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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Riders on the Storm," a master class in atmosphere

The song doesn't even have the word "rain" in it, but its presence is undoubted, as is that of Jim Morrison's most personal character.

At times today, the rain has been... something else. Both in the early morning and now as I write in the late PM hours, it is absolutely pouring. Even through my headphones, I can hear it coming down outside my bedroom.

I initially wasn't wanting to do another rain-inspired piece, but here we are, and the weather is all that's on my mind at the end of the day.

Of all forms of weather, rain seems to evoke the most musical inspiration and activity. There's just something about watching and hearing it fall, whether you're outside, in your home, or in your car that draws out a range of emotions.

Oftentimes, rain brings out flavors of longing, loneliness, and pining for love, but my favorite rain-adjacent song doesn't tap into those feelings. Instead, the Doors' bluesy masterpiece "Riders on the Storm" takes a turn into the dark and eerie side of a nighttime, rainswept scene on the highway.

The final track on L.A. Woman — the last album released in Jim Morrison's lifetime — and the last track the legendary frontman recorded, "Riders on the Storm" finds the Doors at their creative peak, capturing the sound of rain in multiple distinct ways. They do so in part by literally using storm sounds to frame the track, with steady rainfall and the occasional thunderclap backing the band throughout. However, the Doors themselves also embody the rain through their performance. John Densmore's steady ride cymbals add to the background rain noise, for one, but I find legendary keyboardist Ray Manzarek's more melodic abstraction of rain to have the greatest effect. His descending figures on a Rhodes electronic piano — including the end of his intro solo — are as much of a musical representation of precipitation as Dave Crawford's piano on Brook Benton's "Rainy Night in Georgia." Manzarek's lines stand out in their fluidity and length, suggesting a steady rainfall that permeates the minds of the performers as much as it does the rest of the nighttime scene.

Unsurprisingly, no performer is more inspired by the instrumental scene than Jim Morrison, who applies his philosophical hitchhiker persona to the track. He sings of "a killer on the road" while also thinking of the concept of being "thrown" into the world. This principle — known as Geworfenheit or "thrownness," and expounded upon by Martin Heidegger — has been discussed at length when it comes to Morrison's application of it in "Riders on the Storm." I hear it as implying that the trauma of being thrown into life without one's understanding (a traumatic yet understandable view of birth, and the central tenet of Geworfenheit) has shaped Morrison into becoming the character he embodies. After all, Morrison did plenty of hitchhiking in his collegiate days, traveling across Florida to see his girlfriend. He was furthermore so fascinated and influenced by the hitchhiker that he made it the focus of his film HWY: An American Pastoral. Filmed in 1969 and released the next year, Morrison wrote, directed, produced, and acted in as the lead, portraying a character ultimately revealed to be a killer — a portrayal I see as undeniably manifesting itself in "Riders on the Storm."

As a hitchhiker in both his own movie and "Riders on the Storm," Morrison continues to search for meaning and solutions which may never come, even when he has a destination in mind. The rainy night scene and soundscape only add to the creepiness already embedded in his character, which is further emphasized by his doubling of his vocal track with a whisper. How much of the whisper works to augment the rain versus echoing the vocals or adding to the killer hitchhiker persona, I can't quite say, but I have a feeling Morrison would lean toward his character being misunderstood as much as or more than it is creepy. Nevertheless, the sound of the whispering/singing hybrid is foreboding, especially when taken in tandem with the lyrics. Combine it with the literal and musical rain, as the Doors did, and the result is seven minutes of an unmistakable atmosphere — one that only becomes more fascinating when considering its place at the end of Jim Morrison's life.


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