Musician John Densmore

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer shares the backstory of his book, The Doors Unhinged, which chronicles his fight to defend the band’s legacy.

As a founding member of and drummer for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame group The Doors—one of the most influential bands in rock history—John Densmore co-wrote and produced numerous gold and platinum albums and toured the U.S., Europe and Japan. He's also an actor, poet and author, penning a best-selling autobiography and writing/producing several plays. He's also written numerous articles for several publications, including Rolling Stone and London’s The Guardian. Densmore's second book, The Doors: Unhinged, is the true story of the court case about the human and artistic cost of what happens when rock ‘n’ roll goes on trial.


Tavis: Internal disputes among band members is the stuff of legend in music, of course, often ending up in reconciliations and reunion tours – just ask Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles.

But that’s not the case for the surviving three members of The Doors. They wound up in court over the right to even use the name The Doors, something John Densmore is adamant that should not happen. For him, even when Morrison died, The Doors were done.

He’s now written a book chronicling his fight to keep what he sees as the integrity of The Doors intact, titled “The Doors: Unhinged,” and subtitled “Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial.” John Densmore, good to have you on this program.

John Densmore: Hey, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you, man. There’s a lot in here, and I’m trying to find the right word. I guess to some it’s “courageous;” to others, it might be “stupid” to do what you had done, (laughter) taking on other bandmates in The Doors. We’ll come to that in a moment, and what landed this story in court.

Let me start, though, with those who don’t know the story or don’t recall the story of how The Doors actually got together here in Los Angeles.

Densmore: Oh. Well, we were fooling around with then-legal psychedelics and then thought that’s a little too shattering on the nervous system. So we found this maharishi meditation class. It was a couple of years before The Beatles got onto it.

That’s where I met Ray, and Jim wasn’t there, but we rehearsed and he came along, and I thought, no, this is not the next Mick Jagger. He’s too shy. But he was finding his own way, and he eventually became The Lizard King.

Tavis: Yeah. Tell me what your – you’ve just given me some sense of it now, but give me more of your first impressions of Morrison.

Densmore: Oh, totally shy. The keyboard player handed me a crumpled piece of paper, “Day destroys the night, night divides the day. Tried to run, tried to hide – break on through to the other side.” I went, “Whoa, that’s percussive.” I could drum to that right away.

Tavis: Yeah.

Densmore: But he’d never sung, and actually the first few gigs in clubs he wouldn’t face the audience. He’d look at us for security. Then (laughter) –

Tavis: What happened? It brought him out of that shell.

Densmore: Well, just his creativity. He was finding something of his own. The mic cord turned into a snake or something, and he just found his own way. But eventually maybe bought his own myth, and alcoholism came in.

Tavis: Yeah. How did that – I guess the story, again, of so many bands and so many great artists, that alcohol or drugs enters the picture. How did that happen for Morrison?

Densmore: Well, he fell for the legal spirit in the bottle. It’s really unfortunately. We didn’t have substance abuse clinics; we didn’t know he had a disease. I get this question, “Well, if he was around today, would he get clean and sober?” I always said, “Nah, he’s a kamikaze.”

But now I look at Clapton, Eminem, an angry, creative guy like Jim, and maybe he could have got it together.

Tavis: Yeah. Was there – I don’t want you to – this is not about doing pop psychology on Morrison, but as one of his friends and bandmates, was there a reason, to your mind, why that became his choice, his –

Densmore: Creativity comes in a self-destructive and creative package in some cases.

Tavis: Right.

Densmore: Picasso lived to 90. With Jim, it was built in. Time has made me accept and pack it all in 27 years.

Tavis: Yeah. How difficult was it for you to watch your friend –

Densmore: Oh.

Tavis: – to watch this artistic genius –

Densmore: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: – self-destruct? How difficult was that, and what did you do to try to stop it?

Densmore: Really hard. I mean, I was young and I didn’t know he had this disease, but I knew there was an elephant in the room, and I was trying to talk the other guys into stopping touring. You can’t, in front of 10,000 people, if you mess up, whoa. If you’re in the studio, you go home. So it took me about a year to lobby for that.

Tavis: So Jim Morrison is gone, and as every band tries to figure out, what happens when one of the members – in this case, a seminal member – of the band is no longer there? What this book then goes into, “The Doors: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial,” it really goes into what the band does after Jim Morrison and how the name is used, how the name is marketed and promoted.

This is a great subject to be talking about tonight, because this is the age and the era of all of these opportunities to make money and to market and to repurpose, et cetera, et cetera, particularly in this digital, technological era that we live.

But this story actually starts before Morrison dies, and it starts before Morrison dies because you tell the story to start the book of an offer from Buick that –

Densmore: “Come on, Buick, light my fire.”

Tavis: Can you imagine that? (Singing) “Come on, Buick, light my fire.” (Laughter) That’s what Buick wanted to do. So take the time, tell me the story of what happens when Buick comes a’ knocking.

Densmore: It was a weekend, and it was big money at the time, and Jim was –

Tavis: Big money like what?

Densmore: Well, like maybe a hundred grand, but today, a few million, let’s say. We were like, “Whoa,” and Jim came back into town and he said, “What? Oh.”

Tavis: Hold on, hold on. You guys – you jumped too fast. You guys basically had been offered something and had basically accepted the offer.

Densmore: Well, yes.

Tavis: Kinda-sorta.

Densmore: Yeah.

Tavis: While Morrison is out of town.

Densmore: Kinda-sorta.

Tavis: Kinda-sorta, yeah. (Laughter) Whatever, it happened.

Densmore: Yeah.

Tavis: Kinda-sorta, my behind. You guys took the bait.

Densmore: I’m trying to rush over that part. (Laughter)

Tavis: I know you are, but I want to put the blame where it lies. You guys take the bait. Morrison comes back in town and hears about what you guys have done, and what happens next?

Densmore: He says, “Great. Listen, I got a good idea for an ad campaign. I’ll go on television and I’ll smash a Buick with a sledgehammer.” (Laughter) “No.”

Tavis: Because he was livid.

Densmore: He was livid, and Tavis, he primarily did not write those lyrics, “Light My Fire.” He wrote a few lines, but most of it was written by the guitar player, Robby Krieger. So what does that say? That he cared about the catalogue, the whole thing that the band meant. Boy, I made a mistake, and I haven’t forgotten about it since.

Tavis: So the Buick story is the first story that takes place while Morrison’s still living, so clearly, Morrison has gone on record, don’t do this to our music.

Densmore: Right.

Tavis: Don’t sell it out this way. Fast-forward, another offer comes down the road from Cadillac.

Now this really is a multi-million dollar offer, so the Cadillac offer, what do they want? What song do they want?

Densmore: “Break On Through.”

Tavis: “Break On Through.” Cadillac breaking on through.

Densmore: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: All right. So Cadillac starts the bidding at what?

Densmore: Oh, five million.

Tavis: Okay. And you guys say no.

Densmore: I said –

Tavis: You say no.

Densmore: Jim said, “We all are going to have veto power here, and we’re all going to share all the money,” because he didn’t know how to play an instrument. And so I vetoed, and then they doubled.

Tavis: So they go from five to 10.

Densmore: Then they triple. Ow.

Tavis: Now they’re at 15 mil.

Densmore: My knees are shaking.

Tavis: Yeah. Cadillac is putting 15 million on the table.

Densmore: Yeah.

Tavis: And what happens?

Densmore: Ugh. Well, I say to the guitar player, “Well, what do you need to buy? We all have a nice house and some groovy cars.” Well, he stays on the fence and I stay with the veto. So when I entered in the struggle of trying to preserve the name in this lawsuit, I was countersued because I didn’t, as a businessman, okay all that, making all that dough for that.

Let me say something about – I quote a book called “The Gift,” Lewis Hyde. He said that a work of art has a gift in it to the listener, and it’s okay if you pay money for an opera ticket or a concert ticket, but if you turn the whole work of art into a commodity, maybe you’re going to lose the gift between the listener and the artist, and that’s a sacred thing.

Tavis: Yeah. See, I’ll tell you why this is such a serious issue for me right about now, and then we’ll come back to this trial. It’s an issue because I believe that every artist or every group has, obviously, the right to exercise their own agency the way they want to. If you –

Densmore: Let me jump in.

Tavis: Yeah

Densmore: I got in here Pete Townsend of The Who, quoting an interview in “Rolling Stone,” and he says, “Listen, I don’t give an F if you fell in love with Shirley to my song. I’ll do what I want with it.”

Tavis: Yeah. So every artist has his or her own process for making their decisions about whether or not they’re going to let their classic stuff become jingles. So let me just raise a couple of names and we’ll come back to The Doors, because again, everybody wrestles with this.

I remember talking to Prince one night, and he did this one time – one time he let them use one of his songs, and he regrets it to this day. “Little Red Corvette.”

Densmore: Ah.

Tavis: And you can imagine who (laughter) came a’ calling. It was such a layup you could see it coming. He did it, and I know he regrets it to this day. That’s number one.

The person I’m worried about today, and I say this with all the love in my heart, and I’m sure I’m going to get a phone call about this, and we’ve talked a little bit about it, but I’m getting really worried about my boy Stevie Wonder.

I see Stevie’s stuff on beer commercials now. It’s just – somebody, I think, is going too far putting Stevie’s catalogue on stuff that doesn’t really honor the spirit of what this genius did when he did – and I’m a little bit worried about the Stevie Wonder catalogue now being a bit overexposed, overused for product stuff. So what have you learned in retrospect about –

Densmore: It’s such a volatile subject.

Tavis: It really is.

Densmore: Bob Dylan has done – oh.

Tavis: Dylan sounded off on this, yeah.

Densmore: Oh my God, I don’t even want to tell you. “The Times, They Are A’ Changing” was a political song about changing, and it was sold to an insurance, life insurance. The times are changing, you’re getting old. You’d better get some life insurance. Oh, God.

On the other hand, Dylan, this guy, he hates being put in a box, and so he’ll even do something against his art to – don’t pin me down.

Tavis: He’s the ultimate rebel.

Densmore: Mm.

Tavis: Yeah.

Densmore: Yeah.

Tavis: So it was these and other issues like this that landed you in court, suing your bandmates.

Densmore: Yeah.

Tavis: So how did that happen? What brought that on?

Densmore: Well, they went out as The Doors, and I’m like, “Hey, without Jim Morrison? The Stones without Mick, The Police without Sting? Oh, my God, please change this.” They didn’t, and so I called up Jim’s estate and the two of us entered into this struggle.

The hardcore fans at first were like, “Oh, God, John’s just destroying the band we love.” That’s why (knocks wood) I’m so glad this story is out for those who want to know. I feel I was struggling to preserve the purity of the original intent.

Tavis: But how did you feel, though – and I can understand that – how did you feel when the prevailing opinion was that John Densmore, this stick in the mud, (laughter) is not only costing – I can see your bandmates saying this fool is costing us money, number one. If a catalogue ain’t to make money with, what’s it for, number one.

But then to the fans who think that you’re tearing the band apart, how did you personally navigate that kind of push-back?

Densmore: Ugh, alone, and kind of what have I done. Then I thought of Jim, and I thought nope, break on through to a new deodorant. No, sorry.

Tavis: Yeah.

Densmore: Give me some sense of what – and you detail it, of course, in the text – but give me some sense of what it was like coming face-to-face to guys who you started your career with, guys that you traveled the world with, guys you’ve made iconic hits with, and now you’re sitting in court, looking at each other.

Densmore: Well, they were on tour with a Jimitator, as I call him. (Laughter)

Tavis: I like that – the Jimitator.

Densmore: The Jimitator.

Tavis: I like that. (Laughter) As a matter of fact, there’s a story in the book, when you talk about the fact that when you actually pushed back on them for using The Doors, they went to using this thing, “The Doors,” and in real small letters underneath it, “Of the 21st Century.” So they had to change – they couldn’t use the name anymore. But what was it like, though, being in court with these guys?

Densmore: Well, they were on tour. I was in court every day for three months. They were there just a couple times. So there was not a lot of seeing of each other, but their representatives were ripping me. Okay. We had a contract that said we all owned the name together, so it was – you know.

Tavis: That was Morrison’s suggestion.

Densmore: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

Densmore: So it was pretty clear. So what do you do when you don’t have a case? You character assassinate. So they started sort of painting me as, like, an anarchistic, anti-capitalistic, commie pinko type of dude, to the ridiculous point of accusing me of funding Al Qaeda.

Tavis: I read that, yeah.

Densmore: What? Hello? (Laughs) So, but you know what? The Doors are back on their hinges. The estate and I persevered, and I’ve reached out to the guys and I’ve sent them the last chapter to make sure they get to that before the tough pill of the beginning, where I say how can I not love you guys? We created this magic in a garage, and it got – they’re my musical brothers. So maybe the healing is coming back a bit.

Tavis: When you say The Doors are back on the hinges, legally, that means what? How did this all turn out?

Densmore: It means that The Doors are Jim, Ray, Robbie, and John, not Ray, Robbie, Tom, Fred, and Herman, or whoever. (Laughter)

Tavis: Why does that, after all these years – I’m not naïve in asking this, but why after all these years does that matter to you so much?

Densmore: Well, when we were rehearsing without anybody around, even the last album, “L.A. Woman,” was my favorite, and Jim’s, like, drinking but not recording. When we were together, because of his saying, “Let’s share everything. We’re not going to even say I wrote the lyrics. All music by The Doors.”

Two hundred percent was contributed by each guy when that was happening. It was so precious, and I don’t think in the history of pop or any music that arrangement has been made. We really cared about those songs.

Tavis: What was it about Morrison the person – I’m trying to get inside of him, to his personality type. What was it about him that allowed him to say that we’re going to put all music by The Doors? I can think of a bunch of artists right now, and I’m not saying this to cast aspersion, but I can think of a whole bunch of folk, if they write the lyric, even though they’re a part of the band, but if they write the song, they want the songwriting credit.

There are a lot of guys who’ve made a lot of money. I love Lionel Richie, I love The Commodores, but it’s pretty clear who wrote most of that Commodores stuff, and if you don’t believe me, ask Lionel, he’ll tell you. (Laughter)

So I ain’t mad at nobody. If you write the stuff, you write the stuff. But what was it about Morrison that made him so ecumenical in his approach?

Densmore: Vulnerability. Insecurity. He had never sung before this band, so, but he said he heard concerts in his head, okay, and he had not only these words, but he had melodies. But he didn’t know how to structure a chord or a song or anything. But he had melodies.

So how do you do this? How do we write songs? That’s where that came from. Actually, a little later, one album, because the guitar player wrote a lyric that Jim thought, eh, I don’t want people to think I wrote that, there was some individual credit. But then we went, on “L.A. Women,” we went back to all songs by The Doors.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact – I want to close on this note – what do you make of the fact that a guy who never played an instrument heard all this stuff in his head?

Densmore: (Laughs) A once in a lifetime guy. I was blessed. That’s what I miss, that genius. I don’t miss self-destruction, because I found my path in music. But oh, God, there’s a big guy in the band who’s crazy, and it’s very difficult. But persevered.

Tavis: So I lied, here’s the real exit question. The Doors are back on the hinges, as you say. Do you think that you guys, minus Morrison, obviously, sadly, do you think you guys will ever play together again?

Densmore: I’ve thought about that recently, and I’m not going to go do a tour with a Jimitator. But Pink Floyd, they’ve had their struggles, they did a benefit for Live Aid or something a few years ago. I think it’d be cool to do, like, a couple altruistic things and have – Eddie Vedder’s a wonderful singer who sang with us at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when we were inducted, or Bono or somebody for a benefit. That would be sweet.

Tavis: Do you ever – I keep lying; I’ve got one more question.

Densmore: Yeah.

Tavis: Do you ever re-think – I don’t want to say regret – do you ever re-think your decision? I don’t know how independently wealthy you may be, but you have left a whole lot of money on the table. There’s still, in this era, a whole lot of money on the table. Do you ever re-think this?

Densmore: Nah. I spoke at Occupy L.A. and I said, “I came from the 99 percent. My house here in L.A., it’s a freeway onramp. It’s gone.” I was a lower class kid. I’m not in the 1 percent, but my pockets are deep. I will never forget where I came from and I will never stop fighting for the 99 percent.

Tavis: Yeah. That’s why I love you.

Densmore: Yeah.

Tavis: His name, John Densmore, the drummer, the original drummer, for The Doors. The only drummer – I shouldn’t say the original. The only drummer for The Doors.

The new book is called “The Doors – Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial.” “The Doors: Unhinged” is the new book from John Densmore. You can’t have a drummer – why don’t you grab that right quick – you can’t have a drummer come on the show and not drum you out. (Laughter)

So as John Densmore plays us out with a little something-something, let me say thanks for watching us. Until next time, that’s all for tonight. I’m Tavis Smiley, and as always, keep the faith. John Densmore, take it away.

Densmore: This is, this poem is for ancestors, and when I was on the stand I said that Jim isn’t here, and I’m going to honor his wanting to not sell the songs out. So this is for ancestors new and old. This is a poem by Etheridge Knight, African American poet, who died about 20 years ago.

Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer; Robert Bly, National Book Award, they were his mentors, and I got to see him read. I was blessed to go to a Bly convention. This poem is called “The Bones of My Father,” and in it, he is saying we’re all searching for his father’s bones as a metaphor for searching for true leaders, mentors, and elders. So this goes out to Dr. King, Jim Morrison, John Coltrane and all those on the other side who fed us, and this is a little food going back to those who broke on through.

[Live performance by John Densmore]

Tavis: Wow. (Applause) That was nice.

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Last modified: May 13, 2013 at 10:25 am