“Did you ever hang out in Isla Vista?” a girl asked in the audience.
“We burned the bank down!” replied John Densmore, drummer of 1960’s rock band The Doors. The beat behind rock and roll legend Jim Morrison, Densmore, now has three “self-centered” books (according to Densmore himself), two being about The Doors, his newest called “The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial.”
The book brought him to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on Jan. 28. In conversation with novelist and colleague Andrew Winer, Densmore shared bits about his time in The Doors, his views on commercializing music, excerpts from his books and, of course, songs.
Sporting psychedelic pinstripe pants, a purple button up, bolo tie and Vans — typical of California, and more specifically Southern California, fashion — Densmore walked into the 200 person auditorium to a round of applause and excited faces anticipating the anecdotes he may soon share.
He started his talk reading an excerpt from his first book “Riders on the Storm,” where he played the drum beats for each song off his first album “The Doors” leading up to playing “The End.” It was incredibly special to watch a rock and roll Hall of Famer play simply a Moroccan drum complemented with a foot tambourine.
To set the scene … when The Doors were first getting off the ground and moving closer to becoming a very successful band, Morrison proposed a never-before-seen dynamic between the four bandmates. Ray Manzarek (keyboardist), Robby Krieger (guitarist), Morrison and Densmore would have an equal share in the band, all lyrics by “The Doors” and each had veto power.
In 1968, Buick asked to use their song “Light My Fire” as an advertisement, turning the lyrics into the slogan “Come on, Buick, Light My Fire.” Morrison vetoed, claiming that their music should be kept as art and not used for money. The rest of The Doors’ music stayed this way, which led to their falling out in the spring of 2003.
In the early 2000s, Cadillac wanted to use “Light My Fire” and in the spirit of now late Morrison (who passed in 1971), Densmore vetoed, much to the disappointment of Manzarek and Krieger. And in 2002, Manzarek and Krieger went on tour as “The Doors of the 21st Century,” except “of the 21st Century” was so finely printed that fans simply thought that “The Doors” were going on tour again.
Densmore sued Manzarek and Krieger for misusing the name (The Doors were not The Doors without Morrison) and was met with a counter sue for more than they had made in their entire careers combined. Densmore, along with the Jim Morrison estate, won the case, but only after a bitter battle that, according to Densmore, “knocked The Doors off their hinges.”
Although the event was to speak about his book, Densmore also spoke of his musical inspirations and of “his ancestor,” Jim Morrison.
When Winer asked about Morrison, all Densmore first said was “what a guy.”
As for who he looked up to, Elvin Jones, the drummer behind jazz musician John Coltrane, was it for him. In 1965, at the Manne Hole jazz club in L.A, Jones smiled at a 16-year-old Densmore as he was walking out of the bathroom. That was it.
“The Beatles hadn’t hit yet and Elvin was my muse,” he said while using jazz brushes on his Middle Eastern doumbek drum.
Before the Q&A session to round out the hour, Densmore spoke about writing letters as a literary technique. He finished with a letter to his “musical brothers” that touched on apologies for how things ended between the three of them (Morrison not included), and what he loved about both of them, ending with “we can be remembered as even more ‘special’ if we don’t pollute our gold, and if we remember to be generous with the fruits.”
In Conversation with Densmore
I had the privilege of calling Densmore a few days before his book reading.
I asked him if, had Morrison not taken such a strong stance against using their songs in commercials, he would have taken up that same mindset eventually.
“We were tempted by the money… and he [Morrison] went nuts. Boy, I hope I would have not wanted [to use] ‘Light My Fire’ to sell cars.’”
As Densmore went to California public universities and was surrounded by UCLA and UCSB alums, he had advice for fellow products of the California public school system.
“It’s such a blessing being able to make a living at something you love. Even if it’s collecting trash, you feel like you’re helping people, then you’ve got the key. Money is energy — it’s not evil, it can be used for good or bad. Follow your intuitions as much as possible in the college route,” he said.
Although The Doors were unique in the sense that they were part of the very few bands that get to that level of fame, Densmore and I spoke slightly about the I.V. music and band scene. He looked back on his time in the band and admitted that if it came down to money, then sell the songs. But if you were to become more successful, keep them as art.
“Maybe in the long run the songs are worth more, even though in the short term they would have gotten a bunch of money up front. Maybe they’re more valuable because they’re not polluted,” said Densmore.
Along with many UCSB students, Densmore is an environmental activist and expressed concern for inequalities that come with environmentalism. He spoke about the privileges of living near the ocean, but also touched on the fact that it’s much more expensive and not attainable for everybody.
“Just everybody do what they can,” he said. Whether that means not flying on airplanes or using reusable water bottles, he expressed hope for UCSB students to make it a team effort. Growing up in L.A, he would feel himself wheezing on bad smog days and was made aware of such a pressing issue — even in the ‘50s it was apparent.
He also told me he used to surf at Coal Oil Point while in college. I told him I went surfing there that morning.
There is a rumor that the Sands’ oil rig inspired The Doors’ song “The Crystal Ship,” with its sparkling at night sparking a resemblance to that of a crystal ship. Densmore stopped this rumor, once and for all, saying that the song is merely poetry and rock n’ roll.
To finish this story, here are five albums (‘albums’ being used vaguely) Densmore would take with him to a deserted island: “Blue” by Miles Davis, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9,” something salsa or cumbia, something with African drumming and anything by Willie Nelson.
And for any drummers reading this, his advice to you is “practice.”
This article appeared in the February 1st Daily Nexus printed edition.