Before Jim Morrison died in France aged just 27 in 1971, he had already left behind an immortal musical legacy as the mystical frontman of The Doors. The band struck gold early on with the release of their eponymous debut album in 1967. Their formula of poetic psychedelic blues struck a chord with the blossoming counterculture of babyboomer USA and soon found its way to foreign shores.
Over the five decades since his death, Morrison’s legacy has been transformed increasingly into something mystical and divine, thanks to his deeply spiritual and enigmatic persona in life and his the mystery surrounding his demise. The late singer’s distinctly opaque and poetic lyrics have also proliferated this mysticism. A keen disciple of Beat Generation literature, Morrison enjoyed wordplay and hidden quirks, such as his anagram pseudonym, Mr. Mojo Risin’.
In a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone, Morrison revealed that his process for writing lyrics was rather autonomous, and words would just crop up during free improvisational blues jams. When asked if he had any Doors tracks he liked more than others, he replied: “I tell you the truth, I don’t listen to the stuff much. There are songs I enjoy doing more in person than others. I like singing blues — these free, long blues trips where there’s no specific beginning or end. It just gets into a groove. I can just keep making up things. And everybody’s soloing. I like that kind of song rather than just a song. You know, just starting on a blues and just seeing where it takes us.”
He continued saying that the songs that he liked to perform live the most were the ones that gave certain freedom to the band to jam on stage and improvise throughout. “It starts off with a rhythm,” Morrison said. “You don’t know how it’s going to end up or how long it’s going to be or really what it’s about until it’s over. That sort I enjoy best. I get a rhythm, a river of sound rolling along. I can just completely relax and not worry about time or how it’s going to begin or end or what I’m going to say. But not all people enjoy listening to that.”
The iconic singer explained that the band’s complete and recorded tracks were sealed off in a sense; the freedom vanishes as the words are committed to vinyl. Before this commitment, the songs were a malleable pulp of ideas that would come to Morrison’s mind in that moment.
The Doors’ classic song ‘Riders on the Storm’ from L.A. Woman was the last he ever recorded before moving to France to meet his fate. The song evolved from a jam session when the band was playing around with ‘Ghost Riders In the Sky’, a 1948 cowboy song by Stan Jones that was later recorded by Johnny Cash and Bing Crosby, among others. Morrison changed the title to ‘Riders On The Storm’ as he had occasionally referred to himself as a “rider on the storm”.
As noted in Stephen Davis’ biography, Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, while Morrison was attending Florida State University, Tallahassee, in 1962, he saw a girl named Mary Werbelow who lived in Clearwater, 280 miles away. Jim would regularly hitchhike to see her: “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 traveller, faceless and dangerous, a drifting stranger with violent fantasies, a mystery tramp: the killer on the road.”
The song was also partially inspired by a real-life serial killer, Billy Cook. Cook, also an avid hitchhiker, was picked up by a man who had been driving his wife and three young children to a family holiday in December 1950. Allegedly, after three days of forced driving with no purpose or direction, Cook shot and killed all five before dumping their bodies down a mine shaft.
As a fellow hitchhiker, these haunting murders clearly left a mark on Morrison, inspiring him to write: “If you give this man a ride, sweet family will die/Killer on the road.”
The song is thought to be a patchwork of ideas. The line, “Girl you gotta love your man”, has been interpreted as a desperate plea to his long-time girlfriend Pamela Courson, who moved to Paris with him and had been with him on the day he died under controversial circumstances.
Before piecing ‘Riders on the Storm’ together, Morrison had also been working on a screenplay called The Hitchiker (An American Pastoral). In the play, Morrison intended to portray the leading role of a hitchhiker with a warped sense of reality who finds himself on a murderous rampage.
Listen to The Doors’ final recording, ‘Riders on the Storm’, below. As the song comes to a close, you can just about hear Morrison’s haunting whispers over his own lead vocals. As The Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek recalled in conversation with Uncut magazine in 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.”