An Interview with John Densmore: Identity Crisis In The Land Of $$$

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.

The 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 fanbase 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 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.

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 Robby. 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 outburst against the selling-out of “Light My Fire” to Buick back in 1968. An intriguing element of the unfolding story is in defining how Morrison, who stood for so much of the ‘60s’ imagery, would come across today. There was no maturing or being corrupted or compromising for him. 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.”

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?

Manzarek and Krieger lost me 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 and interviews I’d heard or seen, all of you guys clearly denounced the charges against Morrison. 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 Robby 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 Robby 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 Vietnam War as he was over there fighting it! So, what a great healing of the ‘60s in a way.

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.

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?

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.

I’m not sure how you feel about what Pink Floyd went through with Roger Waters or what KISS goes through when they tour, 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 Robby, 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, Robby and John—John, Paul, George, Ringo—it’s not Ray, Robby, Ian [Astbury—The Cult, new singer], Stewart [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.

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 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 Robby 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 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 play “Light My Fire” on a pop television show, and you’re playing this 11-minute opus with bizarre poetic references and Oedipal overtones. The studio lights are up and you can see the audience and these people are between awe and shock.

(Laughs) It reminds me of a gig in Mexico City. We were promised to play in the bullring 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 bullring 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).

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 would speak to him?

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!”

What do you hope people who didn’t experience all this turmoil between you and Robby 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 Meade, 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.


John Densmore will be at Vintage Vinyl in Fords, NJ, on April 23. His new book, The Doors Unhinged—Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes On Trial, is available now. For more information, go to