An interview never seems to translate perfectly on paper, and as hard as the journalist tries to paint a vivid picture of the subject, certain aspects are lost, or at best, dimmed.
In the following interview with the Doors’ John Densmore, it is impossible to catch all of his sense of humor or see his very animated way of expressing himself. It is also impossible to see the extent of sensitivity and pain with which he speaks about the loss of his friend, Jim Morrison. There were a couple of times when the subject matter became so intense that we actually had to take a break in order to gain a fresh, and less emotional, perspective.
What is evident on paper, however, is that John is an extremely articulate, intelligent and creative man, and his willingness to be open provided one of the most effective interviews I have had the opportunity to conduct.
RF: Why and when did you start playing drums?
JD: I was in junior high school and I enrolled in the band in the 7th grade, so I guess I was twelve. I loved music, so I knew I wanted to play an instrument. I thought I wanted to play clarinet, but my teeth weren’t too great and the dentist said that it would screw them up more. But the teacher said, “Hey, nobody is playing drums this season.” At first I thought I couldn’t because they’d be so loud at home, but he told me to get a l i t t l e pad, so that’s where I started. I got a little pad, and then the teacher told me if I really wanted to improve quickly, I should take private lessons, so I started private lessons right away. I was in the dance band, finally, and the orchestra where I played tympani. I played set in the dance band and snare drum in the marching band all the way through school
RF: Who were your influences?
JD: When I started going to Shelly’s Manne-Hole—I got in with fake I.D. when I was sixteen or seventeen—I used to see Art Blakey. I would sit right next to him and watch everything he did, and Elvin Jones. I really had Elvin Jones down. I still have him down. He was my main guy. Now I would say Billy Cobham, but I copied everything Elvin did. I had this piano player friend and he sort of would pretend he was McCoy Tyner and we’d just jam forever after seeing Coltrane live and all. There was Philly Joe Jones and bebop, too.
RF: So your prime influences were jazz.
JD: Yes, totally.
RF: Let’s go back to formal training.
JD: I took private lessons for years. I stayed with Mr. Muir, the neighborhood drum teacher in West Los Angeles, and I continued playing in all the musical classes I could get in school. Then I started playing casuals, $15 scab wage for weddings, fraternity parties, Bar Mitzvahs, everything and anything, and that really broadened my musical horizons. I had to play waltzes, fox trots, cha-cha-chas, so that was really good for me. I started doing that when I was fifteen or sixteen. Rock ‘n’ roll was sort of getting in there a little bit.
RF: With your roots in jazz, how did you feel about rock ‘n’ roll?
JD: Oh, we were snobs. Jazz was it. When we played fraternity parties, though, we had to play danceable stuff. We made these sort of avant-garde electronic music tapes like John Cage, where we’d just break some glass and make a bunch of noise, and then we’d go to these fraternity parties and play “Louie Louie.” We’d turn the electronic music on in the middle of it, but we still kept the beat, so they just thought we were weird.
RF: There’s a definite jazz feel to your playing. Do you feel that background aided your playing?
JD: Yes. My hands are good. My feet have caught up. When fusion came in, oh my God, the bass drum! “Come on foot, catch up with these hot licks!” It took me years to get that going. I always try to do jazzy stuff. Ray’s [Manzarek, organist] background was Chicago blues, but he listened to Miles and Coltrane, so it wasn’t like I was selling out by being in a rock band. When I hear the heavy metal type players, you can just hear the stiffness in their playing. The power is in the wrist—the snap—not the arm. A lot of people say, “God, you’re 120 pounds and you play as loud as Buddy Miles sometimes.” He would just drop his arm. But that’s what I learned in the 7th grade.
RF: So then you went to college.
JD: First I majored in music and got A’s in music all the way through everything, even music appreciation. and C’s in everv well thing else. But I always thought that music would be a hobby or avocation, something on the weekends to give me money to buy my books or something.
RF: Because of the financial chances?
JD: It’s such a crap shoot: all or nothing. I loved music and I loved playing, but I never considered it a possibility to make a living. So after a year of being a music major, I thought, “Well, this isn’t realistic. I have to make money to live, so I will be a business major.” Business equals money, right? Very naive, since I got a D in accounting and then I took it again and got a C in the same course. That was not too good. I don’t think it was because I was dumb, I just could not apply myself. I hated it. So then I thought I like people, I felt sympathetic towards people and helping people, “I’ll be a sociology major.” I took that for a semester and never even did my term paper. What a flake! But you see, now I was going to Valley State, which is now Cal State Northridge, and I was taking a little LSD. My parents found out and they were paying for this little house I was living in with my piano player friend in Topanga Canyon, which is another bad area for drugs. So I was dropping acid and I was dropping sociology, but there were some great teachers in the anthropology department. Fred Katz, who used to be the cello player with Chico Hamilton, was teaching ethnological music there. You couldn’t get into the class, it was so popular. There were no tests and he gave everyone A’s, so I changed to Anthro just because of him and this other guy, Edmund Carpenter, who was a Marshall McLuhan devotee. So I got A’s in that stuff and I got an A in my term paper for Anthro, which I wrote about an LSD experience. At that time, no one had ever heard of LSD aside from Leary and those people, but it wasn’t in the press. When I started reading about Art Linkletter’s daughter is when I stopped taking it. Then I got paranoid. Before that, I was innocent. I had no idea what it was. I wasn’t programmed to be negative, but when I knew what it was all about, I stopped. I did very very well in Anthro and, in fact, in one more year, I would have had a BA in Anthro and could have gone out and dug.
RF: You were still playing music on weekends?
JD: Oh yeah, always music.
RF: Something I read said you were in bands with Robbie Krieger (Doors’ guitarist).
JD: Yeah, well, we took acid together, Robbie, this piano player, Grant, Bill Wolf and I and then we decided, “Well, let’s form a band!” We were the Psychedelic Rangers. It was back when the word “psychedelic” wasn’t really known.
RF: What kind of music were you doing?
JD: We were just screwing around and we would jam on blues and a couple of originals. One was called “Paranoia.”
RF: So you really hadn’t played a pro gig yet?
JD: Well, I’m not sure what you mean by pro. I played all these frat parties, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and I feel you have to be at a certain level of proficiency to be able to fulfill that. At a wedding, you can’t play Chuck Berry the whole time; you have to be well rounded. So I was in little bands that would fulfill these party gigs.
RF: So then you went to a Maharishi meeting with Robbie Krieger and met Ray Manzarek.
JD: And Ray said, “Hey, I hear you’re a drummer. Let’s form a group.” And I said, “Yeah, okay.” And he said, “The time’s not right yet. I’ll call you in a few months.” And I thought, “Gee, that’s pretty cosmic. Far out.” We used those words a lot back then. So Ray finally did call me and I went down to his parents’ garage in Manhattan Beach, California, although he lived in Venice. The original Doors were Ray, Jim, Ray’s two brothers and I. Ray’s brothers quit after a little while. One day, Ray’s brother Rich just said, “These songs aren’t any good, I quit,” and some of those were “Hello, I Love You,” “Moonlight Drive,” some biggies in there. I looked at Ray and he looked at me, like, “Is this guy crazy? We’ve been working on this and don’t we believe in what we’re doing here?” So that’s when I brought Robbie in.
RF: Was it all original material from the beginning?
JD: Well, we knew that we should learn “Gloria” and a few little ditties in case we got some fraternity parties. All the clubs were top-40 in those days. That’s what’s great about today, you can play your own stuff.
RF: Can you recall your initial reaction to the music?
JD: There wasn’t any music. It was just Jim’s words. Ray said, “This is Jim, the singer.” He had never sung. But they showed me some of the lyrics and they were real out there, yet I could see the fluidity and rhythm to them and right away thought, “God, put this to rock music? Yeah!” Jim was real shy and sung facing the corner of the garage, but he was different and great looking and his words were real off the wall. I thought, “Okay, I’ll stick with this for a while.” I was playing in a bunch of bands, but I figured, “Okay, I’ll rehearse here for a while and see what happens.” In fact, finally when Robbie got in the band, he said to me, “Would you just quit the other bands you’re in, damnit. Are you in this or not?” And I did, finally. I could see the potential. I could see that Jim was real special.
RF: So then, primarily, you created the music? Was that the case throughout the Doors?
JD: Yeah. Jim had his lyrics and melodies. He didn’t play instruments and didn’t know anything about chords, modulation, anything.
RF: How did he present the melodies?
JD: A cappella. He would say, “It goes, [singing the tune with lyrics to ‘The Chrystal Ship’] before you slip into unconsciousness…” He would just sort of peck it out that way and we’d go, “Well, let’s see, A-flat.” I’d say, ” Sounds like it’s in 3/4. Let’s try it in 3/4.”
RF: That’s amazing.
JD: It is? Well, I guess it is. I guess most musicians say, “Okay, this is the song.” Robbie had chords and melodies. He wrote the hits like “Light My Fire,” “Love Her Madly,” “Touch Me,” so when he brought a song in, it was a little more finished. Jim’s were real raw. We arranged it all together. The way I view it is that all though school, we were doing our homework individually. I had been in music and worked on my drums since I was eight, Ray was playing blues in Chicago his whole life and Robbie was playing Flamenco. While Jim was growing up, he was writing. He was an English student, graduated UCLA in 2 1/2 years in the smart-kid program and he read everything. So he was doing his homework too, and when we all got together, we made it in a year and a half, which is pretty quick. A lot of bands say, “You assholes, you didn’t pay any dues.” Well, yes and no. We paid our dues growing up, individually, and when we met, it was the right synthesis. So here’s this guy who has these words, but he also has melody ideas, just out of nowhere, a cappella, off the top of his head, so that was special. And then the fact that we hacked it all out together was special, which made it a real democracy in honing down those songs. Everybody had equal input and if anybody was dissatisfied about anything, he said so. There was no paranoia about that, so the songs got absolutely the best treatment they could get. And then when we started playing clubs, they got further honed because of the feedback. Live, you can feel what is boring and where people aren’t getting off on certain sections. That’s what most bands do for years and that’s how they get their stuff together.
RF: So how did the contract come about? Tell me about the days playing in the clubs and the Whisky.
JD: Our first gig was at the London Fog which was a few doors down from the Whisky. It was sort of a sleezy bar that attracted derelicts and strange people. We auditioned and packed the house that night with UCLA film students. The club manager went crazy and hired us. The next night it was empty, but we had the gig and we got paid $10 each, Thursday through Sunday, 9:00 – 2:00, five sets. Later he asked us to play Tuesday and Wednesday for $5 a night. I refused because, hey, I was a musician; a working professional. Jim wanted to do it and so we did. In the back of my mind, I knew it was invaluable honing of the material.
RF: With five sets a night, you were obviously doing cover material.
JD: Yes. We would do “Gloria,” “Louie Louie,” and that kind of stuff. Plus, we got to do our own, like we had this song where we just hit kind of a Latin groove and we would play it for fifteen minutes. That was “Latin Bullshit #2” and we had “Latin Bullshit #1,” which was a different lick of some Latin feel, samba. We were fired because there was a fight in the bar and we were blamed for it, when we had nothing to do with it. But before that, always between the sets, we had gone down to the Whisky to look in the door. We’d see Love playing or the Byrds, and I’d be drooling, thinking, “Why am I in this band? I can play better than that drummer. I can be in that band.” And Jim was chatting up Ronnie Haran who booked the Whisky, and that night, before we got fired, she came down and heard us and went crazy. She talked Elmer Valentine into hiring us as the house band without an audition. A week later, we were the house band at the Whisky and played for four months, opening up for Them [Van Morrison], the Byrds, Captain Beefheart, everybody. We developed a following, Vito and the Freaks, this troupe of freaks, and record companies started coming in. To be honest, we were pretty shrewd, business-wise. We didn’t know a lot about business, but we were cautious. We wouldn’t just sign stuff. Robbie came from a sort of semi-wealthy family and his dad kind of oversaw us and that was helpful. Record companies started coming in and everybody knew “Light My Fire” was a hit, but nobody knew how to do it. Sonny & Cher’s manager wanted 75% of the publishing, which is immoral, so we thought, “No, no.” Jac Holzman at Elektra Records was really the only one who made a good offer, $5,000 and 5% so we could get equipment. So we did it. Since “Light My Fire” happened to be on the first album, through guilt, they improved the contract shortly thereafter. We got fired from the Whisky for playing too loud and Jim did the Oedipal secion of “The End” one night. We had never even heard of it. We’re just playing along and all of a sudden, he’s killing his father and screwing his mother. Elmer’s old partner, Phil Tanzini, also thought he was crazy and fired us. So, that was the Whisky.
RF: Did you play clubs after that?
JD: Yes. It was a real frustrating time in there for me. We played Gazarris, which was a hole in the wall. Before the record started moving and between getting fired from the Whisky and getting decent gigs, there were several months there where it was like, “What do we do? We can’t get a gig, we’re playing places we don’t like.” And I started thinking, “Hey, I could get another job. “As a drummer, I had been working before this.
RF: Later on, as far as the putting together of the material, did that happen in the studio or out of the studio?
JD: Well, the first two albums were written in these early days, but the third album, we found ourselves writing in the studio, which is not good at $100 an hour.
RF: Besides the financial, why was that not good in your estimation?
JD: All this incubation time, you work on the songs, you thrash them out in clubs and they get time and growth. You make it and you go out there and it’s, “We want ‘Light My Fire,’ ‘Light My Fire.’ ” You sneak in an original or two that you’re working on, but it’s a bigger auditorium and it isn’t the same. And then when you’re off the road, you’re recording and that’s pressure, so the natural thing you started in the beginning, changes. The writing becomes secondary and that’s what got you started. That’s a problem.
RF: What was the difference for you between working with Paul Rothschild, your producer, and when you didn’t?
JD: Rothschild was great for us. In the beginning, he taught us how to make records. We didn’t know how. It was very frustrating the first few days, getting a “sound” on our instruments. I didn’t know what the hell it was. He wanted to muffle a lot of the skins and it felt horrible. After a little while, I realized that you can’t have the same sound in the studio as you have live. Live, the room echos and the whole thing would be a big mush. But it was kind of frustrating learning that. By the second album, though, it was a joy. We knew what you do and we kind of wanted to be out there and put in some electronic sounds. Rothschild was also really innovative and creative. We had moog synthesizers on our second album. I’m sure there was no other group doing that in 1968, but they’re very subtle. Then Jim started self-destructing. Now here, Rothschild was really good because he was strong and he was one of the few guys who wouldn’t take shit from Jim. He would say, ”The session is over, Jim,” and Jim would want to do more. But it started getting hard. Rothschild had to do lots of takes on the vocals and his perfectionistic thing got so excessive. He really wanted “his sound.” To me, he would go past the good takes, trying to get the ensemble sound he heard. When we finally said goodbye to him, it was so refreshing doing L.A. Woman; just heaven. Bruce Botnick was the engineer all along, and the co-producer. Sometimes it would have taken half a day, previously, to get a drum sound and go around each drum getting a sound, which is fine when you’re making Sgt. Pepper or whatever. But with Bruce, I started playing my drums and he said, “That’s great, that’s great,” and in half an hour, it was together. And then I thought, “Shit, this is the sound I’ve always loved.” I had a lot more jazz influence in L.A. Woman. “Riders in the Storm” is a very jazzy, light thing and I thought, “Ah, finally getting to really do it!” When we were having the dispute with Rothschild, we had played a few of these songs and he called “Riders” cocktail music. And he was somewhat crazed from working with Jim. The third album [Waiting for the Sun] was very hard to make. The first two albums were songs we had worked on for years and we loved them. But then Jim started getting drunk or stoned. He’d have to do more takes on the vocals and possibly even them up to get one good one. That was the beginning of the end. That last album, without Rothschild, was much more together because we were more in control, so Jim was more involved in it and it was a lot of fun to make. We did it in our rehearsal hall. We brought in remote equipment. The album before it, Morrison Hotel, was sixteen tracks and L.A. Woman was eight. We went back to eight tracks, which sounds crazy, denying the technology, but, in fact, what it did was force us to put only really great stuff on that tape. I think of it as the first punk album. Elvis Costello made his first album for something like three grand, which was great, because as much as I love Springsteen and Jackson Browne, those albums cost a quarter of a million dollars or whatever. Costello’s point was, “You go in, you play it with heart and feeling, screw the errors, and put it out!” That’s what we did on L.A. Woman, exactly. On Miles’ Live at Carnegie Hall, there was a big error in the beginning where the trumpets just go BLAH and we remembered reading that Miles said, “If it has the feeling, screw the errors.” So on the L.A. Woman sessions, it was, “I hit a wrong note,” and Robbie would say, “So what? Remember what Miles said.” “Great, okay.” So on that album, it was one or two takes on every track, whereas the fourth album, Soft Parade, was the ultimate in indulgence. “Un known Soldier” was the biggie, and Rothschild had us do 130 takes. It was two sections, so it was about 70 and 70. It was ludicrous. I like the song and I like the way it sounds, but come on.
RF: You lose the heart after the third take.
JD: The heart was lost. I think with the albums in the middle period, there are better takes in the can than what came out. Maybe with a mistake here and there, but with heart.
RF: How long did it take you to make Soft Parade?
JD: Several months. Back then, that was a long time. It took us two weeks to make the first album. That was on four-track, ancient times. The next album, maybe a month.
RF: What about L.A. Woman?
JD: Two or three weeks.
RF: How did the technology change from the first album to the last, even as far as miking?
JD: On the first album, there were just a few mic’s on my drums. By the last album, there were seven or eight. I always went for the drums to have real personality. I always had the bottom heads off all my drums and I hated new skins and new drums. I liked to beat them up until they started barking back at me. If you listen to “Hello, I Love You,” that’s when the heads were just rancid. That was my sound. They would all sort of talk. When I broke one, I’d cry and get a new one and it would be a few weeks before I could stand the sound of it.
RF: You did all your own tuning in the studio?
JD: Yes. I used to tune my tom toms to the I, IV and V chords, just approximately, if it was the blues, because I used to play tympani in the orchestra.
RF: Why didn’t the Doors ever hire a bass player?
JD: We thought we needed one and we auditioned several. Every time they played, though, we sounded like the Rolling Stones, or some regular old blues/rock band. Then Ray discovered the Fender-Rhodes keyboard bass, which was mushy, but we thought, “Yeah, this is different. We’re different.” In the early days, we played the San Francisco Ballroom, Filmore and Avalon. Owsley, the guy who used to make acid, the original guy, came backstage to me one time and said, “You guys need a bass player. You’ve got a big hole in your music.” He went out the door and Ray and I looked at each other and said, “We’re definitely not getting one now! If it makes the King of Acid a little edgy, then we’re on the right track.” But in the studio, we always had a bass player.
RF: Except for the first album.
JD: Well, it’s not credited, but Larry Knechtel played a little bass on “Light My Fire.” The tracks were done with the keyboard bass, but for recording it’s too mushy. You need a pluck to get a punch. Robbie played bass on “Backdoor Man,” just overdubbed a little. And then from the second album on out, we always had a bass player.
RF: Who was the unidentified bass player in the very first days?
JD: I don’t know. Those were the early days with Ray and his brothers, Jim and me. It was some girl bass player. We played the Marina Hotel and played “Gloria” over and over again.
RF: Did you miss having a bass player to work off of?
JD: No. There was more of a responsibility to hold the tempo down because it was just me and Ray’s left hand, which would only play simple repetitive patterns. But there wasn’t the big bass filling the sound, so I was free to mess around and answer Jim’s words with accents. It was real freedom for me. Like on “The Music’s Over,” in the whole middle section, the tempo drops way down and I think I keep a little beat with my bass drum or something and Jim goes into, “What have we done to the earth…” And I’m going, “Yeah! What have we done?!” answering the words with the drums. It was real loose and improvisational. Live, I had to work real hard to make sure it didn’t rush or drag.
RF: Do you have favorite tracks?
JD: “Riders in the Storm,” “L.A. Woman,” I like that track very much. “Light My Fire” was pretty much a joy for me to play live and at least for the three of us, because of the long improvisational section in the middle. We used to play the song for about fifteen minutes live and Jim would get a little bored sometimes. Sometimes he’d be shaking his maracas and playing with the folks or sometimes he’d just go backstage. But it was real long and no one did that then. God, there’s a lot of them. I like the second album a lot [StrangeDays], the third album, eh, the fourth album, we got a lot of flak for the strings and horns. Even before the first album, Ray and I, old jazzers, had talked about using horns someday. There’s a song or two in there with Curtis Amy, this West Coast sax player. We told him to play like Archie Shepp or Coltrane and just lose it, go outside the chords. We had a real good time, but people said, “It wasn’t the Doors’ sound.” Well, if you didn’t like it, we had to go through with it. We wouldn’t have gotten back to L.A. Woman without experimenting. I didn’t like Morrison Hotel, although people love it. It was more Rothschild dominated. I love the L.A. Woman album.
RF: Something I read said that Jim much preferred the club days. I wonder how you felt about that, musically.
JD: I don’t know that that’s true. Yes and no for all of us. The intimacy in the early days was great. You get off the stand and you talk to the people and all that, but we enjoyed getting larger and larger crowds off. It was a great experience. At some point, it got too big, that’s for sure.
RF: But even sound-wise. A lot of musicians say that larger arenas make you lose taste in your playing and the subtleties get lost.
JD: I think you could generalize about the Doors that we liked the sort of small, 5,000-seat halls around the country, with the old thick drapes and the dead sound. These large arenas are for sports, not music, and they echo and that’s the worst. But we were excited about being the first rock ‘n’ roll band to play the Forum and Madison Square Garden. They were very reluctant to have us, but we were pretty excited by that mass thing. Later, we did a tour where we went back to the smaller halls, purposely. Unfortunately, Jim was really self-destructing, but it was a good tour. It was after Miami and all the shit. Promoters were saying, “Hey, you can fill double this,” but we wanted to do that. That’s when we got to play the L.A. Woman album for the first time live, and it was really nice. But then some nights Jim was so ripped that it was the worst.
RF: How does that affect a musician when you don’t know what is going to happen next? How do you get a handle on the music, and even the vibes?
JD: Well, there was a point where Jim’s intoxication freed him up. We had cues and a framework and we knew how to get in and out of a lot of stuff, although a lot of it was up to him. I would always wind up Ray’s organ solo in “Light My Fire.” Why me, I don’t know, but it just worked out that way. Sometimes Jim would have to have a line that would start us back into something and he might meander around for ten minutes or improvise poetry, which was pretty neat because it was real spontaneous, like jazz. But if he was too ripped, we’d vamp forever and it would be very frustrating. Very. In the early days, we were really, really good. It was important to us. We always did sound checks.
RF: When did that change?
JD: By the third album, he was pretty crazy in the studio.
RF: How does one who works with someone who is self-destructing, keep his head on his shoulders?
JD: Well, I quit a couple of times. On the third album, we were in the studio and Jim had a few of his latest friends in there who were just screwed up people and I said to Paul, “I quit,” and left. I came back the next day. I couldn’t give up my soul. Music is my soul and as painful-as it was, I couldn’t give it up. I think Jim’s self destruction was hardest on me. I mean, I can’t speak for the others, but Robbie is quiet, he keeps things in, and Ray is sort of the father figure, and maybe he really understood Jim way back. I didn’t. I thought he was going crazy. Now I look back and I understand him much better and his lyrics and what he was doing.
RF: How so? What didn’t you understand that you understand now?
JD: Something about commitment. Now that I look at his whole background, I can understand. His dad was in the military and he was dragged from base to base and I’m sure it was a very strict upbringing. When he came out with “Father I want to kill you, mother I want to…” I thought, “Okay, over the deep end here.” Now I understand what he was trying to say, Oedipal, etc.
RF: How did it affect you? You say you took it very hard.
JD: Well, in the very beginning, the first few years, we were like brothers. And as time went on, it became three and one. It was harder and harder to communicate with Jim. Musically, it was always okay because musically we really didn’t talk that much, we didn’t philosophize about what we were doing, it was intuitive. As crazed as he was, musically somehow it was real special. Hey, you know, a friend self destructing and you can’t stop him. It was back in the ’60s when everything was “mellow” and you didn’t really confront. Now I would take him by the shirt. But I was afraid of him, too. He was very powerful. He was a little older and real smart. Just coming into a room, it was, “Jesus, who is that?” That kind of power. So what I’m saying is that he knew that I disapproved of what he was doing to himself by my actions. I wouldn’t be around, or I would storm out. I never directly said it though. It was the times. You didn’t do that. And I would rationalize, and still believe it, that if someone is going to really change inside, it has to click, no matter all the verbal drilling you do to them. But if more people had confronted him, we might have had one less great album, but maybe he would still be around. I can’t shoulder the entire responsibility, but there was a lot of guilt there. It’s eroding a little.
RF: And a lot of anger.
JD: Yes. Yes. I’m trying to write a book and maybe I’ll get it out someday. But what I’m trying to say is that self destruction is not that glamorous. You can’t just wear leather pants and drink. That’s not the road to freedom necessarily. It was for Jim. He was a special guy, but that book, No One Gets Out of Here Alive, reads as if Jim is going from one binge to the next, and that’s not it. There was stuff in between. There was a sensitive guy, who the next morning, wrote down some stuff. I think he could only reveal his pain through his words. He was a little macho.
RF: Was there ever a point when you were caught up in the craziness?
JD: Yeah, just in the logistics of being on the road for a couple of years. I didn’t really know where my roots were. I knew I lived in L.A. and I was born here, but I was very scattered. But I remember Jim getting up in the morning and smoking ten joints in 1967. Then acid came along and he took more than anyone on the planet. It did not fry his brains at all. And then alcohol, and that did him in. So here, all the time, was this example of it being too far to go, so the three of us became a little more conservative and felt the responsibility of hearing 10,000 people upstairs stomping, “Doors, Jim, Jim,” and we’re downstairs and Jim is under the toilet and we’re supposed to go on. And they all paid $6.00, which was a lot of money then.
RF: So you felt a responsibility towards your audiences and what was happening.
JD: I felt a responsibility when the percentage of good performances got less and less. That made me crazy! I also remember, I kind of felt a responsibility about giving the impression that drugs were possibly the key to whatever. We didn’t blatantly say, “Take drugs,” but we did. See, this is what makes me crazy. In the early days, Jim was like a street scientist. We all were. There was LSD, but it wasn’t in the press, and we would take it and go anywhere, into a coffee shop or whatever, and we would be having an incredible time looking at the silverware. But no one knew. No one had heard of anything. Alcohol is another thing, though. That is escape and deadening the senses, not heightening. That’s what makes me sad about Jim, because in the early days, here’s this incredible, beautiful, smart guy who was curious about everything in the world. When you turn to alcohol, you’re trying to stop something. Whatever he created, he couldn’t handle. That’s real sad.
RF: You went in the other direction when you could have gotten caught up in it. I wonder what that thing inside of a person is that determines that.
JD: My brother committed suicide and Morrison committed slow suicide. I can’t and I won’t. It makes me value life a lot more. That’s the reason.
RF: Was your brother before?
JD: Yes. His name was Jim. He died at 27; Morrison died at 27. He was a real talented musician and painter.
RF: There were two albums after Jim died. Why didn’t you proceed with that? Why did the group disband?
JD: Well, I’m kind of proud of the first one, Tightrope Ride. It’s not bad. We’ve got a lot of little jazzy things in there. We didn’t replace Jim, of course, because that would have been ludicrous. So Ray, who had sung before, sang, and Robbie tried to sing. We had played together for many years and we didn’t want to give it up, but by the second album, we were getting scattered, musically. We were fighting, because we didn’t have our unity, which was Jim. He had been our focal point, so it was over.
RF: Is it hard to put the pieces back together again after something like that ends? How do you get motivated to do something else?
JD: That’s what keeps you going. You can’t just sit around. That’s why we made those albums, to keep doing something. Then there was the Butts Band. Ray, Robbie and I went to England to find some other musicians and to do something. Ray decided to go back to L.A. and Robbie and I stayed. We found some musicians, Phil Chen, a Chinese guy born in Jamaica, a great bass player who was Rod Stewart’s bass player for years, and he introduced us to reggae. There was a singer, Jess Roden, and we made an album on Blue Thumb, which was pretty good, actually. But it was very hard trying to have a band with half of them living in London and half of them living in L.A., so it fell apart. Then we had some other musicians here. We made an album in Jamaica, which was fabulous. It was a year or two before the Wailers ever played here and we were really into reggae. It was a great lifetime experience. But we’d get all these musicians together and they were kind of into it and working on songs. But the first singer was sort of fantasizing a solo career, even before we did anything. I thought, “These people don’t know what it takes. Everybody has to be dedicated for years.” At least we got to play, we made an album, we played live a little, got to create. Ray did a solo album and he also had the Doors first clone band.
RF: You reunited a few years ago to do An American Prayer, an album of Jim’s poetry.
JD: Ray’s solo album didn’t do well, Night City, the clone band didn’t do well and Robbie had a jazz album out on Blue Note, which was very good, but very esoteric, and I was acting. So we were all doing those things individually for a few years when John Haeny comes around, this engineer who did a couple of cuts on the third album, and said, “Hey, we’ve got all this poetry.” So we listened to it and decided to do an album. Jim wanted a poetry album. That’s why he recorded it all on his birthday. He was going to do it with an orchestra, but he died. So years later, we thought, “Let’s do this.” Our old producer, Paul, dumped all over the album in BAM Magazine and I wrote a letter in reply. Certainly it was planned for an orchestra, but he died, and who better to do it than his old musical friends who used to support all his poetry with music anyway? We always viewed his lyrics as poems from the very beginning. So all we had were his words. If you listen to the record, it’s like a movie for your ears. That’s how we made it. It’s real complex; a trip. It didn’t sell well, but we knew it wouldn’t. It was so esoteric. But if you think about it, all we had was Jim reading, and not with a lot of drama. We’d chop it up, sometimes we’d let it go and support that musically and sometimes we’d say, “No, no, he’s got to wait here,” and we’d stop and play a little music and then we’d drop in a line or two. So that was the tribute we did. I think he would be blown away.
RF: You were quoted as saying that Jim always wanted you to play an Indian rhythm and you finally did on that album.
JD: That’s right.
RF: But there’s some of that on previous cuts; “Strange Days” for one.
JD: “Five to One” is sort of your basic Indian rhythm. He would always be on me to play simple primitive stuff and I’d be thinking in my head, “Damnit, I didn’t play jazz for 400 years to do that. I want to show my licks.” But sometimes when I would play something simple and then he’d start some words and Robbie and Ray would find a lick, I’d think, “Oh yeah, right.” It’s the whole song, not showing other drummers what you can do. And I really haven’t showed off at all. I know that Jim Keltner said to Robbie, “I thought John was shit until I heard L.A. Woman. Damn, that’s good stuff, ‘Riders in the Storm,’ that subtle jazz. He’s good.” Well, I was that good from the beginning [pats himself on the back] but I was surrendering to the song and I worked. We all did, that’s why the impact was so big.
RF: Didn’t you guys get up on stage in Paris together during the time of the poetry album?
JD: Don’t ask me about this. Okay, I’ll tell you about it. We went to Paris on a talk tour. We couldn’t play An American Prayer without Jim and it was so intricate. We really worked hard on it and we wanted to promote it somehow, so we went out and did interviews all over Europe. I guess I might as well tell you just what happened and dump it. Danny Sugarman, who was doing our press, said, “Hey, it’s Jim’s birthday, we went to his grave, do you want to sit in at a club tonight?” And we thought, “Great, yeah.” We hadn’t played together in several years, but we were just going to sit in, what the hell. It was a nice idea, but I was worried. We go to the club in the afternoon and it’s a damn 1,000 seat-place. We’re doing a sound check and we’re not just sitting in. They’ve rented equipment for us and I’m playing on rented drums. With drumming, it’s like wearing a glove. Your drumset is like a tight glove. You pick up a guitar or a piano, the keys or strings are the same distances. All the levels of everything are all different on the drums, it’s not your sound and it’s the worst. So, in fact, it was this incredible disco in Paris, the Palace, with laser beams. It was usually just records; no band at all. So everything stops and they go, “Special surprise, the Doors.” It was a show! And we weren’t too good. And there was a little blurb in Rolling Stone‘s Random Notes about the Doors sitting in on Jim’s birthday, but it was mediocre. It had been presented as sit in at a club on Jim’s birthday. Yeah, I love to play with other musicians, I miss it terribly. Play the blues, or an old Doors’ song. I played “Roadhouse Blues” with Robbie at the Troubadour recently when he was playing with some band. But this was not at all how it was presented; an out and out exploitation.
RF: What was your set-up?
JD: Well, in the beginning, I had one tom-tom on the bass drum and one floor tom and a snare.
RF: Gretsch, I presume.
JD: Yes. Then I went to Ludwig not too long after, like the third album. I had a Ludwig snare all the way and still have my Ludwig snare. I have a couple of them, but I still have the original Doors one. I still love the sound. Now I have a whole flock of Pearl tomtoms. A few years ago, the Japanese really got drums down! They’re great tom-toms. I have a Ludwig snare drum and a Ludwig floor tom and Zildjian cymbals. I love old cymbals. I’d go to Pro Drum Shop and they’d say, “This is Jimmy Cobb’s old cymbal.” “I’ll take it!” And it might be cracked and they cut out the crack. Old. I hate new stuff. I have an old Chinese cymbal. I remember talking to Jim Gordon about the great thing Nixon did was open up China so we could get cymbals.
RF: They didn’t have too many endorsements back then, did they?
JD: I never endorsed drums. I never was asked, damnit! In the last several years, I’ve been asked kind of casually once or twice, but I haven’t been pursued. Now I’m doing a movie [working title: “Get Crazy.”] and the character I’m playing is a Keith Moon-type. I hope they’re going to check with me on the drums. I’m going to get 400 drums: two bass drums, a gong, just a mammoth set. I’ve never played two bass drums. I don’t know how.
RF: Do you still practice? Do you have a set at your house?
JD: Oh yes. I have a studio for rehearsal, not recording, but with padded walls.
RF: Where did the acting come from?
JD: My dad used to act when he was twenty. He had a little theatre group and then he decided, like me, that he couldn’t make a living in the arts, so he became an architect. So, forty years later, a few years ago, he went back to the stage and he does stuff around town. I went to see him and it was a different guy on that stage. He’s real shy but he opened up and I thought that’s what I wanted to do, and so I studied for a couple of years with Lee Strasberg. It’s new and exciting. I would get as nervous for twelve people in my acting class as Madison Square Garden because it was risky and no drums.
RF: You were nervous before you went on stage with the Doors?
JD: It grew. I played little parties and got used to being a performer. That’s why I think there’s some connection between acting and music. I was always the one who wrote the sets for all the live performances. I could never get more than three or four songs out of anybody and then we’d go on stage. By the time we got to the third or fourth song, we’d fight in front of everybody sometimes. But I always had a sense of, “Alright, we should play this other song instead of this one because they’re in this weird place and we should take them over here,” which has something to do with acting.
RF: You were also involved playing and performing with a dance company.
JD: I went to this dance concert and it was real interesting. Avantgarde people doing art for art, no money, trying to say something. And I met this girl, Bess, and she said, “We should do a piece together.” So I put down five different rhythms on a cassette and gave it to her and she was going to choreograph dancing to it. It evolved. I rehearsed with her and thought, “Hey, I’m an actor here. I’m not just going to be a Sideman, I’m going to be a character. I’ll be her husband or boyfriend through the drums. She’ll dance and we’ll have an argument through movement and drum ming.” It evolved and evolved and turned into this piece called “Funny Honey.” It was real good and we did it all over the Southwest, San Diego, L.A., Santa Fe, Arizona. I never considered my self a solo drummer; that wasn’t my thing. My thing was augmenting and spurring on the soloist and Jim. Keeping the beat, that’s your first job, but really driving the others. Here I was playing alone for ten minutes for this dancer. It was good. It made me think composition. It’s all rhythm, but composition-wise. This movie I’m doing, I’ve had to think the same way. I have a fairly extensive drum solo, so it was necessary for me to work out several sections which built to a climax. This kind of discipline is good. My character in the movie is a heavy-metal-type drummer, so I had to think of how he would play. It was a real challenge, and although I was a little nervous about it, I’ve just finished the solo and I think it works. So after the ten-minute piece, Bess said, “Hey, you’re agile and have rhythm and have been into acting. Be in this piece.” I was real scared, but I was in a half-an-hour dance piece with eight people. There was speaking, it was called “Conversations,” and it was real personal. You had to go out and do a solo, which was a monologue that you wrote yourself, about yourself. Very psychological. And she would choreograph movement to the words you wrote. We did it in New York. I got standing ovations every time I did my solo. In the early days, people didn’t know I was in the Doors, so it meant that much more. I did that for a year or two and that’s as fulfilling as any Doors gig.
RF: How do you feel about the Doors’ resurgence?
JD: Well, 75% of me loves it and the other 25% is a little mixed up about it, awkward, “What does this mean?” When I get asked for autographs by people who were three years old or not born yet, I feel kind of weird, or see my picture on their T-shirts. But the good thing, of course, is that our music has lasted two decades. I never would have believed it. The last year or two with the resurgence, the compliments have been flying and some of them really good. A couple of nights ago, I was in a bar and this girl comes up to me: “Are you…, etc., etc.” And then she says how we changed her life and how she might be dead if it hadn’t been for us. She was talking about how we represented breaking away from parents, etc., and how we inspired her to do so and she’s very independent and happy. When you get that kind of feedback, it feels pretty good.
RF: Are you interested in returning to music?
JD: I love music. I don’t have any immediate plans to get in a band, but it’s my life. If there’s a Doors movie made, there’s a possibility of Robbie, Ray and I doing some instrumental tracks in addition to the old songs. That’s a very exciting idea for the future, if we ever get a deal confirmed for the movie. I always wanted to make an instrumental album with them, but it’s never happened. If you listen to American Prayer, there’s a prerecorded tape of Jim’s voice and nothing else. And then you listen to what we did and there is some musical chemistry between the three of us that you don’t lose because you’ve played together six or seven years. Even when you go away for years, you know them musically. I look forward to doing it again if it ever happens. But other musical things are exciting also. I just jammed the other day with Fear’s bass player and some others and it was great. I miss playing. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that I would play in another group, but it’s not in the immediate future. I’m real excited by acting, but ever since I first started piano lessons, I’ve just been crazy over music and I always will be. It really is the thread through my life.