Densmore sets the record(s) straight

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First Posted: 8/12/2013

Even after being estranged from the other surviving members of The Doors for years, all John Densmore can hear when he listens to their iconic tunes now is Ray Manzarek, who passed away earlier this year.

“When you make records, you learn how to isolate parts, like ‘Oh, that needs more bass.’ I’m just really zeroing in on Ray’s ability to split his brain into a left-handed bass player and a right-handed keyboard player. I’m really appreciating that and thinking, ‘Thank God that our mutual feel for music – because bass players and drummers are like brothers, cooking up the groove for the whole band – thank God it was the same.’ We just had the same love of jazz and feel for how to support Jim’s words,” Densmore told The Weekender in a phone interview last week.

“We all knew he had cancer, but we didn’t know it was going to be that rapid. Fortunately, I had reached out to him (before he passed).”

Densmore’s second book, “The Doors: Unhinged,” details the long court battle that he fought (with the help of the estate of lead singer Jim Morrison) over the legacy of The Doors’ music. The drummer did not want Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger to allow the music to be used in commercials, and he insisted that the band’s moniker not be used for touring purposes – no Morrison, no Doors. While his passion for retaining the integrity of the band may have cost him his friendships with Manzarek and Krieger at the time, he made sure to let them know that it wasn’t personal.

“I sent Ray and Robby the last chapter of the book with a note before it was publishing saying, ‘I want to make sure you guys get to this because it’s going to be a hard pill, but in this ending, I write about how I love you guys and how we created music bigger than all of us and we’re musical brothers.’ And then when I heard Ray was getting real serious with his illness, I called him and I told him I was thinking of him and drumming for his healing. We had closure, thank God,” Densmore recalled.

“He passed a few weeks later. And I stopped my book tour for a while. I hear his playing now and I’m just re-appreciating how unique and important and vital he was. The uniqueness – no one could do this left-handed bass, right-handed organ. The four of us were a great, lucky quartet.”

Meeting with Krieger again, he hopes to hold a benefit concert on Manzarek’s birthday in February of next year, but for now, he’s continuing his book tour, which has stopped at independent record stores across the country. The Gallery of Sound on Mundy Street in Wilkes-Barre is next on that tour; he’ll be signing copies of the book tonight at 7 p.m.

“I stumbled into doing a book tour at record stores because book stores are sort of disappearing. The record stores, the ones who’ve hung on after Borders kicked their butts and then Borders got its karma, they’ve diversified and they have vinyl and books and box sets and a sense of community, and I go to these places and I sell a lot of books and they get PR for their store. It’s been very successful. I’m real pleased,” Densmore said, noting the return of vinyl and its role in record store rival.

“The sound is better. It’s warmer than digital, so great! It’s not as convenient, but maybe people are getting more interested in sound. That’s a good thing… It’s very interesting. It’s like rebooting history here.”

Though best known as a musician, he finds that writing a book isn’t so different from sitting behind a drum kit, though it took him some time to hone his craft.

“After ‘Riders on the Storm,’ my first self-centered memoir,” he jokingly began, “I couldn’t say I was a writer. I didn’t have the confidence. I knew I was a musician, but now after years of smaller articles and now another book, I definitely have another avenue of creativity. But I would say the length of a sentence is a musical question because if it’s short, it’s percussive. If it’s long, it’s melodic or it’s a run-on and you better get it. So that’s kind of how music and writing tie together, I think. It’s kind of like a jazz improvisation.

“I’ve been joking that I’m now looking for the music in between sentences. Learning how to write is like learning the craft of how to play drums – everybody can write a little bit, so they think they can write, or everybody can talk, so they think they can act. Actually, acting and writing are a craft just like learning an instrument, and it takes years.”

After reading the New York Times bestseller “Riders on the Storm,” some may wonder why another book on The Doors was necessary, but Densmore felt he needed a “cathartic” release of his feelings at the time.

“I just couldn’t stomach the idea of The Doors without Jim, like The Police without Sting, the Stones without Mick. So I called Jim’s estate and we reluctantly entered this legal struggle to straighten that out. And after years of hassle and money, The Doors are back on their hinges,” he explained.

“On a personal level, it could be a mirror for other people’s personal lives or larger-scale states or nations or corporations. The undercurrent of this book is money, which is an incredibly volatile subject, and I knew I’d stir it up by getting into this.

“Money’s like fertilizer – when hoarded, it stinks. When spread around, things grow. I’m just trying to get this dialogue going. That’s why I did it.”

With music being more commercialized than ever today, Densmore believes that bands should make business decisions about their music carefully.

“I was countersued for not OKing songs to be used as commercials: ‘Break on through to a new deodorant.’ I say in this book, ‘Hey, if you’re a new band trying to pay the rent, do it if you have to. I understand that,’” he clarified.

“Say you’re a new band, you do some commercials, and then you kind of maybe get going, you get a toehold on success. You might want to revisit that decision. Tom Waits said, ‘Turning your lyrics into a jingle – do you want to do that?’ You’re messing with the meaning. But the music business is harder than ever, and I understand getting going. It’s a different world. It’s ringtones, etcetera.

“(Morrison) went nuts when we considered, ‘Come on Buick, light my fire.’ And he didn’t write those words primarily; he wrote a couple lines. ‘Our love become a funeral pyre,’ was his line, of course. But the rest of it was Robby’s, and so he went ballistic, so what does that say? That he really was concerned about the whole catalog, what we represented. I’m not going to forget that.”

Morrison’s passionate reaction to “selling out” even brought his father into the court case, and he took a surprising stance considering their past disagreements.

“His 86-year-old dad, the former rear admiral, came to his son’s defense at the end of his life. Actually, the admiral passed a few years ago. So I was just touched by this. This was someone that was fighting Vietnam, and we were against the war. And he stood up for his son’s legacy at the end there, so it was a healing of the ‘60s in a way,” Densmore pointed out.

So two books in, is there anything readers don’t know about the famous percussionist at this point?

“I think I’ve revealed too much already! My first book I dedicated to John Lennon, I think I said because of how he was courageous in showing his personal life as well as his public life. And I liked that. It’s good for people to know that celebrities have to go to the bathroom and get divorced and all the same struggles,” he acknowledged.

“Take them off the pedestal a little bit, I guess. I like that.”

There is one surprise to note, however. Even after accomplishing so much in his career, Densmore still has dreams of doing more, mainly to turn a fiction novel he wrote about someone who moves to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War into a script for a feature film.

“You’ve got to dream big, I guess,” he said.

“Movies cost millions of dollars. Getting people to go for that is really difficult, but I wrote this story that I really think would be good. It is good, and it’d make a good movie. Yeah, that’s the last pipe dream.”