Currently on a tour promoting his recent book Doors Unhinged, the co-founding member and drummer talks about how he has documented his years of struggle to preserve the Doors’ legacy.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
There are several compelling reasons why the Doors were the archetypical band of the late ‘60s. A singular, shamanistic lead singer. A unique, indelible sound that was magical, mystical and mesmerizing. And a career path that involved drugs, decadence and the kind of drama that was such an intrinsic part of the times.
After the death of frontman Jim Morrison in a Paris bathtub in 1971, it was only natural that the three remaining members — keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore — would attempt to carry on. It was also apparent that they would find it futile without Morrison at the fore, shutting those Doors forever. Yet despite Morrison’s fury at the fact his colleagues had considered selling rights to their song “Light My Fire” to a car company in 1968, more than three decades later, Krieger and Manzarek leaped at the chance to trade their song “Break on Through” to Cadillac for $15 million. But when the opportunity came to regroup for a tour under the thinly-veiled moniker “The Doors of the 21st Century,” Densmore said, “Enough.” Determined to preserve the band’s legacy in a way he believed Morrison would have wanted, he and the singer’s aging parents took his former colleagues to court in 2004, enduring a five year trial, a year and a half appeal, the scorn of fans and former friends, possible financial disaster, and the isolation and uncertainties of standing alone for a cause and integrity he believed in.
Densmore documented his struggles in his book Doors Unhinged, published last year, approximately two decades after his best-selling autobiography Riders on the Storm. Now he’s about to begin a series of book readings that will bring him to various locales in the southeastern U.S., places he failed to tap in his first book tour (including BLURT’s sister business, Schoolkids Records of Raleigh, NC). We recently caught up with Densmore at his home in California and asked him to provide a preview.
BLURT: This book of yours could be a major motion picture. It’s got the drama, the suspense, the intrigue…
JOHN DENSMORE: Yeah! That’s what I want to hear! Why don’t you become a movie producer and make it happen? I’ve heard that comment a lot. There’s only two Doors left so Robby would have to be comfortable with it.
Have you and he reconciled? Any hard feelings?
Before the book was published, I sent the last chapter to Robby and Ray with a note saying, “This will probably be a hard pill to swallow, but I wanted to be sure you got this last chapter where I say I love you guys.” How could I not? We created magic in a garage and we’re musical brothers forever. Our relationship had become quite strained with this mess. And then when I heard Ray had become quite sick, I called him and I was very thankful he picked up. I didn’t know at the time it would be our closing phone call, but it was. And we had it. Nothing specific was discussed at the time about the struggle. It was about his struggle with cancer. After he passed, I said to Robby, let’s play together and do a tribute to Ray and a benefit to raise funds for cancer research. So we’re trying to get this together, hopefully next spring.
So it appears that you and Robby are friends again. [Ed. note: at the bottom of the page, watch a videoclip of the two musicians getting back together last December.]
Yeah, we’re okay.
Nevertheless, this whole court ordeal must have been really difficult.
Litigation always is. I had no idea how crazy it is.
6 ½ years!
In the beginning, hardcore fans thought I was destroying the band. That’s why I wrote this book, to show what I went through so hopefully they get the message I was trying to preserve the legacy.
You have talked about how difficult Jim Morrison was to work with.
Yes, that was in my first book. I have two self-centered memoirs. (chuckles) Jim’s self-destruction was just an elephant in the room. We were young. We didn’t have substance abuse clinics. We didn’t know he was an alcoholic. Urrrrghhh. The question always is, if he was around today, would he be clean and sober. I used to think he was a kamikaze drunk. Now I’ve changed my opinion. You look at Clapton, Eminem… a very angry young man like Jim. So, yeah, maybe he would get sober. It’s a different time and there are alternatives.
What do you think he’d be doing had he lived? Do you think he’d still be performing or creating music or poetry of some sort?
Yeah. Ray and Jim went to film school. If I see a visual image with the right image, I just flip out. So I think we’d be doing music and films somehow.
You and the other two surviving members of the Doors continued to carry on for a couple of years after Jim’s passing…
Oh… good provocative question, Lee. I’m going to tackle it. We had this music synchronicity that the three of us had built up backing Jim, and we didn’t want to give it up. So we had the sensibility to have Ray and Robby sing, rather than have someone else try to fill those leather trousers. (laughs). We had a deal for five albums because the Doors were so big. A very lucrative deal. We did two and then we threw in the towel. We said, “What are we doing here? This isn’t the Doors without Jim!” I wish the other two had remembered that.
So they get back together in the early 2000s for that so-called Doors of the 21st Century tour and you didn’t join them. But if you had, wouldn’t it have given a little more credibility to the project?
Yeah, that would have given it more credibility. But would it have been the Doors with Jim? Could it be the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger? Or the Police without Sting? At the trial a British journalist said, “I don’t care if they have Ian Astbury – who was in fact a better singer than Jim Morrison – or if you get Mick Jagger to sing with the Doors, it wouldn’t be the Doors without him.”
On the other hand, you had two members of Queen carrying on with Paul Rodgers and later, an “American Idol” winner, all attempting to continue without Freddie Mercury.
I know. I know. And Paul Rodgers is a wonderful singer. I don’t take anything away from him. It’s touchy. When you have an iconic singer like Freddie Mercury, it sometimes seems okay. You can have no original members and still play Vegas. So whatever.
There are ways you can spin it so that it almost becomes like a tribute, rather than another attempt to replicate the real deal.
Yeah, there are lots of tributes bands out there. And they’re amusing.
But that’s not what you wanted to do.
No. I think I write about how I’m playing with Iranian musicians and jazz musicians, and I’m finding it real stimulating because I’m rearranging rhythmic brain cells. I love playing the old songs, but I did it with the man – Jim! – I did it!
Nevertheless, it must have been difficult to turn down the money you were offered by Cadillac. It must have been tempting for Jim’s parents.
Well, God bless Jim for anointing the four of us with veto power. Mr. Veto! But also remember that he couldn’t play a chord on any instrument, that he didn’t know how to write songs, that it became music by the Doors, and not lyrics by Jim. He laid out this template and he went crazy when we considered “Come on Buick, light my fire.” He wrote one line in that song… “Our love becomes a funeral pyre.” The rest of it was Robby’s. Certainly we arranged the song altogether as we did all the songs. So what does that say, Lee? He was concerned about all the songs in the catalogue. Not just the songs he wrote.
Those sentiments and that kind of integrity was very much a part of that era, the ‘60s. But nowadays, the use of pop and rock in commercials is fairly commonplace.
Yes, it’s rampant, and I don’t judge it. Nowadays the music industry is so unhinged, what with downloading and such. I write in the book that if you’re a new band and you need to do it to pay the rent, then by all means do it. But a little later, when you get a toehold on success you might want to reconsider that decision. As Tom Waits says, you’re changing your lyrics into a jingle. That’s the sound of coins in your pocket and maybe you’re selling your audience.
Are you a nostalgic guy?Do you often think about the old days?
I’m not, because I’ve found a new avenue of creativity in my writing and I’m real into that. But last night, I was watching a tribute to Richie Havens and it sort of got me a little wistful. He represented Woodstock in a way. The ‘60s did not fail. The seeds of civil rights, the peace movement and feminism were all planted. They’re just big seeds. It may take hundreds of years for them to come to full fruition, but we should get out our watering cans and keep going.
It’s clear that you have.
Yes, I guess so. That’s good. Some music should be priceless. What the hell. I spoke to Tavis Smiley and he said, “You either got a lot of integrity or you’re crazy turning down $15 million.”
Was there ever a point where you had your doubts about carrying on, where you thought that maybe it would be easier just to take the money?
Well sure. There was always the Robin Hood idea where you take the money and give it to causes you believe in. Then there’s, “Well, okay, do that, and then you’re in the corporate scene.” We have all have nice houses and cars, so it’s not that. Maybe Jim’s ghost will haunt me forever.
But in your struggle, you risked more than most people could ever even dream of. Your house, your finances… your friendships. You risked everything.
Yeah. That’s the bitch. I was thinking I’ll lose my house. But there are still Doors royalties trickling in. I wouldn’t starve certainly. Oh God. My musical brothers. It was awful
It appears that it still bothers you. Those feelings are apparently still with you.
I guess they are. It’s sad and hard… and oh, I don’t know.
Fortunately you were redeemed.
Yeah. But then there was the state supreme court! It was almost comic. I think I shaved off a little of my time on planet earth because of all that. My hair is grayer than ever. But do I regret it? No!
Maybe someone will make that major motion picture and you’ll be rewarded in another way.
It doesn’t have to be financial. Spiritual. Mystical. That will do.
Photo Credit: Bonnie Perkins. Below: Densmore and Krieger got back together on December 9 of last year for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “An Evening With the Doors.”