Author: John Densmore
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Number of Pages: 319
My reading has been slow - even a standstill at times - this summer. With the persistent high temperatures and the large number of fires surrounding the region I live in, filling the area with choking smoke, my body is sluggish and my mind is dumb. I've mostly been listening to music (The Police, the Doors, and the Star Wars Soundtrack from 1977), sharing adventures with the Winchester boys from Supernatural (a show I've watched since it debuted in 2005 on the WB Network - now The CW), and watching Sharp Objects (an HBO Limited Series based on the novel by Gillian Flynn and mostly filmed in my home state).
Late last year when I was planning what I wanted to read this year, I decided I was finally going to read John Densmore's autobiography of his time with the Doors. I had been wanting to read it since I came across the autobiography in a bookstore in Lenox Square Mall, located in Atlanta, in 1992. And I wanted to read other books on the Doors as well. I penciled in No One Here Gets Out Alive (1980), which I read earlier this year; this book: Riders on the Storm (1990) by John Densmore; Light My Fire (1998) by Ray Manzarek (who is now deceased); and The Doors Unhinged (2010) by John Densmore. My local library carried the last two, but the first two I would have to find on my own. After some searching, I came across this book at a thrift store; it was a hardback in perfect condition and I bought it for three dollars. The only marking in it was a name written in red marker on the inside cover: Angie Hecht. The book smelled faintly of patchouli and the smell would waft up to my nose every time I opened the book or turned a page. It was a calming, sensual pleasure that added to my digestion of Densmore's poignant story.
It seems that whoever met Jim Morrison walked away with a different impression: Southern gentleman, prick, poet, brute, charmer, etc.
I lived with Jim for six years on the road and in the recording studio. This book is my truth. It may not be the whole truth, but it's the way I saw it. From the drum stool.John's story begins in Paris in 1975 when he visits Jim Morrison's grave for the first time. He is so overcome that he begins a letter to his former and now deceased friend in order to understand the madness that existed for the six years the Doors were together. His letter is an attempt at not only understanding the past, but an attempt to build a present and a future as John Densmore, individual, and not as John Densmore, drummer of the Doors.
****Densmore fell in love with music at an early age. One of his earliest memories is sitting next to the organ pipes in the balcony of his Catholic Church. He loved the loudness of the organ and how his seat would vibrate with the low notes. His description of music and how it affected him resonated with me:
Music hypnotized me and transported me out of my little suburban bedroom into fantasyland.In Junior High he joined the school band and learned to play the drums, taking private lessons to quickly become proficient.
I was fortunate to learn the drum instruments separately, so that I had a thorough understanding when I put them all together.But being in the band wasn't cool. Sports were the thing, and John was not a jock.
Looking back, music was my salvation through those lonely adolescent years, as it would prove to be for years to come.
The final four that would become the Doors came together in 1965. John had met Ray Manczarek (yes, I spelled that right - Ray later changed it to Manzarek), a keyboard player from Chicago, who was in a band with his brothers; reconnected with an old friend, Robby Krieger, a guitar player with flamenco and folk roots; and met Jim Morrison, a mysterious guy and film school buddy of Ray's that was living with him.
One of my favorite early memories of John's is when Morrison took him to Olivia's for lunch.
Morrison and Densmore ordered and began to eat.Olivia's. A small soul food restaurant at the corner of Ocean Park and Main. A roadside diner that belonged in Biloxi, Mississippi. The place was packed, as usual. The restaurant that Jim later memorialized as the "Soul Kitchen" was full of UCLA film students. It looked like an Amtrak dining car that got stranded at the beach.
Half an hour later Olivia bellowed, "Lunch is over!" She wore the traditional print apron over a full skirt... Her vibe was warm, but the big black woman whose name was synonymous with soul never let any patrons in at closing time, and she always tried to hustle out the ones who were there.
Her restaurant may be long gone, but the legend lives on in Jim's words...
****No matter how much Densmore liked the music the four of them were creating, he couldn't help but be uneasy about Jim's instability. Jim would quote William Blake again and again: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." These "dark monologues" scared Densmore and, looking back, he states, "Meeting Jim was the death of my innocence."
So music became what Densmore focused on, more than Jim's unpredictable behavior:
My first job was to keep the tempo, not to let anybody rush or drag, but there was a lot of room for all four of us to express our individuality, which seemed to result in a unique group sound. With my jazz, Ray's early classical training and then exposure to blues, Robby's folk and flamenco, and Jim's obsession with old black blues singers, we were slowly forming the Doors' sound.
Eventually, Ray found a Fender Rhodes keyboard bass, so we didn't need a bass player. It completed the sound. Because he played the bass with his left hand and the organ with his right, it forced Ray to play simple bass lines while he concentrated on his right hand playing the organ.
The lack of a real bass player left room for me to fill, and I enjoyed adding percussive comments to Jim's singing.
After playing clubs for awhile, the Doors were finally signed to a small record label, Elektra Records. In 1966, they went into the studio with producer Paul Rothchild to record their first album. What came out is unarguably the best album they released. This opinion is supported by the fact that their first album is also their highest selling album.
Between the years of the recording of their first album and their last, L.A. Woman, Densmore describes the studio process, playing live (something he came to live for), and Jim's excesses which progressively got worse and even hindered the band in the recording process and on the road when touring. He said he had a constant rash on his back and on the backs of his legs from the stress of dealing with Jim. He sometimes wondered if he should quit, wondered if he could deal with Jim over a long period of time.
Robby would have his own misgivings about the band as well:
In retrospect, Robby says that it was at this point - around the end of '67 and beginning of '68 - that he began to dislike Jim intensely, thinking that the band's future was a day-to-day thing.
Success had become its own problem as well. Densmore describes one of the effects of success like this:
We were going into the studio to record and we didn't have enough songs worked out to fill an entire album. There just wasn't enough time to write the songs and digest them like we used to. The Doors had finally gotten a giant business machine going, lawyers and managers, and now it was picking up speed, gaining its own wild momentum. No time for writing songs like in the early days. Success began to feel like a runaway train - and we couldn't slow it down.
But playing live was what it was all about for Densmore. The band loved to get into the groove of a song and let it take them away from themselves. They followed the music.
I enjoyed spurring Ray and Robby on in their solos... When Ray and I locked into a groove, it was unbounded joy. Robby floated on top, and Ray and I were the rhythm section, the bottom.
When it was good, you wanted the groove to go on forever. Don't change to another set of chord progressions, don't go to the next section of the song; just stay right there and ride.
After twenty years, trips around the world, and two marriages, this is still one of the moments I miss the most.
The last chapters of the book is a continuation of John's letter to Jim. He tells Jim everything that has happened to him since Jim's death in Paris in 1971: more albums, writing, acting, two marriages, a child, and a long search for himself, separate from the Doors. The book ends on a positive note:
There is life beyond the Doors. I've been a husband, a father, an actor, a writer, and a politically concerned American.
I now know the reason I stayed in the band through all the insanity was because music had become my new religion. It is a major theme through my life.
Music is my closest friend, but not my only friend. Through journals, a play, and this book, I've been building an inner life - an inner peak to match the outer one the band had, only this one will take me on through to the other side.
Chapter 11: Tell All the People:
Apparently we were one of the more popular groups in 'Nam... To some, our music meant a longing for back home, a momentary escape valve, and a way to feel connected with what was going on back in the States. To others, we were the dark soundtrack raging in their minds when they were under fire.
What disturbs me today is that rock 'n' roll is being exploited into "battle" music for patriotic war movies. Vietnam was called a rock-'n'-roll war because the soldiers chose to listen to it to help them survive, which is quite different from some of today's film directors (modern-day generals) using rock to drum up patriotic reverie.
Chapter 13: Absolutely Live:
Ray lit a stick of incense that was preset on the organ, an idea we copped from Indian music. It had evolved into a ritual that signaled we were leaving the outside world behind, and the smell put us in a collective mood to play.
Chapter 14: Shaman's Blues:
Writing to Jim Morrison: "You wouldn't believe all the sixties' songs that have been sold for commercials now, let alone the giant deals "artists" are now making for Pepsi or the like. Rock 'n' roll is incorporated now, selling jeans, perfume, and war. We were just ahead of our time!... Seriously, it's a good lesson you taught me about greed. I've been adamantly opposed to the use of any of our songs for commercials ever since."
Chapter 15: Touch Me:
When one gains so much power that others, friends as well as strangers, are afraid to comment on one's excesses, trouble lies ahead.
Chapter 22: When the Music's Over:
Discipline does something for the soul.
This book was much, much better than the previous one I read on Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive. Densmore's writing is personal, vulnerable, and strong, all at the same time. If you're looking for a good book to read on the Doors this is the one you should read.