When The Doors first formed in 1965, starting a song with a lightning crack and an apocalyptical atmosphere was out of the question. In the eternal summer of peace and love, the flowery sanguine sound that most of the mainstream music in the era propagated was in direct contrast to the iconoclasm that followed shortly after. As Jim Morrison said long before the band arrived at the masterpiece of L.A. Woman: “I’m interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that appears to have no meaning. It seems to me to be the road toward freedom.”
When tumultuous times thrust the flower-power scene into turmoil, The Doors stood out amid the mixed-up rock ‘n’ roll milieu as a dose of darkness. Rather than pitch black realism, however, they were tapping into a much more mystical sense of cloud cover. As Life journalist Fred Powledge wrote upon first seeing Morrison on stage in 1968: “Once you see him perform, you realise that he also seems dangerous, which, for a poet, may be a contradiction in terms.” Powledge, by all accounts, was not your typical Doors fan, his role in journalism at the time was covering the civil rights movement, however, Morrison seemingly captivated him as a sort of unfathomable rock ‘n’ roll Christ at the precipice of counterculture.
“Morrison is a very good actor and a very good poet, one who speaks in short, beautiful bursts, like the Roman Catullus,” Powledge wrote. “His lyrics often seem obscure, but their obscurity, instead of making you hurry off to play a Pete Seeger record that you can understand, challenges you to try to interpret. You sense that Morrison is writing about weird scenes he’s been privy to, about which he would rather not be too explicit.”
His final act with The Doors, before dying at the tragically young age of 27, was, at least chronologically, ‘Riders on the Storm’, and it epitomised both Morrison’s iconoclastic mantra, The Doors’ unique rock mysticism and Powledge’s aptly schismatic description of the man who now stands as some sort of AI-generated archetype of a true rock star. With the evocative image of a road-weary traveller, the band crafted an atmospheric masterpiece that housed more imagery than the Museum of Modern Art
The song began as a jam of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, a country tune which was originally written by Stan Jones and depicts a coterie of curse cowboys forced to ride horseback through the sky for tortured eternities. While The Doors may have taken the song in an entirely different direction thereafter, this brooding sense of epic Western theology remains. In fact, few songs in history conjure up a landscape with as much immediacy as ‘Riders on the Storm’ as it draws upon the stark Midwest’s dusty haze.
Therein lies the tale of a hitchhiker. Morrison himself was no stranger to wandering the serpentine roads of the west with an outstretched thumb. In college, his girlfriend lived three hundred miles away and Morrison would thumb rides towards her on his lonesome. But as Powledge said upon seeing him perform, he was both dangerous and a poet. Thus, Morrison crafted a darker traveller to give the song a grave gravitas. “There’s a killer on the road/ His brain is squirming like a toad,” Morrison croons out in reference to murderous hitchhiker Billy Cook who killed six people as he made his way between Missouri and California.
This dark, murderous streak is not only woven into the lyrical tapestry, but it splatters the rolling journey of the melody with a damned undertone in what is one of the great counterculture tracks. While the sauntering atmospheric epic ‘Riders on the Storm’ might encapsulate so much more than just the killing spree of Billy Cook, there is no doubting that within the great doomed American tale, Cook is a prominent figure. Once again, however, as our old friend Powledge noted before the fact, Morrison’s lyrics are obscure and even something as profound as a serial killer is shrouded within them.
Part of the reason that the lyrics retain this obscurity is that the song is layered with years’ worth of thinking on the matter. In summer of 1969, two years before ‘Riders on the Storm’, Morrison created the film HWY: An American Pastoral, whereby he portrayed a hitchhiker pondering the ways of modern American society, as life and landscaped unspooled around him in a somnambulant saunter, that turns out, by the last act, to be more deeply immoral.
However, in a strangely masterful sense, the songs depth can easily be missed by a casual listener. There is such atmosphere and melodic reverie to the song that you can happily float on its surface for seven minutes without wondering or really caring what lingers beneath. This, in itself, mimics the strangely tranquil upheaval quietly riding the storm and leaving destruction in your wake, but also the apathy that had befallen America post-Woodstock. As Joni Mitchell once said, “You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.”
The song, like Morrison’s persona, has more atmosphere and surface than just about any other rock ‘n’ roll track ever written, so much so, in fact, that it can mask the bottomless depth that lies beneath it. Both song and singer hold nothing back and yet do it in such an idiomatic way that they remain an enigma.