John Densmore of The Doors (Interview)

Paul GleasonCategories:Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

The Doors’ drummer John Densmore is many things: the co-writer of some of the most iconic songs in the history of rock, a political activist, author of two compelling memoirs (Riders on the Storm and The Doors Unhinged), and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In an era in which many rock musicians of his generation have succumbed to what Densmore has elsewhere called the “greed gene,” he provides a shining example of integrity.

In fact, his must-read book, The Doors Unhinged, chronicles this integrity by demonstrating the way in which he and the Jim Morrison estate went through an extensive court battle with Doors’ keyboardist, the late Ray Manzarek, and guitarist Robby Krieger to protect over the right to use The Doors’ name. At the same time, the book comments on the larger social issue of the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Densmore won the case and went on to reconcile with Manzarek shortly before his death – and, recently, he and Krieger have rekindled their partnership. After reconvening, the two surviving Doors performed together recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Rock Cellar Magazine sat down with Densmore to discuss his reunion with Krieger, the duo’s plans for the future, and the new Doors DVD, R-Evolution, a compendium of rare footage of the band’s early TV appearances with their own music films.

Along the way, Densmore discusses Manzarek’s contributions to The Doors’ original sound, why the singles and videos for Break on Through and The Unknown Soldier were so revolutionary, what it was like to perform on “ridiculous” shows like Shebang! and Malibu U, and, for the first time, reveals his plans for the rereleases of the song Ghost Dance and The Doors’ documentary When You’re Strange.

Rock Cellar Magazine: You and [Doors guitarist] Robby Krieger recently got back together? How did that happen?

John Densmore: There was a screening at the LACMA – the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – of Mr. Mojo Risin’: The Story of L.A. Woman. We’d agreed to do a Q&A after. I said, “Hey, let’s break up the ‘blah blah’ with some music.” So I went over to his house, and we rehearsed for half an hour. And then we did a little jam after the Q&A. It wasn’t announced, so it was a surprise.

It was a lot of fun! We’re known for our drumming and guitar playing. We told the audience that we were going to try to sing, and we asked them to help us! The first song was People Are Strange – and the whole audience sang the whole thing, which was great!

Rock Cellar Magazine: Did you and Robby sing at all, or was it just the audience?

John Densmore: Yeah, we sang. We had microphones, but, you know, we’re not singers (laughs).

Rock Cellar Magazine: It sounds like that was a great experience. Do you have any plans to continue working with Robby in the future?

John Densmore: Well, it certainly was a good little rehearsal for this giant concert we’re trying to put together.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Tell us about the concert.

John Densmore: When Ray [Manzarek, Doors keyboardist] died, I said, “Robby, let’s play. We haven’t played together in 15 years. Let’s play Doors’ songs at a concert for Ray and make it a benefit for cancer.”

We just sent the letters out now to different artists, hoping that they’ll bite. It’ll be at either a small club or a giant auditorium, like the Whisky or Madison Square Garden. I don’t know the exact venue yet.

Rock Cellar Magazine: I know you can’t reveal any of the artists because they haven’t committed yet…

John Densmore: It will be the usual suspects (laughs).

Rock Cellar Magazine: Do you have a date?

John Densmore: We’re trying for February 12 – Ray’s birthday – but that probably won’t happen. It looks like we’ll have to wait until the spring or summer. It all depends on whether somebody big bites. Then everybody else falls into line.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Are you planning to perform with the other artists or do your own thing with Robby?

John Densmore: There might be some bands playing Doors’ songs on their own. And there will hopefully be an all-star house band with guest singers. I’ll be dropping in and out of the whole thing, musically. But Robby will probably be on stage every second. He’ll probably be outside the auditorium playing before people come in! He has such a jones for playing!

Rock Cellar Magazine: It’s great that Ray is getting this recognition.

John Densmore: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ray. You know, guitars are the primary instrument in rock and roll, and Ray brought the keyboard up to the front line. Before then, it wasn’t there, and it is now. I mean, he did that.

Rock Cellar Magazine: He did so many innovative things, too. It wasn’t the typical rock organ. There was jazz and that carnival-esque stuff…just amazing playing!

John Densmore: And then classical, classical…especially in the Bach-like intro to Light My Fire. And the blues…

Rock Cellar Magazine: Speaking of Ray, let’s talk about the new The Doors: R-Evolution DVD. I wanted to ask you about the Wild Child video that appears in the compilation. I was struck by the way in which Ray seemed to be running the session. Did he always do this?

John Densmore: No, no. It was just on that particular tune and that section he had some particular ideas, and the cameras were rolling. We were all equal.

I think we were trying to figure out the ending, and Jim [Morrison] wanted to do this “When we were in Africa” chunk. So we were trying to sort it out, and Ray had some ideas.

Rock Cellar Magazine: And you had the responsibility of emphasizing Jim’s final lyric with a perfectly timed drum hit at the end. What part of your kit were you hitting?

John Densmore: My ride cymbal and bass drum. I hit the cymbal with one hand with the stick and – with the other hand empty – I choked it.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Wow!

John Densmore: I did that so the sound wouldn’t extend. I had to go “chink”!

Rock Cellar Magazine: What about the video for Break on Through – the first video on the disc? The video’s very dark and presents a different image than the clichéd “Flower Power 1960s.” Were you guys in opposition to all that?

John Densmore: Jim’s lyrics were the shadow side of the 1960s. They were exemplary of the undeclared war in Vietnam and all the stuff that the media didn’t talk about.

Rock Cellar Magazine: You guys had an experimental approach to music…

John Densmore: Yeah, our stuff just came out kind of noir – L.A. noir, the steamy underbelly. Not all of it…

Rock Cellar Magazine: What makes Break on Through such an experimental track for me is your drumbeat.

John Densmore: Wow, thanks! Do you know where that came from? Bossa nova – which is much more looping and light and joyous. But I made it stiff for Jim’s lyrics. It was kind of sophisticated for our first rock single.

It only made it to number 11 on the charts. We were calling the radio stations, using fake names to request the song, trying to get it started. And it’s interesting how Light My Fire then went through the roof.

But now, any veteran says Break on Through makes him teary. It’s become a classic, you know? It just has a neat sound.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Jim’s lyrics also make the track for me. I love the Blake influence…

Photo: Scott Mitchell
Photo: Scott Mitchell

John Densmore: When I first went to Ray’s parents’ garage, and Jim was lurking around in the corner – this was before Robby joined the band – Ray handed me the lyrics to Break on Through, and I thought, “Man, that’s percussive.” I immediately thought of rhythm.

Rock Cellar Magazine: So you played along to Jim’s words?

John Densmore: Yeah, I always did that. That’s my thing! The melody and the words tell me what to play and what tempo, too. You can really tell the tempo from the ambiance of the melody and the words.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Did you get the percussive elements from just reading the lyrics or did you have to hear Jim sing them first?

John Densmore: I got it from years of playing music – just playing piano as an eight year old and playing in the marching band and playing in the dance band and the symphony and the orchestra. I just had all kinds of music through drumming, drumming music, whatever. So I knew what to do with all the groundwork.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Did Ray and Jim, who were both film students at UCLA, have any directors in mind that they wanted to emulate when you made the Break on Through video?

John Densmore: That film was made by a guy from Elektra – Mark Abramson. It was pretty much his concept. But, as time went on and we made more videos, we got more involved. Ray and Jim’s film school thing came in, and we were much more hands on.

Rock Cellar Magazine: How about the video for The Unknown Soldier? Did the band have more of a role in that?

John Densmore: We had more of a role, but Mark was still directing. But it was our idea to walk down the beach with these sitars and Indian instruments and have Jim executed.

Rock Cellar Magazine: That video reminds me of Godard’s political films…

John Densmore: Yeah, yeah. You know, Jim had so much fake blood in his mouth, it was ridiculous! When he got shot, it was almost like he was throwing up! That part was overly done.

We actually had a big fight with Bill Graham because we wanted to screen it in the Fillmore East in the middle of our show, and he kind of objected.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Why?

John Densmore: He was very liberal and against the war, as we were. He just felt that it was too graphic or something, and we pressed – and he let us do it. It was really cool because we screened it in the middle of the show, and at the end of the song – you know, it’s sort of a victory parade because the war is over, and we snuck in under the screen and started playing our instruments live to the lyrics, “It’s all over / The war is over” – it’s really visceral. The whole audience stood up and started singing, “The war is over” – this is in the middle of Vietnam carnage on television every night – and it was really powerful.

Photo: Bonnie Perkinson
Photo: Bonnie Perkinson

It was a time – if we’d learned the lessons of Vietnam, we wouldn’t be in Afghanistan, Iraq, or any of this shit. And the one thing the government learned was not to show any bodies coming back. We don’t know any of that now – but back then that was on TV every night, and that helped stop the war.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Was The Unknown Soldier a single before the Waiting for the Sun LP came out? Did that make it have more of a political impact?

John Densmore: Good question. Hello, I Love You was the first. And that was huge. It allowed us to do The Unknown Soldier, and this was a time when you couldn’t. The Ballad of the Green Berets was number one, and it was really hard to get anything antiwar on the radio. The Unknown Soldier got to 24, and everyone in the industry said it was a miracle.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Was that The Doors’ first overt political statement?

John Densmore: Yeah, but Jim doesn’t name Vietnam, does he? He makes it general. That’s what his gift was – making songs universal.

Rock Cellar Magazine: I notice Christ symbolism in the video. It looks like Jim is getting crucified. Does this symbolism make the video universal?

John Densmore: He’s strung up on a pillar from the pier on the beach. I don’t know. We just thought we’d tie him up and shoot him! Dorothy [Ray’s wife] had orange weaving rolls, and we tied him up with them. It wasn’t too difficult.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Let’s talk about some of the TV shows that you guys did. The clips from those shows on R-Evolution are pretty interesting – and revealing. Tell us about your appearance on Shebang!

John Densmore: Ridiculous. I mean some of these videos are so silly and ridiculous. We put them in to show some of the struggles we were up against trying to get on the air. You had to do this corny, lip-synching stupidity, which we regretted immediately after we did them. But, you know, we were trying to launch the band.

Rock Cellar Magazine: For my money, the most ridiculous video was for Malibu U!

John Densmore: Right, exactly. That we would – we’re on top of a fire truck. Are you kidding?

Rock Cellar Magazine: And then I get confused. Why is Jim shot from behind? Is that a body double? It doesn’t look like him.

John Densmore: He didn’t show up. Maybe he had a premonition that it was so stupid (laughs). So Robby’s brother, who was our roadie, did it with his back to the camera, and later Jim wore the same shirt and did it for the camera.

Rock Cellar Magazine: What was it like for Jim to wear a shirt like that?

John Densmore: Probably stupid.

Rock Cellar Magazine: But you did some cool shows as well, like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

John Densmore: That was great, and you know they were fired for their politics.

Rock Cellar Magazine: The DVD doesn’t include a clip of you guys interacting with them. Did you talk with them?

John Densmore: Oh, yeah, sure. We hung out.

Rock Cellar Magazine: How were they? They were very antiwar…

John Densmore: Great! Very friendly and funny. After Robby and I finished this other duet jam at the end of the LACMA L.A. Woman screening, I said, “ Hey, maybe we should take this thing on the road. We are the new Smothers Brothers!” The question is which one of us is Tommy? Which one of us is the straight man (laughs)? We both told lots of jokes that night.

Rock Cellar Magazine: I love Ghost Dance video, which appears on R-Evolution, as much as you do…

John Densmore: Oh, I like that one very much.

Rock Cellar Magazine: It was really neat just to see that one included.

John Densmore: I have another project, and I’ll leak it to you. I’m hoping to do a 12-inch, where they have a single on each side, with one side being Ghost Dance and the other side being this Native American song by Peter La Farge, for which I played drums. It would be a benefit for an organization that Shepard Fairey, who did the Obama poster and my book cover, started called Honor the Treaties. He would do the artwork, and this would just be a special item, limited edition on Record Store Day or Black Friday. Ghost Song is going to get out there again.

Rock Cellar Magazine: I think it has to. The An American Prayer album, on which it appears, is excellent but underrated.

John Densmore: Well, it’s not sung, and that could be part of the problem. But we worked really hard on it and had a lot of fun on it.

Rock Cellar Magazine: I can tell. The musicianship is incredible and just goes so well with Jim’s reading. The timing is really great. Anything else in the hopper?

John Densmore: Yeah, I’m going to get a campaign going to get the When You’re Strange Documentary out again. My idea is, “Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings” once a month at about midnight or 11pm or something, and I would go around and introduce it.


Visit Densmore’s Facebook page for information on his future appearances and activities.

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