Public Media Arts Hub

'Path is the key:' The Doors' drummer on what lights his fire


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: Fifty years ago this month, the American rock band The Doors played their final show together in New Orleans. Lead singer, Jim Morrison died unexpectedly several months later at the age of 27, marking the end of an era.

For the band's drummer, John Densmore, the ensuing years have been a continued artistic exploration--one that has included music, but also a venture into the meaning of creative fulfillment.

NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker recently spoke with Densmore about his new book: "The Seekers."

Christopher Booker: At this point, the story of The Doors is familiar, whether in books, documentaries or Hollywood movies.

The band's astonishingly, short, meteoric rise and run has been well covered.

And while drummer John Densmore has long played a role in that storytelling, his own 1990 memoir -- "Riders on the Storm" was an NYTimes bestseller -- his new book, "The Seekers: Meetings with Remarkable Musicians," is an attempt to understand the forces that make a story like The Doors even possible.

John Densmore: It's pretty interesting stuff, this creative road and what we've learned and what it all means.

Christopher Booker: Released last month, the book offers what Densmore calls notes on how to live creatively on planet earth. Writing about his inspiration and artistic motivation, Densmore chronicle's his time spent in the company of some of the world's most beloved musicians and creative forces.

From Willie Nelson to Patti Smith, "The Seekers" opens a window into a disparate collection of characters who, in Densmore's eyes, are more interested in the creative path, than the prizes bestowed upon them for what they have created.

John Densmore: I had tremendous success in my 20s and it's been downhill ever since. But what I learned was that I get fed like maybe playing drums at a poetry reading in a club a year go, as much as Madison Square Garden, if I'm in the moment and I'm really concentrating and the 12 people are listening or the 12,000, you know...the road, the path is the key, not the goal.

Christopher Booker: Is it easier to get to that space or easier to motivate yourself to get to that space now that you are cognizant of it?

John Densmore: It's interesting. In my old age, I've learned that if I put the right cymbal crash in the very right spot, exactly, it can be as powerful as all my showoff drum rolls in my 20s.

I'm not the fastest drummer in the world, but I'm very into dynamics and knowing that there's space in between the notes and you got to breathe. You hear a Willie Nelson solo, he doesn't play real fast, but it's so melodic and beautiful. It's kind of, to be human is to have space and not show all your stuff all the time.

Christopher Booker: But as Densmore recounts, for some, the creative path can be destructive.

Christopher Booker: How do you reconcile that? How do you find the balance of the kind of the darkness that can come with creativity, with the light?

John Densmore: Not everybody has creativity and self-destruction in the same package. I write about Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, and they did, you know, obviously. Picasso lived to 90. He didn't. Janis and Jim were teachers for me to be careful because I want to be on a longer road and they both died at 27. And the years have helped me sort of heal that and think that Jim was just a shooting star, supposed to make a quick, big impression.

I talk a little bit about how Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist, says that all the planets are gravitationally pulling each other. And so as we go around in our orbits, everyone is affecting everyone else, just like a musical ensemble.

Christopher Booker: Densmore's ensemble is much smaller now. He and guitar player Robby Krieger are now the only surviving members of The Doors - Keyboardist Ray Manzarek died in 2013...while Morrison has been dead for nearly 50 years. The last time the original Doors lineup played together was in 1970 -- just days after Densmore turned 26.

Christopher Booker: Thinking again of this idea, of this thesis... this creative life and the pursuit of the creative life, is there a consistency between the thesis of The Doors and the thesis of what you're working with, in wrestling now?

John Densmore: What is the thesis of The Doors?

We found each other and created magic out of a garage bigger than all of us and all my fancy stuff in the early days, you know... [imitates drums] "Crack! Dah dah dah dah dah dah, light my fire" --it was an incredible peak. But like I said, after peaks like that, it's all downhill.

So you got to kind of zigzag and negotiate and you can still have a very fulfilling, creative life on whatever level. It's your inner life that's the most important.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.