“Strange Days”: Jim Morrison’s Acid Visions

The Acid Visions of Jim Morrison

The “Strange Days” 50th Anniversary edition was released on November 17, 2017. To celebrate the occasion, we present this original Doors Examiner essay.

Jim Morrison has been dead for almost fifty years, and The Doors haven’t existed as a band since 1973. Yet The Doors are still a relevant and vibrant presence today. Their songs get extensive airplay on classic rock stations, their videos collect millions of views, and their hometown of Venice, California, declared January 4, 2017 “The Day of The Doors” for the 50th anniversary of their debut album. Even the United States Library of Congress added “The Doors” to their National Recording Registry for its “cultural, artistic and/or historical significance.”

Not bad for a band that once got blacklisted because the singer didn’t pull down his pants.

Although some argue that Jim Morrison has already guaranteed The Doors’ legend, the surviving Doors have taken additional steps to bolster their legacy. They’ve released their entire Morrison-era catalog as remastered CDs and digital downloads, and in 2012 they released a 40th anniversary edition of “L.A. Woman” that packaged the original album with outtakes and alternate versions of the songs. They’ve also released two live shows from their early years at the London Fog and the Matrix. They’ve worked with filmmakers to produce documentaries on the band, and they’ve collaborated with rappers and DJs like Skrillex and Tech N9ne.

The Doors aren’t the only artists re-envisioning Doors material either. Performers like Infected Mushroom, 3rd Bass, Cypress Hill, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé have remixed, sampled, and covered Doors songs. The Doors’ six studio albums may be the classical music of the future, but they’ll also evolve into new musical forms played by new generations, just as Bach, John Coltrane, Willie Dixon, and John Lee Hooker evolved into The Doors.

So why take a critical look at Doors albums individually, either as music or social commentary? And why “Strange Days?” Why not the acclaimed debut album? Or the radical departure of “The Soft Parade?” Or “L.A. Woman,” which many critics, magazines, and polls consider The Doors’ best?

Because “Strange Days” represents The Doors at the height of their creative powers both lyrically and musically.

To understand “Strange Days” we have to revisit the origins of the band itself. Jim Morrison had left the UCLA film school just before graduation because his student film had met with scorn from his teachers and fellow students. (He didn’t drop out, as some sources report, and he received his degree.) Morrison retreated to the rooftop of a building on Venice Beach where his former UCLA roommate Dennis Jakob had an apartment.

Morrison’s rooftop residency lasted from mid-May of 1965 to early July, during which time he ingested as much LSD as he could, producing an “intense visitation of energy” that he’d tap into nightly to attend “… a fantastic rock concert that was going on in my head.” Sometimes he heard only music and invented lyrics just so he could remember the melody. The journals he kept at the time are the provenance of many of The Doors’ songs throughout their career, but especially for the first two albums.

Was this retreat purposeful? Did Morrison stay on Jakob’s rooftop as some sort of vision quest, or was this, like the “dawn’s highway” story, an exaggeration by the myth-conscious Morrison? Maybe only Jim Morrison could answer that, but some of his actions were purposeful and seemed to be the work of an artist taking those first tentative steps towards greater exposure. He began by burning his old journals, later saying in an interview, “When I left school for some dumb reason – maybe it was wise – I threw them all away… But maybe if I‘d never thrown them away, I‘d never have written anything original…”. The second step would be to enlist a band to bring the rock concert in his head to fruition.

(Photos of Morrison taken by Dennis Jakob, 1965)

Jim Morrison, 1965, by Dennis Jakob

Jim Morrison, 1965, by Dennis Jakob

Jim Morrison, 1965, by Dennis Jakob

Legend has it that Morrison “bumped into” fellow UCLA film school student Ray Manzarek on the beach one afternoon and they rekindled their friendship. But perhaps a better explanation is that Morrison was purposefully seeking out Manzarek to start a band. Performing music was on Jim’s mind as early as his college days at UCLA, when he approached Jakob with the idea of starting a band called “The Doors: Open and Closed” with himself as the singer.

Morrison had also been onstage with Manzarek and his college band, Rick and The Ravens, for a couple of drunken renditions of “Louie, Louie” at The Turkey Joint West. Rick and the Ravens did another more formal gig with Jim Morrison when they needed a guitar player to fulfill their contract and paid Morrison to stand onstage with an unplugged guitar. Jim later said it was “the easiest money he ever made.”

Furthermore, Morrison knew where Manzarek lived on Venice Beach. We know this because Morrison appeared in Manzarek’s UCLA student film “Induction” in a party scene that was filmed at Manzarek’s house. In the film, Jim Morrison (white shirt) bumps into Manzarek at 5:10 and can be seen again at 6:55.

So how many times had Morrison orbited Ray’s house in the hopes of “randomly” encountering Manzarek? Whatever the circumstances of the meeting, it’s agreed that Morrison told Manzarek he was writing songs (again knowing Manzarek had a band). Manzarek asked him about the songs and Morrison sang a shaky but on-key “Moonlight Drive.” Manzarek was enthralled with the lyrics and right then and there the two decided to start a band. Manzarek moved Morrison into his beach house to work on the songs, and The Doors were born and began their climb up the rock ‘n’ roll food chain.

The Doors started recording “Strange Days” in May of 1967 and finished in August ‘67, just after they’d hit it big with “Light My Fire.” Like their debut album, much of the material had been written by Morrison on that Venice rooftop. But that’s where the similarity ends. The debut album is more like a traditional record of the generation before, a loose assemblage of songs surrounding what the band (and label) hoped would be one or two radio hits.

Conversely, “Strange Days” is a self-consciously experimental record that unfolds like a novel. Some of the innovations were as simple as moving up to 8-track recording (even The Beatles were still using 4 tracks). “Horse Latitudes” featured the band and visiting members of Jefferson Airplane yelling and dropping Coke bottles into a wastepaper basket. The album’s title track is one of the first recorded examples of a Moog synthesizer, and other songs used a technique of playing instruments or tracks backwards on songs to give the listener a sense of unease.

“Strange Days” is also arguably one of rock ‘n’ roll’s first concept albums. The record has its own internal logic and coherence, with each song being a new chapter, and there’s a feeling of the album having a beginning and an endpoint. This might have been what Jim Morrison had in mind when he said, “You might buy a book of our lyrics the same way you might buy a volume of William Blake’s poetry.”

“Strange Days” was likewise out of step with its times. Recorded during the “Summer of Love” and the rise of Flower Power, “Strange Days” features baroque melodies and lyrics about desolation and dread. Compare “People Are Strange” to other hit singles from the summer of 1967, like “All You Need is Love” or “Windy”:

This is an album that dares to examine the dark side, about how we feel more alone than ever before even with more people surrounding us.

Finally, “Strange Days” is a rare personal look inside an artist who felt alienated from the world despite seemingly having all the gifts the gods could offer, a facility for words and poetry at a young age that would make older poets envious and beauty that all but guaranteed the success of his band. The Doors, as conceived by Manzarek and Morrison, was a merging of music, poetry, and theater, and “Strange Days” fully achieved the meld. We have become islands unto ourselves, they’re saying, increasingly isolated by the very things that are supposed to free us: love, sex, and death.

Originally published December 2013.

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3 Comments on "“Strange Days”: Jim Morrison’s Acid Visions"

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When the Music’s Over alone makes Strange Days a masterpiece. You spoke well of this album’s singular mood or theme, I always loved it best. I like what one critic (maybe I read it here?) said — “…of those times, in a world or rock vegetarians the Doors were the carnivores.” When Morrison screams “Persian night. See the light. Save us. Jesus. Save us” — I really doubt nothing in rock history ever topped that.