Friday, October 20, 2017

The Doors and "Riders on the Storm" -- Whispers of a Sweet, Fading Memory


Riders on the Storm

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm

There’s a killer on the road
His brain is squirmin’ like a toad
Take a long holiday
Let your children play
If ya give this man a ride
Sweet memory will die
Killer on the road, yeah

Girl ya gotta love your man
Girl ya gotta love your man
Take him by the hand
Make him understand
The world on you depends
Our life will never end
Gotta love your man, yeah


Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm


“Riders on the Storm”was released by the Doors as their second single from the studio album, L.A. Woman in April 1971. It reached number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. More notably, it has remained popular as a fan favorite for its undying mystique. “Riders” was actually the last song recorded by the Doors with Jim Morrison, and thus Morrison's last recorded song to be released in his lifetime. It was released shortly before he went to France, where he died a few months later.


L.A. Woman

By the time The Doors came to make their sixth and final studio album, L.A. Woman, they were close to collapse. Their tour at the end of 1970 had been disastrous. Jim Morrison was charged with indecent exposure in Miami in September, then apparently suffered a breakdown at the band’s last ever show in New Orleans. But LA Woman was the LP that pulled them back from the brink, breaking new ground

The LA Woman sessions began badly in November 1970. The band fell out with their long-term producer, Paul Rothchild, who quit two weeks in, unwilling to go another six rounds with an increasingly drunken, unpredictable singer.

Rothchild dismissed "Riders on the Storm" as "cocktail music," but reserved particular scorn for "Love Her Madly," which he cited as the song that drove him out of the studio. "The material was bad, the attitude was bad, the performance was bad," he said in the Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive. "After three days of listening I said, 'That's it!' on the talk-back and cancelled the session."

So, the Doors turned to engineer Bruce Botnick, whose credits included all of their previous albums, as well as the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed. With his help, the band vowed to coproduce their new album – no more endless days of Rothchild's studio strictness, where it was normal to record 30 takes or spend hours on perfecting a drum sound. "Rothchild was gone, which is one reason why we had so much fun," Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger told Guitar World in 1994. "The warden was gone."

The Doors decided to record in their unassuming "workshop" at 8512 Santa Monica Boulevard. "It was the room we had rehearsed in forever," recalled John Densmore, Doors drummer, in the documentary Mr. Mojo Risin. "Our music was seeped into the walls. We were very comfortable. It was home."

Like a fraternity common room, the cramped space was littered with empty beer bottles, dog-eared magazines, an endless tangle of cables and assorted instruments – plus a jukebox and pinball machine. "It was tight," says Botnick, who was ensconced in the upstairs office behind a portable mixing board. "It was like sardines."

Krieger speaks of the sessions …

“We adapted our rehearsal room, bringing in a portable board, a kind of forerunner of today’s ProTools set-up. We were comfortable there, plus there were two titty bars next door. It was the fastest time we recorded anything after the first album, all recorded live between the four of us, very few takes, Jim in the bathroom, with the door off. Not stoned, not drunk. Unless he was drunk, he was great to work with.

During takes, Morrison would grab his gold Electrovoice 676-G stage mic and sing in the adjoining bathroom, which served as a provisional vocal booth. The room's tile provided impressive natural acoustics, and he ripped the door off its hinges to better commune with his band mates. (Also note the vocals and the lyrics in Hyacinth House” “I see the bathroom is clear, I think that somebody´s near” line.)

“Jim’s concentration level was low, but he was focused the whole time. After the first album, Paul Rothchild had said, ‘Boys, we better record as much as we can ’cause Jim ain’t gonna be around for too much longer.’ I always thought Jim would last forever. He was indestructible. He wasn’t saying Jim was going to die, but maybe go off and live in Africa or somewhere. You didn’t always know what Jim was going to do the next day so, as a group, we did everything for the moment.”

Jim Morrison actually left on an extended trip to Paris as the final mixes were being prepared, hoping to rediscover his muse in the City of Light. He would never return.

The album was a huge success. Self-produced and recorded in their private rehearsal space, it was a homecoming in both a musical and spiritual sense. "Our last record turned out like our first album: raw and simple," drummer John Densmore reflected in his autobiography. "It was as if we had come full circle. Once again we were a garage band, which is where rock & roll started." 


Riders on the Storm”

It seems inspiration for the song abounds. The process of creating “Riders...” is an amalgamation of ideas sparked by Morrison and nurtured by the rest of the group.

John Densmore, remembers …

“Jim always had notebooks of writings and poems to draw from and would just pull lyrics out from these. Jim had made the film, HWY, that was a road movie and he played the hitch-hiker who killed the guy that gave him a ride. It was out there, experimental. He called his friend, the poet Michael McClure, and pretended that he had actually committed a murder just to get a reaction. I’m not aware it was based on a true story, but Jim was a voracious reader as well as having a wild imagination.”

Some critics see the song as an autobiographical account of Morrison's life in that he considered himself a "rider on the storm." The "killer on the road" is a reference to a screenplay he wrote called The Hitchhiker (An American Pastoral). Morrison was going to play the part of a hitchhiker who goes on a murder spree.

Stephen Davis in Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend (2005) speaks of Morrison attending Florid State University in Tallahassee in 1962 while seeing a girl named Mary Werbelow who lived in Clearwater, 280 miles away. Jim would often hitchhike to see her. Davis says ...

"Those solitary journeys on hot and dusty Florida two-lane blacktop roads, with his thumb out and his imagination on fire with lust and poetry and Nietzsche and God knows what else – taking chances on redneck truckers, fugitive homos, and predatory cruisers – left an indelible psychic scar on Jimmy, whose notebooks began to obsessively feature scrawls and drawings of a lone hitchhiker, an existential traveler, faceless and dangerous, a drifting stranger with violent fantasies, a mystery tramp: the killer on the road."

Also, in reference to the contents of the lyrics, Jim Morrison mentioned spree killer Billy Cook during at least one interview. Cook killed six people, including a young family, while hitchhiking to California. In all likelihood, the Cook murders were inspiration for the song's lyric, "There's a killer on the road / His brain is squirming like a toad ... if you give this man a ride/sweet family will die;..."

Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek said, “Interestingly, Jim was pulled in two directions – he didn’t want to complete the song just about a killer hitchhiker. The last verse: ‘Your world on him depends/Our life will never end/You gotta love your man.’ It becomes a very spiritual song; you won’t still occupy this body, but the essential life will never end, and love is the answer to all things. It gives the song a different perspective.”

Further lyrical investigation is interesting. Speaking with Krieger and Manzarek, the philosopher Thomas Vollmer argues that the line "Into this world we're thrown" recalls Heidegger's (1889-1976) concept of thrownness (human existence as a basic state with all its attendant frustrations, sufferings, and demands that one does not choose, such as social conventions or ties of kinship and duty). In 1963 at Florida State, Jim Morrison had heard an influential lesson about Heidegger, including discussion about philosophers with the same tradition, including Freidrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.

The title? Astute listeners can recognize that the song was also inspired by the song “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend.” Robby Krieger of the Doors attests to this. He says it evolved out of a jam session when the band was messing around with “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky, a 1948 cowboy song by Stan Jones that was later recorded by Johnny Cash, Bing Crosby and many others. It was Jim Morrison's idea to alter the title to "Riders On The Storm."

Bruce Botnick reveals his take on the recording …

“It’s hard to remember the exact chronology – unfortunately a lot of the tape boxes and outtakes were destroyed – but ‘Riders On The Storm,' like everything else, took only two or three takes and, as an afterthought, we recorded Jim’s whispered vocal. We all thought of the idea for the sound effects and Jim was the one who first said it out loud: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to add rain and thunder?’ I used the Elektra sound effects recordings and, as we were mixing, I just pressed the button. Serendipity worked so that all the thunder came in at all the right places. It took you somewhere. It was like a mini movie in our heads.”

The Obscure

“Riders on the Storm” features Jim Morrison's main vocals and whispered lyrics over them to create the echo effect. Densmore says, “After we’d finished ‘Riders On The Storm,' I had this idea, which I suggested to Bruce Botnick, that Jim went back in and did another vocal that was just whispered, and it’s really subliminal. Unless you know it’s there, you don’t hear it.”

Referring to the dubbed lyrics, Ray Manzarek told Uncut magazine September 2011: "There's a whisper voice on 'Riders on the Storm,' if you listen closely, a whispered overdub that Jim adds beneath his vocal. That's the last thing he ever did. An ephemeral, whispered overdub."

Played in the E Dorian mode, "Riders On the Storm" not only incorporates effects of rain and thunder, but also the sounds of the electric piano playing keys which emulate rain – Manzarek used a Fender Rhodes to achieve the eerie mood. Sessions bass player Jerry Scheff, fresh from backing Elvis Presley at Las Vegas' International Hotel, came up with the distinctive, “jazzy” bass line with Manzarek's assistance. (Both Morrison and Densmore were massive Presley fans.)

The band also called upon guitarist Marc Benno, who was making a name for himself playing with Leon Russell.

Fittingly, “Riders on the Storm” ends with the storm fading slowly to silence. But not before Morrison had a more subtle contribution: two ghostly whispers of the song's title on the fadeout. The eerie send-off is even more haunting in retrospect. "That's the last thing he ever did," Ray Manzarek told Uncut. "An ephemeral, whispered overdub."

According to an interview with Manzarek, the song was performed live only twice: on the L.A. Woman tour at the Warehouse in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 12, 1970, and in Dallas the night before that. This was The Doors' last public performance with Jim Morrison. It was only the second date of the tour, but was also the last, as the tour was canceled after this concert.

In November 2009, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame under the category Rock (track).

In the weeks before Morrison died on July 3, 1971, he intimated to John Densmore that he would soon be ready to record again. As it was, released shortly after the singer’s death, “Riders On The Storm” would become his haunted, mesmerizing swansong.

Today, Densmore is pragmatic about what might have been: “Either Jim would be a drunk playing blues in a club, or a vibrant, creative artist, clean and sober like Eric Clapton.”


Forty Year on, Jim Morrison Cult Thrives at Paris Cemetery.” The Independent. July 01. 2011.
Heinz Gerstenmeyer. The Doors – Sounds for Your Soul. Die Musik Der Doors. 2001.

Mick Houghton. “The Making Of… The Doors’ Riders On The Storm.” Uncut. September 18, 2014.

Lindsay Planer. “Riders on the Storm” – The Doors. Allmusic Review.

"'Riders on the Storm' full Official Chart History. Official Charts Company.

Riders on the Storm” (Which specific Rhodes was used?) The Electronic Piano Forum. April 25, 2009 Retrieved April 1, 2013.

Riders on the Storm.”

Jordan Runtagh. “Doors' 'L.A. Woman': 10 Things You Didn't Know.” Rolling Stone. April 19, 2016. 


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