Q&A with the Doors' John Densmore

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John Densmore, drummer for the Doors, will sign his latest book, Doors Unhinged, at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on Saturday, March 8th, at 2 p.m. The new book chronicles his plight as a hold-out in a deal designed to use a Doors’ song in a car commercial. Densmore was sued by fellow bandmates Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger when he exercised his veto option. We talked by phone on Monday and were glad to hear that the relationships were mended and that Densmore is enjoying his new life as an author.




You have ventured into writing and acting. What are you up to musically?

I haven’t done much acting in quite a while. Basically, I’m looking for the music in between sentences. I’m primarily writing. As you can read in Doors Unhinged, I go sit in with Carlos Santana and Eddie Vedder and people like that. So that’s real fun. Robby and I played together for the first time in 15 years. There was a little screening of the making of L.A. Woman at the L.A. County Museum. We did a Q&A, and I said why don’t we break up the blah blah with music. He brought an acoustic guitar. I had a hand drum, and we played for a little bit. Hopefully that’s a precursor of a concert for the late, great Ray Manzarek.


Has his loss helped mend your relationship with Robby Krieger?

Before I published the Doors Unhinged, I sent Ray and Robby the last chapter with a note saying, this probably will be a hard pill to swallow. But I wanted to be sure you got to this chapter, because this is the part where I talk about how we’re musical brothers and how could I not love you guys. They got that. Then when I heard Ray was getting really sick, I gave him a call. We had a nice conversation. I didn’t know it was going to be our last. But there was closure that I was really grateful for.

You seem to enjoy writing. Is that a function of age?

It’s easier than drumming, physically, certainly. You don’t have to depend on other musicians, like whether Jim is going to show up. It’s not as fun. To get philosophical, Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, said, the first half of you’re doing stuff. The second half, you should kind of reflect of what the Hell all that meant. I kind of like that.

Have you been to Memphis before?

I’ve been to Memphis one time. I was driven by the hospital where Elvis had taped up aluminum in the windows. But I think it’s gone. I heard Voodoo Village is still there. Is it cool to go over there?

We can get you over there.

I don’t know. That’s all I remember about Memphis. But it’s certainly a musical town. I hear you’ve got great museums.

When I hear The Doors, as a Memphian, I hear that organ combo thing. Were you aware of that music?

Oh sure we were aware of it. We didn’t directly say let’s try to sound like that. But we were in awe. I saw Booker T. (Jones) backing up Neil Young many years ago, that was a real treat. I kind of think about him and Ray in a way: In rock-and-roll, the guitar is kind of the lead thing, and those two kind of brought the keyboards up to the front line. You know, that’s a really big contribution.

How did you fall into playing drums?

I played the piano as an 8-year-old and loved it. I had more fun improvising than playing the compositions I had to learn. By the time I got to junior high, I wanted to play any instrument. I wanted to play clarinet, but I had braces. The orthodontist said you’re not playing the clarinet in braces. That will push your teeth out. We want to push them in. So I chose drums. But I think it was really good for me that I participated in every musical organization they had: marching band with the ridiculous uniforms, symphonic band (I played timpani). I learned every form of drumming. I think that really fed me. So when we were writing songs with the Doors, I kind of had a big mouth about the arrangements. I didn’t really know that it should be E-flat, or whatever. I knew intuitively that we need a bridge or a guitar solo. It came from all that schooling.

This is I’m sure a cliché question. But to have worked with Jim Morrison, someone who has taken on such a persona and is such a specter in the public imagination, there has to be such a weird disconnect between your experience of him and how everyone else …

It gathers, not moss, but B.S. In the early days, he was just a regular guy: friendly and a little different. He was real good-looking. But then, he became an alcoholic and we didn’t know that. We didn’t understand that he had a disease. They didn’t have substance abuse clinics and all that. So midway through, I was like damn this is crazy. But nobody is saying anything about it. That was a real struggle. I knew I had found my path in life, and we had a wild man as our lead singer. I loved him for his words. And for his melodies, he had melodies in his head. He couldn’t play a chord on any instrument. Really gifted. But ask us how did we write songs? We did it all together.

The book is about your decision not to use the music for advertising.

That’s what I was counter-sued for not doing.

Do you think that Morrison would have maintained his idealism about the music?

All I’ve got to go on is how he acted when he was alive. I’ll give you the first sentence of the book. It’s Jim saying, “Fuck you.” I’m very pleased that those are the first two words of the book. He’s saying that to us for considering, “Come on Buick Light My Fire.” He didn’t primarily pen “Light My Fire.” That’s mainly Robby’s lyric. So, I think that means he cared about the whole catalog, the whole thing. I’ve kind of stayed with that.
I understand the music business is difficult, and that some new band is trying to pay the rent. Do a commercial. But maybe later, you can reconsider. Because, as Tom Waits said about it, “If you change your lyrics into a jingle, you might have just sold your audience.” Then I got Pete Townsend in there in a Rolling Stone interview saying I don’t give an F if you fell in love with Shirley to my song. I’ll do what I want.

He was an autocrat. But you guys split everything four ways.

That came out of Jim’s insecurity in how to make songs and music. So it was incredibly generous. I don’t think there was any band ever that did that. That set up a total unanimity. We split everything. The lyrics were not credited to him. It was “music and lyrics by the Doors.” That was his idea. He also said we need veto power in case someone weird. And, well, I became Mr. Veto.

But, you know, if the others didn’t have a nice house and a couple of groovy cars like me — because I know down to the penny — it might be different. I’m trying to adhere to what our main muse wished for. My knees were shaking when the Cadillac offer kept doubling and tripling. It was obscene. So I’m un-American because I’m not greedy? I don’t know. I just feel it in my soul that that’s the road our band ought to take. And I don’t condemn other groups. And Dylan, my god. I was asked what I thought of his Superbowl thing. I said, haven’t you heard? He’s broke. That was a joke. What he does will have no effect on his genius. It just makes me a little sad. But whatever. Money doesn’t talk it swears. That’s a Bob Dylan line.

I saw a short film that was made with y’all and Skrillex. If I’m not mistaken, you’re in it at the beginning, and then not as much later. Did you identify with that type of music?

They were trying to put together weird combinations of artists. In the beginning, I quote Ringo Starr from when drum machines were invented. He said, “I’m the fucking drum machine.” So I went with reservation. But then I met Sonny. He was a musician. You know, a long time ago, Jim said, “Maybe one day in the future, a musician will be one guy with a bunch of machines.” Hello?

Do you keep up with music?

I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of the music scene. I just read Salman Rushdie’s memoir. That was incredible. I’m into books. 

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