Song Notes: Horse Latitudes

When the still sea conspires in 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
In mute nostril agony
Carefully refined
And sealed over

Horse Latitudes has the longest history of any Doors song. Throughout elementary school, junior high and high school, Jim was a voracious reader who was intrigued by innovative use of language. In junior high school, he loved the anarchic satire of Mad magazine, but later he was powerfully attracted to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He was particularly taken with his work The Birth of Tragedy (Out of the Spirit of Music). Here, the philosopher analyzed two contrasting approaches to life: the Apollonian, which represented an aesthetic of harmony and order, and the Dionysian, which was given to chaos, impulse and carnality. By the time Strange Days was out, Jim was regularly quoting Nietzsche in interviews and discussing the Apollonian-Dyonisian split in the Doors music.

Jim was also deeply influenced by other writers and artists: Balzac, Moliere, Cocteau, French Existentialists and Beat poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and Jack Kerouac. James Joyce's Ulysses showed him how powerful language could become when it was used unconventionally.

The existentialist writing of Franz Kafka also had a profound effect on Jim. He was deeply influenced by the journals Kafka had kept. In high school, he began to keep a journal himself. This is where Horse Latitudes first appeared. The poem was inspired by an illustration on a paperback book depicting horses being thrown overboard from a Spanish galleon.

"It's called Horse Latitudes because it's about the Doldrums." Jim explained in 1967, "where sailing ships from Spain would get stuck. In order to lighten the vessel, they had to throw things overboard. Their major cargo was working horses for the New World. And the song is about the moment when the horse is in the air. I imagine it must have been hard to get them over the side. When they got to the edge, they probably started chucking and kicking. And it must have been hell for the men to watch, too. Because horses can swim for a little while, but then they lose their strength and just go down...slowly sink away."

It wasn't the first time Jim had used horse imagery in a poem. "Around the fifth or sixth grade I wrote a poem called The Pony Express, he told Jerry Hopkins of Rolling Stone in 1969. That was the first one I can remember. It was one of those ballad-type poems."

In the studio, the sonic foundation for the song - a terrible howling wind - was created in the control booth by manually spinning a tape of white noise* at different speeds. To create the appropriate accompanying frenzy, various odd percussion effects were recorded, including bottles being flung into a trash can. Some dissonant counterpoint to Jim's frightening intonation was added by opening the piano and plucking, scraping and hitting the strings with drumsticks. A delay effect was also added. For additional effects, they brought in Moog synthesizer expert Paul Beaver.

As much as the studio effects added to the song, it was still an important part of live shows, and it became one of the most chilling moments in their sets. "I heard Horse Latitudes at one of their early gigs at the Hullabaloo, and I decided right then and there that Jim was the greatest white frontman in rock and roll." ~Kim Fowley, songwriter and producer.

It was also a performance of Horse Latitudes which cemented the relationship between the Doors and future manager Bill Siddons. "It wasn't their music that grabbed me, it was Jim's words. I had come from L.A. to San Francisco with them to help with the equipment, not because I was a fan, but because I wanted to get away for the weekend. But then I heard Jim do Horse Latitudes. That was the moment. I went "Oh my God." It had nothing to do with any music I'd ever imagined. I was awed.'

*(white noise, which is used to calibrate instruments, is made up of equal amounts of every sound frequency, and resembles the sound of the ocean or wind.)

Copyright 2003 by The Doors, Chuck Crisafulli/

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