Following two books chronicling his time as drummer of psychedelic Los Angeles rock quartet The Doors, John Densmore’s latest memoir strikes a notably positive chord.
The Seekers: Meetings With Remarkable Musicians (and Other Artists), now available via Hachette Books, recalls encounters with creative influences ranging anywhere from Jerry Lee Lewis to the Dalai Lama, with Densmore examining what he took away from each.
Densmore also looks back on his relationships with deceased Doors bandmates Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison, and themes like finding the truth, the importance of jazz and observing silence amidst the clutter of daily life emerge.
I spoke with John Densmore one week before his 76th birthday about the role of music during turbulent times, critical jazz components like listening and improvisation, working with Morrison and Manzarek and why he continues to seek. A lightly edited transcript of our phone conversation follows below.
The book strikes such a positive, optimistic tone – kind of in stark contrast with the world at the moment. I know the book was in the works prior to the pandemic and everything but was there sort of a concerted effort to maintain that tone?
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JOHN DENSMORE: Well, there’s a positive love vibe coming from this book because I’m talking about all of these mentors that have fed me over the years.
Yeah, I started the book years ago. I didn’t plan it to come out during the pandemic. But if it can serve as an antidote to this craziness and calm people down – music is very healing – then I’m happy.
You write eloquently in the introduction about the importance of the arts – that in addition to treating something like PTSD, they simply make us feel better. We’re certainly, I think, seeing that right now. How important are the arts during turbulent times like these?
JD: Music is medicine for the soul. And, even in a business sense, in my opinion – let’s say we’re not in the pandemic but have an economic downturn – well, the arts kind of carry the vision. They’re always sort of looking ahead. And they ought to be even more funded during an economic downturn.
But that’s why I’m not a politician.
The importance of jazz for you becomes clear early in The Seekers. Whether it’s improvisation or just the general idea of listening, I think there’s a lot about jazz that’s applicable to everyday life. How important has jazz been to you over the years?
JD: Most jazz musicians, naturally, are seekers. Because jazz is so heavily improvisational based. They’re constantly seeking from moment to moment in their solos. So that’s kind of interesting.
Maybe we’re all seekers in a way. You don’t have to be someone climbing the charts or a successful musician. I think if you make 20 minutes a day for playing the piano in your closet or painting or even taking a conscious walk in nature, you’re kind of getting into the same zone as artists. And it’s very calming.
It’s certainly helpful during this craziness.
You referenced improv. The word improv falls within the subtitle of your chapter on your Doors bandmate Ray Manzarek in the book. Certainly it’s a jazz hallmark. How important was jazz to the music of The Doors?
JD: When I first met Ray musically, we were talking about our jazz heroes. And they were all similar. And I said, “Hey, Ray, do you know ‘All Blues’ by Miles?” And he went, “Sure!” And that was the first song that we played together.
Now, we’re not as proficient as Herbie Hancock. But we can get in the same zone. And, immediately, I sensed that he felt music rhythmically the way I did. And that’s really important.
And the solos in “Light My Fire” – they’re actually two chords. We were kind of inspired by [Rodgers and Hammerstein’s] “My Favorite Things.” It’s a Broadway song [from the musical The Sound of Music] but John Coltrane did a beautiful version of it. That’s in 3/4 time. It’s a waltz tempo. And we just took a couple of chords from that and put them in 4/4 in the solos in “Light My Fire.”
You write about how drummer Elvin Jones’ musical conversation with John Coltrane inspired you to try to have a musical dialogue with Jim Morrison. Here’s a guy who famously didn’t play an instrument – wasn’t a musician per se. How did you go about kind of achieving that?
JD: The first job of a drummer is to keep the beat – the pulse – the heartbeat that comes from hearing it in the womb. For everybody, that’s the first drum you ever heard. And that’s what makes us all feel secure. Homeland security. It makes us dance. You feel the pulse together.
So I saw Elvin and not only did he do that, the first job, but he kind of played off of Coltrane – had a conversation. I think it subliminally affected me.
In [The Doors song] “When the Music’s Over,” Jim’s saying, “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 found myself going [imitates bombastic drum fill], “Just forget the beat, I’m going to talk with Jim.” Then I went back to the beat.
But that came from Elvin.
You also write extensively about silence. You quote Mozart on the subject in a chapter on the Dalai Lama. Later, comedian Gary Shandling observes it in conversation with Marc Maron. Then it’s referenced again in the conclusion. It comes up a lot in the book. But silence can be hard to come by today. How important is it to look for it, observe it and embrace it?
JD: Well, it’s not that hard to come by if you make the space. That’s what I’m talking about with that 20 minutes a day or whatever.
Most people don’t think about silence as important. But think about if there was no silence. And it was all sound. There’s not contrast! It would be annoying. I think, in the beginning, there was silence. And then came “the word,” as they say, in the bible. The word is a sound. It’s a vibration. So there’s a really important balance between sound and no sound.
That’s why I was really impressed by the new young conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel. He understood that. He had a quiet piece and he told the orchestra that he was going to conduct the first four bars and not to play – and then come in quietly. I was in the audience and we were all squirming, trying to figure out whether we were hearing anything. And it was magic that silence.
As a drummer, I’m not the fastest – but dynamics is everything to me. That’s my whole thing. So if I play really strong, or really quiet, and everything in between, that’s kind of all of the human emotions, you know? And it’s musical.
You write kind of generally about the idea of finding the truth. We’re living through times where the idea of the truth, seemingly, is being devalued on a daily basis. But, generally speaking, how important is it?
JD: Wow. Well… If people hear enough lies, after a while they start to believe it. And they’re kind of lies to the soul, I think Socrates said. There’s a positive lying – this is kind of abstract – but in the arts, rather than being literal, you get into metaphor. Which is not really true – but somehow it touches a deeper truth. Like with music, your body feels it. You get goosebumps. Or you laugh. And you don’t know why. Well, there’s something really deep down there. And that’s the real truth.
The folks who tell the lies, they don’t know who they are. And it’s worrisome that their followers are going to realize it’s all been a big lie. And then they’re going to have to adjust to that. We’ve got to reach across the aisle and figure this out.
One of the things I find so inspiring about the book is that, even at 75, you’re still trying to learn. You’re still asking these questions. You’re still seeking. Whether it’s musically or just in everyday life, how important is it to keep doing that?
JD: That’s the key to vitality. I think in the conclusion, I quote Bob Dylan. Someone asked Dylan if he was happy and he wouldn’t even answer. He wrote a song about [boxer] Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was in jail. He helped get him out. “Hurricane,” whenever he saw Bob, kept asking him, “What are you looking for?” And Dylan said, “The holy grail.” Which you can never find. But it’s the search that’s the key, not the goal.
Having mass adulation at Madison Square Garden was great for the ego. But I can do a little drum poetry thing in a club and, if I’m really in the moment with the audience, I’m as excited about that as the giant concerts.
And I think that’s what keeps one, really, a creative artist: the path.
Source: Forbes – Business