John Densmore On Reuniting With Robby Krieger And Maintaining The Doors' Mystique
When you are one of a half-dozen bands that are a rite of passage for every coming generation, there's really no need to sell your wares to the highest bidder. Thanks goodness The Doors had John Densmore fighting that good fight for many years, even when it meant gong against his fellow bandmates and siding with Jim Morrison's dad, a retired Navy admiral, which is just one of the choice anecdotes you can read for yourself in The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison's Legacy Goes on Trial.
Besides the new book, we spoke to him about the state of the music and publishing world, groups reuniting with no original members and above all, the fine art of integrity. Here's our complete interview with Densmore, who's signing books at Zia Records on Mill Avenue today.
Just to clarify for people who've read your first book Riders on the Storm, does this book pick up right where that one left off? It doesn't dwell on the band's legal battles when Jim was still alive? No, this new book is about the legal struggles that occurred later whereas the first one was about the whole history of the band. Now I have two self-centered memoirs!
How important was the four-man vote to The Doors when you guys were still recording and touring? The four-vote democracy was the foundation of the band. It came from Jim because he felt insecure about writing songs. He didn't know how to do it, He knew nothing about playing a chord on any instrument. He had words and he had melodies. So he said, 'So why don't we write everything together, split all the money and give all the credit to The Doors instead of me as the lyricist? And why don't we have veto power in case anybody gets weird." And it's because of that, I turned into Mr. Veto.
Even in your first book, you seemed to be the guy who wanted to protect the integrity of the band. You were the first one who wanted to stop doing concerts in 1970. I'm always trying, [but] my knees got pretty week when they doubled and tripled the offers to "Break on through to a new deodorant!"
That wasn't a real offer, was it? [laughs] Uh, no. There was one commercial, in England only, for Pirelli Tires for the song "Riders on the Storm." But I came to my senses and gave all the money to charity. If we needed the dough, if we were struggling to pay the rent like a new band, that's a different thing. I get that. But since we all happen to have four equal parts and we all happen to have a nice house and some groovy cars, I'm trying to uphold what Jim wanted.
So then they tapped The Who, right? Cause Pete will sign off on anything now! It was Led Zeppelin who did the Cadillac thing, which we did not do. The Who, I write about it in this book. I've got Tom Waits saying "John Densmore's not for sale and that's his gift to us." And on the other hand, there's Pete Townshend's interview in Rolling Stone where he says "I don't give fuck about the first time you kissed Susie to my song, it's my song and I'll do what I want with it."
Before doing your book, did you read Pete Doggett's "You Never Give Me Your Money," which chronicled all the Beatles' lawsuits? I got through about half of it but it was so dry with legalese, accountant shit and that. I couldn't make it. I tried hard to make this book funny. While I'm sitting in court I drift off to sitting in with Eddie Vedder or playing with Carlos Santana or playing jazz. I write about that, my thoughts while I'm sitting in this dry legal courthouse.
I only brought up the earlier book because I wanted to draw analogies to you and Paul McCartney, having to take the unpopular position of suing your bandmates but later being proved vindicated. Did you have to appear in court every day for the trial against Robbie and Ray? There was just one lawsuit I had to be there for, but if you're there every day, the jury gets the impression that you care and Ray and Robbie were never there. They were all over the world, breaking in The Doors. Ultimately it got straightened out and The Doors are back on their hinges.
How are things different for the Doors partnership going forward now with the loss of Ray? It's sad first of all. I miss his musicality. And as you will read in the book, I told him I was thinking of him and drumming for his health. Then we had closure.
Now does that mean you have to deal with Ray's wife? It's like introducing a new player almost. I don't know. [laughs] We've been dealing with Jim's estate for years, they joined me in the lawsuit. I like them. The future's uncertain and the end is....
Would you have objected if they'd gone out under another name completely? That's what I was thinking in the middle of this horrible lawsuit, that Ray and Robbie should call themselves, well, it takes four doors to make a sedan, they should call themselves the Coupes. Eww! Bad joke.
Did you ever go and see them play a show? I saw them. Ian Astbury's a good singer, And as you read in the book, there's a British journalist who takes the prosecutor to task, he says I don't give a damn if Ian Astbury is a better singer than Jim Morrison. You can get Mick Jagger, I don't care, if it's not Jim Morrison , it's not the Doors.
Under a different name would you have played been tempted to play some shows with them? They're great musicians. I didn't want them to stop playing But the Police without Sting? You know what I'm saying.
Yes I do. We've all suffered seeing bands with no original members, or Michael Clarke' s Byrds, or a Dewey Martin-led Buffalo Springfield. Canned Heat with no original members and the second drummer!
I was thinking about all these Spotify lawsuits and artists not being paid what they should be. Are you noticing you're a little lighter in the pocket these days? It's all true. They're morphing into a better situation but it's not settled, so who knows. I know there's pending lawsuits and shit, not from us but other industry people.
But The Doors control the Doors catalog? Hell yeah. On a positive note when Ray passed, I talked to Robby, we hadn't talked in quite a while and I said let's play Doors we haven't played in 20 years, let's make it a tribute to Ray, see who shows up and make it a benefit for cancer... we're just beginning to get that together but I'm really looking forward to that.
I don't know if it's going to be at The Whiskey-a-Go Go or Madison Square Garden depending on who shows up and of course coralling famous musicians in one city on one night is hard. We shall see. Is it true that sometime in the '70s, there was talk about getting Iggy Pop in the Doors? Is that urban legend? That's true. I don't know how that would've come off. I like Iggy As I said to Jimmy Fallon on his show, no can fill Jim's leather pants but I think you've done it.
He does Riders on The Storm but he does it like The Reading Rainbow? Yeah, that's really funny.
Are you doing much playing these days? What kind of music are you listening to? I'm playing with Lucinda Williams in a few weeks. I don't have my finger on the pulse of whatis happening musically; I just read Salman Rushdie's memoir, that was great. I'm into books I guess, I'll play with Robbie, things come up. I'm not gonna go on tour--I'm pushing 70.
Are you doing much acting? Nah. But I do poetry readings where I play drums and do poetry. Not my poetry; Jim's or other famous poets.
Have you noticed the book publishing world is cratering like the record industry since your last book? Oh, it's a mess. They're terrified they're gonna follow the music industry and they are. I really lucked out. I stumbled into this network of record stores like Zia's. And there's a few thousand of them hanging by their fingernails across the country. And actually they're getting a little boost because vinyl is coming back and they have diversified into posters, books boxed sets and there's a sense of community n theses stores which is kind of cool. Coffee shops are gone. I found this niche market because it's loosely about music. If it was a science book you couldn't sell it at record stores.
There's a kind of poetic justice in small stores hanging on because of vinyl while all the big chain record stores have fallen by the wayside because no one wants CDs, a format that was forced upon us by corporate interests.
Here's a little story of this corporate psyche. I had a reasonably respectable New York publishing deal for this book and they started saying you need to write more about Jim. I did that. Riders on the Storm. It was a NY Times Bestseller. Pick it up! "Nah, there's more stories than this." This book is not about excess. It's the exact opposite. "And we don't like the title. The Doors Unhinged. Too negative" So I left all that money on the table and self-published. Went way in the hole doing that. I'm doing these records stores and I'm gettin the lions share of the royalties rather than 5%. I'm almost out of the hole I put myself in. There's some poetic justice there.
It's not gonna be on the bestseller's list because that's the whole corporate world and I can't get into that. Unless I wrote a gossip book about Jim.
Insert more fistfights in this one! Nah! I'm very proud of the first words of this book--"Fuck You!" That's what Jim said when the Buick deal first came up. The first chapter's not a physical battle, but it's a verbal one because Jim is really pissed off about that we even considered that we even considered "C'mon Buick, light my fire." And it wasn't even his song, it was Robby's! What does it say that he cared about the whole catalog? And he couldn't have even begun to imagine all the different ways of licensing music now, like video games. Video games, that's OK. Movies, some TV... it's selling another product that's the problem. You'll read that Tom Waits wrote a letter to The Nation about this subject and said "You change your lyrics into a jingle when you use them that way and it's the sound of coins in your pocket. You've just sold your audience."
But you don't even need to reintroduce your music to a younger generation. The Doors are a rite of passage just like Pink Floyd or the Beatles. When you go to high school, someone is going to play you this stuff when you smoke your first joint. You have kids, right? I do. I have grandkids too. I'm a geezer.
Wasn't there a day when one of your kids came home from school saying I can't believe my friends at school are listening to your music? I hope my son doesn't read this. He's 21 now and he gave me a lot of shit at 17, age appropriate for just about everything. And now he's like, "What you did is pretty cool."
He's a punk of sorts? He's into hardcore punk everything. I wrote a piece in The Huffington Post about how each generation, Elvis was too sexy and the hippies were peace nicky and too grubby and the punks came along because the hippies got overindulgent, each one shores up the next wave. They changed the fucking title. It was originally "Music is my Religion' and they changed it. Something about the Doors or Jim. I may be wrong. It might've been someone else.
Can you point to a Doors song that you initiated and the group crafted around your beat? "Break On Through" was based on my beat; It's a fast bossanova. I'm worried about playing it. All the others are not technically hard, but that one's a bitch. It's my right hand that's gotta go real fast on the sixteenth notes on the cymbal.
"Light My Fire" quotes Take Five by Dave Brubeck, doesn't it? We were jamming on the two chords of John Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things." We talked about all these great jazz giants. The album, LA Woman, our concept since we produced it ourselves was based on something Miles Davis said one time. He said that there was a mistake in one of his tracks and he said, "I don't care. The feeling's so good, I don't care. So we said let's just do a couple of takes on LA Woman, let's do the whole thing in a few weeks and put a lot of passion it in it and just go for the feeling.
Do you hear mistakes on that album? I still hear mistakes. And I don't care!
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