By 1967, many rock albums were already doing what serious art is meant to do- respond cogently and relevantly to the times that engendered it. If "Peace and Love" was flatulent instantly to intelligent minds, it was because behind the gaudy patina lay the same paranoid hostility which characterized the West in the twentieth century. While the Rolling Stones responded with satire, the Doors responded with a kind of impressionistic imagism which was more haunting than caustic, more Poe than Swift. If Strange Days, released in late '67, is the Doors masterpiece, and works as a companion piece to Satanic Majesties, it is because the Doors, in particular Jim Morrison, picked up the idea that the combined effects of the Vietnam War and the "drug" component of the counterculture was to render a kind of strangeness visible in American society, a torque in the direction of twistedness. The centerpiece of the album is the final track, "When the Music's Over." If put aside two of the other signifying rock tracks of '67, "A Day in the Life" and "2000 Light Years from Home," the Doors are distinguished from the Beatles and Stones because they are visionary rather than nihilistic or snide. What "When the Music's Over" offers, in fact, is a vision not only of a society come unhinged (at least where the youth sector was concerned), but of apocalypse, the end of human life as we know it.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, "without music, life would be a mistake," but Morrison seems to be using "music" in the broad sense, or as a metaphor- music is anything which sustains human life in a harmonious way. Significantly, the song is written from a first person perspective- uniquely, Morrison meanders between addressing a collective "you" and developing a personal narrative. The album is called Strange Days, and the images in its signature song are strange- faces in mirrors, screaming butterflies, fenced portions of earth, faces in windows. One of Morrison's lyrical conceits, and a well-documented one, is that he was "writing from the unconscious," much in the manner of the Surrealists, channeling imagery without the mediation of his conscious mind into extended collages like "When the Music's Over." If this piece comes across as less scattershot than "The End" from the Doors eponymous first album, it is because it's more clearly aimed at addressing a then au current situation, and making it a metaphor for an ultimate human reality. The scope of the song is ambitious; if it achieves less than it wants to achieve, it makes a point that's as memorable as the Beatles and Stones '67 high-water marks- the apocalypse is all around us, someone's life is always ending. The way the Doors' music punctuates Morrison's lyrics is also interesting- the ebbs and flows, periods of quiet alternating with dramatic explosions, act out the premise of apocalypse in musical terms. Robby Krieger's atonal guitar solo is particularly effective, opening up a vista that turns discord into beauty in a "strange" way.
If much of the movement of the piece seems self-conscious, it demonstrates that self-consciousness and ambition did not need to be damning epithets for rock musicians. Perhaps the more pertinent chiasmus here is between the Doors and the Beatles- the Beatles create, in "A Day in the Life," a deceptively simple, despairing Everyman and kill him off (enactment of a "personal apocalypse"); the Doors generalize to include all of humanity in their collage, and they conclude in a portentous, if not completely and barely bleak, way. If the Velvet Underground have a version of this, it is "Heroin"; but the situation in that lyric is specialized against addressing society at large. What the protagonist implicates, he implicates indirectly. Ray Davies is another songwriter who never tackled anything quite this ambitious in a single song, even if what can be glossed in a piece like "Waterloo Sunset" is just as rich, inhabited by a different kind of Everyman than the one in "A Day in the Life." The smaller pieces on Strange Days use imagery that can be construed as metaphorical or not- "Horse Latitudes," for example, is a poem accompanied by a backwash of oceanic-sounding white noise. In the poem, a ship is forced to dump part of its cargo of horses into the still sea in order to sail forward. The title track presents "guests" who "sleep from sinning" and "hear me talk of sin/ and you know this is it," which suggests not only drugs but heroin specifically (it is documented that Jim Morrison's paramour, Pamela Susan Courson, was a heroin user).
Robby Krieger's "Love Me Two Times" could've been set up as the "Light My Fire" of the album- it lacks the exoticism of "Fire," but has an interesting subtext. "Love me two times/ I'm goin away" can be understood to reference those drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Doors singles in the Sixties were generally hit-or-miss, and "Love Me Two Times" missed. The album itself was only a modest commercial success, despite the Doors high hopes. "People are Strange" was another failed single, which later became a classic-rock radio staple. It was as blatantly personal as anything Jim Morrison ever wrote- "People are strange/ when you're a stranger/ faces look ugly/ when you're alone/ women seem wicked/ when you're unwanted/ streets are uneven/ when you're down." Imagery is important on Strange Days because what inheres in it is an emphasis on sight and "seeing"- "My Eyes Have Seen You," "I Can't See Your Face in my Mind," the "wet forests" of "Moonlight Drive." What Morrison seems to imply when he sings "gazing on a city/ under television skies" is that even the skies have been co-opted by modern technology, in pursuit of the ocular. The phrase "carnival dogs" that comes up in "I Can't See Your Face in my Mind" is representative, because the sound of Ray Manzarek's organ is carnival-esque. What Strange Days amounts to, more than Sgt. Pepper or Satanic Majesties, is a kind of carnival or freak show- a site for the fantastic and the grotesque. As a response to the then-nascent counterculture, the Doors album functions as a circus mirror, rather than a mirage like Sgt. Pepper or a satire like Satanic Majesties. The general sensibility is cinematic (Morrison and Manzarek were film students at UCLA)and European enough to make Los Angeles an unlikely birthplace.