John Densmore and How The Doors Became Unhinged
John Densmore is and always will be a founding member of, and drummer for The Doors– one of the greatest American rock bands of all time. When the band got together back in 1965, they agreed together that they would never do anything as a band, that all four of them didn’t agree on. After Morrison died disagreements arose between the surviving members about uses of the band’s name and songs. Lawsuits followed, and accusations were made. Densmore stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk about the experience, and the book he wrote about it all– “The Doors: Unhinged.” Excerpts of the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: The book is “The Doors: Unhinged”. Now, this works of course if you’re a fan of the Doors, but it also really works as a legal book. Some of it reflects like Kafka – what it’s like to find yourself in that hot seat in a big lawsuit. (John laughs)
John Densmore: Yeah. I think I describe being on the witness stand as being a puppet and lawyers are circling around you with sticks, verbally poking at you until they get what they want.
Ron Bennington: And this took place over a pretty long period of time. Obviously before the trial, takes years of paperwork and stuff. And then they can get you on the stand and have it not so much about the business deal between the Doors, but your personal and political views.
John Densmore: Well, when you have a weak case…we had a contract where we said we all own the name “The Doors”…so, what do you do? You character assassinate and scare the person you’re attacking.
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Densmore Talks About his Experience in Court Fighting with his Bandmates
Ron Bennington: But the interesting thing is – what would the judge think that had to do with it? If I was the judge, I would say what was the original deal that the Doors had as far as licensing went? And did anybody make any plans to change that? And if not, we’re still at the original deal.
John Densmore: Hey, when they asked me if I had funded al-Qaeda, the judge slammed his gavel a lot, trying to stop the silliness.
Ron Bennington: So, there came a certain point even for the judge where it went too far, but you did find yourself on the defensive about a lot of things that I would think that you would have pride in your life – different political stances that you had taken.
John Densmore: Well, yeah. I mean I wrote this article in “The Nation” about selling songs for commercials and they used the whole article as an exhibit in the trial against me, but I was proud of it. Tom Waits wrote a letter in response to it saying – “Stay pure John”. You change your lyrics, you’ve sold your audience and now they’re a jingle – that’s the sound of coins in your pocket.
Ron Bennington: Well, because of that stance, the lawyers actually tried to say – if you’re anti-corporation, if money is not your primary place that you’re working towards, that that’s somewhat of an anti-American stance that you’ve taken. Isn’t strange that we’re at that point now?
John Densmore: Well yeah, but then my lawyer said – John, you like to make money, don’t you? And I said – hell, yeah. But I suppose…well, let’s get provocative. Maybe it’s anti-American not to be greedy – or anti-patriotic or something. That’s what they threw at me. And I love America.
Ron Bennington: Well, this is…the tough part of that is – here the Doors made this great, great music and it has outlasted what most bands could ever hope for in terms of a legacy. Only 4 guys know what it’s like to have been in those rooms, making that music, out on tour. You lost Jim years ago, but these 2 other brothers of yours – you guys could not sit down and talk. You’re at the point now where it ended up in the courts.
John Densmore: Ron, we’re talking again. We’ve begun the healing. But when they went off with the name, it was a frustrating time. That’s for sure. And hardcore fans thought I was messing up the band they love, but that’s why I wrote this book. Read it and you’ll see I was trying to preserve the legacy of the purity of what we represented from the beginning.
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Densmore Talks About How Jim Morrison’s Family Felt About the Case
Ron Bennington: I thought it was also interesting that Morrison’s family sided with you on this.
John Densmore: That was such a blessing. I could never have imagined. I met Jim’s mom. She came to one gig. But I had never met his dad and he said they were deceased in his bio, (laughs) because the 60′s you know, the Vietnam War and his dad was in Vietnam fighting and we wrote “The Unknown Soldier” against the war. And here they come knowing that – wait a minute, our son’s legacy is being messed with. The Doors without our son? Uh-Uh. And they stood up at 86 years old.
Ron Bennington: That’s amazing.
John Densmore: It was a beautiful moment.
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Densmore Talks About Why the Doors Were Successful
John Densmore: We were blessed. Everybody brought their own ingredient. I brought jazz. Ray, classical and blues from Chicago. Robbie, flamenco. Jim read every book on the planet, so he was the literary dude. So, it was a great American melting pot. Basically, it was the drumming that made it all happen. (laughs)
Ron Bennington: It was all about the drumming. But it was one of those things that couldn’t have been planned. Like if we sat down and said – oh, here’s the perfect recipe for a band – you’re not going to be able to recreate that.
John Densmore: Here’s my formula for success. It’s 3 parts and in this order. First – luck. Timing, you know? Because there’s many talented people that are nowhere. And a lot of famous people that are no talent. So, second is chutzpah. Hustle and then talent.
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Densmore Talks About the Impact the Doors Have on Different Generations
Ron Bennington: The weird thing is all the stuff that was happening. Obviously, Jim had his own problems that he dealt with. But to look back in that short period of time – how many song were written, how many songs were recorded, that now are absolute classics. And unlike a lot of people’s music, as much as the Doors sound like the 60′s – it’s also timeless. So kids who grew up in the 70′s fell in love with that music. 80′s, 90′s, today, I’ll have interns and I’ll be like – they’re like 20 years old and who are your favorite bands? The Doors are on the list. It’s insane.
John Densmore: Well, somehow Jim has to help each generation cut the umbilical cord. Father, Mother.
Ron Bennington: It’s all part of that, isn’t it? There’s a certain time. A certain time of a kid’s life when they hear that music and need to hear it. But oddly, you guys weren’t all that aware of it at the time, right?
John Densmore: No. You’re just doing your thing. I mean “The End” when Jim presented it to us – he just sang these words and he had no chords, didn’t know what to do and it was just like a little love song. (singing) This is the end, beautiful friend. And then later, over time it evolved into this epic apocalyptic thing.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. It became a piece of theater. And I don’t know whether rock music had had anything like that before.
John Densmore: A wonderful journalist, Anthony DeCurtis, testified for me and he said – you know, if the Doors had okayed “The End” for an Oscar Mayer wiener commercial, I don’t think Coppola would have done it.
Ron Bennington: Right. That’s true. Well, that’s the amazing thing about the way Coppola first used “The End” – it’s like it was almost written for that scene. It’s such a cinematic song to begin with that you needed that great director to kind of partner up with it.
John Densmore: And a great artist like Jim writes stuff that becomes universal and interpreted many ways. I mean I’m pretty sure he wasn’t thinking about the Vietnam War when he wrote…what is that section Francis used? “Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain, everybody’s insane, looking for the Summer rain”. And Jim was just kind of writing about tortured interior stuff. But man, you see it with this footage of the jungle burning and whoa! Visceral.
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Densmore Talks About Jim Morrison
Ron Bennington: Yeah. Jim was such a different kind of person. When I watched…I think the last documentary that was done a couple of years ago.
John Densmore: Johnny Depp?
Ron Bennington: Yeah, the one Johnny Depp was on.
John Densmore: “When You’re Strange”.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. And I got to see that on the big screen. And I was looking at Jim’s eyes a lot in the backstage thing and sometimes he seemed so disconnected of what was going on around him. And Griel Marcus who has written about you guys, was in here and I said – do you think that he could have had some type of Autism? That there was something different. And Greil was definitely against that since he had written about it so much, but there was always a sense that Jim wasn’t a 100% here on this planet, I think – that there was something that was here and not here at the same time.
John Densmore: Yeah. He was channeling the gods. But he didn’t seem spaced out unless he was loaded. Yeah.
Ron Bennington: But was there ever a time when he was like a regular guy?
John Densmore: Yeah, in the beginning. He was a regular college kid who was funny and how do we make it, John? And what do we do? And I said – how do you get your hair to go like that? And he said – wash it and don’t comb it. So, I said – okay. (laughs)
Ron Bennington: So, he enjoyed the business part of it as well? He wanted the band to be successful.
John Densmore: Sure. Yeah, yeah, he did, but not in the sense of making dough. I know he wanted to make an impression. He wanted to say something about what it was like being human during this time. That was his main deal and that’s what I love him for.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, it’s not like he used his money buy houses or something. There wasn’t some kind of Elvis thing going on, right?
John Densmore: (laughs) That’s really good, Ron. So, Ray and I and Robbie are buying houses and cars. And he like, is at a motel. Gotta love the guy. (laughs)
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Densmore Talks About Creativity
Ron Bennington: The book is “The Doors: Unhinged” and it’s about really a couple of different things. I think it’s a legacy of what art means. What art means to us – does it have any value just beyond the normal commerce?
John Densmore: Well, that’s…I quote this book “The Gift” where Lewis Hyde says – a work of art has a receiver and there’s a gift going between the two. And it’s okay if you pay for an opera ticket or a concert ticket, but if you if turn the entire work of art into a commodity – whoop, you’ve lost the gift. Smart.
Ron Bennington: You also even talk about the muse and when it shows up. And how much of that even belongs to the artist to begin with.
John Densmore: Well yeah, you can’t nail that down. You just pray. And that’s why, even with our struggles, I love Ray and Robbie because we were blessed in the garage by the muse.
Ron Bennington: Right. Well, you go back and there’s that thing in the “When You’re Strange” movie where Jim’s fallen off the thing and the band jumps into this other place. And you just see these 3 individuals go to some place musically because they have to. And sitting there watching that…because I never got a chance to see you guys really play live – you get the sense that these are 3 guys that are just phenomenally great musicians and somehow connected to each other. I mean it was really…
John Densmore: Whoa. I feel helium, Ron. Thank you. And beyond that, it took 3 guys to support the energy coming out of Morrison. And we were on it. We were his safety net the whole way.
Ron Bennington: And if you looked at that – you probably couldn’t have taken anybody out of that band and had it be the Doors.
John Densmore: Thank you Ron.
Ron Bennington: You could have taken a great guitar player, brought him in and you guys wouldn’t have been the Doors.
John Densmore: Well that’s why I struggled through this legal thing - to get it back to Jim, Ray, Robbie, John. Not Ray, Robbie, Ian, Stewart, Tom, Fred and Marcia.
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Densmore Talks About His Book Tour
John Densmore: Well, these music stores – they’re real passionate about the music. And that’s what the book is kind of about – integrity, about what the music means. And I love these stores. So, I’m down.
Ron Bennington: Alright. On April 21st, you’re going to be at Porter Square Books in Boston. The 22nd – the Record Archive in Rochester and then Vintage Vinyl in Fords, New Jersey on April 23rd. You can check all this out through johndensmore.com. But I guess you hear from people on a pretty constant level about their relationship with the music that you guys made. Because the Doors are one of those bands that is such an incredibly personal relationship.
John Densmore: Yeah. Over the years, I’ve heard it’s the soundtrack to people’s lives – that the first time they made love, they were in Vietnam and it helped them or whatever. So, I can’t let that go and be turned into “Come On Buick, Light My Fire” or “Break On Through To a New Deodorant”. Here’s the best one of all – thank God, Johnny Cash’s estate had the wisdom not to let the song about depression, that classic song “Ring of Fire” be used for a hemorrhoid commercial. Oh my God. And my last sentence to that chapter was – May Johnny’s sphincter burning rest in peace.
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Ron Bennington: John Densmore. The book is “The Doors: Unhinged”. Go check it out at johndensmore.com. On Twitter, it’s @johndensmore. It’s so great to meet you and have the opportunity to say thank you for this music and obviously, thank for the book. I think it’s just great that people…it gives people a chance to talk about just art itself. Because we’ve gotten so far away from that in this country.
John Densmore: As Dylan wrote – money doesn’t talk, it swears. So, watch out.
Ron Bennington: And I really do hope that you and Ray and Robbie find that bridge because again, who else knows what it’s like to be the Doors, but you three guys. And I do hope that for all of you guys.
John Densmore: Hey, thanks for your conscience, Ron.
Ron Bennington: Alright. I’ll see you next time coming through, John.
Buy The Doors Unhinged at JohnDensmore.com and Follow John on Twitter @JohnDensmore.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews atRonBenningtonInterviews.com.