The Doors' John Densmore on Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Oliver Stone and the New Protest Generation (Audio and Transcript)
In this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” host and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer speaks with John Densmore, famed American musician best known as the drummer of The Doors.
Scheer and Densmore discuss how the activism of the 1960s affected The Doors’ music, and how today’s young people advocating for gun control are continuing the legacy of the Vietnam protests.
“There was, dare I say it, a search for integrity,” Scheer says of The Doors. To Densmore, he adds: “I’ve observed you as a citizen, as an activist, as a person who has stood for something.”
Densmore expressed his admiration for the resurgence of contemporary youth activism. “I see these Parkland kids, and I get going,” he said. “If you’re a politician, you’re supposed to be an elder, listening to these kids. I get worked up about all this.”
Listen to the interview in the player above and read the full transcript below. Find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. I’m kind of like the Central Intelligence Agency, the poor man’s CIA. And I’ve got an incredible human being, character, figure, John Densmore, who was the drummer—can you say “drummer,” you don’t have to say percussionist or whatever?—with the Doors.
JD: All of the above.
RS: All of the above. And I want to say, one thing that I know, I mean you—
JD: Wait a minute, let me say something. I’m—I feel pretty good—can I call you Bob?
RS: [Laughs] Yeah.
JD: Uh-huh. Respect, respect. You’re still angry at 82, and it’s inspiring to me. I’m only ten years, eight years younger. And, ah, you didn’t pay your war taxes?
RS: I was audited by Richard Nixon, but not because I didn’t pay my taxes. And in fact, I actually got a refund. So I was vindicated. And I also have a, from a Freedom of Information, since this is about me now, I have actually a thing from J. Edgar Hoover, who investigated the Scheer case for about four years when I was the editor of Ramparts, and they dropped the case, and he got in a big argument with James Jesus Angleton of the CIA, who wanted me to be, I don’t know, what, killed or something. And he said, no, there’s no “there” there, and we’re going to stop this case. So I’ve been actually exonerated. But I do want to say—
JD: Well, wait a minute, now, I want to say that—
RS: Can I just tell the people listening to this that I’m listening, ah, talking to this guy—
RS: —who when I was coming up, and when I was doing Ramparts, was really one of the most important influences on my life.
RS: And was. And you know, I was, I knew Bill Graham and the early rock scene going back to the San Francisco Mime Troupe and everything.
JD: Yeah, yeah.
RS: But there was something special about The Doors. It was like the first group you felt was not going to automatically sell out. They were popular—popular, they were incredible; you know, worldwide, cutting-edge, there was a run there that was spectacular. And they certainly, you know, had the aura of the drug revolution. But you really felt there was, dare I say it, a search for integrity.
RS: And that’s really what I want to get at here, ‘cause this is a series called American originals, really; people who come up out of this crazy-quilt of American culture and somehow make a big difference and do it in a unique way. And that’s how I see you, and of course Jim Morrison of The Doors. And I see you in your subsequent life, ‘cause I’ve observed you as a citizen, as an activist, as a person who has stood for something. I watched a speech you gave, I saw it on YouTube, at Occupy Wall Street. And you mentioned there, you said look, you know, I’m clearly not, I may have entered a higher bracket, you know, being successful as a musician. But you said something about your house being moved when you were a kid. And you were squarely in the 99 percent, and you made a reference to that. So maybe we should begin that story, and then get you up to Santa Monica College, and then you take it from there.
JD: Boy, you like to talk, Bob! [Laughs]
RS: Yeah, well, that’s— [Laughter]
JD: Well, first of all, let me say that The Doors, like you, were on Nixon’s hit list, so we’re comrades in that area. Yeah, I’m, I’m back at my alma mater, very proud. What was the question? [Laughs]
RS: No, you started out, you know, because in this Occupy speech, which I really liked—
JD: Oh, yeah, yeah.
RS: —and you said OK, yeah, you made it, you know, you were with one of the most famous rock groups, you made a lot of money. And, but the fact is, you know, you’ve had—
JD: Well, I think I said that I came from the 99 percent. And you know, I’m not a billionaire, but my pockets are pretty deep. But I’m not going to forget I came from that, and I’ll fight for that for the rest of my life. ‘Cause that’s me.
RS: And so tell us about going to Santa Monica College. And music—you studied piano—
JD: I played piano as an eight-year-old, and got into junior high and wanted to play any instrument, ‘cause I loved music. I had braces, and I was gonna play clarinet, and the orthodontist said “That’ll push your teeth out, we’re trying to push ‘em back.” And I thought, OK, drums. So I owe it all to the dentist. And while I was here, I studied music and loved it. But I thought I couldn’t make a living at it; you know, I mean, my God, what a crapshoot. So I changed to business, because you have to make money, and I got D’s in accounting two or three times. And then I thought, I want to help people; I changed to sociology, and then I—then I gave up. And I got in this band.
RS: Well, you did go on to—
JD: I did, over at Cal State Northridge I was a sociology major, solely because Fred Katz, the cello player in the Chico Hamilton Quintet, taught ethnological music, and Edmund Carpenter, who had Understanding Media as our text, was the other anthro professor. And I got A’s in their classes, and then they were fired and the campus erupted in riots. [Laughs]
RS: And when you first started, was Bill Graham a factor? I’ve never been clear about that.
JD: Well, we went and played the Fillmores, and loved what he was doing. I mean, what was so great was booking a rock band, Miles Davis, and a blues band all on the same bill. And it worked. I don’t know. Maybe it helped that everybody was loaded, but it was wonderful.
RS: Yeah, you know, it’s funny, ‘cause he’s, you know, was a major, obviously a major figure; if people don’t know him, he was the guy who brought The Beatles to the Cow Palace, and all that kind of stuff, and The Rolling Stones. But I remember him as a guy who came out of New York, and he was working with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Peter Coyote was there—
RS: Ronnie Davis, Mime Troupe. He was a guy, you know, you looked at him and you listened to him, and you said, that’s just another New York hustler. And—which he was, you know; he’d been in show business and Broadway and stuff like that. And yet, there was a certain integrity to the guy.
JD: He was tough. Incredibly East Coast tough. But I don’t think he forgot his roots, which was, well, you know, mom was in the Holocaust or whatever. And so he was socially really cutting-edge and wonderful that way, and I was so bummed that he got on that helicopter. Because wanting to be like every—
RS: We should mention, on the helicopter, hitting a tower and dying that way, in a storm in Marin County, yeah.
JD: —wanting to be, like every waiter in my hometown, I too have a script, which is very political. And he co-produced the Doors movie, the Oliver Stone movie. And I was definitely going to get on him for this one, but—bye-bye.
RS: Well, you know, I was going to ask you about that. Because you get credit in the—for people who haven’t seen the Doors movie, I think it is really one of the rare examples where Hollywood can get it right, or get it mostly right. And I think Oliver Stone deserves a lot of credit for that movie. And you worked on that movie with him.
JD: Yeah. I was—
RS: What was your role, and what was Bill Graham’s role? I just looked at the—
JD: Well, Bill Graham came on a little later, just to sort of, they were trying to get someone who was there, besides us. I had finished my first book, Riders on the Storm, and I gave Oliver the dailies—or, no, not—is that what it’s called? Dailies?
RS: The galleys.
JD: Galleys. [Laughter] Close.
RS: You had me there for a minute, yeah.
JD: And, ah, you know, it came out, and several months before the movie came out—and I got real respected reviews; it was my first self-centered memoir, I have a couple. Washington Post, New York Times, blah blah blah.
RS: Well, it was a best-seller, right?
JD: But then, in exchange for giving Oliver the galleys—actually I asked him for writer credit, ‘cause he took about 10 percent, but you got to have 13, and there was a writer on it before him, so you got to have 30—I knew I wouldn’t get writer credit, but I wanted a really good credit for giving him the book. And so I think before Val Kilmer had said “Thanks to John Densmore’s writing”—one week, bam, New York Times bestseller.
RS: In the movie you emerge as a kind of straight, dare I say it, observer and participant. And actually, with the exception of Jim Morrison, the legendary wild man of the band, the rest of you seem like, about business, about getting it done, about doing the performance, and sort of reigning in.
JD: Maybe it took three grounded Apollos to balance Dionysus. You know. [Laughs] He was a kamikaze, you know.
RS: That’s what the movie really is about, he was a force out of control, and yet this incredible creative genius. To me, there’s one idea in the sixties that really is worth preserving and examining, and that’s the idea, don’t sell out. It doesn’t mean people didn’t sell out, it doesn’t mean corruption didn’t enter, doesn’t mean money didn’t enter. But you sure the hell didn’t want to at least look like you were deliberately selling out.
JD: Right. So I’m not going to get a toupee; I’ve got a bald spot, but you know. [Laughs]
RS: But what I’m saying is, I look back, and look at your life since The Doors, and it’s been a—you channel, you say well, Jim wouldn’t go along with that, you know, Cadillac using the song, or you know, we’re not going to use it in advertising, we’re not going to make it elevator music. And so why don’t we talk about that a little bit.
JD: Yeah. Yeah, let’s do. Well, OK. I think the key was that Jim could not play a chord on any instrument, but had these words, poetry, and he even thought of melodies to remember the words. But he sat down with us and said, how do you write songs? You know, so we did it all together. And then he came up with, OK, let’s split all the money and the credits. I’m not going to be the lyricist. It’s music by The Doors. And, in case anybody gets weird, let’s have veto power. OK. There’s the template. I don’t think there’s any group, ever, that split everything like that. And it made us give 200 percent each, and it got weird. “Come on Buick, light my fire” was the first proposal, which is a song primarily written by Robbie, the guitar player, and Jim went nuts, thinking that we would consider it. He said he would like to go on television and smash the car with a sledgehammer, that would be a good ad campaign. That was a no. So I haven’t forgotten that. And he’s passed, he’s my ancestor, and I want to respect what he wanted. So, oh God, were my knees shaking when the, ah, what was it, Cadillac, ah—God. I’d say, no, OK—
RS: Well, they came up with—
JD: Eight million, no, ten million, fifteen million! Oh, my God, I’m going to faint! But then I would say to the other guys, OK, come on, now. We all have a nice house and some groovy cars. What do you want to buy? And they were, one of them was definitely for it and the other was on the fence. And I just, I became Mr. Veto.
RS: I want to get at this idea of not selling out. That there was, in the air, even if you were going to make big bucks and you guys for the time were making big bucks, and you were incredibly important. I mean, I want to ask you, what is it like to show up at some—I mean, I’m the guy, if I would show up at some political rally, I remember they had one at Kezar Stadium and we had a number, I don’t think The Doors were there, but there were a number of big bands, one of the big anti-war rallies. And of course they put the bands on and we had 50,000 people come. And then when the bands stopped playing, half the crowd left right away, and my opening line, since I was the first speaker, political speaker, after, I said, “Well, now that we’re alone, let’s discuss this war that was the reason why we got here.” You know, and people laughed. But the fact is, I was talking to a half-empty stadium at that point. So you were the guys who could get this huge, crazed crowd, this era of liberation, of freedom. The movie doesn’t quite present it that positively. And you had your own doubts even while it was happening, no?
JD: Yeah, I mean, there’s mass adulation, but we got to remember that the undeclared Vietnam War was the undercurrent of the whole thing. Who cares about—I mean, it’s nice the first couple times; wow, we’re idols. But then—next. If you’re a creative person, what does it all mean? And under it was this war. And I feel like I’m a Vietnam vet, in a way. And all of us—no disrespect to the guys who fought the war, but if we came up in that era, we didn’t get to become the Greatest Generation, because we were screwed. And it still angers me, you know, and I’m still chewing on it, and trying to—you know, I see these Parkland kids and I get goin’. I said, yeah. OK. You know, if you’re young you don’t know that we did stop the war, and if you’re a politician, you’re supposed to be an elder listening to these kids. So I get worked up about all this. And that’s what I like about you. Now I’m going to send some helium up your skull. I mean, at 82, you’re still pissed off, and god damn it, that’s what we need.
RS: I teach at USC, I, you know, I’m not just angry, I also try to inspire people, like you do. And what I try to get across to them is it’s not enough to be pissed off; you know, you want to have positive energy and you want to change things. And that’s the way I’ve seen you as a citizen, aside from this great rock and roll, you know, legend—
RS: I’m not going to let you interrupt me now, because I want to get back to this. And I remember, I think it was Ron Kovic got an award, a hero award, I think. And you were there—I forget, we were at some event. And I hadn’t really run into you in a while. And then so when I was going to do this interview with you, I called Ron yesterday. [Laughs]
RS: And he talked to me for quite a long time about you, and his respect for what you do as a citizen, and your attitude. And there is something—you know, when you watch the movie, and The Doors, and rock and roll, and all that stuff, you know—oh, these are the crazy, wild, you know—but you’ve been the solid citizen. And I don’t want to put you down here or make you seem dull.
RS: But the fact is, you’ve tried to be a good citizen, you’ve tried to be a good guy. And Ron held you up as one of the people that really—for people that don’t know Ron Kovic, and you should go watch the, well, read Born on the Fourth of July, watch the movie, he’s got a new book out called Hurricane Street about protests against the treatment of veterans. This is a guy who’s paralyzed, you know, from the chest down, and I’ve known him since 1970 or so when he came out of the veteran’s hospital, and I’ve visited him when he goes back into the VA hospital, you know. And you see the wounded guys from Iraq and Afghanistan and so forth, and then he’s talking to these guys, and championing their cause, and demanding treatment. And he said there’s one person that he’s met in this whole entertainment world that he came into contact with and so forth, that he really felt was out there, trying to make a better—he said you.
JD: We had dinner with him, I don’t know, a month ago. And he’s—he’s a teacher. You know? And that’s what we’re lacking. All right, so Jim died at 27; I’m 73. I like being an example of other roads for young people. Now, here’s the thing about 27. African culture has this thing called latima [sp?]; it’s the period between 14 and 27 where the youth are volatile, and the elders should watch over them during latima; that’s kind of the deal, you know. Like I said, our elders got shot, or assassinated, in the sixties, and these young kids, these Parkland kids, it’s the same deal. You know, like, that’s why we got to stand up for them, and encourage them, and inspire them. And so that’s what I’m up to. It feeds me. Everybody gets older, not everybody gets elder.
RS: [omission for station break] So, let me ask you something. You know, some kid’s listening to this, young person listening and so on, and they have one image of the sixties and rock and roll and so forth. And then what happened? Where did it go? What was it all about?
JD: Oh, good. I hate it when people dis the sixties as a failure. The seeds of civil rights, feminism, peace movement, all that, were planted in the sixties. And as the Pulitzer Gary Snyder poet said, something about, they’re big seeds. Maybe it takes a hundred years for full fruition. You know? So stop complaining, and I say, get out your watering cans, damn it!
RS: When you say Gary Snyder, well, he was a Beat poet. And my memory of that time, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, is that the Beat influence—Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who’s—Lawrence Ferlinghetti just had his 95th birthday.
JD: Yeah. And you were at City Lights, ah?
RS: Yeah, I worked at City Lights after I got thrown out of—got my fellowship taken away at Berkeley in graduate school. [Laughter] And I got it taken away because I was writing a book with a guy, Maurice Zeitlin, who went on to be a professor at Princeton and then UCLA, on Cuba and what was happening in Cuba, and they didn’t like the book.
JD: You commie pinko.
RS: Yeah, I perished publishing. But the funny thing was, it was Ferlinghetti who told us to write this book, and then he didn’t publish it ‘cause I had too many damn footnotes in it and everything. [Laughs] But he did line us up with Grove Press, and they published it, and Penguin published it. But you know, there was Ferlinghetti, who had been a U-boat, you know, anti-U-boat commander in World War II. He was at Normandy; he actually was, you know, in Nagasaki after the bombing; he was—
RS: —in Japan. Yeah, and so this guy was kind of a war hero, you know, just like George McGovern, who got the Distinguished Flying Cross. And then he came back a pacifist, and he came back a—he got his doctorate at the Sorbonne. You know, I did one of these podcasts with him. But just thinking about your time there with The Doors, and the whole early rock and roll scene, I think the Beats informed it a lot. Ginsberg, and—
JD: The hippies were on the shoulders of the Beats. The punks were on the shoulders of the hippies. Grunge is on the shoulders of the punks. And so, they feed us, like you’re feeding me today. That’s how it goes.
RS: There was a political edge to The Doors. And not only to The Doors, to a lot, a good number of other groups. I remember the first rock and roll thing I went to was a benefit for the Mime Troupe that Bill Graham put on, and I think The Jefferson Airplane were there; they weren’t called that, they were called—
JD: Yeah. We were all against the war. I mean, Jim, he wrote “The Unknown Soldier”; he didn’t name Vietnam, but it was during that era. Make a grave for the unknown soldier, nestled in your hollow shoulder. Breakfast where the news is read, television children fed. Unborn living, living dead, bullet strikes the helmet’s head. It’s all over. And Jim’s dad was an admiral in the Navy commanding battleships in the Gulf of Tonkin, and he said on his original bio that his parents were deceased. Oh, my God. Cut that umbilical cord. So he didn’t name Vietnam, but, hah.
RS: Let me, ‘cause we’re, I want to get in—we’ve now legalized marijuana effectively. This big battle, reefer madness, and for, you know, all these years, it was like—the whole drug war, and the whole idea of incarcerating large numbers of people—
RS: —a disguised form of racism in many respects, and all that. How do you look back on all that? I mean, right now, this one thing has happened that was supposed to have such a dramatic consequence, you don’t even notice. I was in Palm Springs the other day, and my son got something from the legal dispensary to give to my wife, some gummy bears, I don’t know what the hell they have to do with, they’re a product of this, and you get it from the dispensary. But it’s supposed to help her with her back pain, you know. And—
JD: Well, it does, if it’s CBD, which is the ingredient that doesn’t get you high. It’s THC that gets you high. And actually, it does help kind of that sort of thing.
RS: But you seem so clear-thinking and everything. So how did you escape all that whole drug culture?
JD: Oh, I dabbled and everything. But Jim was always an example of going too far, so maybe that made us a little more careful.
RS: What drove him, finally? I mean, was he tormented by—what?
JD: You know—the tortured artist, searching for the truth. Kind of like Oliver, which is so wonderful about him, and Jim. I wished the film was a little more about, literally, about the sixties and the period. But Jim was just searching for the truth. You know, always seeking. That’s why I loved him. And I hated his self-destruction. But you know, he died at 27, Bob. So did Janis, so did Hendrix, so did Amy [Winehouse]—it’s on and on, Kurt [Cobain]. So the Africans with this latima thing, they knew something. Twenty-seven’s a corner you got to get around.
RS: Well, but also maybe, you know, like mathematicians, they do all their great work before they’re even 21. You know, maybe that’s a period in which you can see things clearly that the rest of your life get covered up. You know you get caught up in career, you get caught up in, you know, being respectable—
JD: Maybe. I’m gonna—Robert Bly, a poet I accompanied, he said the Chinese poets didn’t publish ‘til they were 50, ‘cause they felt like they weren’t wise enough. So there’s the other side of that.
RS: Well, let me ask you. Where are we now? You’re a—
JD: You want me to sum it all up? Jesus! [Laughs]
RS: No, you’re a thoughtful guy, and if we go back to that—and I agree with what you said about the sixties. I look at the sixties as the most glorious period in American history; you know, I didn’t live through the whole history, but I’ve now lived through 82 years of it. In comparison, I mean, I hated the fifties; I thought they were mindless, and you know I was growing up in the Bronx and they were advertising all this stuff that you couldn’t afford to buy unless you robbed a bank or something, or your parents were going to debt and have to work overtime to pay for that new refrigerator or something else. And you know, when the sixties came along, I mean—you know, to me that was like the Golden Age.
JD: Oh, you know, they weren’t that great. It was hard. Some people OD’d. I mean, but they were a catalyst, and these Parkland kids inspire the hell out of me. So I’m feeling better about things.
RS: Who were some of the other heroes, though? What did you think of John Lennon, for instance?
JD: Oh, fabulous. Oh, he really—you know, he was the first house husband, or whatever.
RS: Well, but aside from that, Working-Class Hero, for instance—
JD: That was—oh, oh.
RS: Incredible lyrics.
RS: I mean, that cut through, for me, that cut through decades of bull in the university and everything. You know, A working-class hero is something—you see, ‘cause I grew up, my parents were garment workers, you know. And that whole thing he captured, of the false consciousness, and you can be everything—no, you can’t. And it’s not going to be like that, you know. And you know, but he was really described as a failure after coming out that way. And he came out against the war in Vietnam.
JD: So what? I mean, apparently Dr. King was pretty down after that speech and how he got clobbered. Oh, and what a legacy. So hopefully, the Parkland kids, this is their Vietnam moment. We did stop that war.
RS: You know, it’s interesting you mention Oliver Stone in the same sense of Jim Morrison. Because people keep thinking, Oliver, hey—you got three Academy, or four Academy Awards or something—you know, you’re making a lot of money, why don’t you just cool it and play the game a little bit more conventionally? And no, he is obsessed, he’s going to figure out who killed Kennedy, you know?
RS: And he’ll take a lot of heat for that, and he’s going to, you know, do three movies, you know. He could have been content with Platoon, but no, now he’s going to come back and do Ron Kovic and Born on the Fourth of July, and then he’s going to do Heaven and Earth, tell about the war from a—
JD: Heaven and Earth is brilliant. It’s just, it came out, and the country—the country maybe now is finally going to be able to accept—you know, Heaven and Earth is the point of view from the other side. Well, it’s time. And we got these—
RS: Tell the other side. Because it’s a story of a Vietnamese woman, and what the war did.
JD: Right, right. And so we’re at a time when these athletes are taking the knee, and maybe—and the kids, Parkland, and Ken Burns did a Vietnam thing, The Post—maybe, maybe, we can look at this and learn something.
RS: And what is the connection of that wisdom to art? Let’s get back and end with that. I mean, you’re a guy who took the art seriously, took the music seriously.
JD: You know, when the economy gets bad, the arts should be doubled or tripled. Aren’t they the visionaries, the ones looking ahead? Just like these kids—the kids carry the idealism, and they should be over-the-top idealists. And if the elders don’t see that, then the elders are cynics, and they’ve lost their idealism. And you and I are still fighting, and so’s Oliver, and God damn it, that’s the way we’re going to go out.
RS: So just, let’s close this with a cautionary tale for a new generation that, you know, OK, maybe they go visit Jim Morrison’s grave in France, you know; maybe they listen to The Doors, maybe they get inspired by what you said today. But what’s the cautionary tale about what happens?
JD: Yeah, sure. You know, I wrote this Riders on the Storm, and thanks to Oliver and my work, it was a bestseller. But I was insecure about saying I was a writer, that I had a new avenue of creativity. And it wasn’t until a little piece in The Nation that the late, great Tom Hayden edited, where I wrote about—I had made a commitment because of John Lennon to tithe, in the traditional sense; of course, I tithed radical charities—10 percent since the eighties. When Oliver’s movie came out—I wrote about this in The Nation—oh, my God. That 10 percent, I noticed my hand shaking when I wrote those checks. What is this? This—I’m doing all that better—oh, it’s the hand of greed. It’s the greed gene coursing through my veins. We’ve all got it. So there’s the cautionary tale. Watch out.
RS: The gene telling you, what, don’t write the check?
JD: Well, you know, come on. I’m doing great. What’s my problem? Oh, another thing I say in that article is, money is like fertilizer; when hoarded, it stinks. When spread around, things grow.
RS: There you go. That’s a good point on which to end. Ah, thank you, John Densmore, not just of The Doors, but of a great life and contributing a lot. I want to thank you, a true American. And a tribute to Santa Monica College, where we’re doing this broadcasting, where KCRW broadcasts from. And so I want to thank you for returning to your alma mater. And that’s it for—
JD: Wait, wait, let me just say, respect, Bob Scheer.
RS: [Laughs] We could edit that out.
JD: Don’t edit it out, damn it!
RS: OK, maybe they’ll leave it in.
JD: [Laughs] Take it in, c’mon.
RS: Anyway, but our producers are Josh Scheer, Rebecca Mooney. Our engineers are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. This has been another edition of Scheer Intelligence from KCRW. And see you next week.
—posted by Emily Wells