JOHN DENSMORE INTERVIEW
John , how are you, sir?
I’m good, thanks. How are you?
I’m well. Big fan here, so this is a big deal for me. So thank you very much for the time.
Oh, you bet.
Not only a big fan of your work as a musician over the years, but I really enjoyed your two books, this latest one we’ll talk about and your first one, Riders on the Storm.
Well, I appreciate that, James.
I cranked through this book in about two days nearly a month ago, so before we spoke I wanted to revisit some key parts, and was even more impressed by how poignantly you write about how difficult it was to be in this ugly battle against your brothers-in-arms. And it got me wondering how hard was it to get it down in print, to physically express it, and know that your inner most fears and anxieties and beliefs would be on record in this account?
(laughs) Wow. It wasn’t as difficult to write it down as going through it. (laughs) The old phrase, time heals; time does heal. And I worked real hard at trying to not to make it a legalese, blah-blah, boring, technical lawyer thing. So, I interspersed my emotions. I drift off when I was in the court room, I mean, when writing this, I didn’t necessarily do that when I was actually in the court room, but I wanted the reader to get inside my mind, so I could better tell some stories about whatever – sitting in with Carlos Santana or seeing Elvin Jones. So, technically, it was hard, but I took years to do it. Writing takes forever. Well, you know how it is. I’m real pleased it’s available for those that are interested.
It was pretty difficult as a fan of The Doors to read about how the lawyers for your friends and colleagues stooped to accusing you of being a communist or worse still, unbelievably, a terrorist. I’m 50, and have been covering politics for decades, but even I was appalled.
I know. It’s funny, because in the beginning the fans, the really hardcore ones, thought I was destroying their favorite band. But now that they can finally read the whole journey they will hopefully get the idea that I was trying to preserve the integrity of the original group. You know, (sighs) now that this book is coming out a cloud is lifted from me. It feels healing, even though it’s a tough pill to swallow for Ray and Robbie. In the last chapter I say, “Hey, how can I not love you guys, we created this incredible thing together.” And, you know, musically, they’re my brothers forever. They just didn’t see The Doors they got knocked off their hinges by their idea that they could play without Jim. And that’s been (chuckles) proven wrong.
Sure, in many ways. I was immediately taken by your signature point in the book being Morrison’s well-documented derision against the selling-out of “Light My Fire” to Buick in 1968 as the basis for your protecting the brand. And an intriguing element of your story is this defining of what a 27 year-old man, who stands for so much of the 60s’ imagery, would come across today had he lived. Yet, Morrison is frozen in time with his ideals. There was no maturing or being corrupted or compromising for Morrison. Despite Krieger and Manzarick arguing in court that Jim would have evolved in his thinking about selling out The Doors integrity for profit, you stood by the ghost of your friend as if he were here today to speak out for himself.
“You know, now that this book is coming out a cloud is lifted from me. It feels healing, even though it’s a tough pill to swallow for Ray and Robbie.”
I’m very proud the first line of the book is “Fuck you!” (laughs) Jim saying “Fuck you!” (laughs) You know, if he were alive today would he okay using Doors songs to sell Cadillac? I’m not unaware of the fact that times have changed and the music business, like all the creative businesses, is really difficult, and as I write in the book; if a new band wants to use their stuff to hawk some product to pay the rent, I get that. It’s just that in our situation we’ve already done well and if a new band begins to do well maybe then they should revisit whether they should do commercials anymore, because, as Tom Waits wrote, “You’ve changed your lyrics to a jingle.”
I love the fact that two of my great heroes, lyrically and musically, Tom Waits and Pete Townshend are quoted in your book arguing both sides of the point. Waits is vehemently against having his music used purely for commerce while Townshend states emphatically that he can do what he wants with his songs and shouldn’t feel guilty about it. And I can see both sides of it.
Yeah, yeah, it’s true. Townshend’s quote is funny; “I don’t give a fuck if you fell in love with Shirley to my song, I’ll do what I want with it.” (laughs)
(laughs) But Townshend gets to speak for himself, while Morrison could not. I liken it to arguing that if Martin Luther King had been alive today he might say, “I’d like to reconsider this whole civil rights thing.” You have to go by what a person did and said during their time. That’s all you’ve got.
That’s it exactly, James. All you’ve got is what they did when they were alive. What else could you base your thoughts on?
You see, where Manzerick and Krieger lost me was when they, or their lawyers, used the 1969 Miami incident where Morrison was arrested for lewd behavior and public disturbance or whatever, to besmirch him. In all the books I’ve read on The Doors and interviews I’d heard or seen, all of you guys clearly denounced the charges against Morrison, especially for allegedly exposing himself on stage, which ostensibly finished The Doors as a touring act. Until this case, all the surviving Doors are on record as stating none of these things happened.
That’s what’s hysterical, really, because at the trial in Miami Robbie was asked, “Did Mr. Morrison perform, or simulate performing, oral sex on you?” To which he said “No! Are you kidding? (laughs) He gets down on his knees to look at my fingers! He’s enamored with musicians since he can’t play an instrument.” So here are his lawyers implying that it was true, as if Ray and Robbie were never there!
This is where I was on board with your rather lofty goal of “honoring your ancestor”. In essence, you stood by a lost member of the band, who could no longer defend his fourth voice in the collective, his equal vote to stop the band from selling out. It’s really is an honorable gesture to uphold the legacy and wishes of Morrison and saying, “Jim still gets a vote here.” That is The Doors.
Wow, James you’re smart. I hope you write this stuff down.
Well, thank you. (laughs)
I agree. And since the trial, Jim’s dad has passed, and his mom too, so now they are ancestors as well. We’re standing on all their shoulders. It was so touching to me, you know, I had never met Jim’s dad. I had met his mom, but I hadn’t met his dad until this trial. And here I initiate this horrible struggle and this great gift of hanging with his dad comes along. How he turned the past around and supported his son’s legacy even while we had written songs against the Viet Nam War as he was over there fighting it! So, what a great healing of the 60s’ in a way.
It’s true. And it comes across in the book. It really does. What hit home for me is as I was reading your account I vividly recalled when I was younger and wanting to be a writer and dabbling in poetry and all that stuff you do when you’re trying to find your identity or your voice, how much An American Prayer was so influential and inspiring to me. And although I have many literary heroes and influences, I consider Jim Morrison as one very special one. And I’ve had my arguments over the years with fellow scribes and even fellow students who dismissed Morrison as a poser or even a hack because of his affiliation as a pop star. There’s a legitimacy factor that I’ve always embraced with Morrison and The Doors, so to read how you stood by that hit home for me. I found myself rooting you on as I read it.
Well, thanks. Yeah, we really enjoyed doing American Prayer. You know, Jim was really over the top in some of his lyrics and behavior, so people wrote him off. In fact, you gave me an idea, I read a little excerpt from American Prayer while playing a hand drum. I think I’ll do that at the Vintage Vinyl signing. I’ll dedicate it to you.
(laughs) Thank you, man. Where is that? L.A.
No, wait, You’re writing this for The Aquarian, right? Isn’t that out of New Jersey?
Yup, right here in Jersey. Pop culture weekly; longest running independently-owned rock weekly in the country – our archives were recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Excellent! Well, I’m doing this reading/signing thing at Vintage Vinyl in New Jersey.
Cool. I’ve got to be there then. I’m sure the paper is plugging it. Not sure if this piece will be in by then. Getting back to your trial and this battle to maintain the integrity of The Doors – now that this is all settled, and we’ll let people decide by reading your book how it all comes out and what they believe was the right angle; what are your thoughts on the line drawn between art and commodity? Does it move from when you’re struggling to put food on the plate to when you’re a rock star? Is it tangible?
You know, I quote this writer, Lewis Hyde who wrote a book called The Gift, which really nails it for me. He says there is a gift exchanged between the artist and the receiver and it doesn’t matter if you’re paying for an opera ticket or a concert ticket or whatever, it’s still this gift. But if you change the work of art entirely into a commodity, you’re going to lose the gift. So, I like that very much. It’s kind of what I’m saying, whether its a painting or music or whatever the hell it is, it’s an expression of the artist in trying to share what it’s like being human. There’s a sacred something exchanged there. And, you know, if you make it be about a new deodorant you gee I think you’ve lost the gift.
But I can see the other point about this creativity being your task and trade. I’m not sure how you feel about what Pink Floyd went through with Roger Waters or what KISS goes through when they tour with two new guys in the make-up of the original guys and selling it as KISS, and I’ve had Alice Cooper tell me in interviews that he created this character and if someone, say, wanted to carry on as Alice Cooper after he was gone that would be all right with him. This is really about definitions; how The Doors are ultimately defined, and in this book you define it as a singular entity, almost sacred. There are some things that are not for sale.
Well, I’m so grateful for something Tom Waits said, and I put it on the back of the book; “John Densmore is not for sale and that’s his gift to us.” But, you know, Alice Cooper, that’s his name, where this is The Doors, and that’s not Jim’s name. It reminds me of this moment when we were on stage and were introduced as “Jim Morrison and The Doors” and Jim dragged the promoter back out and made him re-introduce us as The Doors. So, (sighs) behind closed doors – sorry about that – we were four equal parts. Even L.A. Woman was a good, strong album, and Jim was clearly an alcoholic by then. It was still when we were alone, the four of us the muse still blessed us. And so I feel okay. I feel the beginning of a healing with Ray and Robbie, because something bigger than us helped us make our music.
Ultimately, did you see those guys touring as the 21st Century Doors, and more or less promoting it as The Doors, as identity theft?
Yes. That’s pretty good. I know I did say The Doors died in a bathtub in Paris in ’71, but you know, he’s such an icon he lives on in everyone’s mind. Of course, I was just trying to make it clear that The Doors were Jim, Ray, Robbie and John – John, Paul, George, Ringo – it’s not Ray, Robbie, Ian (Astbury – The Cult, new singer), Stuart (Copeland – former Police drummer), Fred and Tom. The Doors were knocked off their hinges for a few years due to this idea (sighs) The Stones without Mick? The Police without Sting? No, come on. But The Doors are back on their hinges. Thank God.
“Unpredictability was a main ingredient. You know, Jim could be completely wild or quiet and it created a ritual or something like a séance. What’s gonna happen tonight? “
I always say I’d trade all the shows I saw in my lifetime for one evening watching you guys ply your trade, because as I understand it, a Doors show was literally an organic experience, no matter how bad it got or how brilliant it got, no one could predict what the hell would happen.
So, I ask you, someone who played that music and performed those shows; how did you feel when you came on stage with The Doors? As the lights went down and the crowd was cheering and you guys were about to crash into the first song; did you have that same feeling of, here we go, let’s see what goes down now?
(laughs) It’s funny. Unpredictability was a main ingredient. You know, Jim could be completely wild or quiet and it created a ritual or something like a séance. What’s gonna happen tonight? It was sort of crazy, but also magical. A lot of the time it was magic, until his self destruction increased and then I was lobbying for us to stop playing live. And it took me a year to convince Ray and Robbie of this, because I missed the magic. It was so good in the beginning. It was, you know, goose bumps pin-drop time. Usually we’d play “Light My Fire” and everybody would be on their feet dancing and then we’d play “The End” as an encore and people would file out quietly. (chuckles) Like they were gonna take it home and chew on it. It was so deep or something.
One of my favorite piece of video of you guys, and it might have been in Europe, is The Doors playing live on a television show and doing “The End”, which in and of itself is gutsy – here you are probably expected to do the hit, to play “Light My Fire” on a pop television show and you’re playing this eleven-minute opus with bizarre poetic references and Oedipal overtones and this is not a theater or a rock club. The studio lights are up and you can see the audience and these people are between awe and shock. That’s pretty profound, man. And I think unique to The Doors.
(laughs) That’s funny. It reminds me of a gig in Mexico City. We were promised to play in the bull ring for the people who had just a few pesos in exchange for playing a ritzy supper club. And we went down there and there was some riot in the bull ring a few weeks before and they ended up cancelling us playing there. We were so depressed. So here we were playing for these people eating supper in a real ritzy club and we were playing “The End” and they were trying to cut their steaks (laughs)
with mouthfuls of food having stopped being chewed. (laughs)
That kind of story reminds me of how you really just loved the whole thing; not just being in The Doors, but, like I said before, the whole sacred thing about it. And, this is something I didn’t know that is revealed in your book – first of all, I didn’t know that before he went to Paris, Jim had gotten lawyers to draw up an agreement stating officially that one dissenting voice from any member would halt any proceedings- and that final phone call that you received from Jim when he was in Paris shortly before he died. I know the account is in your first book, but I was reminded of it, and how that resonated because you were the last person in the inner sanctum to speak with him before he died. Could you take a minute and recount how that conversation affected you? Did you get this eerie feeling that maybe that it might be the last time you spoke to Morrison?
(sighs) Oh, boy. Well, I could tell he was still drinking, so that was disturbing, but no I didn’t think it would be the last time I’d talk to him. But I appreciated his enthusiasm for hearing of how well L.A. Woman was doing, because we produced it ourselves with Bruce Botnick, our longtime engineer, and we had more control. So, it was fun to do. It was in our rehearsal room. And he said, “Oh, man, I’ll come back. We’ll make another one!”
Which is a cool story, because in most books I’ve read on The Doors or on Morrison, it always depicts him as wanting to shed The Doors and become a legitimate poet and leave all that pop stardom and rock god stuff behind. But when you tell it, it sounds like he still held his place in The Doors and what you guys accomplished together in high regard.
Have you read Greil Marcus’ new book on The Doors? (The Doors – Five Mean Years)
I loved the story about when he was visiting his dad, who was in a hospital at the time a few years back, driving across the Bay Bridge from Oakland or Berkley to San Francisco and listening to several rock/pop radio stations for weeks on end – every day – and in that hour or so drive there and back almost inevitably with all the new stuff like Lady Gaga or Justin Timberlake or whatever, there would be a Doors song and how more than any band from the past, The Doors still seemed to have a resonance among this generation, how the band transcended its time so well. It’s not like you guys are stuck in that time, Herman’s Hermits or The Raspberries, The Doors are still a relevant brand, still something that means something currently. And this speaks to your battle to protect that, not just for nostalgic purposes, but for now, for today and for all time.
Well, I don’t know why it’s lasted so long. It must be the drumming. (laughs) Yes! Of course. I’ll tell you, speaking of that book; Greil describes in just a couple of passages what I was doing on the drums and it just astounded me! I can’t literally tell you what he was saying, but I’m reading it and I’m going, “Oh, my God, that’s what I was doing!” And I hadn’t realized it until I read Greil’s translation. It was some section on how I would kind of drive the soloist, either Ray or Robbie, and for some reason, I would kind of lead them in and out of the solos. It just evolved. It was not talked about at all. And so, when I would sense that they were done, I would do a rat-tat-tat-tat-tat and then everybody knew we were taking it down or whatever, we were taking it to the verse. Until Greil described it, it was really like, “Oh, wow! He got in my head and I didn’t even know I was thinking that!” But it’s true.
That’s the beauty of writing, if you do it right. Marcus is one of the greats. It’s an art form to describe something like music or people playing music, a visceral experience, something so hard describe in words, and hit it straight on. What you’re saying is the greatest compliment for those of us who do this thing, this trying to express the un-expressible, to share in words the feelings derived from the experience and harder still, to, as you say, get into the head of the artist. It’s a great service for another generation, who may have missed the experience. And I guess, that segues into a final question I have for you: What do you hope future generations or people who didn’t experience all this turmoil between you and Robbie and Ray and the court case and everything you describe in the book take away from your book?
Well, at the risk of being on a soapbox and sounding like Mister PC, there’s an underlying theme in this book money. And as I quote Michael Mead, a mythologist friend of mine; “Currency comes from the word “current”, and it’s supposed to flow like a river.” So if the corporate leaders horde everything – the billionaires damn it all up -money is like fertilizer, when horded it stinks and when spread around things grow, I’m kind of arrogantly implying that my personal struggles with my band might be metaphoric for bigger issues. We live in hierarchal world, there will always be doctors and nurses, but if the doctors are little kinder and a little more generous then it will be a nicer place.
That make sense?
It absolutely does. Somebody has to think it and express it, because in most cases it’s not always true. It doesn’t always play out in the literal world, but it’s still nice that there are some people who believe that and some who actually enact it.
I guess I’m talking about integrity or whatever the hell.
It’s funny, because I’m thinking of titling the piece something in the ballpark of Identity Theft in the Land of $$$ and using the dollar sign in it.
Oh, that’s a good title. (laughs) Great! Well, thank you again for the time. This really was a huge deal for me to get to speak with you. Good luck with the book. Thanks. A real pleasure, James. Thank, you John. Bye-bye Bye.
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