John Densmore Fights To Save The Doors Legacy

Aquarian Weekly 4/17/13 Feature

Drummer, John Densmore Revives the Ghost of Jim Morrison in a Fight to Define Art, Integrity & Legacy

There is being an idealist, and then there is John Densmore. There is defining integrity, and then there is John Densmore. There is putting money, reputation and professional legacy where the mouth and the heart reside, and then there is John Densmore.

John DensmoreThe legendary drummer’s new book, The Doors Unhinged – Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial is a compelling look at defining the cost of art, integrity and legacy. Where is the line drawn between creativity and commerce? When does a band turn from a vehicle for artistic expression to a commodity, or is it always both? If so, which is more pertinent? And most importantly, what’s in a name? Is it identity? Is it purity? Or does it have many definitions? And exactly who defines it?

The Doors Unhinged is a story about longtime friends, brothers-in-arms, fighting tooth-and-nail to define their creation; The Doors – its image and rightful place as an American icon, as either a product to be re-packaged for profit or a collective with the living DNA of four unique members that ceased to be, in reality, after 1971.

Densmore’s The Doors Unhinged is less about his struggles for personal principle as it is about definitions; not only definitions put on trial between long-time colleagues, but in a court of law, where the story transforms from a passion play among members of a powerful and lucrative creative entity to a battle for survival, both professional and personal.

For 45 years, The Doors have stood as an exemplar of the late 1960s’ pioneer rock era; breaking molds, bending styles, and staking claim to an exploding culture of youth, fashion and political and social dissent. During the band’s heyday, Densmore was its quietest member. He chose, and quite enjoyed, staying in the background to drive the sound behind the flowing keyboards of Ray Manzarek and guitarist, Robby Krieger’s accenting resonance. But it was putting an exclamation to the manic poetry of the enigmatic detonation that was the late Jim Morrison that really jazzed Densmore.

To Densmore, Morrison represented the ideals of rebellion. His search for escapism and pure freedom fueled songs that topped the charts; “Light My Fire”, “Break On Through (To The Other Side)”, “Hello, I Love You”, “Touch Me”, and others that darkened the edges of the counter-culture, “When The Music’s Over”, “People Are Strange”, and “The End”. Consequently, it was Morrison’s wish that none of the fame and fortune would sever the bond of the four young men, as they explored new musical and lyrical territories without constraint. This wish was confirmed in the band’s rare commitment, never considered before in the entertainment industry, that all four members would have an equal voice to defy the rest of the outfit, as Morrison put it back in 1967, ‘if things got weird”.

In 2003, things got weird.

Densmore, who never stopped believing Morrison’s edict, was forced to stand for the principles of a man long dead and a band long gone when Manzarek and Krieger decided to promote and tour a 21st Century Doors. Despite assurances that the “tribute” would not be labeled as The Doors reunited, Densmore was forced into legal recourse to halt what he felt was misleading to the band’s fan base and an insult to both he and Morrison’s place in the original band. Desperate to keep the gravy train moving, Manzarek and Krieger counter-sued Densmore for $40 million, claiming his continued filibuster of advertising opportunities to use Doors songs to sell just about anything was ruining them financially and sequestering “the brand”.

And so The Doors Unhinged, in essence, bears witness to the purported 60s philosophies and the lingering notion that they still exist or at least it wasn’t all merely a fraudulent attempt to cash in.

The author, one of the most inventive percussionists of the rock era, took time out in early April to reflect on this painful and illuminating diary of the events that ensued.

You write so poignantly about this ugly battle between brothers-in-arms. I wonder if it was even more difficult to share your inner most fears and beliefs with the world.

It wasn’t as difficult to write it down as going through it. (laughs) The old phrase, time heals? Well, time does heal. Technically, it was hard, but I took years to do it. 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 let the writing drift off when I was in the courtroom – I mean, I didn’t 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 the stories of sitting in with Carlos Santana or seeing Elvin Jones. 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, a terrorist. I’ve been covering politics for decades, and even I was appalled.

“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 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. Now that this book is coming out a cloud is lifted from me. It’s 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.” Musically, they’re my brothers forever. They just didn’t see that The Doors got knocked off its hinges by their idea that they could play without Jim. And that’s been proven wrong.

Your signature point in the book is Morrison’s well-documented outburst against the selling-out of “Light My Fire” to Buick back in 1968. And an intriguing element of the unfolding story is in defining how a 27 year-old man, who stands for so much of the 60s’ imagery, would come across today had he lived. Yet, Morrison’s ideals are frozen in time. There was no maturing or being corrupted or compromising for Morrison. Yet, despite Krieger and Manzarek arguing in court that over time, as he aged, 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 for himself.

I’m very proud the first line of the book is “Fuck you!” Jim saying “Fuck you!” (laughs) 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.”

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)

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 Manzarek 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 simulate performing oral sex on you?” To which he said “No! Are you kidding? 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 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.

I agree. And since the trial, Jim’s dad has passed, and his mom too, so now they’re 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.

The Door UnhingedWhat hit home for me as I was reading your account is vividly recalling 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. I have many literary heroes and influences, and consider Jim Morrison as one. And I’ve had my arguments over the years with those who dismiss Morrison as a poser or 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 usually 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.

Cool. I’ve got to be there 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 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. I like that very much. It’s kind of what I’m saying, whether it’s 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 I think you’ve lost the gift.

But I can also see the other point about creativity being your 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 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, 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. 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, Jim’s such an icon that 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 Stones without Mick? The Police without Sting? No, come on. The Doors were knocked off their hinges for a few years due to this idea, but they’re back on their hinges now. Thank God.

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?

“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? “

(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.

Maybe 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) 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. (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 those four guys. In fact, you were the last person in the inner sanctum to speak with Morrison before he died. Could you take a minute and recount that conversation. Did you get an eerie feeling that maybe it might be the last time you spoke to Morrison?

Oh, boy. (sighs) 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 how well L.A. Woman was doing, because we produced it ourselves with Bruce Botnick, our longtime engineer in our rehearsal room, and we had more control. So, it was fun to do. And Jim 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 rock god stuff behind. But when you tell it, it sounds like he still held his place in The Doors in high regard.


Greil Marcus’ new book on The Doors, The Doors – Five Mean Years, argues for the relevance of The Doors today. 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. The Doors are still relevant. 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)

That segues into a final question I have for you: What do you hope people who didn’t experience all this turmoil between you and Robbie and Ray and the court case and everything you describe 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 becomes 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. That make sense?

It does.

I guess I’m talking about integrity or whatever the hell.

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