duet, this begins in full cry and sustains energy nearly throughout. Yet the singer’s contributions are quite sparse, if passionately screamed:

Persian night, babe

See the light, babe

Save us!


Save us!

It’s actually the band that provides the climax, with an extended set of quarter note triplets—composer Lewis Nielson once called this “a very emotional rhythm”—in insistent rhythmic unison among organ, guitar and snare drum, while the clashing underlying beat is sustained by Manzarek’s left hand and the Densmore’s bass drum.

At least one listener has suggested that “Persian night” may refer to the Magi, the “Three Kings” that attended Jesus’ birth.

Perhaps. I must confess that I was never able to distinguish what Morrison was screaming—and I’m not sure today that it much matters. It's not so much what he screams, as how he does it: we respond not to the image or thought, but to the hysterical other-wordliness Morrison inhabits for us. It’s not about reason or craft in this moment; “logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead.”

Chorus 2

Logic and proportion are, however, quickly resurrected in the form of a final chorus with included coda. The Doors were much too canny as musical showmen—too good as the artists Morrison always insisted them to be—to leave us with nothing more than unresolved hysteria. And so the bridge winds down with yet another typically meandering stepwise organ line—vintage Manzarek!—to relative stability.

The pessimism, the darkness, the dangerous energy, all are contained for us in a frame of musical and technical mastery. It’s not so much that the frame makes the darkness safe for us, as that it makes it interesting for us.

Morrison’s demons would scarcely have claimed our attention if they had taken his life while he was still in film school—and not only because we never would have known his name. Morrison's story is that of navigating a tightrope stretched between opposites: fear and daring, discipline and excess—yes, discipline; “Jim and Robbie were writing all the time,” Bruce Botnick remembered—life and death. Morrison's tightrope walk could always end only in a fall—but "how" and "when" and "why" mattered to us because, always, we need a storyline to frame that fall.

And so we need the final stabilizing "pole" this chorus provides. We need the refrain, and we need the final dramatic pause, the last rasping “end” with thumping drums and guitar squalls from overdrive mode once again. We want the end to matter.

Update: Ray Manzarek Dies

Monday, May 20, Ray Manzarek died in Rosenheim, Germany, following a long battle with bile duct cancer.

Surviving members of the Doors, Robby Krieger and John Densmore were joined in issuing tributes by numerous musicians whom Manzarek worked with in the decades since the band's heyday, including Slash (of Guns 'n Roses and Velvet Revolver) and Green Day front man Billy Joe Armstrong.

Inevitable, yet still sad--but at 74, Manzarek had had a long and productive life. Clearly, he is missed by many.


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