Album Notes: Strange Days Indeed

The Summer of Love, 1967. From the West Coast, the Summer of Love had swept across the country, flower power and hippies spreading seeds of a brotherhood of love, peace, and harmony on the swirling winds of a magical tension. Vietnam was polarizing the political and social climate of America, a tangible tip to the tension iceburg wrought by the cold war and the potentially high stakes entanglement with conflicts elsewhere in the world. June saw the six day war in the Middle East, where Israel made a shambles of its Arab neighbors' military abilities. Yet this horror was merely a blood stain in comparison to the blood bath that would begin in July with the civil war in Nigeria upon the secession of Biafra, Nigeria's eastern region.

Tension abounded throughout the world, though America had yet to taste how the violence of frustration would draw blood in its own heartland. Nonetheless, American youth's brotherhood of love had grown alongside a bizarre accordance of dissident and macabre times. The utopian vision of the brotherhood of love and peace characterized by the Summer of Love in 1967 - blossoming to its fullest at Woodstock two years later, was about to be cracked by the harsh political realities of 1968 before being shattered completely by the closing of the Sixties.

Promoted as a “Gathering of the Tribes”, a quintessential hippie happening in the Polo field of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in January opened this magical year of 1967. Known as the “Human Be-In”, the reporting press largely misses the pun, making the same word connection as the political sit-in, and the words love-in and hippie begin appearing with considerable regularity as labels to attach to this youth

For the January 20 edition of the underground newspaper, The Berkeley BARB, Ed Denson wrote an article, What Happened at the Hippening, and, though he clearly liked the idea of all these folks gathering for a “Human Be-In”, Denson kept repeating his theme of the irresponsibility of the organizers in not knowing "how to organize on a scale that has 10,000
people anywhere, doing anything." Yet to many the gathering of thousands became the benchmark of the emerging youth subculture that people could spontaneously gather and get along and that anything was possible.

However, the swearing in of Lester Maddox, also in January, as the new Governor of Georgia indicated that certain parts of America still valued a man who, three years earlier, in defiance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed out axe handles to the white patrons in his restaurant so they could resist any efforts at desegregation of his public place of business.

The seeds of the times had taken root and sprouted, and the Summer of Love opened in mid-June with a three day festival known as the Monterey Pop Festival, just south of San Francisco. Many relatively unknown rock 'n' roll artists were featured: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and The Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin), The Who, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar and others. The first festival of its kind*, Monterey strengthened the growing sense of community among youth and the alternative subculture. But in July, violence eupted in the black sections of Detroit and Newark.

The Beatles gave this flourishing rock culture widely acclaimed artistic authenticity with the release of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Arthur Penn followed with the release of his film Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as two ill-fated, searching young souls who are swept into a cinematic waltz of bullets and blood.

Marshall McLuhan delivered The Medium is the Massage, a book that became the gospel of McLuhan's preaching on how modern communications impact society. Ira Levin's novel of the evil side of witchcraft, Rosemary's Baby shocked an American public who made the book a bestseller and an equally successful movie in 1968.

On the first Monday in October, Thurgood Marshall became the first black Supreme Court Justice. The magazine which would embody and nurture the subculture, Rolling Stone, first appeared in November. A 17 year-old British model, Twiggy, became the epitome of the fashion image, an unrealistic blend of pencil-thinness and wide-eyed vacuousness. In December, Dr. Christian Bernard performed the first human heart transplant. The surgery was considered successful, although the patient died later that month.

Released during the all-important Christmas season, Mike Nichols' film, The Graduate, showcased Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Bradock, a confused, quietly rebellious college graduate whose choices clearly undermined the credibility of the current programming of American youth. The closing scenes show Katherine Ross running off from her own wedding, but not before telling her mother she will not make the same mistakes her mother made. The film closes with a dishevelled Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross in her ruffled wedding dress, in an uneasy silence in the back of a city bus traveling a scheduled route. The soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel songs further augments the theme that this spontaneous flow of energy and desires doesn't naturally lead to utopia.

* There was actually one music festival previous to the Monterey Pop Festival - The Fantasy Faire & Magic Festival held at the Mt. Tamalpais Outdoor Theater the previous weekend. The Doors were among the performers at this festival which drew more than 15,000 fans. While covered in the local press, perhaps it was not seen as the beginning of a trend, or perhaps the lack of filming caused it to be overlooked by the media, which would certainly back up Mr. McLuhan's theories.

Also appearing at The Fantasy Faire & Magic Festival were: the Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, The Byrds, The Seeds, The Grass Roots, Tim Buckley, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Capt. Beefheart & His Magic Band, Country Joe & the Fish, Moby Grape, Spanky and Our Gang and many others.

The Doors' second album not only mirrors the strange days of the Sixties up to the Summer of Love, but augurs the stranger times to follow. Released in October 1967, the songs on this album came from the repertoire of songs composed during the fertile days before commercial demands were imposed upon the band. They had been developed over time in front of intimate audiences. The complexity and quality of themes in Strange Days rival the artistic imagination with which The Beatles revolutionized the music world a few months earlier with Sgt Pepper. Before the year would be over, Frank Zappa and The Moody Blues would release albums also built around a central theme of the underlying zeitgeist of the emerging subculture.

Strange Days doesn't offer a cozy refuge of soothing ideals or of placid, complacent sensory comfort; the Doors weave a tapestry of alienated people in a strange reality, chained to a mechanized world, segmented by the clock and an alienated landscape. In the Sixties, personal identity started becoming focused and then fixed upon numbers: social security, phone, license, credit cards - and the list has continued to snowball. People have the tendency to hold onto the established way, because that represents security to them, but Jim Morrison saw this as being chained to what was only the illusion of security. The Doors' artistic vision reflects little coherence in a culture relating more and more to disquieting plastic images which are detached from the organic nature of life, and which breed uneasy despair in even the most basic sanctuaries of life - the home and love.

Like a prism which refracts white light into a rainbow of color, this album refracts a spectrum of the afflictions of the times. Within the album, underlying themes weave together to reflect the nature of “strange days”: the despairing effects of living with the threat and confusion of the Vietnam War, and the potential of global holocaust; the effects of being the artistic harbingers of unwanted messages; the effects of lovers being at odds with each other because trust can no longer exist; and ultimately, the effects of death - death of innocence, of trust, of love, of sanctuary.

This album tells the story of strangers meeting strangers in strange surroundings. To Morrison, the values of the times offered attire only, for acting out a role, evident in his interview with Lizze James; he explained that people trade the reality of their being for a role, giving up their ability to feel, and in exchange, putting on a mask. Society molded individuals to be actors, the individual performing what was expected, and acting out
roles all for the dubious prize of an illusion of security.

In response to the question “Which album says best what the Doors were all about?”, producer Paul Rothchild replied that Strange Days was a “bulls-eye” - musically the album said everything they were trying to say, and had some of Jim's best poetry. Jim told Michael Cuscuna of Down Beat* [1] that he was proud of this album because it told a story and that many people didn't realize what the group was doing, but that eventually this album would get the recognition it deserved.

“It is our peculiar modern weakness to see all primitive aesthetic phenomena in too complicated and abstract a way. Metaphor, for the authentic poet, is not a figure of rhetoric, but a representative image standing concretely before him in lieu of a concept ... We all talk about poetry so abstractly because we all tend to be indifferent poets. At bottom, the aesthetic phenomena is quite simple: all one needs to be a poet is the ability to have a lively action going on before one continually; to live surrounded by hosts of spirits.”
[Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Birth of Tragedy]

Reactions to the album did reflect a lack of understanding of the story The Doors tell on the album, as it was buried by both comparisons to the fantastically successful first album and reactions to the groups', especially Jim's, persona. A 1981 review in Creem offered this universal appraisal of the album in hindsight, stating that the Doors probably had too much to live up to: “Even without the instant - standard kiss of death of Light My Fire, there was simply a lotta promise (or threats) inherent on the debut.”

There were those who did perceive the artistic imagination of The Doors. The same review in Creem also said its “most endearing (and enduring) qualities” were its ominous themes of people being “lost, strange, confused, alienated, friendless. The Doors were peering into the sin-filled souls of hippies everywhere and offering no comfort.” Eric Van Lustbader of Circus* [2] magazine recognized that the album's storyline of people “trying desperately to reach each other through the choking haze of drugs and artificial masks” builds up the “images and characters in a series of vignettes”, the whole becoming more visible as the album's story unfolds. And so this album expresses how strange times create unfocused lives, and such is the whirlwind of strange days.

[excerpted with editing from The Doors' Artistic Vision by Doug Sundling]

Copyright 2003 by Doug Sundling/

The Genesis of Jim Morrison's Poetry