Interview: John Densmore
John Densmore is a unique man with a unique vision. As a founding member and drummer for the Doors, his jazz influenced and subtle style punctuated the poetic genius of singer Jim Morrison's lyrics and kept time for his bandmates Robbie Krieger on guitar and Ray Manzarek on keyboard (and keyboard bass). Densmore had a prime view for some of the great moments in rock music history and sadly, for Morrison's implosion from drugs and alcohol. But the end of the Doors didn't stop Densmore from pursuing artistic pathways. He's worked in theatre, film, dance, written two acclaimed books and continued in music for the past four decades. Tallinn Arts caught up with John for a chat about why outsiders see the world more clearly and how Jim Morrison was as much a library nerd as rock's dark god.
Ray Manzarek said once, "If there hadn't been On the Road, there wouldn't have been The Doors." Could you elaborate on that and the cultural influences that were afoot that brought the four members of the band together?
We were all enamored with the beat poets and jazz. The beats were the mentors for the hippies. Each generation has its heroes.
There seems to have been an interest among the members of the Doors in what might be called "exotic others" in respect to mainstream American society: black blues and jazz musicians, eastern religions and meditation, Native American folklore and shamanism. Could you comment on why this was the case and how it influenced your art as a drummer and the band collectively?
People who live on the fringe of society have a better perspective on things because they're not in the middle of it. Native American shamans and "tricksters" alter their consciousness with herbs, or do things in reverse like riding a horse into the village backwards, to shake things up and get a different view of their culture. Jim wrote about the term shaman before the mass culture got a hold of it. He was ahead of his time on that one. Black blues and jazz musicians were attractive to us because they had more feeling in their music. We were experimenting with then legal psychedelics, and eastern religions and meditation seemed a logical next step.
There are recordings of The Doors playing in Denmark and Sweden in your early days. Do you have any recollections of playing Scandinavia? That must have been exciting in the midst of the hippie scene there.
The Scandinavian audiences were quiet, but it felt like they were listening to every note. It was pin drop time. Very powerful.
Ray Manzarek passed away in 2013. Is there one or two memories of him that stand out above the rest that speak to his character as a man and an artist?
Ray had the ability to split his brain into two people: his left hand was the bass player, and his right the organ player. He also was a genius at the little musical "hooks" like the intro to Light My Fire. His sound was instantly recognizable.
We all know the legends of Jim Morrison form countless books, Hollywood films and his status as a cultural icon. But what about him is not commonly known? Perhaps a quieter or alternative Morrison is lurking there in the past that the general public isn't aware of.
When Jim wrote his lyrics, he was alone and very quiet. He was like a library nerd. He also had a great sense of humor, which only his fellow bandmates saw.
When Morrison passed away, what were the thoughts of the surviving members of the band? What did you see as a potential way forward? Were there any notions of hiring a new singer?
We didn't want to give up the musical synchronicity so we continued... we had the sense not to replace Jim... Ray & Robby tried to sing...
Since the demise of the Doors, you have had a varied career. What brought you to the theatre and acting?
I went to an acting class and met an incredible teacher (whom I write about in the new book I'm working on now). After that, I realized I wanted to write my own words instead of doing someone else's.
What were (are) your strengths as a drummer? What were some things you felt didn't come easy for you?
I'm not the fastest, but try to play "musically." I listen very carefully to my fellow musicians. I love dynamics. I'm not a solo drummer.
What were your feelings when you went to Jim Morrison's grave at Pere Lachaise?
The first time there was too many fans for me, so I couldn't have a quiet moment with Jim. The next time I did. I'm glad he's there with all those other great artists.
Trying not to be crass, but there is always curiosity about the economics of rock n roll. How has the money held up, in light of what happened to Credence and many other bands from your era?
We're doing just fine. Maybe the songs have more value because we didn't do commercials.
You chronicle in your 2013 book The Doors: Unhinged the legal struggles you had with your bandmates. That must have been a tough experience for you and them. What did you learn in that process?
Well I described the experience in detail in "The Doors: Unhinged", and would be very pleased if more European countries translated it into their language.
What are your plans presently and for the future for your own art and for the legacy of The Doors?
I'm halfway through a new book about musicians... non fiction. I also have a script (the story is based in the 60's) which I care very much about. Hopefully someday it will hit the screen!