The Infinite Jukebox – The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’

When Jim Morrison died, I barely knew who he was. If I’d heard ‘Light My Fire’ before then, it would have been the bloodless version by Jose Feliciano that this taste-free country took into the top 10. I think I’d heard ‘Love Her Madly’, and kinda liked it. So he really meant nothing to me, by an accident of time and interest.
But after he died, The Doors released ‘Riders on the Storm’ as a single. It came out in 1971, a year that seems to have had more interesting favourite flop singles than any other year in creation, at least so far as I’m concerned, as a study of my ‘Lost 70’s’ series will show. I’ve never added ‘Riders on the Storm’ to any of those discs, because it’s not Lost. It never has been. It may have failed to chart, peaking at no 35 in the old Top Thirty days, but it is and has been from the moment that first sound effect of the storm, the thunder rumbling in the distance, appeared out of my old transistor radio, gloriously glorious and revered.
The Doors was Jim Morrison above everything, but ‘Riders on the Storm’ was Ray Manzarek, and that cool, quiet, almost distant but forever rippling piano. From that first run down the keyboard, even as Robby Krieger’s bass begins the underlying pulse that John Densmore’s drums quickly follows, that keyboard sucks you in, combining with the sounds of the storm. Something’s going on here, and the overwhelming sense is of danger.
And Morrison joins in, intoning the title, twice. He’s cool and distant, projecting not force but presence. The Lizard King sings of danger whilst the band play music suggesting a country road, long, dark and empty, night-driving in the rain. Riders in the Storm. Into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown. Strangers and aliens, not part of this society. Creatures of the night. The music lopes along, a rolling bass/drum pattern that doesn’t need to hurry because nothing can escape it. Whatever it pursues will be overtaken.
Though there’s a spiky guitar solo from Kreiger, this is Manzarek’s song instrumentally. He plays with the melody and the storm sounds drift in and out. It’s the most superbly integral use of sound effects on any record I’ve heard, the song relies upon in as much as it relies upon Morrison’s soft vocals, and Manzarek’s control of the melody.
There’s a killer on the road, Morrison sings, and immediately we look for his shadow. His brain is squirming like a toad. The threat is palpable and it makes the listener culpable. If you give this man a ride, it threatens, you in your car, out alone at night, travelling between unknown points so far separated that departure point and destination have dissolved and all that exists is the road, if you give this man a ride, sweet family will die.
And Manzarek doodles on his piano, teasing the rhythm, trickling cold slices of melody into your ears like rain down the back of your neck, and the storm crashes, and the rhythm keeps its slow, wearing down pace, that you can’t escape.
Girl, you gotta love your man, Morrison demands. A voice from another time, a much more macho time when macho was not a deliberate affectation. The world on you depends, our life will never end, he sings, immortality is the goal, the end, the promise. You gotta love your man.
There’s a long solo section from Manzarek, teasing melody out of the rhythm pattern built by Kreiger and Densmore. He toys and teases, hypnotising with the dream-like sounds of his piano, extending the night until it seems infinite and yet when he ceases and the song resumes its original motion, we are not ready. What seems infinite has not been infinite, and we feel as if we have been abandoned to the rain.
And the cycle returns to where it began. Riders on the Storm. The road will never end, the storm will never end, we are in a hell of sinuous music that traps us by its beauty and holds us by its strength. This world will never end, our life on your depends.
This was the last song The Doors recorded, the last song Jim Morrison recorded. It was played live only twice. It is the sound of night and being where you don’t want to be. Because the road has only one ending, and I may not believe in God and Hell but this song does and you are travelling with it. On the Storm.

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