Wednesday, October 2, 2013

An Evening with John Densmore

I've written before about being a zealous, irritating Doors fan when I was a teenager:

I probably had that haircut.

Recently I attended a book reading given by Doors drummer John Densmore. He was reading from his new book The Doors: Unhinged, which uses the story of his legal battles with Krieger and Manzarek to expound upon what he calls "the greed gene."

As I sat in the audience waiting, I began to feel foolish. What was I doing there? Was I another tragic dud fruitlessly chasing down the sensations of adolescence?
Before I could dash, leaving behind a dense cloud of self-hate, Densmore walked out. Looked younger than his age; quite an achievement for a lifelong rocker. He began to talk, and his readings and musings fishtailed across many subjects. Maybe this looseness was a tribute to his jazz drumming roots (don't worry I don't actually mean this sentence).

His central theme was "the greed gene." As he put it, he and the surviving Doors (and other wealthy musicians) already have nice houses and "some groovy cars." Why do they need more? Why risk tarnishing the sentiments fans attach to their songs by licensing them for commercials? He roasted Townsend a bit for taking the opposite stanceDensmore wasn't dogmatic. He said he could understand why young, struggling bands sell their songs to advertisers. But "once you have a toehold of success," how much do you really need?

I don't blame musicians for selling their songs to advertisers. Having said that, I definitely prefer not to hear songs I like converted to jingles. Hopefully in Densmore's position, I would do the same thing, but who knows?

The Doors evidently had the only democratic agreement in popular music history. Everyone got 25%, and everyone had veto power (both arrangements suggested by Morrison). Densmore shared the story of one very famous veto: the time Jim freaked out when the others didn't consult him before agreeing to let Buick use "Light My Fire" in a commercial. The chorus was to be: "C'mon Buick, Light My Fire." Jim contacted Buick and said if they used the song he'd go on television and smash a Buick with a sledgehammer. The Doors and Buick did not break on through to a deal. Jim's stance seems to have had a great impact on John.

Since Jim's death, many other offers for lucrative licensing have come in, and the reason they didn't come off was because John said no every time. Consequently, Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek tried suing him for more money than the Doors have generated in total since their inception (an intimidation tactic, obviously). Densmore won, thanks to that unusual arrangement the Doors had. The others had no case, so as John put it, all they could do was try "character assassination."

He didn't sound bitter about it, though. In fact, John said he and Krieger were planning to play a cancer benefit sometime next year.

He was at his best during the Q&A at the end: totally unpretentious, and though he wasn't getting paid for the event, and though he is already rich and doesn't need to sell books, and though his legacy in rock is already secure, he still seemed excited about getting his point across (his new book is self-published, so he is putting his money where his mouth is). Not for a moment did he slide into self-congratulation or sanctimony. With respect to celebrity charity (and charity in general), Densmore pointed out that the word philanthropy has a Greek origin and is supposed to mean "loving mankind." Preening celebrities humble bragging about how charitable they are doesn't fit that definition.

Mr. Densmore seemed like a man who still has some hope. This struck me: The Doors' music is frequently morbid - This is the end, no one here gets out alive, before I sink into the big sleep, I promised I would drown myself in mysticated wine, all our lives we sweat and save building for a shallow grave, the human race was dyin' out no one left to scream and shout, people walking on the moon, smog will get you pretty soon - but never despondent. There is a sense of romanticism to The Doors' meditations on death. Sure, no one gets out alive, but why mope? Doors' songs are more about taking arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them, as opposed to suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
I left the reading overflowing with self-hate, but not because I sat and listened to John Densmore.

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