Doors drummer John Densmore: ‘It took me years to forgive Jim Morrison’

It took the Doors’ drummer, John Densmore, three years to visit the grave of his bandmate Jim Morrison after he was found dead in a Paris bathtub in 1971. He didn’t even go to the funeral. “Did I hate Jim?” Densmore pauses, although he is not obviously alarmed by the question. “No. I hated his self-destruction … He was a kamikaze who went out at 27 – what can I say?”

Quite a lot, it transpires. Morrison was a man who was spectacularly good at being a rock star – a lithe figure in leather trousers, prophesying about death, sex and magic on some of the biggest hits of the 1960s – Light My Fire, Break on Through and Hello, I Love You. But he was catastrophically bad at the rest of life. Like many alcoholics, he could be reckless, selfish and mercurial. “The Dionysian madman,” Densmore has called him – a “psychopath”, a “lunatic” and “the voice that struck terror in me”. He had lobbied to get Morrison off the road before his death, and even quit the band at one point. “Some people wanted to keep shovelling coal in the engine and I was like: ‘Wait a minute. So what if we have one less album? Maybe he’ll live?’” Why did he carry on? “Because I wasn’t mature enough to say that at the time. I wasn’t trying to enable him. It was another era. I used to answer the question: ‘If Jim was around today, would he be clean and sober?’ with a ‘no’. Kamikaze drunk. Now I’ve changed my mind. Of course he would be sober. Why wouldn’t he be? He was smart.”

Densmore, 75, is a defiant survivor of the music scene he helped build. This, perhaps, is why, in the decades since Morrison’s death, he has become not only one of the great chroniclers of the Doors, but the fiercest protector of Morrison’s legacy. Anyone who has read Densmore’s 1990 memoir – a book he says was “written in blood” and would later form the basis for Oliver Stone’s (dreadful) Doors biopic – this may come as a surprise. “It took me years to forgive Jim,” he says. “And now I miss him so much for his artistry.”

Next month, a documentary about another of his bandmates, the keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who died in 2013, will be released. Manzarek’s relationship with Densmore was not smooth either. From the early 2000s, they were embroiled in a vicious six-year legal battle in which Densmore tried to stop Manzarek and the band’s guitarist, Robby Krieger, from touring under the Doors name as well as selling the band’s music for use on a Cadillac commercial. “I know. I sued my bandmates – am I CRAZY?!” he yells. People certainly thought he was. It is not usual to spend years in court trying to stop yourself from earning millions of dollars to prove a point about the value of artistic integrity over the pursuit of money. “What can I say? Jim’s ghost is behind me all the time,” Densmore says. “My knees were shaking pretty strong when they upped the offer of $5m (£3.8m) to $15m. But my head was saying: Break on Through for a gas-guzzling SUV? No!”

The Doors: Jim Morrison, John Densmore, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger.
The Doors: Jim Morrison, John Densmore, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger. Photograph: Estate of Edmund Teske/Getty Images

Manzarek and Krieger’s lawyers tried to paint Densmore as a dangerous communist – even citing a piece he wrote that was published in the Guardian as evidence for this – but eventually, and spectacularly, he won. He wrote a book about the case, published in 2013, and donated the profits to the Occupy movement. “Money is like fertiliser,” he says. “When spread around, things grow; when it’s hoarded, it stinks.”

Densmore is fluent in the language of the 60s elder: on the one hand, he talks of peace rainbows and pots of gold filled with love, despairing at the rise of “separatists and populists and borderline racists” running the US. On the other, he displays an almost chilling pragmatism about life and death, not uncommon among musicians of his generation, who lost so many friends to the era’s excesses.

“I interviewed Tom Petty a few months before he died,” he says quietly when I bring this up. The pair became friends during the court case – Petty’s song Money Becomes King, about a singer he once idolised who was selling his songs for a light beer advert, struck home with Densmore. “He had trouble with his hip. I guess he was taking painkillers and brown powder, too. Damn it …” he breathes deeply. “I just ache losing him.” He pauses. “Maybe it’s more noble to die in a friggin’ hospital with a bunch of tubes up your arm. I mean, it sounds horrible, but at least you rode the train all the way to the end – you never checked out early.”

I was shocked when heroin became popular. Even Jim knew heroin was a serious drug

Densmore grew up in the west LA suburbs. He was a gifted drummer from an early age, starting out in the high school marching band (an activity that in those days “ranked next to having leprosy” he once wrote). College put him on to jazz, and he worshipped at the altar of Coltrane and Davis. He was 21 when he met Morrison, who was tall, bookish and handsome. “I’m not into guys, but he looked like Michelangelo’s David,” he says. They had met through Manzarek, a friend of Morrison’s from UCLA film school, at a transcendental meditation workshop run by the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He took up meditation, he says, because he couldn’t take acid all the time and liked the “separate reality” meditation offered. “When we took LSD, it was legal. We were street scientists exploring the mind. I experimented with cocaine during the 70s and 80s. But it wasn’t my drug of choice. Ugh … drug. I hate that word. I was shocked when heroin became popular. Even Jim knew heroin was a serious drug. Heroin tried to make you forget everything. It scared me. So I stayed away.”

Compared with his bandmates, Densmore was a square. He wasn’t the film-school/literary type. He couldn’t understand Morrison’s obsession with Nietzsche (“Why would anyone want to read a whole book of such double talk?” he wrote); when Manzarek suggested he watch the François Truffaut film The 400 Blows, he ran out and got it, thinking it was The 400 Blowjobs. “Adolescence!” he laughs. At times, he was envious of the attention Morrison got – particularly from women. “Sure, I was jealous. I’d been a teenage drummer with acne. I remember thinking: ‘Why is Jim’s face so big?’ on the cover of our first album, The Doors. Probably because it wouldn’t have sold a lot of copies if it were my face!”

While he may not have been the centrepiece of the group, there is no doubt Densmore was pivotal to the band’s sound. It is hard to imagine Break on Through without his shimmying bossa nova rhythm, or LA Woman – a song that pulses with the hum of a hot California night – without the cascading drum break that makes way for Morrison’s growls of “MR MOJO RISIN’”.

Densmore in about 1960.
Densmore in about 1960. Photograph: Tom Copi/Getty Images

But as he toured the world with the Doors, Densmore’s family life became more unsteady. His brother had several stints in a psychiatric hospital. He describes going to visit him, finding him heavily sedated, and wondering how sleeping for 17 hours a day could possibly help his schizophrenia – a point that will be familiar even now to anyone who has had to endure acute mental illness. His brother killed himself in 1978. He was also called Jim; he also died at the age of 27. Densmore later wrote that he struggled handling sharp objects after his brother’s suicide. “I thought that if I did it, too, it would somehow make it better – atone for not saving him.”

“My sister got angry at me for writing about it,” he says. “For revealing the family secret. Our brother killed himself and back then it wasn’t talked about. And I apologised. I said I was sorry. I said: ‘I know it hurts, but I also want you to read these letters I’ve got from fans who say they wanted to commit suicide and didn’t because of this book.’ And that’s why it’s there. Because, as difficult as it is, it’s healing to get this stuff out on the table.”

Densmore made more music after the Doors split in 1973, and then turned his hand to acting and dance. But it was grief, it is clear, that drove him to the written word. “It’s funny. I got Cs in English at school. I hated it. But now I want to be a writer and I’m voracious for new vocabulary and new ideas. I like connecting new synapses. Like Jim Morrison did. I do sort of feel as if I’m channelling his passion for life.” He stops. “Actually, not for life – as I said, he was a kamikaze who went out at 27. But I want to set an example.”

Kyle Maclachlan, Frank Whaley, Kevin Dillon and Val Kilmer in Oliver Stone’s The Doors.
Kyle Maclachlan, Frank Whaley, Kevin Dillon and Val Kilmer in Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Densmore’s writing about Morrison often reads as if it were done by someone who has survived an abusive relationship, such was the terror he felt around Morrison towards the end. “On the outside, Jim seemed normal,” he wrote. “But he had an aggressiveness toward life and women.” One such incident was early in their friendship when he went to pick Morrison up from a woman’s house and found him brandishing a knife at her while holding her hand behind her back. At the time, Densmore did nothing because he was worried that if anyone found out about Morrison, the band – and his own career – would be over. What does he make of this now? “I was really young,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out whether they were lovers, friends or enemies. I just felt like I needed to get out of there.” Would he have acted differently if it happened today? “Yeah, I would say: ‘What the fuck are you guys doing? Please take it down a few notches here.’”

There is also an anecdote in his memoir, one that makes it into the Stone film, too, in which Morrison’s partner Pamela Courson is brought into the vocal booth and asked to perform oral sex on the singer while he is recording the track Lost Little Girl. “Urgh,” he groans, when I bring it up. How does it make him feel? “Not so good. I mean, I don’t think he … Well, yeah … See, I’m at a loss for words. SEXIST, what can I say?” How did it feel at the time, when the whole band was there, seeing it happen from afar? “Well, you know, it didn’t really happen. They were just sort of kissing, and then she left.”

So it didn’t happen?


That’s odd, I say, because Stone creates a scene out of it in his film. “Oh, my goodness. Well, you know, Hollywood movies are an impressionistic painting of the truth,” he says.

Later in the interview, we go back to this point. “I’m a little nervous that I’ve said stupid things,” he says. “But life is messy.” It is true – if you have lived as many lives as Densmore, seen generations change and shift, there is no doubt that what was acceptable 50 years ago is no longer so.

Densmore’s next book will be about his meetings with musicians. “Each chapter is about a different artist who has fed me artistically,” he says. It will go from his time learning to play the tabla with Ravi Shankar to his adoration for Patti Smith to the time he met Bob Marley. “Writing is a little easier on a 75-year-old,” he says. “I gotta pace myself. No disrespect to Jim and his 27 years, but I’ve been in it for the long run.” He will also get married this year “for the hundredth time” (it is his fourth time), to his partner of 13 years, the painter and photographer Ildiko Von Somogyi. “I guess I believe in the institution,” he laughs. He is proud he has found another career after music. “You want to have a bunch of lives,” he says. “And life does go on – if you stay vital.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email or In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at