AS DRUMMER with The Doors, John Densmore not only survived the 1960s but, more to the point, Jim Morrison: the self-proclaimed Dionysian erotic politician, whose excesses and early death have threatened to obscure the fact that The Doors were more than just a one-man band.
When Densmore's candid memoir, Riders On The Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison And The Doors, was published in 1991, it read like the work of a man lucky to have emerged sane from his wild 54-month ride with the band. Morrison's erratic behaviour – fuelled by a staggering consumption of drugs and alcohol – created such tension, the author recalled, that "I got year-long headaches, rashes, phobias."
The appearance of Densmore's book coincided with Oliver Stone's widely derided but entertaining movie, The Doors. Playing fast and loose with the truth, it was criticised for essentially offering a fantasy of what it might have been like to be Jim Morrison, as imagined by a man who, at the time, was fighting in Vietnam.
Unsurprisingly, the drugs and hedonism took centre stage, overshadowing Morrison's fellow Doors – guitarist Robby Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and Densmore – and even, to some extent, the music. Now, in what looks like an attempt to redress the balance (a bit), indie film-maker Tom DiCillo has made When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors – a whistlestop tour through the history of the band, comprised entirely of archive footage and a narration by Johnny Depp. Morrison still dominates the story, but the documentary's scope is broader than Stone's film, with due attention now paid to the creation of The Doors' sound.
Even so, when I meet 65-year-old Densmore at a hotel in London, he rejects the idea that When You're Strange is a corrective. Wiry, with a grey goatee and ponytail, he says he personally sees it more as an "addition". "Some people in the band hated The Doors movie," he says. "I didn't. Val Kilmer was astounding. It was about the self-destructive artist and this new one has more of the times, more of the other band members – so it's kind of more well rounded. As Jim says (in the film], you can't help but reflect what's going on: Vietnam, assassinations, all this stuff. So I'm pleased that there's more of the era this time."
What it also has is astonishingly fresh-looking footage from a self-financed art film that Morrison made, starring himself, called HWY: An American Pastoral (out of respect for the dead star, DiCillo only used outtakes rather than edited sequences). In one excerpt, a lean and bearded Morrison emerges from a car partially submerged in the desert. In another, he turns on a car radio and, in a surreal addition by DiCillo, appears to hear a newsflash about his own demise in Paris.
"Fabulous!" says Densmore, laughing. "But it's not to say he isn't dead; he was an alcoholic." His caution is understandable. For years, some have suggested the burnt-out star didn't die at all, and that he was never in the sealed casket interred in Paris's leafy Pere Lachaise cemetery, resting place to the likes of Edith Piaf, Chopin and Oscar Wilde. These stories, Densmore sighs, were "fuelled by Ray. When Jim died there was some fake-death rumours and we sent our manager (Bill Siddons] over to Paris and all of a sudden he was buried. Our manager called us and said, 'Hey, we buried him,' and I said, 'What?' We didn't see his body', so the rumours started."
It was a sad end to a journey that for Densmore had begun when he met Morrison in the garage Manzarek used as a rehearsal room at his parents' house in California. Morrison was completing a four-year degree in film at UCLA; he was shy, and couldn't play an instrument, but Densmore was impressed by his lyrics – well read, Morrison was already into Rimbaud, Blake and Nietzsche by the age of 16 – and his mysteriousness. "I dug that," he says.
Manzarek has said the band, formed in 1965, were "kindred souls – acidheads who were looking for some other way to get high". Indeed, Densmore recognised the dangers in prolonged LSD use early on. When he took it for the first time, it opened up new realities, changing the way he saw the world forever. None the less, he says now, "it's a complicated subject, psychedelics. I won't deny there's knowledge there, but they need to be respected. You don't party."
Morrison lacked such caution, and one night, high on acid during the band's 1966 residency at the Whiskey A Go Go on the Sunset Strip, he added an Oedipal passage to the band's eerie epic The End, expressing a desire to kill the father and f*** the mother. "I thought I was in a band with a psychotic," says Densmore, "but then I wasn't well read and I didn't know the Oedipus myth."
Residencies at the Whiskey and, before that, the grungier London Fog, had given the band time to find their identity and hone their songs. However, after their first hit album, The Doors, and number one single, Light My Fire, it would never be the same again – at least for Morrison. Playing the clubs had been "a time of experimentation… and a good time," says Densmore. "And that was a little bit of torture for Jim, because you get bigger and they want to hear Light My Fire, and the incubation period of songwriting goes out the window." He says that his new book, The Doors: Unhinged, due in October, will reveal how "Jim wanted to go off to an island and start over, but by then he was a drunk. So we didn't want to do that. It's tough," he says gloomily. "It's tragic."
Morrison's substance-fuelled unpredictability meant the rest of the band often didn't know what to expect during a show. When things were going well, Densmore says it felt "exciting, dangerous". They were like "Geppetto – able to move him around emotionally with the music. We had sections where he could improvise poetry, and it was like, what is he going to do tonight, live, in the moment?"
When Jimbo – the name they gave to the Mr Hyde side of Morrison's personality – took over, no-one was safe. At a gig not mentioned in When You're Strange, at the University of Michigan homecoming in 1967, the singer revealed a darker side than Densmore had seen before, as he launched into a tirade against the audience of tuxedoed football jocks and their coiffured girlfriends.
"He was f***ed up. Drunk. I left the stage and I was very pleased that Robby joined me as a statement. Ray then picked up Robby's guitar and was playing blues and Jim was, like, ranting. Ugh. And it was all because we wanted to stop for ice cream. 'Oh yeah?' said Jim. 'OK. I'll get some Courvoisier.'"
When the pressure of Morrison's behaviour became too much for Densmore during the recording of their fourth album, The Soft Parade, the drummer quit. However, he returned the next day as if nothing had happened. What was going through his mind? "Ah, that's a good question," says Densmore. "That there's an elephant in the room and nobody's saying anything. And also he's connected to my path that I've found in my life: music. So I came back."
The film reveals that Morrison had wanted to quit in 1968, at the height of the band's fame. "He'd had enough," Densmore says. In hindsight, should he have gone? "Mm, yes," he says warily. What happened? "Jim said, 'I'm having a nervous breakdown', and one of the band said, 'Give it another six months.' And I'm feeling, 'Holy f***! So what if we don't have another LP. Maybe this train wreck will not happen.' But I'm young, and we don't have substance abuse clinics, and I don't know what to do."
But the train wreck did happen, during a riotous concert in Miami that resulted in Morrison being convicted of indecent exposure (to this day there is no evidence that this actually happened) and profanity. The band's first major US tour collapsed in the fall-out, but they bounced back with two of their best albums: Morrison Hotel and LA Woman.
Morrison didn't hang around but left for Paris with his common-law wife, Pamela Courson, to write poetry and try to get himself straight. Densmore became the last person in the band to speak to him when he called from France. I point out that Depp's narration says Morrison sounded "slurred", but in his memoir he wrote that he "didn't sound loaded". "Hm, I should check that," says Densmore. "I'm trying to sense how he is, you know? And I know he got excited by hearing about the response to LA Woman and Riders On The Storm. So he wanted to do more. But I was feeling he was still partying too hard, I just could tell."
Whatever the truth, Jim Morrison died not long after, aged 27. The band recorded two more albums – Other Voices and the wretched Full Circle – and then disbanded.
In 2003, Densmore filed a lawsuit against Manzarek and Krieger in a bid to prevent them from using the band's name when they started playing as The Doors of the 21st Century. I ask if this was out of loyalty to Morrison. Densmore looks over his right shoulder. "I'm trying to listen to my ancestor who's on the other side. Although," he says, adding what I suspect are arguments used against him by his former bandmates, "'Who the hell are you to speak for him? He's dead. So we should do whatever we want.'"
Densmore clearly doesn't agree with this. "Is there The Police without Sting? The Rolling Stones without Mick?" he asks, sarcastically referring to singers – such as Morrison wannabe Ian Astbury, presumably – that have toured with Manzarek and Krieger as 'Jimitators'. "People ask if we're getting back together. Yeah!" he exclaims. "When Jim shows up. Not with somebody else."
Originally published in Scotland on Sunday