If the Stones were a boulder picking up bits of soil, sweat, and grease as it rumbled through the American South, and Pink Floyd was a spaceship sending home images from across the galaxy, then the Doors were a great wave approaching an unsuspecting shore, moving quietly with suspicious calm and mystery, then crashing down with the explosive violence of a natural disaster.
As the drummer in this most unexpected and mercurial of ’60s-era American rock bands, John Densmore was not only challenged to surf the crest of singer Jim Morrison’s wild yet scholarly lyrics on stage, he also had to plot the course through each unique compositional odyssey that he, guitarist Robbie Krieger, and keyboardist Ray Manzarek took across the six studio albums the Doors released between 1967 and 1971.
The opening track of the group’s iconic self-titled debut album features a bar of Densmore’s unaccompanied bossa nova beat—not the kind of thing you’d imagine grounding an open musical invitation to blow your mind, replete with rock-god screams and garage-rock riffing. But it worked wonders. And the album ended as dramatically as it had begun, with Densmore supporting Morrison’s tale of Oedipal rage with some of the most dramatic and beautifully recorded tom work in rock history. In between, the band covered the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill whiskey-bar sing-along “Alabama Song,” and Densmore captured the decadent vibe of prewar Germany with a classic oompah beat. Elsewhere, on “Soul Kitchen” and “Twentieth Century Fox,” they dug out their R&B chops like the seasoned bar band they were; jammed fantastically for seven full minutes on “Light My Fire”; and played it delicate and romantic on “The Crystal Ship” and “End of the Night,” Densmore pulling out his best rimclick love-beats and, on the latter song, playing a swelling floor tom single-stroke roll that can still raise the hair on the back of your neck.
Strange Days, released before the year was out, was no less shocking or satisfying. The album contains several of the Doors’ most enduring cuts, including “Love Me Two Times,” “People Are Strange,” and “Moonlight Drive,” each an opportunity for Densmore to flex his ever-creative song-shaping abilities, which often employed odd tom-tom placement, Art Blakey–inspired press rolls, and sudden starts and stops. Most important, Strange Days ends with the eleven-minute “When the Music’s Over,” arguably the quintessential Doors song. The track finds Densmore supporting some of Morrison’s most colorful and cutting lyrics with sympathy, soul, and a painterly approach that rarely gets heard in rock music today but that nonetheless is as timeless as the themes Morrison explored throughout the band’s short career.
With half a century having passed since The Doors and Strange Days were released, you’d forgive Densmore for having hazy recollections or tempered emotions about the albums, but that was hardly the case when we spoke with him for this special MD feature. As sharp and passionate as ever about the music he loves—he’s in the midst of writing his third book on the subject now—John easily travels back in his mind to the heady days of the Doors, and he’s quick to make the connections between the musical and cultural ground they tilled all those years ago and the sounds and issues of today. And, like most drummers, he still gets excited when the topic turns to the relative merits of one Richard Starkey….
John: Jim Keltner and I have had several conversations about Ringo, how his pocket is just so wonderful. People dis him. Buddy Rich dissed him, said he didn’t have enough chops or some shit. I sent a note to him after reading that. Then Buddy’s daughter came to a Doors gig. She came backstage, and I said, “Tell your dad that, of that era, I prefer Krupa to him.” [laughs] Because of the pocket. All the technique in the world is not everything.
So, who else is in this issue?
MD: Hal Blaine, Carmine Appice…
John: Hal’s a little before my time, but the fills on “Hello, I Love You,” I guess those are thanks to Hal and his Rototoms. Carmine and I saw Paul Simon together. He has more chops than me. He’s a solo drummer, I’m not. I pride myself on being an accompanist. That’s what I learned from Elvin Jones. I had conversations with Jim.
MD: Keltner’s in the issue as well.
John: That Bill Frisell album with him [Gone, Just Like a Train]…oh my God, that’s the best. Loose, jazzy—he’s got that down.
MD: In his piece, Keltner talks about what it was like coming up around ’67. What was it like for you, being on your first album that year?
John: I was hoping at that time that we could just pay the rent. Now what do we have here, fifty years? We’ve done all right.
We honed for a year or two. Jim said it was like a bow being pulled back for twenty-two years and then being let go.
MD: Were you already out of the house and supporting yourself when you were in the studio recording the first album?
John: A year or two before that I finally got out of the house and got a place with Robbie Krieger. We were a couple bachelors, playing the Whiskey—the mecca. Once you played there, Mario the doorman would let you in, so we’d go there and see everybody, look for girls….
MD: Do you remember any local drummers who you were inspired by?
John: Before we were the house band at the Whiskey, we were down the street at the London Fog. I used to walk down to the corner and see Arthur Lee’s Love. This sounds arrogant, but I used to think, Dammit, I’m better than their drummer—why am I not in that band at the Whiskey? Arthur Lee graciously asked the president of our record company to come and see us.
But jazz guys were my idols, and I’d go see them. One time I sat right next to Art Blakey’s hi-hat. I went home and tried to copy his stuff for days.
MD: Do you remember feeling part of a drummer fraternity early on?
John: I’ve been in the drum fraternity my whole life. Endured the dumb drummer jokes, to which I say: Ex-cuse me—drums were the first instrument. First you heard your mother in the womb. So you already had polyrhythms going, with your own heartbeat. So it’s rhythm from the beginning. And it’s a great fraternity. All of us understand the function of a hi-hat. Most people haven’t a clue. But it’s our world. Ride cymbals, hi-hats—that’s how we go through the world. Filmmakers see the world; we hear it. Rhythm. It saved my life.
MD: How so, by giving you something to focus on?
John: Yeah, and maybe…well, I wrote this in my first memoir, Riders on the Storm. I remember when drum machines were first invented, and I just loved what Ringo said: “I’m the f****n’ drum machine.” I understand how drum machines are very helpful for hip-hop and folks who have no money. That’s cool. But getting a good sense of time, which is everything in drumming, if you don’t have to learn that discipline over years, then something is lost on a physical level.
It’s kind of like meditation. A groove is like “Om,” which helps the individual. The discipline of learning rhythm helps evolve the consciousness of the rhythm maker. You know when musicians are playing together and smiling at one another? It doesn’t matter if it’s a duet or a forty-piece orchestra, you’re trying to get back to the womb, and that’s tapping into infinity. This is all in my new book. You get good time to try and reach timelessness.
MD: Do you see the sort of encroachment of electronic devices as intrinsically working against that?
John: Not necessarily. I’ll hear Herbie Hancock play an incredible synth solo, and I love it. But now there are lots of folks who get annoyed when they’re not dancing to an electronic pulse. That worries me, because we’re not perfect.
MD: I was listening to “Wooden Ships” by Jefferson Airplane today….
John: Spencer Dryden. Very sweet guy.
MD: I bring it up because that song is all about dynamics, which is an approach you can’t even attempt if the basis of the music is metronomic. So there’s more lost than just the human groove.
John: Okay, now that’s really important to me. Dynamics is my entire thing. I learned this from classical music, playing timpani in orchestra. There are moments of pianissimo, or quiet, all the way to fortissimo, or loud, and everything in between. That’s very human musically.
Springsteen asked me, “Why did you play those really loud tom-tom fills in the quiet section of ‘The End’?” I don’t know, but later I listened to it and thought I increased the tension, which was great. But loud and soft and everything in between is about contrast. If it’s all at one level…that’s cool in punk or heavy metal. But for me it’s not human enough.
MD: “When the Music’s Over” is a classic example of how the Doors employed dynamics. How does that song resonate with you now?
John: One of my favorites. My second epic, and it breathes like crazy. Loud and soft. Like in “The End,” we had these sections where Jim could throw in any poem he wanted. Improvisation. [Quoting lyrics] “What have they done to the earth? What have they done to our fair sister? Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn. Tied her with fences, dragged her down.” I don’t know why I stopped the beat. I just did. Ray’s still playing the bass line. And I’m programmatically jabbing at the cymbals like “sticking knives in the side of the dawn.” It’s a conversation…Elvin and Coltrane battling it out.
It’s funny, the words… Drummers of course count tunes off. And I hear the words and the melody and immediately pick the correct tempo. I don’t know why that is. It’s something about the rhythm. “The day destroys the night, night divides the day. Tried to run, tried to hide, break on through to the other side.” It tells you. But yeah, I like those breaks in “When the Music’s Over.” Then there’s four beats of total silence. I just love that. It’s like breathing. The silence between the sounds is what’s really important. Without that, you don’t have a comparison.
I’m writing a chapter on the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel. He’ll finish conducting a real loud symphony—Beethoven, let’s say—and he’ll keep his arms up so the audience knows not to applaud yet, because he’s not done. And for the longest time, a minute or two, we’ll be salivating in the silence after the last sound. And it’s like heaven. Arms down—you’re emaciated. The composer John Cage said that silence is as important as the sound.
MD: You mentioned the London Fog earlier. What do you think of the new live release, London Fog 1966?
John: It’s a little embarrassing to me. But then again, everybody was bootlegging us with lousy sound. And I would pick up Coltrane compilations that had six versions of one tune leading to the master, and I enjoyed figuring out how that road went. London Fog is young guys trying to find their center.
MD: Hearing your press roll that early…it seemed like you had your aesthetic together by then. Is that fair to say?
John: I guess so. I mean, I had played a lot, and I perfected Art Blakey’s press roll. Jim was finding himself much more than me then. He wouldn’t face the audience; he was so shy a lot of times at the Fog. But as Jim found himself and wrote more songs, I would be affected by them and try to be the best accompanist possible.
MD: Did you feel at the time that you were doing something that nobody else was doing?
John: Not me. The band, yes. First of all, we auditioned bass players, and we sounded like the Rolling Stones. A blues band. Then Ray found a keyboard bass, and, Wow, this is going to make us more unique! It would be a harder job for me, because Ray’s left hand…he’d take a solo with his right hand and sometimes get excited, and I’d have to be, “Whoa, hold it, you’re speeding up there.” It was more open. More room for fills. Different. So we didn’t realize it, but a little later we thought about it: Okay, I bring jazz, Ray brings the blues from Chicago, Robbie brings folk music and flamenco, and Jim brought all the words in the world…this is unique, this is an American melting pot. So don’t close the borders, goddam it! [laughs]
MD: Ha! Well, we can’t talk about 1967 without getting into politics, right?
John: I had this jazz group, Tribal Jazz. I had two or three African drummers. World music is a great metaphor for what we’ve gotta do. You get the feeling of a culture when you hear their music. Whether you can understand the words or not, that’s healing. So it is a global village. We’ve got to get along here. All right, I’ll come off the soapbox now. [laughs]
MD: Do you remember what kind of drums you used back then?
John: First it was Gretsch, then I moved to Ludwig and stayed with them most of the way.
MD: In the photos of the London Fog set, you can see that the front of your bass drum didn’t have a head on it.
John: Yeah, I always took the head off and put a pillow in there. This was way before engineers got quick to cut a hole in the front head. Then there’s guys like Tony Williams who liked both heads on, real tight, almost like a tom-tom. Sounds great for him. I like a deader sound.
MD: So it was basically a sonic choice.
John: Yeah. And then I learned from our producer, Paul Rothchild, that you want a more dampened drum sound in the studio than live. That took some getting used to. We muffled the snare drum, and it doesn’t bounce back so it’s harder on your chops. Learning curve.
But then we did the last album, L.A. Woman, and we had a little falling-out with Paul. Mind you, he was tired. Jim’s self-destructiveness was increasing and Paul was tired of pulling vocals out of him. So our longtime engineer, Bruce Botnick, produced L.A. Woman with us. In twenty minutes he said, “That’s it, John, your drum sound is great.” It used to take an hour with Rothchild, and I’d be getting tired before even playing the tunes. And after many albums, Bruce made me feel strong about my sound. I know what I want and like.
MD: Do you remember what it was like when you first heard yourself back in the studio?
John: I remember listening to the playback real loud, and it was like having an orgasm. We were pretty tight. That’s where the power comes from. And I do remember driving in my car and hearing “Light My Fire” on the radio, rolling the window down and turning the volume up real loud so my neighbor could hear it. “That’s me!” That’s a high, hearing your drumming in the car.
MD: When did you begin to feel like you were successful?
John: By the end of ’67 we started playing small concert halls. That was the moment for me. You work and work, hoping to pay the rent. Then, “My God, we’re gonna make a living playing music? This is really cool!” Playing Madison Square Garden, that adulation is exciting. But a small concert on your way up is more exciting because of the potential.
MD: What’s the focus of your next book?
John: The subtitle is Meeting With Remarkable Musicians. And it’s a few minutes or a few years with various musicians that have fed me—Elvin, Ravi Shankar, Patti Smith, Emil Richards, Gustavo Dudamel…. What struck me is that what connects all of them is the love of sound. If you watch Bob Marley or Gustavo Dudamel, both of them have something amazingly similar. Their entire bodies are emitting the sounds that you’re hearing. They’re so into it, they’re gone. It’s like Australian-aboriginal dreamtime.
But here’s what’s really important: If you’re playing music to get into that zone, it’s the same zone as Yo-Yo Ma is in. You’re getting fed by the same muse in that zone. So go there. It’s all connected.
Music, it’s a real healing salve.