“An old cowpoke went ridin’ out one dark and windy day….”
So begins Vaughn Monroe’s 1949 cowboy song “Riders in the Sky,” a tale about a “ghost herd in the sky.”
And so began, at first, The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm,” one of the band’s most iconic tunes, which, as Ray Manzarek explains above, started out with him and guitarist Robby Krieger playing around on Krieger’s “twang guitar” in their rehearsal studio. As Manzarek tells it, Jim Morrison burst in on the jam session with lyrics. To turn the Monroe-inspired tune into a Doors’ song, Manzarek decided “we got to put some jazz to it, make it dark.”
Watch him reenact the magic: bassist Jerry Scheff (formerly of Elvis’ TCB Band) stretches himself to learn the bass part, Manzarek simulates rain with a descending scale, engineer Bruce Botnick pulls out the pre-recorded thunder….
The haunted Old West feel of Monroe's “Riders in the Sky” remains—in the quavering tremolo of Krieger’s guitar lines—but crooner Vaughn Monroe would never sing a line about a killer’s brain “squirmin’ like a toad.” Instead of ghost cowboys, the “insane part” of the second verse features a murderous drifter who might just kill your family.
This creepy image hearkens back to the centerpiece of The Doors’ self-titled debut album, “The End,” with its homicidal spoken word section that seemed to announce the band as the soundtrack to the sixties’ dark demise, capped off by their last 1971, album, L.A. Woman, and “Riders on the Storm.” (Jazz & Pop magazine called L.A. Woman “a return to the tight fury of early Doors’ music.”)
In the video—an extra from the documentary The Doors: Mr. Mojo Risin’—the Story of L.A. Woman—Manzarek sings the lyrics, but hardly does justice to Morrison’s smooth delivery. It’s fitting in a way that the band’s last album would feature a blues derived from a Monroe song, whose muscular baritone (he was called “the Baritone with Muscles”) was such a prominent sound in an earlier, less anarchic, time.
“Riders on the Storm” contains within it the seeds of Morrison’s idea for a “movie about a hitchhiking killer,” says Manzarek, “but he couldn’t leave it at that. The song was just too haunted and too beautiful. It was almost as if he had a premonition” of his own death. He also had a premonition of ‘70s cinema, with its disaffected loner killers and bleak neo-Westerns, reflections of the decades’ own Vietnam-era darkness.