Written by: Paul Gleason
It goes without saying that John Densmore is one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock and roll.
Influenced by drummer Elvin Jones of the John Coltrane Quartet and other great jazz and rock and roll drummers, Densmore brought a jazz sensibility to The Doors, when they formed in 1965. Along with bandmates Jim Morrison on vocals, Ray Manzarek on keyboards, and Robby Krieger on guitar, Densmore helped craft a new kind of rock and roll—one that relied on jazz improvisation and hard-driving rock and roll.
Indeed, the experimental tendencies and high intelligence of all four Doors resulted in some of the most intriguing, timeless, and spiritually liberating music in the history of rock and roll. As their many classic albums and songs indicate, the band had the ability to use their music to—to quote William Blake, one of Morrison’s favorite poets and the man whose poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell gave the group its name—cleanse humanity of the false perceptions that prevent it from seeing its “infinite” nature.
Densmore’s written two excellent memoirs—Riders on the Storm and, most recently, The Doors Unhinged—that derive from his unabashed belief in humanity’s ability to discover its infinite nature.
This belief comes through in The Doors Unhinged, in which Densmore defends his decision to keep The Doors’ music free of the corrupting influence of what he calls the “greed gene.” More specifically, he compellingly recounts the decade-long lawsuit that pitted him against his bandmates Manzarek and Krieger to ensure that the music wouldn’t be corrupted by being used to advertise corporate commodities and that the keyboardist and guitarist not reform and tour using the name “The Doors.”
Densmore sat down with Stereo Embers to talk about The Doors Unhinged, meditation, the recent death of Manzarek, the music of John Coltrane and Elvin Jones, Native American mythology and poetry, politics, the “greed gene,” and the important social role of Elders like Bonnie Raitt, Patti Smith, and Carlos Santana. During the course of the conversation, Densmore revealed the wisdom, integrity, and compassion that make him one of our greatest Elders.
SEM: You quote Patti Smith’s Just Kids at the beginning of your new book, The Doors Unhinged. She talks about the spiritual components of music. I wanted to begin by asking you about your spiritual background. I knew that you grew up Catholic, but then you met Ray Manzarek in a transcendental meditation class . . .
JD: I didn’t go to Catholic school, but I went to catechism—parochial studies on the weekend—and still got the hint of sin and guilt! So I became a renegade Catholic—I don’t know if you ever get rid of it. As I wrote in Riders on the Storm, I found more impact from LSD than the communion wafer at mass. I knew that that medicine was so strong and hard on the nervous system that meditation would—it’s a long lifetime route—achieve the same effects. That’s where I did meet Ray.
It’s interesting that the Maharishi kind of brought The Doors together. It’s funny how the Fab Four are doing the same thing—we haven’t met them, and there’s no Internet, so we’re not connected or anything—and we are all experimenting with psychedelics, which were legal then. And then we stumble into meditation. I think it’s really cool. At first I was like, “Oh, my God.” You know, we were a couple years ahead of The Beatles with TM. I thought our secret little ritual was going to be exposed to the world via The Beatles, but that’s a good thing because drugs were coming in pretty strong and pretty soon. People were making the transition from pot to cocaine—wrong, wrong, wrong mistake. And so meditation was really good to become a phenomenon worldwide—still is.
SEM: Did The Doors’ interest in meditation have an influence on the communal spirit of the group and, more specifically, on your decision to share equally songwriting credit?
JD: It came from Jim’s inability to play one chord on any instrument. He was so insecure about how to write a song, although he had not only lyrics, but he used melodies to remember the lyrics, so he was a natural songwriter, even though he didn’t know how to structure anything. “Hey, let’s just split everything, let’s do this all together and not even credit me as the lyricist.” I think it came from insecurity, actually.
SEM: So, in a way, your book deals with a line from insecurity to integrity in the music . . .
JD: Yeah, it’s very cool that you catch that quotation from Patti Smith’s autobiography, where she’s talking about when the punk-thing was just bubbling under. We were the hippies, I guess, and there were a few precious years—1965 to 1967—which I would call the 60s—the rest of it is not it! The first half of the 60s was really the 50s, and in ’68 and ’69 people got into cocaine, and they were missing it. It was whatever she said in that quote: she was worried about the spiritual fiber of rock and roll. That’s why the punks came in and kind of just shocked everybody—it was the new movement to keep integrity in the middle, the through line.
SEM: Do you see The Doors as a predecessor to punk rock, maybe through Patti?
JD: Yeah. You know, Ray produced X, and they were kind of an early cutting-edge punk thing. We should talk about Ray a little bit, too, you know?
SEM: Sure. I didn’t know if I should touch upon that or not.
JD: That’s okay. The inner circle knew he had cancer, but we didn’t know it was that bad. I sent him—Robby [Krieger] and Ray—the last chapter of Unhinged, and I made a note that said I want to make sure you get to this because the first part of the book will be a hard pill, but this is where I talk about our incredible musical connection, and how I love you guys—and how could I not? We created this thing in a garage that became so huge. And then when Ray got really critical, I called him—and we hadn’t spoken in many years due to this litigation—and I said that I was drumming for his healing. And he was telling me how chemo was fucked, and how he was going to Germany—and I had heard Germany was cutting edge for alternative cancer treatments. And so it was a healing, a closing—I didn’t know that two weeks later he’d pass—but I’m very grateful that we had that phone call.
SEM: Do you mind talking about what you actually said in the call?
JD: Nothing more than what I said; it was short. Not too much more. He thanked me for my prayers and drumming for him. I said, “Give my love to Dorothy.” He sounded weak but optimistic about Germany—about the alternative approach. That’s about it, really.
SEM: I can relate. I had cancer myself when I was three. And now I’m 39. And it kind of came back because the chemo affected my heart, so now I have congestive heart failure.
JD: What’s up with your health now?
SEM: Well, it’s a day-to-day thing. I take medication, do the right thing, and exercise as much as I can.
JD: So what’s the prognosis?
SEM: The prognosis is that we don’t know. I was diagnosed in ’01—when I was 28—and I had a relapse in ’09, then I got listed for a heart transplant.
JD: Relapse meaning you felt…?
SEM: I felt that—congestive heart failure is a set of symptoms that hits you—and I believe that is what Jim technically died of, isn’t it?
JD: You know, he might of.
SEM: Yeah, if he had water retention, it can come from alcohol abuse. I’m talking about symptoms like water retention, looking bloated, a lot of weight gain—I had all that. And it came back in ’09. I was hospitalized, they worked me up for a transplant, but my heart improved, so now I’m doing well enough.
What I wanted to say about your music is that is always helped me see through those hard times. I remember being in the hospital in ’09 and listening to The Soft Parade—of all things. I don’t know why that album seemed like the perfect album for being in a hospital in Milwaukee in 2009.
JD: I was in Salt Lake City, and this lady came up and gave me a book and said, “I wrote this.” And I went, “Oh, great.” And she said if you autograph your book for me, I’ll autograph mine for you. It was about her operations and medical problems, and her through line were these visions of Jim coming into the hospital and talking to her. It was really touching.
SEM: Two groups helped me, actually—The Doors and one of your favorites, the John Coltrane quartet with Elvin Jones. I found that The Doors and Coltrane provided spiritual sustenance.
JD: Coltrane had a song called “Spiritual,” and you can just feel the reverence. He was very affected by Ravi Shankar, and what fed all of us rockers was the whole Indian mythology, and all of that.
SEM: Is there a tonality to that kind of modal music—and I know you guys do it on “The End”—that kind of lifts our consciousness in some way?
JD: Well, music is this vibration, and it can affect you. They’ve done experiments where they’ve played classical music and plants grow, and some heavy metal or whatever and plants grow a little weak—I’m not saying all heavy metal; I’m not going there! I think the intention of the composer sends out a vibration to the listener.
SEM: What is your favorite Coltrane track that features Elvin?
JD: I used to listen to this track called “Out of This World.” You know that one?
SEM: What record is that on?
JD: I think it’s just called Coltrane—with the blue cover. It’s an old song. It’s just the usual quartet, but I used to play it on my drum set all the time, with the record blasting, just trying to get into Elvin’s skin. It’s hard to say one song—just like people say what’s your favorite Doors’ song…I’ve got about ten!
Here’s another one—speaking of healing music—“Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” and there’s a beautiful ballad called “After the Rain,” and it really gives you that feeling that you get after it rains.
SEM: That’s one of my favorites! I keep a poster of Coltrane on my wall just to kind of remind me of what the true mission of life should be.
JD: A Love Supreme!
SEM: That record came out in 1964, so that’s right before you guys got together. Were the other guys into jazz as much as you were?
JD: Well, Ray was. Ray and I related on that. It’s interesting, A Love Supreme came out in 1964, and I guess it kind of jumpstarted the “flower power” 60s.
SEM: And you guys got together in 1965, so you would have been listening to that at the time. So take me to the garage. What was it like being in there with the other three guys—I know you said that Jim couldn’t play a note . . .
JD: Four guys really hopeful, young, naïve, I guess college kids—Ray was a little older, a little bit more fatherly. But, we were just thinking 24/7 how to launch this boat. That’s it, really. Just completely passionate all the time about what were doing—not knowing we we’re going to last. I hoped we’d last 10 years, now it’s 40 or 50—my hair’s gray, I don’t know what’s going on (laughs).
SEM: So much has been mythologized about you guys—in the Oliver Stone film, and all the biographies I’ve read.
JD: Oliver’s movie is good, and Val Kilmer is amazing. It was just about the tortured artist. And I’m pleased that the documentary, When You’re Strange, which Johnny Depp narrated, has a little more footage of the 60s—you get a feel of the era. It completes the picture.
SEM: I love that film! The editor of our magazine, Alex Green, is a friend of Tom DiCillo, the writer and director of the film.
JD: So here’s my plan. That film—Rhino spent millions making it but didn’t spend any money promoting it. And it was in the theaters for a minute. People called me and asked, “Where’s it playing?” Rhino didn’t take out any ads! And then it was on PBS American Masters—which is great. Too quick. So here’s my deal: I’m going to press for a year or two, a sort of a re-release, midnight movies a la the Rocky Horror Picture cult thing. And have it shown every weekend at 11 pm. I don’t know—I’m trying to get it re-looked at.
SEM: Do you think people just missed it?
JD: I think a lot of people missed it, and I’m really proud of it.
SEM: It’s on Netflix now I think. I watch it all the time. I think it’s a phenomenal piece and that Depp was a great choice of narrator. The footage is just astonishing.
JD: There’s a spiritual element because Tom made a choice to have footage of Jim with the beard throughout the film—and not explain it. So it’s sort of like this hitchhiker is looking for the film as he’s walking through the film. And one reviewer at Sundance stormed out in the first few minutes, and Tom had to run out ask, “What’s your problem?” And the guy said, “You cast an actor as Jim.” No, no, no! (laughs). So I like that.
SEM: What do you make of that imagery in the context of the film. There’s a sort of Dionysian scapegoat, Christ-like thing going on there; but at the same time there’s the “Riders on the Storm,” killer on the road. Any ideas on that?
JD: Jim threw that in because the song was written around the time Manson was terrorizing Los Angeles.
SEM: There’s something about the Christ-like image with the beard, though, especially in the baptismal imagery, when Jim goes swimming. Do you remember that part?
JD: That is at a very spiritual place up in the hills in Palm Springs, with hot springs. Which is a Native American reservation, and they went up there and shot. Speaking of the spiritual and Native American—that’s the thread through Jim’s psyche.
SEM: It’s also one of the threads in The Doors Unhinged. I just flipped to page 73—“Turning a Prophet”—and you quote the poet John Trudell. Would you please tell me a little bit about his work?
JD: There are two albums, which were both produced by Jackson Browne. One’s called Graffiti Man. And the last one, a few years back, is called Blue Indian—which won a NAMA, the Native American Music Award. Both albums are jewels.
SEM: What makes them jewels?
JD: Trudell is a wonderful poet. He doesn’t really sing; he just talks. But he’s very powerful. He was in the shootout at Wounded Knee. It’s just really great arrangements—Jackson, you know, knows how to make records. Just really good well-done important stuff. Under the radar, but I’m glad you asked.
SEM: Would you tell me about the impact of shamanism on his work and on The Doors?
JD: Yeah, that’s good because Jim had the word shaman in one of his poems way back when, and it was not in the collective vocabulary—in fact, I didn’t know what the fuck it meant. What is a shaman? But Jim knew about that stuff before anybody.
SEM: That was back when he was writing his early poetry. So it wasn’t a part of the counterculture at the time.
JD: He studied Native American mythology and brought that through.
SEM: Is that what turned you onto it?
JD: Yeah, sure!
CITC: What do you take away from shamanism?
JD: Well, now it’s overused. In America we co-opt everything. You just have to use your intuition to see which one’s are real or doing what Patti Smith was talking about in that quote.
SEM: She writes, “ We fear that the music, which had given us sustenance, was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, financed in vapid, technical complexity.”
JD: Financed—getting mired in financed. You need to have your antennae out to see which shamans are looking for a buck.
SEM: Yeah, so that leads to a question about acts from the 1960s. I look at groups like The Stones, and I don’t understand why they’re still doing what they’re doing, and it seems like Patti is almost critiquing people like that. The Stones seem to be in it to make money . . .
JD: The Stones— they were our idols in the early days. I understand them continuing to play because they love music, but they haven’t written anything terrible important lately, and—I’m really going to get shit for this—I hope rock and roll was not just made to make rock stars rich. I got nervous with turning down the 15 million from Cadillac. I read the statistics every year of whoever—The Stones, McCartney. Oh, well they’ve grossed 100 million in a week—and this isn’t even in record royalties. I mean the obscenity of the amount of dough that is being earned—I say obscenity because, on my soapbox in this book, I say, “Money is like fertilizer, when hoarded it stinks. But when spread around stuff grows.” So wait a minute: why aren’t all these rockers that are extremely rich spreading it around? I mean really spreading it around, like changing the fucking world with it.
SEM: Well, they could. That’s where I’ve noticed hypocrisy in what they do. On paper a lot of them support left-wing causes. But you, Bonnie Raitt, and some of the other people you write about in your book actually go out and do the work.
JD: But even if they wrote checks and didn’t get arrested—like I do occasionally (laughs)—that still would help. It’s this corny old tithing routine. If a billionaire tithed 10 percent, that’s a lot of dough; and if a poor person did, that would be 10 dollars. And the playing field—it’s never going to be completely level because it’s a hierarchical world and there will always be doctors and lawyers. But if the doctors could be more generous—I mean metaphorically here—we could level the playing field quite a bit more.
SEM: Do you think that’s actually possible without a violent revolution? I was out there with you, in Occupy, protesting . . .
JD: Yeah. It’s got to be non-violent.
CITC: I agree.
JD: People on the streets are democracy in action. When it becomes huge amounts of people, the government gets nervous and the clubs come down—they are the ones who usually start the violence.
SEM: That’s what happened in ’68 in Chicago. I was thinking about that. I wrote in my review of your book that Unhinged was really a critique of capitalism. It does seem to me to be that way.
JD: I think the next step is conscious capitalism. Hard-conscious capitalism would be capitalism with some regulations. It’s mucking with it but not disrupting the natural flow. Look at it. The gap between the rich and the poor is the biggest ever, we’re polluting the planet…we need regulations! The greed gene!
SEM: Do you think that the Obama administration contributes to the “greed gene?”
JD: I can’t imagine what would have happened if Romney was in there. I think it would have been like the Bush 8 years or worse. Now I’m going to get killed by middle-America…I don’t know, man. The Door’s Unhinged is about money in a way, and maybe rich Republicans could—maybe that’s my audience!
SEM: I think the coolest part of your book is when you talk about Elders and how important they are in our lives. So I’m wondering who you see right now in contemporary music, and maybe in politics, actually operating as an Elder?
JD: Yeah. Well, Bonnie Raitt is a wonderful Elder.
SEM: What about Patti Smith?
SEM: And probably Carlos Santana?
JD: Yeah! I mean here’s this guy who’s a Latino acid head and has the Milagro Foundation, which takes inner-city kids to organic gardens and to the beach—out into nature. It’s so together that he gets grants of several-hundred thousand dollars from the likes of the Kellogg Foundation. They all give money to crazy Carlos! That’s because he’s together, he’s a visionary; he gets giving back.
SEM: What does it take for somebody of his stature to get giving back?
JD: I don’t think that it takes much because if you do a little then you go, “Oh, my God! This is as good as getting high! I feel so good, since I have a little more than I need, helping someone who needs a hand up—not a hand out. Man, this feels good.” We’re educated wrong to be selfish.
SEM: Yeah, we’ve kind of externalized the system that’s around us.
JD: Why are we of a species giving consciousness? Why? What the fuck is that for? Oh, maybe to try to nurture compassion. Animals just do what they do—kill for food. And maybe we are supposed to thank the food before we kill it. We’re supposed to go, “Oh, I’m grateful for all this.”