After reading so much about him, I was excited to talk to John Densmore, a deep thinker and spiritually elevated person. We talked about his new book, The Seekers, Meetings with Remarkable Musicians, and his exciting, complicated life with The Doors.
The Doors became famous and have endured as one of the most iconic groups of the sixties and seventies. There were four group members: John Densmore on drums, Robby Krieger on guitar, Ray Manzarek on Keyboards, and Jim Morrison on lead vocals. They melded together for an amazing and unique sound. Aside from their memorable music and lyrics, Jim Morrison became a world-wide sex symbol whose wild behavior on stage was legendary. Their fame was embedded in history when Morrison died at 27 in a bathtub in Paris.
Among The Doors’ songs that were a soundtrack to an era are “Light My Fire”, “Break On Through (to the Other Side)”, “Touch Me”, “Hello, I Love You”,” Love Me Two Times”, and “The End”.
The interview was conducted by Charlotte Parker, Editor and Publisher of Head Magazine.
Charlotte Parker: Thank you for doing this interview with Head Magazine today.
John Densmore: My pleasure.
Parker: I was moved by your book, The Seekers. There was a lot of food for thought, both practically and spiritually. Can you tell us about the book?
Densmore: Well, yes. It’s my tip of the hat to various artists who fed me. I started a few years ago, and I knew I wanted to write about Elvin Jones, drummer for John Coltrane, and a few others. Then I stumbled onto writing about my mom, [chuckles] and then I made it autobiographical and had her in the first chapter. Each chapter is a different person who fed me, and she encouraged my music and my drumming, and so why not? I never thought I’d have a book with Lou Reed and my mom in it, but here we are.
Parker: It’s interesting because Gurdjieff, who you based your theoretical idea on, wrote his first chapter about his dad.
Densmore: Someone recently told me that he had something to do with drums. There was some drum reference. I was familiar with Meetings With Remarkable Men, the film. I didn’t read the book. It was sort of a cult film with Terence Stamp, but it was about musicians trying to play so well that they would capture God’s ear, and it hit me, oh, maybe through the remarkable musicians – that’s it — that’s my title.
Parker: It was very appropriate. In the book, you give us personal insight into so many famous and interesting people, from Janis Joplin to Gustavo Dudamel, to Patti Smith, to Ravi Shankar, Van Morrison to Bob Marley. Is there something that unites them all?
Densmore: Oh, good. I was searching for that. I had written a few chapters, and I was like, “What ties this all together?” Then I realized sound, the love of sound. Musicians hear the world, painters see it. I started writing a little bit more about how silence and sound are important. Without the silence, you don’t have any contrast, and that’s important in any kind of music, rock and roll or Beethoven. That’s what connects everybody, the love of sound.
Parker: Did you feel there was something else that connected them as well, the search for something?
Densmore: We’re all seekers in a way, trying how to live on planet earth. Music is so subliminal. If you paint a painting, you’re looking at an object. Music is in the air from heart to heart. You can make a CD, but when you’re listening to it, it’s a direct hit from one consciousness to another. I have to say, it’s rather special. [chuckles] I’m a musician so – I guess I was tooting my own horn.
Parker: It’s interesting that three of the four of you from The Doors met during the Maharishi Transcendental Meditation workshops. Did that have an effect, or bind you together in some way?
Densmore: Yes. We didn’t realize that Maharishi was our booking agent, but we were all experimenting with then legal psychedelics and thought meditation is a less shattering route. Robby and I stumbled into this Maharishi thing, and there was Ray. Then at one meeting Jim said he wanted to go to look into Maharishi’s eyes to see if he had any knowledge, any truth. He said, “Well, he does, but I’m not going to meditate. Darn it.”
It’s interesting that the Beatles got onto Maharishi about a year, a year and a half later. Now, there was no Internet, Charlotte. It’s curious, Carl Jung’s right about this. I have a chapter on Joseph Campbell, and the archetypal undercurrents are these threads going across the globe. The Beatles were doing exactly the same thing we were, experimenting within then legal psychedelics, then getting into meditation. None of us were talking to each other via the web.
Parker: It’s amazing sometimes how things happen at the same time.
Densmore: Then there’s Paul Stamets, a mushroom scientist, who says there’s a grid, a mushroom grid all over the planet connecting everything anyway. That’s pretty far out– to use the ’60s term.
Parker: What was Maharishi like?
Densmore: Just so loving. It was a stark contrast to the priests in black robes with stiff collars that I was around when I was a kid, raised Catholic. God, he was all in white, and just his love vibe, to get cosmic, was palpable. I could feel that around Ram Das. I have a chapter on Ram Das.
Parker: Oh yes, I know.
Densmore: Another mystic. Willie, I can feel that around Willie Nelson, there’s a love vibe with him that’s palpable. There you go.
Parker: It’s a beautiful feeling. It seems like your band were seekers. You talk about how you, Ray, Jim and Robby connected musically, and in Jim’s case, poetically as well, with a desire to connect to ‘the real world’, the world where this world came from. How did that connect you?
Densmore: When I first met Jim, he was real shy. He was in the corner of Ray’s garage, never sung before, but Ray gave me these lyrics on a crumpled piece of paper, day destroys the night, night divides the day, tried to run, tried to hide, break on through to the other side. Wow, that’s cosmic. Break on through to what? What is he talking about? Well, he’s seeking. He could break on through to another consciousness, or break on through to crossing over and reincarnation, or whatever. I loved this cosmic. It could be interpreted. If each listener gets a little different thing out of it, then it’s really universal rather than linear.
I liked that very much. Plus I found his words were percussive. I heard drumming right away. Bossa nova was in the air at the time coming up from Brazil. “Girl From Ipanema” – and I thought, “Oh, I’m going to take that beat, and I’m going to speed it up and make it stiff for rock and roll.” That’s what “Break On Through” is.
Parker: In the book, you say the rhythm section is the foundation of any ensemble. Can you talk more about that?
Densmore: Yes. The bass player and the drummer, they’re in the basement cooking up the groove, and you have to have a solid groove, or nothing works. It doesn’t matter how much technique you have on top as a fancy soloist, you’ve got to have that pocket. I talk about how that pocket comes from all of us being in the womb, hearing our mom’s heartbeat. That’s the first drum everybody heard.
That’s the reason that if you start a song, it can be a ballad, so that would be a slow tempo or a salsa, which would be fast. Once you start it, you have to keep it– you cannot speed up or slow down. Otherwise everybody goes, “What happened?” They stop dancing, or they stop feeling the warm security of homeland security of the womb.
What was your question?
Parker: In the book, you say even if someone has a fabulous guitarist or they’re great singers, if they have a crummy rhythm section, is that really going to work out? You say if you have a really great rhythm section– that can hold up a mediocre singer or other musicians.
Densmore: You could sneak by, yes. That’s how important– I don’t mean this as self-serving, but the bass and the drums are like the mattress, the rhythmic bed, and then Robby Krieger puts his floaty guitar on top, and that’s the walls, and then the roof is Jim. If the foundation is shaky, the roof is going to crumble.
Parker: Right. You have to have a foundation to build anything.
Densmore: Yes, that’s a metaphor.
Parker: There’s an early review of The Doors by Pete Johnson in the LA Times when they were the house band for The Whiskey.
Densmore: I know it well.
Parker: And you say that that’s one of your favorite reviews. It talks about you saying “the drummer seems lost in a separate world.” What world do you go to when you play?
Densmore: [laughs] Yes, that night when we came back to the Whisky to play, I said to everybody, “Hey, this is so terrible.” It’s quite interesting. Think about it. The guitar player’s wandering around the stage, and– Do you have it right there?
Parker: I had it. I remember it though. It said that the guitar player’s wandering around the stage.
Densmore: The drummer is lost in his own world, the keyboard is reading mysteries from the keys, and the singer– I don’t know what he’s doing.
Parker: I’m trying to find it. I had it here.
Densmore: It’s okay.
Parker: No, it’s in your book, Riders On The Storm.
Densmore: It’s okay. What I meant by what I loved about it so much is that he’s trying to put us down, and Pete Johnson later regretted it. He said, “Hey, I didn’t get it. I’m sorry, you guys.” If you read– Wait a minute, I’d like to see that drummer. He’s in another planet, and the guitar player’s roaming, and the keyboard player’s reading mysteries. The description, I think, is very evocative of something that would be interesting to see in here.
Parker: Well, I agree.
Densmore: That’s why I loved it.
Parker: I’d want to run over there and see that band myself.
I’ll find it.
Densmore: No, that’s it. We’re just missing what he said about Jim, but–
Parker: I’ll put it in there.
Editor’s Note: Here is the review from Pete Johnson that appeared in the LA Times: ”The Doors are a hungry-looking quartet with an interesting original sound but with what is possibly the worst stage appearance of any rock’-n’-roll group in captivity. Their lead singer emotes with his eyes closed, the electric pianist hunches over his instrument as if reading mysteries from the keyboard, the guitarist drifts about the stage randomly, and the drummer seems lost in a separate world.”
Parker: Now, you had an admittedly complicated emotional relationship with and feelings about Jim Morrison. Where do you stand with that now?
Densmore: Oh, I’m completely healed. Here was the struggle – I’m in a band with a psychotic or something. Jim had this self-destruction streak, which– Not every artist has Dionysus and Apollo in the same consciousness, but Jim did. Picasso lived to 90, so you don’t have to, but that’s the cards he was dealt. Living with that was really difficult, because I knew I had found my path in life.
I didn’t know he had a disease called alcoholism, eventually. In the beginning, he smoked a lot of pot, and I wish he had stayed with that, but he moved on to the legal drug. Cigarettes and alcohol kill more than– Has pot ever killed anybody? One or two people.
Parker: No, they say no one, actually.
Densmore: Oh, there you go. I think in one of my books, I said, “I was crucified I love the band I’m in, and our singer is going down.” Over the years, I’ve been asked the question, “If Jim was around today, would he be clean and sober?” I, for years, said no. Kamikaze drunk. Now I’ve changed my answer the last few years. It’s a different time. Eric Clapton. Eminem I think had an album, another really creative angry guy like Jim. His album was called Recovery.
It’s a different time. Jim would be different, yes, and I like encouraging young people to– Moderation is okay, if you can. If you have the gene, then don’t dabble. I used to think if you couldn’t dabble, you weren’t cool. Now I know a lot of people who can’t dabble who are very cool. It’s a different time, and Jim would– I think he’ d have cleaned up his act.
Parker: Jim seemed to have had a fascination with death and a very strong, self-destructive streak. Whereas Picasso seemed to put his destruction out to others as opposed to himself.
Densmore: Jim did put his obsession into the lyrics, like “This Is the End”, which first was a love song, “this is the end beautiful friend”, and then it evolved into this long trance-like Ravi Shankar influenced raga. Then Jim threw mystical poetry in, and then one night at the Whisky, not telling us, he did the Oedipal section and scared the crap out of everybody, and we were fired because of it. He was a shaman, and that term wasn’t in the vernacular when I first heard it. I’d read it in some of his poetry and I looked it up. This was before anybody used that word, and oh, oh, I see. People in so-called primitive cultures who are medicine men who take psychedelics and heal the tribe. He knew about that, he knew what he was doing. Towards the end of his life, he was asked if he’d do it over, would he do it different, and he said, “Yes, I think maybe I’d be a quiet Zen gardener.” [laughs] It’s like, “Okay.”
Parker: If he hadn’t hooked up with the band, one wonders what would have happened there?
Densmore: Yes, I think I threw that in this book, that someone had said to me, maybe he’d die younger. I’m thinking, “ Oh, my God, Yikes “.
Charlotte, you see behind me, there’s a street sign that says Morrison Avenue and Densmore Street? (He points to the sign behind him on the Zoom Interview)
Densmore: Okay. Let me tell you a little bit about that since you’re in Encino. I was born here in LA. I’d always seen Densmore Street while driving down Ventura Boulevard. Yes, right, there’s my street. A few years ago, I had a little time and I thought, “What the hell. I think I’ll make a right turn and go up Densmore and see what I can find.” A mile up the road, Densmore crossed Morrison Street.
Parker: Oh my.
Densmore: Yes. Now, when did they name these streets? Several hundred years ago. Okay, I like this. This is a beautiful omen. Actually, the signs were– They made this one up for me, but the signs were not on the same pole, and we lobbied Eric Garcetti, the mayor, to let us put them on the same pole so I could have a photo op there and stand under it, which we did.
Anyway, in Danny Sugarman’s original book, No One Here Gets Out Alive about Jim, he describes me as having white knuckles, my grips on the sticks are so tight from such anger about Jim being drunk or whatever the hell.
He didn’t understand that that was tough love. I knew there was an elephant in the room, shit everywhere, but nobody was talking about it, and I lobbied to get off the road for about a year. Finally, we did that. We had a bad night in New Orleans. Ray and Robby said okay because if Jim was messed up in the studio, we go home. 10,000 people don’t see it. We were so good live. Oh, God, I hated that being eroded.
Anyway, next question.
Parker: Okay, next question. Since Jim, and now Ray, have passed on, as you say, “broke on through to the other side,” in the book you say that you’re still talking to them. Can you tell me about that?
Densmore: [chuckles] Yes, I can talk to them right now. In the book, I quote George Harrison in musing about John Lennon after he had passed. He said, “If you can’t have a connection with someone who is important to you, even after they’ve passed, how you’re going to have a connection to Jesus or Allah or whoever you’re into?”
I was on Charlie Rose, for my second book, Doors Unhinged. I said “being in a band is like polygamy without the sex.” You are close, and it’s the act of playing music together, that’s the glue. Musicians, since the ’30s, jazz guys have all joked about how they’re going to be in that big band in the sky. I hope so. I think Ray and Jim are making music right now.
Parker: In talking about Joseph Campbell, you write that true spirituality is not for the faint of heart. You have to look squarely at your inner demons and find some peace. Can you talk about that?
Densmore: I wrote that?
Parker: You did. You wrote it in the Joseph Campbell section, that you have to look clearly at your inner demons. It seems like you did, and maybe some of the other guys did and Jim wasn’t able to.
Densmore: That’s what I meant by, at peace with Jim now. Time has helped me accept that his road was supposed to be 27 years, a shooting star, a quick flash in the sky. I’m 76, I’m on a longer road, and I don’t want to judge either one. I wish he was around, but he sure gave us a lot of musical gifts, incredibly talented and completely unschooled. Never sang, couldn’t play a–
Parker: That is unbelievable that he never sang before he came in–
Densmore: In the garage, he did not sound like Jim Morrison yet. He was real shy and insecure. I thought this is not the next Mick Jagger, but I love playing music, so I’ll keep jamming with these guys. As time developed, he got this baritone. He couldn’t play a chord on any instrument. To remember the words, he thought of melodies. He had these melodies in his head. He said he had this rock concert and he wanted to get out of his head, and they were complicated.
“Roadhouse Blues” was just a blues, that’s not complicated, but “Crystal Ship”, for example, he would sing. Okay, Charlotte, I’m going to prove I’m a drummer. (John sings) “Before you slip into unconsciousness…” Really complicated chord changes. He just had it in his head, and we had to say, “Hey, wait, stop. E flat. F sharp,” but we’re talking gifted. I’m at peace with him being in the 27 club.
Parker: When Ray brought Jim in, did Jim want to be a singer at that time? Or was he just a poet, so he did want to?
Densmore: Yes. He had volumes of poetry and journals. He loved the blues. We started jamming on the blues first, and then we got into his lyrics. Yes, he wanted it. He wanted to bring poetry to rock and roll.
Parker: Well, he did.
Densmore: Yes, he did.
Parker: You famously fought with your band mates about turning down $15 million for doing a Cadillac commercial with “Break On Through””, what was it that had you fight so hard against it?
Densmore: The ghost of Jim Morrison. He’s my ancestor now. Back in the day, when “Come on Buick Light my Fire” was being dangled, he was really against it, and he didn’t write that song. He wrote one line, “our love become a funeral Pyre,” and Robby primarily penned the rest of it. I thought, “Wow, he’s so upset because he cares about all the songs, not just his, the whole catalog, what we represent.” If you’re a new band trying to pay the rent, do a commercial, but maybe re-examine that later. As Tom Waits said, you’re changing your lyrics to a jingle, and that’s the sound of coins in your pocket, and maybe you sold your audience.
Parker: Was it the actual song “Break On Through” that bothered you so much? Or was it just in general putting the music to something commercial?
Densmore: In general. Fortunately, Jim said, since he didn’t play an instrument, how do we write songs? He said, “Let’s just split all the money. Let’s split all the credits, all music by The Doors, no lyrics by me, whatever.” That was such a gift. It was just staggering. It was the whole catalog. And he said, “In case anybody gets weird, we’re going to have veto power.” Well, I became Mr. Veto. There are so many offers behind the scenes. “Love Me Two Times”, because I just took Viagra. No, I’m kidding. I just made that up, Charlotte.
Parker: Oh, it’s a good one.
Densmore: That was “Love Me Two Times” because I’m going off to Vietnam in the subtext. Just for The Doors, it’s best to stay away from that. We don’t mind songs in movies or TV shows or whatever, but changing the lyric to sell a product, it’s– Dylan’s done it. I wish he hadn’t, but what are you going to do? As I wrote in The Doors Unhinged, I quoted Pete Townshend who said, “I don’t give a fuck if you fell in love with Shirley to my song, it’s my song and I’ll do what I want with it.” True.
Parker: Well, it must’ve been tough emotionally to veto this with these people that you’re so close to.
Densmore: Really tough. I vetoed Cadillac for Break On Through. It was $5 million, then they made it $10 million, and I said no. Then they made it $15 million, and my knees were shaking. That’s after agents and managers take their cuts and everybody, then it’s a few million each, which is serious money, but I just said to Ray and Robby, “Look, we all have a nice house and a couple of groovy cars, what do you need to buy?” They didn’t really have an answer. That was the answer. See?
Parker: Afterward, did they ultimately forgive you? Did you guys end up coming together after this? I ‘m sure there was temporarily a rift there.
Densmore: Well, it was strained for a few years because the darn thing went on so long. Fortunately, I had a closing phone call with Ray before he passed. I didn’t know he was going to pass that soon, but I knew he was sick, and he picked up the phone, thank God. We just talked about his illness. He had cancer. We didn’t talk about the legal struggles, which I had already won.
Parker: You and Robby were so close in the past.
Densmore: Yes, in the past. We kind of went off our own ways. I remarried and had another kid and was doing all of that. He was just mainly playing music. We’ve played together since the last few years here and there. Played a benefit for the homeless at the Wiltern, our last gig, I don’t know, a year ago or so. Music heals us, that’s for sure.
Parker: I know that you guys, that the band took LSD at the beginning, and it was mind opening.
Densmore: Well, I personally took it just maybe three, four, five times. Jim, yes, took it quite a bit more.
Parker: You wrote in the book about some experiences with marijuana, about being greeted in Jamaica by your host with a shopping bag full of ganja, and about smoking weed with Willie Nelson. Do you still smoke marijuana?
Densmore: I do, occasionally. I’m a cheap high, as I told Willie. A few hits now and then.
Parker: You’ve always been a great admirer of jazz, having seen John Coltrane and your mentor, Elvin Jones, many times. How has jazz influenced your life and your work?
Densmore: Ooh, that’s good. Maybe jazz is about seeking. It’s improvisation. You have to stay in the moment. You’re kind of seeking moment to moment for that freedom or something. It’s fed me greatly. Certainly, it made me looser playing with The Doors. I incorporated some direct jazz drum beats. It influences, not copied. I also had more of a conversation musically with Jim or Ray or Robby as a soloist.
The first job of the drummer is to keep that pulse, but then if you can improvise around it with what the singer’s doing, or the soloist, then you’re talking to them and spurring them on or they’re spurring you on or something. There’s some kind of camaraderie that happens.
Parker: Sometimes swinging through each other in some way.
Densmore: Yes. Here’s my metaphor. It doesn’t matter if you’re a duet or a 40-piece orchestra. Think of that on stage as one person, the duet or the orchestra. There’s one person. Think of the entire audience, 200 in a club, or 2,000 in Madison Square Garden, whatever. That’s the other person. The two of you are going to dance tonight. The mystery of live performance is not knowing how it’s going to go. It could feel like a waltz or a wild samba or whatever. It could be real quiet pin drop time, which happened when we played “The End”, or it could be a total celebratory experience, which happened when we played “Light My Fire”.
Parker: Yes. Your live performances, as you say, were legendary and amazing. It just also seems like the four of you, was a moment in time where four people that were just four pieces of something that came so beautifully together.
Densmore: Yes, a real diamond, kind of like The Beatles. That’s sort of an arrogant comparison, but I used that in the trial when I said, “Look, it’s John, Paul, Ringo, and George, and Ray, Jim, Robby, and John, — not Fred, Tom, and Phil, or whoever.”
Parker: It’s beautiful. It’s a moment in time and a beautiful melding, perfect melding of– it just happened to be something that was perfection in a time.
Densmore: It was luck. The muse comes in, then blessed us. We had enough technique on our individual instruments to get across whatever we had, and then something came in and made it bigger than the four.
John Densmore’s Book,The Seekers, Meetings with Remarkable Musicians (And Other Artists) is available on Amazon and other retailers.