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Strange Days At Junior High Music Class

The original “West Side Story” was on TV Sunday night, I hadn’t watched it in decades, and as often happens, the landmark musical film triggered an ancient flashback…

At Lincoln Junior High in the bucolic and conservative Orange County, California coastal town of Corona Del Mar there was a music teacher whose name I’ve long forgotten, but I do recall he wore garish lime green suits and had horrendous breath. He was likely a very nice and smart guy though, but for some reason a few of us brattier boys took a dislike to him. Maybe me most and worst of all. It wasn’t pretty.

On the first day of class he put on the title song of The Doors’ second album “Strange Days,” the volume up loud. Some of budding rock fans sat there slightly bemused, as The Doors were about as subversive a band as there was then. This song, like many of theirs, celebrated countercultural hedonism, debauchery, darkness: “Strange days have found us…strange days have tracked us down…they’re going to destroy, our casual joys….the hostess is grinning, her guests sleep from sinning…hear me talk of sin and you know this is it…bodies confused, memories misused, as we run from the day to a strange night of stone…”

Not exactly “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” right? The Doors sung and played of bizarre rituals and dreams, phantasmagorical fantasies, and of course murky sexual scenarios. The Doors’ epic “The End” from their first album was a tale of Oedipal lust and murder, getting them banned from some radio stations and clubs. They also filmed what might be the first rock video, to their tune “Unknown Soldier,” but rather than sexy pop fluff it depicted a gruesome anti-Vietnam war execution on Venice Beach where they’d first formed. Lead singer and figurehead Jim Morrison said The Doors were “erotic politicians,” whatever that might mean. His own life turned out to become mostly sordid, sad, and short. The three musicians who backed him up were inventive and great, and very patient with him. The Doors were thus one of my first favorite bands.

Lead singer and self-proclaimed “Lizard King” Jim Morrison, born to a Navy admiral but soon drawn to beat and surrealist poetry, experimental film, illegal drugs and booze, and rock and roll superstardom with all that can entail, was already on the run from public obscenity charges and would soon die intoxicated in a bathtub under murky circumstances in Paris, thereby joining the legendary “27 Club” of musical stars dead at that age (Hendrix, Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Pigpen of the Grateful Dead, and blues legend Robert Johnson, to name just the most famed of a long list). His longtime long-suffering girlfriend Pamela Courson soon overdosed and joined the same club, maybe carrying loyalty to extremes. Of course rumors soon spread that Morrison had faked his death to flee fame, but his gravesite in the hallowed Pere Lachaise cemetery promptly became a pilgrimage and party site, outdrawing such esteemed neighbors as Chopin, Proust, and Piaf. The bust of his head was liberated from his tombstone, never to be seen again. It would now be worth millions in any currency.

After playing us “Strange Days” the teacher launched into an erudite explication of the song’s structure and technicalities. He was good! I heard things I hadn’t even noticed or conceived of before even though I’d played that album a hundred times. But then he put on another LP, the soundtrack to West Side Story. “I Feel Pretty” sang a chirpy little voice, later revealed to be a young and beautiful Natalie Wood, masquerading as a lovestruck Puerto Rican. It was horrible. I soon realized his Doors song opener was just to hook us in, the make us think he was cool or something. And adolescents hate that sort of charade. 

So soon I was the class clown, or worse. I was usually shy but he just brought it out in me. Whenever he asked a question I replied, snidely and chirping, “I don’t know, but I feel pretty.” Giggles and guffaws among the classmates, thus rewarding and encouraging my snottiness. I think I even broke into that song while he was lecturing, as if to myself. Also, as a nascent drummer, I constantly tapped on my desk with pencils or even the classroom drumsticks. Some of that was unconscious but he had no reason to believe that, given what a jerk I otherwise was there. 

Eventually I became so intolerable he sent me to the Principal’s office for disciplinary action. This was a first for me. I sat in the waiting room until called in, questioned, and warned. But it seems I wasn’t scared straight. On my way back to class I noted that there was a back door to the musical instrument room. I quietly snuck in there and looked around at the violins, horns, and other cool stuff. A big saxophone, likely a tenor but maybe even a baritone, caught my eye. I’d never touched one before and I picked it up, marveling at its weight. I then noticed that the teacher’s voice was droning just on the other side of a thin door to the actual classroom. I was right behind him! Without really pausing to think I stepped over, rested the bell of the horn on that door, placed my fingers in a random manner on the many keys, took a deep breath, put my lips on the mouthpiece, and blew as hard as I could: BLAAAAAAAT!! John Coltrane at his most musically inspired and unhinged couldn’t have blown a more scorching note.

There was a second of silence and then I heard pandemonium from the classroom. Apparently the poor teacher had leapt straight up in the air, shocked and startled, knocking over his podium. A few kids had screamed. Then it was mad mass laughter. Within a moment the teacher came storming into the instrument room, enraged. Still holding the horn, I didn’t have much of a case for innocence. He grabbed me by the shirt and yanked me out of the room, then out of the building and down a hall or two, back to from whence I’d just come. 

The Principal’s secretary seemed very surprised to see me. I was shown to the same seat as only 20 minutes before but the principal appeared immediately, heard the tale of my stunt, and sentenced me to a couple weeks of eating lunch right there. They notified my parents that their son was fast becoming a disruptive juvenile delinquent but fortunately my intimidating dad was out of town as usual and my nurse mom, a wholly forgiving sweetheart, just sighed and shook her head at me. (They had no idea what shocking misbehaviors the subsequent decade or so would entail, but I became more careful and discreet about such things. For example, I didn’t tell mom until decades later that I was scorched on LSD and newly relieved of my virginity when they sat me down at seventeen to tell me they were divorcing, evoking in me an understandingly baffling outburst of relieved - as I hadn’t been busted - laughter). I did eventually have more lunches in the Principal’s office, however.

I also did go back to music class eventually, and behaved relatively well, but the teacher still gave me my first ever “F” grade. Who could blame him? In any event the only other class I ever failed was penmanship. So of course, ironically or not, among a number of other careers, for many years I was a fairly widely read music journalist. 

People say Einstein once failed a math test. It’s good to know your own strengths. But I never learned the sax, and still know many Doors lyrics, whether I want to or not. And every month or so, reading the news, I hear Jim singing in my head, “Straaaange days, have found us….”


  1. Scott flanegin June 4, 2023

    Hi Sealo!!!
    That’s fantastic.
    I want more stories pleeeeeeez

  2. Art Guy June 13, 2023

    Well Steve if you had Mr Maurer for English, I’m sure you behaved better in his class, as something rubbed off and you’ve become quite the fun read!!

  3. Beth Beek Blackford June 24, 2023

    Hilarious! Poor Mr. Keith – you should look him up & invite him to our 50th!
    I cheated on a test in his class, & not only got an A, but received a special gift from him for being so insightful. I learned a far greater lesson, carried to this day. Oh, and thanks Libby Birnie!

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