September , 2013
By Justin Press
The Trials And Tribulations Of The Lone Rider
An Interview With Musician, Writer, Activist The Doors John Densmore
Photos Courtesy of John Densmore's Facebook
It has been said, "If we believe a thing to be bad, and if we have a right to prevent it, it is our duty to try to prevent it and damn the consequences." Easier said than done when you are a successful artist and big money, I mean real big money, comes into the picture. Musician, writer and activist John Densmore, drummer for the legendary LA band, The Doors, was put to the test by his own closely held beliefs in staying true to the music and not selling out to the almighty dollar. It's been forty-two years since the untimely death of his band-mate and friend Jim Morrison. John carries the legacy of Jim Morrison and The Doors in his second book, The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison's Legacy Goes On Trial.
With the recent passing of his long time friend, soul mate and fellow musician, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, and decades since Morrison left the scene, John Densmore is once again on the road. He recently took the time to speak with JAM Magazine about his new book, the trials and tribulations that led him to write it, and the music that is forever embedded in time. The Doors reunion may have already started, but John Densmore has more to do before he "breaks on through to the other side".
JAM: Jim Morrison's death, as shocking as it was for most fans, may not have been as shocking to the band. Can you describe what your thoughts were when you first heard of his passing?
John Densmore: Yes and No. Jim was such a party animal, and we knew his days were numbered, but I also thought, or maybe I hoped, he was going to be a drunken Irishmen and live into his eighties. I felt both ways about him.
JAM: What were the last words or conversation you had with Jim Morrison before he left to go live in Paris, France?
Well, Jim and I had a ten minute phone call, he wanted to know how the L.A. Women album was doing, I said "it was doing great!", and how they, the record company, wanted to release a second single, "Riders On The Storm", following the first single release, "Love Me Two Times". He was pleased to hear that and said that eventually he would get back to LA and we would make some more music.
JAM: Wow, that sounded promising, as if his leaving was just temporary to get his head cleared and away from the mess that was surrounding him before he left for Paris.
Yeah, yeah, and while on the phone with him, I was trying to figure out if he was still drinking in Paris, and I could still tell that he was kind of still out of it. So I was wondering if Paris was the place for him to sober up. (laughing)
JAM: John you have worn many hats in your time from musician, movie producer, activist and now writer, which would you considered to be your title today?
Well, I'm primarily a musician, my first love and I really like writing now, but I am looking for the music in between sentences. The length of a sentence, to me, is a musical question. If it's a short one, it's percussive, if it's a long one it's melodic, or if you need to edit, then it's a run on. That's where I am at these days.
JAM: That description, to me, resembles your music from back in the day, in the studio you had your 3-5 minute songs for the albums, but live, on stage, the band seemed to jam where the music would go on forever.
Yeah, that is funny. Wow, that's a good observation. Now, since Ray Manzarek passed, I have called up Robby Krieger and said, "let's play some Doors songs together", which we have not done in ten or twenty years, as a tribute to Ray. I hope that happens in the spring of 2014.
JAM: So, is that in the works?
Well, we are going to have a meeting and try to start organizing.
JAM: What is the message you want the fans to read and take away from your book?
When I was forced to initiate this struggle, the law suit, there were some hard-core fans who were thinking I was ruining the band, but my hope, if you read the book Unhinged, you would see that I was trying save the legacy of the original band and Jim's intentions. I also get a little philosophic in the book and I talk about money and art.
JAM: Success and money is a double edged sword for many bands. At first they all want the success, and if they get real success, then the money is not far behind which can tempt them into compromising their music.
Yes, and it gets controversial when a band gets offered to use their lyrics to get someone to buy a product, then one wonders about those two things, money and art. In my book, I quote Louis Hyde, who wrote a book called The Gift, and he said, "It's okay to sell a ticket to a concert, to an opera, as long as that doesn't disrupt the gift between the artist and the receiver". But if you change the art entirely to a commodity, then you are messing around with the gift, you are undermining it. I think that is pretty smart.
JAM: You state you wanted to hold to the integrity of the band, and from the beginning The Doors had a mind-set of "all for one and one for all". Was that just a verbal band agreement?
Yeah, Jim thought of that because he did not know how to write a song, so he thought lets all be equal and we will all put in two hundred percent, which is what happened. And he suggested 'Veto Power' too. All this was documented in contracts eventually.
JAM: I see, so it was legally binding.
JAM: That leads me to ask, once Jim Morrison passed, the three remaining Doors put out an album, Voices, in late 1971. My question is this, how could you guys continue recording a new album without Jim?
That's a really good question. We got a very lucrative deal for five albums after Jim passed, from Elektra, our old record company. We didn't want to give up the musical synchronicity that we had learned together, and we didn't want to replace Jim, so Ray and Robby sang, or tried to sing, but after two albums we quit! We passed on big money on the next three albums because we knew then, that without Jim, we were not The Doors. We said, "What are we doing"?
JAM: So, basically you recorded the two albums to see what reaction you might get from the fans?
Not to see what kind of reaction, musically we really loved playing, but without a front man, Jim, the originator of all those wild lyrics, it wasn't there.
JAM: You have been recognized with many awards for your work, how does it feel 45 years later accepting or even striving for achievements? What drives you today?
Well, I only do projects that I intuitively or emotionally want to do, and if I get an award for them, then I try to receive it without too much helium! (Laughing)
JAM: To me, it seemed that it would have been easy to rebel in the sixties, especially as a young adult, with a bloody war in Vietnam, political protests, race riots, experimenting with drugs, how did you personally keep yourself in-check and focused with being in The Doors? How did you make it out alive?
No one here gets out alive, (laughing), well, Jim got out early and he was an example of going too far, so I was kind of careful. I also got into meditation, that kind of centered me with all the craziness around me. I still think it's a good thing.
JAM: If you had it to do all over again, would you put yourself through the court system just to up hold a principal and the integrity of the band?
I would, as hard as it was, I mean it definitely wore me down, physically and mentally, but I don't regret it. Jim is my ancestor now and I only know what he wanted when he was here so I am trying to respect that.
JAM: You say that you and Jim Morrison have the same ideals? If Morrison had lived, do you think he would have maintained the same ideals that you have today?
Well, that's the big question. That was in the trial. Ray, the great keyboard player, RIP, no greater player in rock and roll on keyboards, was saying that, if Jim was around today, this was on the witness stand, he would have the smarts to okay songs for commercials. Well, I could only go with what Jim said when he was alive. I remember Jim saying to the idea of, "Come On Buick Light My Fire", he said "yeah, then I will go on television and smash the car with a sledgehammer", (laughing), WHAT, I guess Jim meant NO!
We were great friends and soul mates, and certainly in the last few years, things got rather strange. I sent the last chapter of my new book, The Doors Unhinged, to Ray and Robby before it was published and I said, "I want to make sure you guys get to this because it's going to be a hard read". The chapter said how can I not think of you as musical brothers and love you guys, because we created this thing that was so big, you know, out of a garage! And then when I heard Ray was really getting sick, I sent him an email saying I was drumming for his health. I soon called him up and fortunately he picked up the phone and he thanked me for my prayers. I kind of had a closing, I didn't know he was going to die a few weeks later, which he did, but I was very happy to have had a closing conversation and also sending my love to his wife.
JAM: It's great that you had that moment, gives you peace to carry on.
Yeah, or I would have to do it in another incarnation. (laughing)
JAM: As a fan, hearing about band members fighting over the name, songs or things that would eventually keep the music from being heard, gets old. Did you get any backlash from true Doors fans?
I always have said that Ray and Robby were great musicians and I wasn't trying to stop them from playing, I just wanted them not to use the name. It's like The Stones without Mick Jagger, you know? I heard tapes of them playing with Ian Astbury from The Cult and they were good, but it was not The Doors. And I understand why people would want to go see them, to see Ray and Robby would be great. Just get the name straight. Founding members of The Doors, Former members of The Doors is fine and what they eventually changed it to.
JAM: I saw the show on that tour. Being a Doors and Cult fan, I just couldn't pass on the opportunity to see the collaboration of Ray, Robby and Ian on stage.
So you saw the show? It must have been good?
JAM: I enjoyed it. I thought the dancing hallucinogenic Indians and Ian's over acting like Jim Morrison rolling all over the stage was a bit too much, but other than that, it was a fantastic show! It would have been nice to have seen you there behind the drum kit.
JAM: Who have you played with lately or who are you expecting to jam with?
Have you ever heard of Playing For Change? They have videos on YouTube, it's sort of like twenty musicians all around the world playing the same song together. The guy went around with headphones, recording and putting it all together as one - it's kind of a beautiful thing, showing the unity of all these countries and musicians playing this one song together. I am also playing the Whiskey A Go-Go on the 21st of September for a benefit show with Keb-mo.
JAM: Bands today seem to sellout for just about anything that the might dollar can buy. Not like back in your day where it seemed bands had integrity in the music, especially their lyrics. What do you think about today's artists or the music business, any advice to them?
There are some good things, and I am not against a new band having to pay the rent by using their songs for commercials because it's a real tough industry, it's tougher everyday, I get that, I understand that. If you get a little toe hold on success, then you might revisit the question whether, as Tom Waits said, "You want to change your lyrics into a jingle", do you know what I mean?
JAM: Death is something we will all face. What will happen, or who will hold The Doors' copyrights once you and Robby are gone?
The various band member's estates will have control. We have tried to write some parameters for the future, I mean it's kind of hard to control from the grave, (laughing) but I am trying! My estate will be benefiting my kids and grandkids, and various charities. In my book I talk about tithing, I've been doing that since the eighties, started with 10% and I have upped it to 20% now. I try to give, to you know, different environmental and social justice groups. I think if you get the Brass Ring, giving back is the natural thing, you almost get a high from doing it. Being selfish means we were educated wrong, you feel better when you are not selfish.
JAM: I hear ya man. I have been practicing tithing, even on my minimal income I have and I know it has make a difference in my life in ways I cannot express.
Here is something really cool, I get all kinds of stuff when I am doing book signings, and at this one signing, a couple of guys gave me like twenty bucks, now I don't need the money, but they said, "You know, we are in a Doors Tribute Band and we download a bunch of your songs; here's some money back", (laughing) it was like pay it forward.