Drummer John Densmore revisits his past with The Doors

By Mike Greenblatt

The release of “The Doors: R-Evolution” (Eagle Rock Entertainment) on Blu-ray and DVD is reason enough to rejoice, especially for longtime Doors fans with a thirst for its incredible footage.

This feast starts in 1967 with televised appearances on “American Bandstand” (“The Crystal Ship”), “The Jonathan Winters Show” (“Moonlight Drive”), “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” (“Touch Me”) as well as European shows, local California shows and more.
Because organist Ray Manzarek [1939-2013] and singer/songwriter/poet/crazed visionary Jim Morrison [1943-1971] were both heavy into filmmaking, we get to see short films created by the band that pre-date music videos. Morrison’s death didn’t stop Manzarek from making the cover of “Strange Days” come alive cinematically in 1984 (track No. 17). Plus, there’s bonus footage of the band at the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival. The 1968 short film for “The Unknown Soldier” is particularly effective as an anti-war statement, as Morrison is killed in graphic detail.

But the biggest bonus of this disc’s release? It gave Goldmine a chance to connect with John Densmore.

In addition to his drum work, John Densmore has authored a pair of books about The Doors and has become very involved in Record Store Day events each April. Photo courtesy johndensmore.com

In addition to his drum work, John Densmore has authored a pair of books about The Doors and has become very involved in Record Store Day events each April. Photo courtesy
www.johndensmore.com

GOLDMINE: I saw you guys three times, and the thrill of seeing The Doors in concert was that you truly never knew what was going to happen next. No other band in the history of rock ’n’ roll had that sense of expectancy and even dread that something might go wrong. It fueled your art into the realms of the unknown.
JOHN DENSMORE: Jim was the one who added that ingredient. Danger!

GM: But it’s also how you guys responded to him onstage. Ray, especially, with his little horror-movie fills. Plus, you and guitarist Robby Krieger, for instance, during an extemporaneous poetry thing, would fall in line, depending upon the situation — almost like a jazz improv group.
JD: Ray once said, “We would follow Jim into the jaws of the hellhounds.” But yeah, there certainly was a lot of improvisation going on. In responding to Jim, we were certainly in the moment, as they say. We had to be.

GM: In “The Doors: R-Evolution” DVD, the clip with Murray The K in New York City is wild. You’re not even playing any instruments. You’re sitting outside. Jim is mouthing the words to “People Are Strange.” What could have possibly been going through your mind? It had to be totally surrealistic for you.
JD: I remember exactly what was going through my mind: “How stupid is this?” I mean, hell, we were trying to launch this band and, at the time, they had these ridiculous television programs where you had to lip-synch. We agreed to it, although, y’know, c’mon! On a fire truck for “Light My Fire”?

GM: That was a local California show called “Malibu U.” Robby recently told a reporter that it was crazy: “They had a house burning down [in the background]. We didn’t know about that until later. We couldn’t find Jim so we were like, ‘Sh*t. What are we going to do?’ My brother happened to be there so we just said, ‘OK, you stand with your back to the camera and pretend to be Jim.’ We cut Jim in later.”
JD: Yeah, that show [Aug. 25, 1967] was pathetic. I mean, sure, in hindsight, it’s amusing. We wanted to get this band going, so we agreed to almost anything they threw at us — in the beginning. But, if you look close, you can practically see us rolling our eyes right at the camera at the absurdity of it all. And, as we got more control, we made our own videos that were better. A lot better. Look at “The Unknown Soldier” clip. Look at Ray’s direction on “L.A. Woman.” Ray had some eye.

GM: The clip showing your fans climbing onto the stage and crashing into the band members during “Road House Blues” is pure bedlam and shows the raw power of real rock ’n’ roll.
JD: That didn’t happen every night. That was cut-together footage from primarily one totally crazy concert, plus a few others. It’s not that intense every friggin’ night, every second, but it’s apropos for “Roadhouse Blues,” for that particular kind of video. We had fun editing that. Hey, it’s a hard shuffle, so let’s show the chaos!

GM: Why does Robby have a black eye on the Smothers Brothers show?
JD: Unfortunately, Robby had been in an accident. He was behind the wheel of a car in Mexico during a fishing trip there, so that black eye was a repercussion of his, uh, vacation.

Being in a band with Jim Morrison wasn’t easy, to say the least. Drummer John Densmore (upper left) recalls getting so fed up during sessions for ‘Waiting For the Sun’ that he threw his drumsticks in the air and quit. But the lure of the music was too great to resist; Densmore returned the next day. Bobby Klein photo.

Being in a band with Jim Morrison wasn’t easy, to say the least. Drummer John Densmore (upper left) recalls getting so fed up during sessions for ‘Waiting For the Sun’ that he threw his drumsticks in the air and quit. But the lure of the music was too great to resist; Densmore returned the next day. Bobby Klein photo.

GM: You have been very active in recent Record Store Day events every April.
JD: Yeah! Jeff Jampol, our manager, got us involved in doing special projects for Record Store Day. It all turned out very cool. Robby and I loved it. Now I’m friends with Michael Kurtz, who founded the whole thing, and he’s helped me greatly with my new book, “The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes On Trial.” I released that book last year on Record Store Day. I was at one of those indie stores in Maine, and I wound up doing stores down the whole coast. I’m very into it. Now I got a new thing up my sleeve. Shepard Fairey, the Obama poster guy, did the cover of my book. We’re now talking about him doing a 12-inch single cover for “The Ghost Song” [from the 1978 album “An American Prayer” that juxtaposed Morrison’s spoken-word poetry originally recorded in 1969 and 1970 with music] backed with a Native-American thing I did called “Drums” by Peter La Farge. We want to make it a benefit for “Honor The Treaties,” a project [and film] that Shepard and National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey are into. We want to put something together for the next Record Store Day, or Black Friday, one of the two. It will be a real special, limited-edition thing. I’ll tell you: That Record Store Day is a very, very cool thing where you get special, unique stuff, like on no other day of the year.

GM: I’ll never forget Ray telling me shortly after Jim’s widow, Pam, died in 1974 that maybe Jim Morrison wasn’t dead after all. He spoke of a sealed coffin with nobody ever seeing the body except for her. His quote, and I can hear it now, was, “There could have been rocks in that coffin!” It was a haunting kind of interview, and I swear the ghost of Jim Morrison was hovering around us that day. I listened to the tape yesterday, and it still gives me goosebumps.
JD: Wow, Ray said that? “Rocks in the casket”? [Laughs.] Ray had incredible drive. And he was very smart in the ways of public relations. I remember him saying, “I’m going to preach the gospel of Jim Morrison until the day I die. I’m going to go to every corner of the Earth. This music has to continue to get out there!” So here’s all these ingredients, right? And, sure, Jim always said he was going to fake his own death.

GM: It must have been a bitch to have to be in a band with him, though.
JD: Sure, it was. I quit the band many times. He was an alcoholic. It’s a bitch to be in a band with someone who is an alcoholic. It’s a bitch to be in a family with an alcoholic. Or to be married to one. I tend to rebuke a lot of the mythology that has sprung up in the wake of his death. He had a disease. I want kids to understand that. Recently, I have changed my answer to the question, “If Jim was around today, would he be clean and sober?” I always used to say, “Nah. He was such a kamikaze drunk.” I disagree now with myself. I look at Eric Clapton and what he’s accomplished. I look at Eminem and his CD, called “Recovery.” Yeah, man, it’s a different time. Jim just might have cleaned up his whole act. I don’t know.

GM: Ray also told me of a “Light My Fire” solo he did in the early days at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles when he was on LSD. He called it the solo that never ended. He kept playing it and kept playing it, and I’m sure he’s still playing somewhere today.
JD: Ray’s stories are legendary. He had a million of them. Ray wrote a novel called “The Poet In Exile” about a Jim Morrison-type protagonist that basically continued the myth of rebirth. His character goes off to a Greek island, where Ray follows him and meets him as if it was Jim himself being reborn. Hell, Ray was great, he was, at mixing fact and fiction. It’s a talent.

We’ve checked the photos pretty closely, but we don’t see the phrase “Of The Doors” etched on John Densmore’s forehead. It’s more of a figurative tattoo — and a phrase that has been added after his name like a title of “esquire” or “junior.” Although Densmore once found it to be irritating, he has come to terms with that tag and is even proud of it. Probably doesn’t hurt that The Doors left behind an impressive musical legacy. Photo by Scott Mitchell.

We’ve checked the photos pretty closely, but we don’t see the phrase “Of The Doors” etched on John Densmore’s forehead. It’s more of a figurative tattoo — and a phrase that has been added after his name like a title of “esquire” or “junior.” Although Densmore once found it to be irritating, he has come to terms with that tag and is even proud of it. Probably doesn’t hurt that The Doors left behind an impressive musical legacy. Photo by Scott Mitchell.

GM: Since The Doors had no bassist, Ray could play bass on his keyboard with one hand, rhythm on the other hand, and lead on what could only be construed as a third phantom hand. He was incredibly gifted, and basically gave The Doors its sound. Would you concur?
JD: Yes. It’s like drummers splitting our four limbs into different parts to do different things. And he was doing that with his left and right hands. You know how hard that is? He used to tell a really sweet story about his left hand, who’s just kind of a dumb guy, right? It’s just playing repetitive lines over and over. It’s kind of simple. [Sings the intro riff to “When The Music’s Over’.] But the right hand, of course, is smart and takes off and solos madly. And he got that from Chicago boogie-woogie with that left-hand repetitive line. He was from Chicago originally, and he listened to a lot of blues and boogie. That’s where he picked that up. And I was also thinking, “What if his left hand and my playing didn’t match up?” because bass players and drummers are the rhythm section of a band. Thank God we felt things exactly the same.

GM: What did you think when you first started rehearsing with these three individuals? What were your expectations? Do you remember that original shock of recognition when you drummed for the very first time with Ray, Robby and Jim?
JD: Yeah, I do. I remember thinking that there sure was some potential here. I knew Jim was special right away because of his words … and he was an incredibly good-looking individual. All that was lacking was any kind of experience whatsoever. He couldn’t really sing at first. He was just sort of shy, and even at our first gigs together, he wouldn’t even face the audience. That’s what I also remember, me thinking, “Oh boy, this guy? Uh-oh.” Still, I had hopes of us lasting for a few years, so I could pay the rent at least. [Laughs] Now it’s going on 50 years later and I’m still talking about him! In my first book, [“Riders On The Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison and The Doors”], I wrote, “I guess ‘Of The Doors’ is permanently etched on my forehead,” and I’ve come to terms with that now. I’m proud of it.

GM: What was the low point of being “Of The Doors?” When was the point when you said, “That’s it. I’m out of this f**king band.”
JD: “Waiting For The Sun.” Jim was drinking too much. He was bringing crazy people into the studio, and I threw my sticks up in the air and quit. Everybody knew there was an elephant in the room, but nobody would talk about it. And what did I do? I came back the very next day. I thought, “Are you kidding? We’re recording! We’re putting down our music to hopefully last. I can’t leave this sh*t. This is my life! Unfortunately, we got a crazy guy in the band but I’ll just have to deal with it.”

Being in a band with Jim Morrison wasn’t easy, to say the least. Drummer John Densmore (shown here with his first drum kit) recalls getting so fed up during sessions for ‘Waiting For the Sun’ that he threw his drumsticks in the air and quit. But the lure of the music was too great to resist; Densmore returned the next day. Photo courtesy John Densmore Facebook page.

Being in a band with Jim Morrison wasn’t easy, to say the least. Drummer John Densmore (shown here with his first drum kit) recalls getting so fed up during sessions for ‘Waiting For the Sun’ that he threw his drumsticks in the air and quit. But the lure of the music was too great to resist; Densmore returned the next day. Photo courtesy John Densmore Facebook page.

GM: Boy, did you make the right decision. Thank you! Thank you for coming back and finishing that album. What other band has ever fused poetry, film, the avant-garde, shock value and the most classic of all rocks? You had such an effect on my life.
JD: I’m feeling helium rise in my skull now. Either ask me a question or change that line of thought, because I don’t know what to say.

GM: Fine, tell me about the Skrillex track you did.
JD: As Ringo once said when drum machines were invented, “I’m the f**king drum machine!” So, remembering that, and with great reluctance, I went down to meet this guy with Robby and Ray.

GM: And “Breaking A Sweat” came out of that meeting.
JD: Yeah, that was the song. But I told him, “Let me see what you got, because if I don’t like it, I’m not going to play on it.” Then I find that he’s a real musician, and I liked what he was doing. He understood that overdubbing live on electronics could be cool. And, in fact, I have some beats I think would be good for him now. So, hey, y’know, just tryin’ to be open to new ideas here …

GM: What about this tribute to Ray I keep hearing about? Is it happening?
JD: The letter went out to all the stellar musicians, so now it’s a waiting game. But if I name a couple, then they might read about it in Goldmine and feel, “Hey, wait a minute; I haven’t even been asked yet.” So I can’t really say. But you know who they are. We were originally hoping for Feb. 12, Ray’s birthday, but that obviously isn’t going to happen. Spring or summer is more likely. It depends. If we get a big fish, all the other ones will come around, and we’ll be at Madison Square Garden. If not, we’ll be back at the Whisky, where we started.

GM: How much of an abomination was it in your mind when you first heard the band name Doors Of The 21st Century? [Editor’s Note: Densmore went to court to stop that band from using that name.]
JD: Ohhhhhhhhh, y’know. Ian [Astbury] is a good singer. Nigel Williamson, the European journalist, was on the witness stand, and they’re really trying to get him by shouting at him, “What do you have against Ian Astbury? He’s English, like you!” Nigel says, “He’s a good singer. I don’t care if whoever they got was a great singer. I don’t care if they got Mick F**king Jagger. It’s not Jim, and therefore it’s not The Doors.” That’s the point. It’s like the Police without Sting, the Stones without Mick. What’s the point here? They were good. Ian’s good. Ray and Robby are great. Just get the name straight. Don’t call it The Doors if it’s without Jim! That’s the annoying part.

GM: I keep thinking of Queen with Paul Rodgers singing. He’s a great singer, but that was awful. You do say that although you wouldn’t go out with a “Jimatator,” you could be persuaded to go out with someone like Eddie Vedder.
JD: Eddie sang with us when he inducted us into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. We did the “Storytellers” show with six different singers. I said to Robby, “Maybe we should go on the road with six singers!” That’s a tribute. That’s not trying to replicate the old band and calling it The Doors with different people.

GM: You and Ray came to closure before he died, right? This after bitter court battles over the use of Doors music in commercials. Jim never wanted it. Ray did. You stayed firm to Jim’s stance. If your first book was bitter, your second book heals wounds, no?
JD: I take issue with you calling my first book bitter. I mean, sure, I described playing behind Jim in Miami “white knuckles gripping drumsticks.” But in that book, I described in detail how we recorded and how we performed live. There’s a lot of love in that book for what we created. I’d say the second book is more in line with what you’re trying to say. I didn’t point any fingers. I just quoted testimony. Look, as I said to Ray and Robby in e-mails, “Here’s the last chapter. For you two this is going to be a hard pill to swallow, and I want to make sure you get to this closure. And they did. Then when I heard Ray was really sick, I called him and told him I loved him. So thank God that happened.

GM: Did Jim really pull his dick out onstage in Miami?
JD: Of course not. If he had, he would have tripped over it. GM

 

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