Wednesday, December 2, 2009

There's a killer on the road

Midweek Music - Annabel Lamb, "Riders on the Storm"
Words and Music by The Doors

There is no sugarcoating it - Billy Cook was bad news. Born in 1929 outside Joplin, Missouri as one of seven children, his father raised the brood like animals in an abandoned mine shaft, and when he deserted them, authorities found the kids scrounging to survive. All were put into foster care...except for Billy, whose antisocial behavior rendered him impossible to place. He began a life of petty crime at an early age, winding up in reform school, then Missouri Penitentiary when the other institution proved incapable of controlling him. While in prison, he nearly beat a man to death who made the mistake of laughing at Billy's one drooping eyelid; it couldn't completely close, and one could never quite tell if he was awake or asleep.

Released from prison in 1950 at the age of 21, Billy briefly did a stint as a dishwasher, but soon acquired a shotgun and made his way to Texas. In the final days of the year, he started a two-week crime spree that ranks as one of America's most horrifying, stealing cars and kidnapping numerous hostages. Outside of Tulsa, he ran out of gas, and flagged
down Carl and Thelma Mosser, a young couple driving from Decatur with their three small children. There began a harrowing three-day ordeal, as he forced Mosser to drive him at gunpoint to Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas and finally back to Joplin, where he shot to death all five - and the family dog - and dropped their bodies down a mineshaft close to where he grew up.

But Billy's spree didn't stop there. He soon kidnapped and killed traveling salesman Robert Dewey, and later forced two men on a hunting expedition to take him to Mexico, where a local sheriff recognized him, walked right up behind the killer and snatched the handgun that Cook had in his back pocket. He was extradited to California, where he was tried and convicted for the murder of Dewey. He was gassed to death at San Quentin on December 12, 1952, never displaying a shred of remorse for his crimes.

The Billy Cook case inspired the Ida Lupino-directed 1953 film noir classic The Hitch-Hiker, which details the final leg of Cook's saga in Mexico and, twenty years later, would be the basis for the Doors' Top Twenty hit from 1971, "Riders on the Storm," included on their LP L.A. Woman. ("If you give this man a ride / Sweet family will die...") It was the last song the band would ever record. (A few years ago the song experienced new life as one-half of a mash-up with Blondie's #1 single from 1981, "Rapture.") In 1983, amber-voiced New Wave rocker Annabel Lamb did a synthed-up cover version, but in the video age, listeners could now watch a more literal interpretation of the song's lyrics. A video was shot giving the world a contemporary variation on the Billy Cook story - with Lamb as his accomplice - but it had to be edited when viewers complained about the unsettling imagery and the sight of an innocent family victimized on the road. Despite the controversy - or perhaps because of it - the single became Lamb's only Top 40 hit in the UK.

Here is the rarely-seen unedited version of the video.

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