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Shedding Light in the Darkness

The Doors – A Reminiscence with Drummer John Densmore

600px-The_Doors_1968In 2012 “Breakn’ a Sweat” was heralded as a new song by The Doors, their first since 1972. The surviving members of one of the greatest, most influential bands of our time collaborated with DJ/producer Skrillex for a song featured in the documentary “ReGeneration,” about fusing music from disparate genres.

In a Rolling Stone article keyboardist Ray Manzarek declared: “This is the first new Doors track of the 21st century.”

The band’s drummer John Densmore smiles when asked about the project. “We’re estranged,” he explained in 2012 over dinner in Napili on Maui in my interview with him for The Maui News.  “We weren’t in the same room. Our manager complained because they made it look like we were all happy together. I have a new memoir coming out and at the end of this book I offer an olive branch, telling them why I love them. We created something bigger than all of us. And I will forever be indebted.”

Densmore has fought hard to preserve the legacy and integrity of the band that was so pivotal in his life. He has resisted all attempts to commercialize their music and prevented the other surviving band members from touring as The Doors.

“Tom Waits has a blurb on the back of my new book,” he continued. “It says: ‘John Densmore is not for sale and that’s his gift to us.’”

It has galled many fans that their favorite music – songs considered almost sacred – has been co-opted to sell a range of products.
The Beatles “All You Need is Love” for Luv’s diapers, and “Revolution” to market Nike sneakers (against Paul McCartney’s wishes, “the song was about revolution, not bloody tennis shoes,” he complained.”)

Buffalo Springfield’s anti-establishment anthem “For What It’s Worth” flogging Miller beer. The irony of Chase Bank using John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.” The Who’s “teenage wasteland” classic “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” pitching Nissan Maximas.

Jefferson Airplane’s revolutionary screed “Volunteers” hawking Tommy Hilfiger. And Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changing” promoting an accounting firm!

But when Apple wanted to pay $4 million for a Doors tune, and Cadillac once offered $15 million for the rights to “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” Densmore nixed the proposals.
“I heard that even Roger Waters went, ‘oh my god, $15 million?” he
reports laughing.

In an article in The Nation published in 2002, Densmore suggested that the commercial use of their music would violate its original intent. “I am reminded of the sound of greed, trying to talk me into not vetoing a Doors song for a cigarette ad in Japan,” he wrote “I stuck to my guns thinking about the karma if we did it.”

So how can one musician wield such veto power?
Back when The Doors formed in 1965, while Jim Morrison conjured the lyrics and Densmore, keyboardist Manzarek and guitarist Robbie Krieger crafted the music, they agreed to share all composing rights.

“Because Jim couldn’t play one chord on any instrument he said, ‘let’s split all the money, let’s call it music by The Doors,’” Densmore
explains.

And there’s a precedent established by the band’s iconic lead singer. While Morrison was vacationing in Paris, Buick had offered the band $75,000 to use their hit “Light My Fire” to market Opel cars. The three States-side musicians agreed to the proposal, but when Morrison returned he went ballistic, called up Buick and raged, if they aired the ad, he’d demolish an Opel on TV with a sledgehammer.

“I’m not against a new band trying to pay the rent, whatever it takes, but in our situation Jim went crazy over ‘Light My Fire,’ and he didn’t even write the song (it was primarily Krieger),” Densmore
explains. “The entire body of work is important, our entire catalogue, what we represent. He’s dead and I’m not and I’m not forgetting that. He’s my ancestor.”

Forty one years after Morrison’s death The Doors are a major business. While they only released 6 albums during their short reign, today Amazon lists 147.

They’ve so far amassed sales of around 100 million albums, and continue to sell more than one million albums annually worldwide.
A Billboard article noted how The Doors’ merchandise business has
soared, with close to $8 million in Doors shirts and apparel sold in
2005, compared to $2 million in 2003. The CEO of the merchandise
company Signatures Network reported the band is at the top alongside the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.

“I still don’t understand why we’re so important,” Densmore wrote in his best selling memoir “Riders on the Storm,” adding: “Okay, so
nobody explored the dark like the Doors.”

“The Doors were the dark underbelly of peace and love,” Densmore says today, recalling how when the band first played San Francisco, “they just stared at us with their mouths open.
“You need to be initiated away from your parents, cut that umbilical chord,” he continues referencing the band’s stunning, 11-minute Oedipal drama “The End.” “I guess you need to hear, father I want to…whatever. I have a 19-year-old son who put that on his answering machine when he was about 13.”

No one quite mined the shadow like The Doors.
In his “Riders of the Storm” memoir Densmore quotes Morrison from a BBC interview. “Our music is like someone’s not quite at home, not quite relaxed, aware of a lot of things, but not quite sure.”
In late January, a 40th anniversary double CD of their “L.A. Woman” album was released, with alternative takes of classics like
“Riders on the Storm” and “Love Her Madly,” along with a
never-heard-before bluesy rocker called “She Smells So Nice.”
Unfortunately few band outtakes are available because their former record label bulk-erased many of their tapes at the time so other groups could use them.

Densmore was visiting Maui to take part in a spiritual
retreat co-hosted by Ram Dass and Krishna Das. “Our roads from
psychedelics to meditation are the same,” he notes.

The drummer and his guitarist friend Robbie Krieger met The Doors future keyboardist at a Transcendental Meditation evening in 1965.

“Robbie and I were fooling around then with legal psychedelics,” he recalls. “But it was kind of rough on the nervous system. Robbie said, there’s this Indian guy coming and this was two years before the Beatles got onto the Maharshi. It was only his second time here and the first time was with Clint Eastwood and Paul Horn. You could feel the love vibe. So Ray was there and he came up and said, ‘I heard you’re a drummer, do you want to jam?’

“After a while Jim came to one of the meetings and he said, ‘I just want to see what he’s got in his eyes.’ And after the meeting he said, ‘he’s got some, but I’m not going to meditate.’”

But Morrison did dedicate “Take it as it Comes,” from The Doors debut album to the Maharishi.

Densmore had grown up enthralled by jazz and brought a jazz
sensibility to the group.

“I got a fake ID in Tijuana so I could see Coltrane, and I saw him
many times,” he says. “And Elvin Jones was my musical guru. Seeing Coltrane jungle it out with Elvin for 20 minutes in the middle of ‘Chasin’ the Trane’ was so out, and that’s where maybe I got the courage to just stop the beat in (When the) ‘Music’s Over,’ and have a conversation with Jim.”

In 2011 the drummer revisited some of The Doors classic songs on the album “All Wood and Doors” by Cliff Eberhardt and James Lee
Stanley. This intriguing project also managed to lure guitarist Robbie Krieger into participating. Other guests on board included Timothy BSchmit of The Eagles, Peter Tork of The Monkees, Laurence Juber fromPaul McCartney’s Wings, and Little Feat’s Paul Barrere.

Imagine mellow, back porch versions of songs like “Break on Through” and “Moonlight Drive” played on acoustic guitars with vocal harmonies reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Densmore had met one of the musicians at lunch with a mutual friend. “I heard (Stanley’s album) ‘All Wood and Stones’ and it was tasty,” he explains. “They’re good folk pickers. I said if you ever do a Doors thing I’ll play on it.” They changed the chords and even the words. It was like Jose Feliciano changing ‘Light My Fire’ into a ballad. It’s very interesting.”

In 2006 he re-imagined “Riders on the Storm” as a cool jazz
instrumental on a CD with the group he founded, Tribaljazz. “I’ve
mouthed off about being a jazz drummer for 30 years and I finally put my sticks were my mouth was,” he says about the short-lived band. “It was a 7-piece band with two African master drummers and me on percussion. It was a wonderful experience. And it fell apart.”

While his fellow Doors’ musicians Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger have toured with a version of the group called The Doors of the 21st Century featuring Ian Astbury of The Cult on lead vocals, Densmore resisted any attempts to get him on board.

“No matter how professionally and faithfully these Doors delivered the hits, the studious musicianship and Astbury’s noble attempts to fill Morrison’s larger-than-life shoes betrayed the simple fact that this was not a real band playing songs in which it had a collective, vested interest,” noted a Toronto Star review. “This was a
tribute band.”

Densmore along with Morrison’s parents ending up successfully suing to stop his former compatriots calling themselves The Doors.
“If Jim comes back I’ll do it,” he says, “but why would I want to
perform with a Jimitator?”

With so much money involved the court proceedings got ugly, as
attorneys brandished his Nation article as ammunition proving his
unsoundness.
“That was an exhibit thrown in my face,” he reveals. “There was no
case so what do you do, character assassination. They tried to paint
me as a commie, pinko, anti-capitalistic maniac. In The Nation piece I quoted Vaclav Havel who, when he became Czech president, said jokingly said, ‘we’re not going to rush into this capitalism too quickly. I don’t know how much difference there is between IBM and the KGB.’ It’s a great line.

“They took it out of context and said, I said I was against making
money, I’m an anarchist. And my band mates called me that too, some rough stuff. I’ve been carrying this alone for a long time. It took some time off my life, but I don’t regret it.”

Densmore was pleased to help promote the Grammy-winning documentary on the band, “When You’re Strange,” which included
historic and previously unseen footage and narration by Johnny Depp.

Woven through the tapestry of their story are mesmerizing scenes from an experimental film project shot in 1969, featuring a bearded Morrison driving through the Mojave Desert.
“I love it,” he says. “It was on (PBS’) ‘American Masters,’ very cool.
The brilliant thing is having the footage of Jim in the desert. We
screened it at Sundance and a big critic walked out. ‘You cast an
actor as Jim,’ he told the director. A lot of people were confused. I
love that.”

The documentary comes to a close with idyllic scenes of the four
musicians on Maui enjoying a sunset sail off Lahaina in 1968, after performing at the old Honolulu International Center.

Densmore smiles and adds, “In the last line of the movie, Johnny says, ‘as of this date none of their songs has been used in a car
commercial.’”

One response to “The Doors – A Reminiscence with Drummer John Densmore

  1. Claude Robichaux January 11, 2020 at 5:30 am

    ” … a Jimitator” hahahaha.
    Great read!

    Like

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