John Densmore: ‘An addiction to money tore apart The Doors after Jim Morrison died’

John Densmore, from left, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison in The Doors heyday
From left: John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison in The Doors' heyday - AP
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Musician and author John Densmore, 78, formed The Doors along with Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger.

The iconic American rock band produced a string of memorable albums, including Strange Days, Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman, in the late 1960s, early 1970s.

Following Morrison’s death in 1971, Densmore sued his former band mates to prevent them touring as The Doors. The subsequent legal case is the focus of his book The Doors Unhinged. Densmore continues to perform as a drummer, and lives In Los Angeles with his wife Ildiko Von Somogyi.

What was the best financial advice your parents gave you?

My dad told me not to quit The Doors. I was kind of tortured at the time because Jim’s self-destruction was increasing and really wearing on me.

This was in the middle period, and we didn’t realise Jim was ill. I much appreciated the advice later because I’m rather proud of the music we created.

How did you get into drumming?

I took piano lessons when I was eight, and just went crazy for it. By the time I got to junior high I just wanted to play music, but they didn’t have pianos in a marching band.

I chose clarinet next, but the orthodontist who put a brace on my teeth said “no, you’re not gonna play that instrument”. So, drums it was and I guess I owe my career to the dentist.

When did you think about a music career?

I started playing casual gigs, weddings, bar mitzvahs, all that stuff. But I never thought I could make a living out of it. Things really started taking off, and that surprised me. I just hoped I’d earn well for a decade, yet, 50 years later and I’m still talking about this frigging band.

What would you have done if it hadn’t worked out?

How can I answer that question? I guess a paperboy, like when I was a kid. Back then, Ray was living in a two-bed apartment over a garage with an ocean view in Venice Beach, for $75 (£60) a month.

I thought I just can’t do the nine-to-five thing, so I’ll just live in Venice where it’s cheap. Well, it’s about $1m (£800,000) for that tiny kind of place now.

John Densmore says his biggest treat was buying a Jaguar car
John Densmore says his biggest treat was buying a Jaguar car - DAN TUFFS

You had no back-up plan?

No, we were obsessed. Jim didn’t have a car, so I’d pick him up and we’d go to breakfast or wherever, and we’d talk 24/7 about how we were going to launch this band.

What made the band work?

Jim suggested we split everything. It wasn’t lyrics by Jim Morrison, music by The Doors. We split everything, all the money and had a veto in case somebody got weird. It was really a democracy in action, for a while.

What was your career highlight?

We played The Roundhouse in London, and supposedly Paul McCartney was in the audience. It was billed as “the West Coast psychedelic sound comes to England”, and we were really on our game. The worst was New Orleans, Jim was so loaded he just sat on my drum stool. It was awful to go down in front of all those people.

When did you feel you were making money?

I’d say the transition from clubs to second billing in philharmonic halls. That’s when the train was leaving the station, we were going to make a living at playing music.

John Densmore in 1970
John Densmore in 1970 - TPLP

Where did it all go wrong?

Jim’s drinking became so difficult we stopped touring after New Orleans. After he died, it became very difficult because of an addiction to money. Ray and Robby wanted to go on with The Doors, without Jim, and I thought, “excuse me, I don’t think so”. I said call yourself the founding members or whatever but don’t call yourself The Doors, and then we got into this legal struggle.

What was Morrison’s attitude to money?

When we did a big concert, Jim would have everyone on their feet, and afterwards he’d say “well, we’ve had a riot, now let’s go to an island and start over”. This was where it was at, and so that’s why he was so upset over “Come on Buick Light My Fire” [a proposed deal to adapt the song to promote Buick cars]. This was a song primarily written by Robby.

Jim was so upset, he really cared about the whole catalogue, and money wasn’t paramount. We were getting houses and cool cars. He lived in a motel.

Why did you sue your surviving bandmates?

There was a concert, with significant money, but I had tinnitus so I said “you guys go ahead”. Then I read they were doing a tour as The Doors.

I called and said straighten out the name, but they didn’t so I had to do this terrible thing of taking them to court. They counter-sued me for more money than we had collectively to scare me and it worked.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re a young band trying to pay the rent, do a commercial. Our situation was different, Jim had passed. I really cared about this and I’m going to honour my bandmate.

Jim Morrison on stage with the band in 1968
Jim Morrison on stage with the band in 1968 - JAN PERSSON

But you turned down the chance to earn a fortune, right?

Twice a week my knees were shaking, I was constantly asking what I’m doing here. I remember an interviewer saying to me, “you’ve either got great morals, or you’re really stupid”.

I did say to Ray and Robby that we all had a nice house and a couple of groovy cars, what more do you want to buy? There was a pause, which was powerful.

Did you speak after the trial?

At the end of the trial, when I heard that Ray was getting sick, I called him and we just talked about his health. I didn’t know it was going to be my last phone call, but I’m blessed to have had that closure.

I called Robby after, and said that trumps everything, let’s play music again, which we did. There’s even a rumour that Rob and I are going to play in the UK next year.

Do you think Morrison would have got help, if he’d lived?

I used to answer no, he’s a kamikaze drunk, but I now think he would. He was a smart guy, and I’d encourage anyone with that addictive gene to get help.

John Densmore keeping up the beat in 2020
John Densmore keeping up the beat in 2020 - JEROME BRUNET/ZUMA

What is your biggest treat?

I can tell you my biggest ever. It was the Jaguar car I bought in the late 1960s, which would also qualify as my worst money decision. I remember an English Jaguar mechanic saying “John, you’ve got to know how to walk up to a Jag, or it might not start”.

What was your best money decision?

I don’t know, probably buying rather than renting.

Are you a spender or a saver?

I suppose I’m a saver. I was more of a spender in the band’s middle period, when they called me Jaguar John, but I learned from that.

The Doors Unhinged by John Densmore is out now (Akashic Books)

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