Interview: The Doors’ John Densmore Talks Eddie Vedder, Jim Morrison & More

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On Valentine’s Day, I had the pleasure to speak with John Densmore, legendary drummer of The Door, alongside my father Joe, a lifelong Doors fanatic. John had been embroiled in legal turmoil for the better part of the decade with the other surviving members of The Doors in the name of maintaining the integrity of the band’s discography; his book The Doors: Unhinged is a great read that recounts all the gritty details in the courtroom with a dash of humor and lots of sage-like insight.

Hey John, to start off, will you be taking your solo project, Tribal Jazz, to the east coast after the snow thaws? 

Tribal Jazz is kind of on the shelf right now. It will resurface… I don’t know. It could be a year.

I see the shows have been delayed, but are there any developments on getting together and performing with Robby Krieger? Is that something that will happen this year? 

Yeah, I really hope so. You know, its hard corralling famous musicians together, one night in one city.

Your new book, The Doors: Unhinged, has a very theatrical feel to it. It blended drama, comedy, and courtroom thriller all in one neat package. What would you think about a potential movie adaptation of it? 

[laughs] Several people have said that. Well… I mean, it might be really cool, but getting permission from everyone to do it would be difficult… it probably would be.

Right.

After reading it, you could tell. I said to Ray and Robby, six months before it was published, that the book would be a very hard pill to swallow. But I made it clear that it had a note in the last chapter saying to them “you’re my musical brothers”. Making a movie out of it, getting the okay, I think would be hard… but I like it. [laughs] “Courtroom drama”. [laughs]

The unanimous agreement model that the Doors followed, dictating that every member of the band had an equal say in major decisions, do you believe that its a pipe dream in today’s music industry?  

Pretty much, unless there’s a situation where one of the principal guys doesn’t really know how to write songs and asks for everyone else’s share, figuring out how to do that, therefor unfairly splitting out all the fruits of the labor.

I see a very similar legal situation going on with STP, difference obviously being the frontman that is the source of the problem is still alive. They reportedly signed a contract dictating that equal say model early in their career. 

What band?

Stone Temple Pilots, lead singer Scott Weiland.

Oh, right. That’s the thing about art. You get so high making it, and then you get so sick trying to sell it.

I remember from as far back as the PBS special from ’69 that you enjoyed improvising musically while Jim improvised lyrically. Which songs were your favorite ones to play?

Well, I mean Light My Fire has a long improvisational jazz section with solos by Ray and Robby. That was always new, kind of different each time. That was fun. “When The Music’s Over” has this long section where Jim could just do anything, we would just jam. Then I’d play around with what he’s saying while also keeping the beat, that was pretty fun. “The End” was exhausting. I always had to take a big, deep breath because it was so intense.

[laughs]  You probably never knew how long it was gonna go on for until you got the signal from somebody. 

Well, I mean there were sections in “The End” that were improv’d that would go on for too long, or too short. It was just plain heavy. But it was fun, you know, to scare everybody.

[Joe] A segue from that was something else I remember you saying from an 80′s era documentary. I’m paraphrasing here, so forgive me. Basically, you said that your impact on the audience was that you killed them 90% of the time, and 10% of the time you didn’t because of technical problems. You saw that hit miss ratio getting worse as you watched your friend Jim disintegrate. At what point, if you care to share, on that journey were you looking to get off the road to keep the integrity of its art intact? 

The third album. That was the struggle. Because, first of all, we had already written two albums before we even went into the recording studio. After success, you don’t even have time to write anymore. We were struggling with songs in the studio. And Jim was drinking more and more, it was like Jim  was becoming a kamikaze. But I found my path in life… “oh shit, what am I gonna do?” I started lobbying to get off the road. I hated seeing the erosion of such a good live band. I hoped that we would get off the road for a while and things would change. We’d still make great records.  We didn’t have clinics. We didn’t know Jim had a disease called alcoholism. But I also changed my answer in the last year, as to whether I’d think if Jim was around now, if he would be clean and sober. Why not? I used to say “no”. All hellbent. Now I look at Clapton, I look at Eminem, an angry, creative guy like Jim… why not? Its a different time.

[Joe] There’s so many more tools available for this now, I know from my own family experiences there’s so many more programs and access that weren’t around at the time. 

But, at the same time, you got Philip Seymour. [sighs]

 On a lighter note, you guys have collaborated with Eddie Vedder often. 

We only did once, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since then I personally have sat in with Eddie a couple times.

I was wondering if he was invited to the VH1 Storytellers show, with the guest vocalists. 

Boy… was Pearl Jam going strong by then? If they were we should’ve asked him!

Yeah, however by that point I think Creed was the most popular band in the world. Pearl Jam were still at the top of their game, though. I wanna say they were releasing Yield when the show was recorded. 

Well, now we know between Pearl Jam and Creed who has the longevity. [laughs all around]

Are there any modern artists that you are listening to at the moment? 

You know, guys, I’m not in the loop musically… I’m don’t really know what’s going on out there.

I saw you quoted Arcade Fire a few times in your book.

Arcade Fire, right. They’re pretty good. Man, what else.

[Joe] I saw from a recent post on Facebook that your first kit was a four piece Gretch… what do you play today? 

Yeah, that was my VERY first kit. Then I went to a Ludwig, and I still have two Ludwig silver snare drums. Piccolo and the regular size, I love them. I got into Pearl tom toms, you know, just eclectic stuff. I’m way into hand drums, you know, various Doumbek, Djembe, that stuff.

Ray’s birthday was a few days ago, was there anything you reminisced about the Doors’ heyday on that date? 

The late, great Ray crossed over… I hear his playing with new ears. You know, he was a great friend and a bandmate, I almost took for granted what he was doing. And now that he’s gone, I listen. He’s irreplaceable. Damn, just so unique. I think about how his left hand was bass, and bass players and drummers are the rhythm section… my god, we felt the groove. Identical. Otherwise, the band was a flop, because the pocket has to be right. That’s a blessing, Ray’s left hand. He could split his brain and have his right hand be Ray Manzarek. Very cool. He came from boogie-woogie, in Chicago, he did that with his left hand as a kid. So he said, “damn, my left hand is kinda dumb.”

[Joe] I recently had seen a Led Zeppelin commercial, where they were playing “Whole Lotta Love” for a fragrance. I think for the first time I really did understand, even moreso, the magic of a song can be lost. Hearing the song going forward, I can never separate the fact that I heard it in a commercial. 

Haven’t you heard?

What’s that?

Led Zeppelin, along with Dylan, are broke. [awkward silence all around] Its a joke. [laughter erupts] I got you guys. I love that line by the Nine Inch Nails singer…

Trent Reznor. 

Yeah, he said… “every time I hear that fucking Zeppelin song I think of a car now.” You know, like I’d write in The Doors: Unhinged, people can do what they want. “I don’t care if you fell in love with Shirley to the song, I can do what I want with it!” I do think I should say, I called Tom Waits. He would say “you should just change your lyrics into a jingle”.

[Doug] I guess some people don’t realize how special their music can be to others. Your music resonated with my father to a point he took my name “Douglas” from “James Douglas Morrison”. 

Ah, cool.

So, we’ve run through just about all of our questions!

So, you guys are from New York? Well I’m gonna be back there running around… I’m a guest professor, Professor Densmore, gonna be waxing on at a college in Jersey. I just called a guy to see if its open to the public. Also, I’ll be running around, hopefully doing shows and whatnot.

Well, we hope to see you soon, thank you for your time!

All the best.