The Drummer’s Integrity: John Densmore’s The Doors Unhinged

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By Paul Gleason

Back in the 1980s, R.E.M. – a band to whom Doors’ drummer John Densmore refers in his recent book, The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial – taught me a couple things about integrity that I’ve tried to observe for my entire life.

For starters, R.E.M. credited the composition of all their songs to “Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe” – that is, drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist-vocalist Mike Mills, and vocalist Michael Stipe were equal partners in writing R.E.M.’s songs; no matter who actually came up with what parts, they realized, they wrote everything together. The guys taught me that teamwork and loyalty to friends – the very stuff of integrity – trump money every time.

R.E.M. also taught me that integrity and artistic creativity go hand-in-hand. From their debut EP, 1982’s Chronic Town, to 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, R.E.M. never made a bad album. When Berry left the band after New Adventures, and the band tried to function as a trio – with one piece of the corner missing, as John might say – they lost their thunder and spent more than a decade releasing spotty albums.

When I discovered and began to love The Doors around the same time that I got into R.E.M., I read every book I could on the band and watched every film, including Oliver Stone’s controversial The Doors. Considering the band’s brilliance – not to mention their ability to improvise with jazz-like sophistication – I wasn’t all that amazed to learn that Jim Morrison came up with the “all for one and one for all” ethic that inspired R.E.M. and other terrific rock bands that followed in The Doors’ wake.

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Moreover, when I considered the musical accomplishment of The Doors and the bands that modeled themselves on their ethic, I wasn’t all that surprised that Morrison’s commitment to integrity led to great music. To speak in Buddhist terms – as John does throughout The Doors Unhinged – The Doors functioned best when they abandoned their egos (aka the illusion of personality) and entered the higher, ego-less realm of pure creativity. In these moments of pure creativity, they functioned as one imaginative entity.

It’s from The Doors’ lack of ego that we got “Light My Fire,” “The Crystal Ship,” “The End,” “Strange Days,” “When the Music’s Over,” “Not to Touch the Earth,” “Riders on the Storm,” and countless other timeless songs that are mythic in their poetry and eternal in their musical execution.

Even though it’s technically about the lawsuit in which John and the Morrison estate engaged in with Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger over the use of the band’s name and who had the right to make decisions concerning the use of their songs in commercials, The Doors Unhinged is really about the way in which the capitalist system structures our egos – which are inherently weak – to cling to the ephemeral stuff of this world, i.e. money.

Now John knows that one needs money to live; he’s definitely not a hypocritical hippie. Rather, he’s a level-headed musician who knows that, in his words, he’s made a lot of “dough” from playing with The Doors and, as he readily admits, through Jim’s generosity. It’s through Jim’s generosity, indeed, that John has what he would call the privilege of giving away a lot of his money to environmentalist and other charities.

You see, as John points out, Morrison could have taken the lion’s share of The Doors’ songwriting loyalties as the writer of most of the lyrics and vocal melodies. But he chose not to. He was, in his own words, “a word man, better than a bird man.” In other words, Jim knew that he needed Ray’s keyboards, Robby’s guitar, and John’s drums in order for his words to take flight.

Additionally, Jim knew that the whole was greater than the individual, that the ego-less realm of creative space was – and I’ll use this word because it’s the only word I can use – “sacred.”

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And when Ray, Robby, and, yes, John licensed “Light My Fire” – which was mainly a Krieger composition – for use in a Buick commercial in 1968, Jim got very angry, not just because they’d made the decision without him, but because they’d broken their at-the-time sacred bond to each other and their art.

Jim’s teachers – his “elders,” as John would say – were poets like William Blake (Jim named The Doors after a line from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) and Arthur Rimbaud, poets who lived their lives in poverty but remained true to their vision of the spiritual nature of artistic creation. Jim was of their breed, even though he made a lot of money, money that contributed to his own self-destruction through drinking and the trappings of celebrity. Just imagine the Dionysian terror that Rimbaud would have been if he had Morrison’s money!

In The Doors Unhinged, Densmore realizes that Morrison was his teacher and that the contract that Morrison initiated after the Buick debacle – namely that each Door had veto power over every band decision – was a sacred commitment among a quartet of bandmates not to sully the music by associating it with commercials and other slippery stuff.

The slipperiest stuff came along in the 2000s, after Jim’s death, when Cadillac offered the three surviving Doors an astronomical amount of money to use “Break on Through” in one of their commercials. Ray was for it, John was against it, and Robby was, as John puts it, “on the fence.” The deal fell though, and Led Zeppelin got even richer when Cadillac used their song “Rock and Roll” instead.

But The Doors truly became unhinged for John and Jim’s spirit when Ray and Robby decided to play gigs with Ian Astbury – the lead singer of The Cult – as The Doors of the 21st Century. When John found out that Ray and Robby were promoting the gigs by using the iconic font that appears on The Doors’ first few albums and, even worse, by using Morrison’s image as an advertising tool, he got just as incensed as Jim did back in 1968. He grew even more peeved when he saw that “The Doors” appeared in a larger font than “of the 21st Century.”

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Let me be clear on John’s behalf. He didn’t care that Ray and Robby were performing Doors’ songs with Astbury. He was upset that his former bandmates broke the sacred commitment that Jim initiated as a result of the Buick fiasco and attempted to trick fans that The Doors had impossibly reunited, without two members of the sacred circle. You see, Ray and Robby went ahead and formed what many critics at the time called a bad “Doors’ Tribute Band” without asking John and by repeatedly lying to him about what was really going down.

To protect the sacred bond that solidified the band in 1968, John had to take Ray and Robby to court. And, believe me, John recognizes the contradiction of using a device as pernicious as the American court system to achieve spiritual justice. But, as a man of his time, he had to do it.

Ray and Robby responded by – get ready for it – countersuing for $40 million in damages. John, of course, didn’t have this kind of money, but the absurdity of the amount made him realize two things. First, that his former musical brothers had become his enemies – and that his enemies were actually still his best friends because they allowed him to grow spiritually in defending the integrity of the sacred bond. Second, that the ideals of the 1960s’ counterculture were still valid, even if people like Ray deemed them naïve.

The word “integrity” just popped up. It’s this commitment to integrity that makes Densmore something of a hero. He would never call himself a hero, but I do. Reading The Doors Unhinged, which covers the court case in its lengthy entirety, taught me as much. You’ll have to read the book, which John writes with the same humor, integrity, and grace that he brought to his autobiography Riders on the Storm, to find out what happens with the case. I just set the stage for you.

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On a final note, I want to say something more about sacred bonds, which are a part of every spiritual tradition for a reason – namely, because they try to ensure that we’re all there for each other. Some traditions call it compassion, others call it love, but every tradition has its own version of publicly commemorating it.

The Doors had it in the 1968 contract, yes, but they also had it in the way they played together. “The End” just wouldn’t work without John’s drum hits to emphasize Morrison’s most crucial syllables or without Robby’s sitar-like guitar or without Ray’s hypnotic and meditative organ.

Morrison’s mantra of integrity – “all for one and one for all” –creates the best music imaginable and the best life for us all.

Thanks, John, for reminding us of what we should carry with us in our hearts in every moment.

3 Comments

  1. beatnikpoet1957 Reply

    Paul, That was a very well put commentary. I met John Densmore, last month, at his book signing event. He took the time to talk to me, take a few pics with me & shook my hand, twice. A classy guy & a great musician.

  2. Robb Benson Reply

    Paul, I had tears slowly slipping out of my eyes reading part of this… damn. (Deep breath) This is really great stuff, thanks for sharing bro! So glad to read Johns views today, not sure why it hits home so much… it just does. Damn.

    1. Paul Gleason Reply

      Thanks, Robb. I really appreciate it. Check out the Q&A with John in the interviews section. He’s the real deal.

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