Doors Drummer John Densmore on What Happens When the Music’s Over

Krieger, Manzarek, Densmore and Morrison—back in the Strange Days. (Photo by Paul Ferrara)

Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Jim Morrison—back in the Strange Days. (Photo by Paul Ferrara)

Living in Las Vegas, we’re all too familiar with the zombie nostalgia act. You know the one, where not even an original tambourine player is left, and replacement members’ replacements drone on to wring a few more dollars out of a band’s once-sacred name.

Besmirching his band’s memory is the sort of thing that Doors drummer John Densmore has refused to let happen. He is so serious about preserving the Doors’ legacy that he has turned down millions in commercial opportunities and once even sued his remaining two bandmates, guitarist Robby Krieger and the late keyboardist Ray Manzarek, over use of the Doors’ name. Densmore has since turned his experiences into a book: The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial (CreateSpace, $25). In advance of his March 6 signing at Zia Records, Densmore chats about reuniting with his bandmates, the greed gene, dumb drummer jokes and signing boobs.

What’s the latest on your planned tribute concert with Robby Krieger for Ray Manzarek?

I wish there were more news, but there isn’t. We sent out letters to famous musicians. Getting all of them together in one city in one night is daunting, but we’re inspired. If we get giant fish we will be at Madison Square Garden or, if we get little fish we will be at the Whisky [a Go Go in Los Angeles]. Either way we’re going to honor Ray.

So after all that has gone down, how does it feel to be planning a performance with Krieger again?

I was the one after Ray passed [in May] who called Robby and said, “Hey, let’s honor him.” We did a screening of a documentary, Mr. Mojo Risin’: The Story of L.A. Woman, at the L.A. County Art Museum several months ago. [Robby and I] played unannounced for about 10 minutes. It was a lot of fun. I said, “We’re known for our drumming and guitar playing, but we’re going to try to sing. Will you help us?” It was so sweet. The whole audience—about 1,000 people—sang “People Are Strange.”

How did that feel?

It felt great, healing. These songs we’ve played 10,000 times or more. So if you have a gap of 10, 20, years it doesn’t matter. After a few bars they’re back, because they’re in your blood already.

When you listen to music what’s your preferred format?

I have a vinyl collection of 300 LPs. I would rather have vinyl because of the sound quality.

How would your career be different if you’d been allowed to play the clarinet in school?

I’d have crooked teeth, I guess. It was the orthodontist who said we’re trying to push them in and [the clarinet] will push them out. I don’t think I would’ve been as good as Benny Goodman. Thank God I chose drums.

You don’t think the Doors needed a clarinet player?

It would have been the Klezmer Doors.

Do you have any memories of playing in Las Vegas as the Doors?

I think we were playing at an ice skating rink, and they put wood over the ice and it was real cold. I hope that’s [not] an image of another city. That’s all I remember. Alice Cooper was in town and came over or something. Where did we stay? Brain cells. We were the psychedelic Rat Pack.

No memories of hitting the casino floor or partying?

No. I like blackjack, but I’m a moderate. I’m not an all-night, 3 a.m.-on-the-floor kind of guy. Jim [Morrison] was always an example of going too far, so it made me careful. I certainly dabbled and still do. Maybe that’s why I still can.

What are you dabbling in now?

Is pot legal in Nevada? You have the water [conservation] thing down [in Nevada], but the pot thing? I have a little wine, a little herb.

Did your latest book, Doors Unhinged, achieve what you hoped it would achieve?

I think so. It was my second self-centered memoir and it was a real struggle getting a pub deal. I had one and passed on a moderate amount of front money because they were going to destroy my new baby. I’m pleased when you self publish you have total control in terms of font and packaging … I am confident enough to say I have my voice in the literary scene. The length of a sentence is a musical question: If it’s short, it’s percussive; if it’s long, it’s melodic; and if it’s a run-on, you better edit.

Are you working on any new writing projects?

I have a bunch of books in my head. I am fooling around with the Huffington Post, sent an op-ed to the Los Angeles Times yesterday, knocking on wood.

What types of books are knocking around your head?

The fiction is the failed novel, which I’ve turned into a script, which I’m tweaking. I’ve met a lot of great musicians, and there’s a Russian mystic, Gurdjieff, he wrote a book called Meetings with Remarkable Men about gurus and stuff.  So I am fooling around on something called Meetings with Remarkable Musicians. I met and studied with Ravi Shankar and I met Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, so maybe each chapter would be one of those folks.

I came from a generation after the ’60s, and I’ve always wondered what it felt like to be inside the magic of that unique era.

The ’60s were a renaissance in music, movies, painting. There was a shadow side—the Vietnam War was looming on TV every night. It was exhilarating and frightening, I mean we were worried about being shipped off to Vietnam. The country was completely polarized, kind of like today. If you go down to Austin, it feels like the ’60s.

In your recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), you mentioned boob signing twice. How many boobs have you signed over the course of your career?

That’s not a nice question! A few, OK? My girlfriend and I have been together eight years, and we’re very happy.

If Jim were still alive, is there any chance he might have changed his mind about selling songs to advertisers?

That’s a $10,000 question. I can only go on what he did and thought when he was alive. Although I suppose, I mean, you read that book; Ray was saying that Jim was smart, he would’ve cashed in. That’s another speculation.

Back in the ’60s, the Doors were on the cutting edge of pop culture, with a focus on rock shamanism. Has your view of all the hippie-rocker accoutrements changed with today’s perspective?

Yes and no. The word “shaman,” Jim had it in one of his poems way back. I hadn’t even heard of the term. It wasn’t in vernacular population. He was reading about shamans in so-called primitive cultures, and I guess he became one, really. … I’m writing this script, and it’s about the ’60s, and I’m thinking about how corny bell bottoms look now. But when we were in it, we thought we were really cool.

How is your personal perspective different from that time?

Being old? In a blog I wrote for the Huff Post about a month ago I said, I’m almost 70; I’m allowed to be as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. … I am sad that more of the lessons of Vietnam weren’t learned.

Now that you’ve had both an estrangement and reunion with your bandmates, do you feel the lawsuit was worth it?

I didn’t like the estrangement. Suing my musical brothers was torture for five years, but I don’t regret it. The undercurrent of this whole book was the greed gene, money. I’ve been writing about disparity of wealth since 2002. I’ve been saying this gap is so huge, and it’s not healthy.

Has Ray’s death changed your feeling about The Doors: Unhinged book?

No, but it’s changed my listening to Doors songs. God, was Ray gifted. He was splitting his brain into two people. His left hand was the bass players and drummers. The other half was the keys. He wasn’t the fastest player, just as I wasn’t the fastest drummer. Guitars are always in the front line of rock ’n’ roll, and he brought the keyboard up to the front line. What a gift.

What’s your favorite dumb drummer joke?

You want to know if the stage is level, look at which side of his mouth the drummer is drooling.

John Densmore Book Signing

7 p.m. March 6 at Zia Records at 4503 W. Sahara Avenue. Purchase of The Doors: Unhinged required for signing, 233-4942.

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