The image of a shirtless Jim Morrison from The Doors with his arms outstretched is one that has adorned the bedroom walls of millions. And hits like “Light My Fire” have long endured over the years. But even fans of the band might not know the dark secrets that led to a longstanding rift between Morrison and drummer John Densmore.
The Doors were of course one of the most iconic rock bands of the 1960s. And with their brilliantly crafted psychedelic rock and Byron-esque frontman Morrison, they took the world by storm from the mid-1960s until the latter’s untimely death in 1971.
After relative obscurity and the initially unsuccessful release of “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” The Doors burst onto the scene in early 1967 with the single “Light My Fire.” The change of tack paid off, and the latter hit sold more than one million copies – sending it straight to number one in the Billboard Hot 100.
Before Morrison’s death in Paris in 1971, The Doors had cemented their name in rock legend with further timeless hits including “People Are Strange” and “Riders on the Storm.” But while the excesses of the band’s troubled frontman were evident, the uncomfortable relationship between Morrison and Densmore was a secret hidden from the public eye.
We’ll discover how Densmore and Morrison fell out a little later, but first let’s learn more about their chart-topping band. Morrison and keyboard player Ray Manzarek formed the group in the summer of 1965. That August Densmore signed up and he was then followed by Patty Sullivan and Robby Krieger – who would play bass and guitar respectively. However, the former’s involvement with the band was short-lived.
By September 1965 the group had named themselves after Aldous Huxley tome The Doors of Perception and recorded a demo. A residency at the Los Angeles hangout London Fog followed – where Morrison was to hone his hypnotic performance skills. Manzarek told Rich Weidman in his book The Doors FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Kings of Acid Rock, “The band became a collective entity… that is where the magic began to happen.”
Next up came a spot as the house band at the West Hollywood nightclub Whisky a Go Go. Densmore later explained on the documentary A Shot of Whisky, “We sort of jump-started the psychedelic era. We were sort of the house band for everybody: Frank Zappa, The Mothers, The Birds, Van Morrison… our goal was to blow them all offstage.”
“Morrison turned around, he stopped facing us… and then all the girls saw what a beautiful Michelangelo Statue of David he was and the rest is history,” Densmore laughed. Elektra Records signed the band in August 1966, but they were then fired from the venue due to Morrison’s colorful language only a few days later.
The musicians set to work recording their debut album The Doors and it was released in January 1967. After the single “Break on Through (To the Other Side”) didn’t receive as much airplay as hoped, the group instead dropped “Light My Fire.” Fortunately, the song was an instant smash and topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
It was during a TV appearance in September that year that Morrison was to display his rebellious streak and disregard for authority. The band were booked to sing “Light My Fire” on The Ed Sullivan Show. But because of the family audience, they were asked to reword the lyrics, “Girl we couldn’t get much higher.”
Accounts vary as to whether Morrison deliberately ignored the request or simply forgot, but he sang the original lyrics on live TV. Naturally, Sullivan was irate and vetoed another six appearances that the band were due to make on the program. Unperturbed, when Morrison was told by the producer that they’d never appear again, he is said to have replied, “Hey man. We just did the Sullivan Show.”
More high-profile appearances followed, and The Doors started putting together another album: Strange Days. Despite utilizing new technology such as the Moog synthesizer – which was used to modify Morrison’s voice – the album only achieved moderate success. However, a concert they performed at the end of the 1967 got them talked about – for the wrong reasons.
That December The Doors were about to perform at the New Haven Arena in Connecticut. Morrison, by now a favorite with female fans, was kissing a groupie in a bathroom backstage. They were found by a police officer, who ordered them to get out – not realizing who Morrison was. The frontman then reportedly told the officer, “Eat it.”
Morrison was threatened with a last chance to get out, to which he apparently replied, “Last chance to eat it.” In response, the singer was maced, and after finally making it to the stage he started cussing the police. Officers nearby subsequently arrested Morrison and charged him with inciting a riot, indecency and public obscenity – though these were later dropped.
Despite Morrison’s antics, by April 1968 the band were riding the crest of a wave. At this time, they were in the process of recording their third album: Waiting for the Sun. The song “Hello, I Love You” became the group’s second number one single in the U.S., while the album ended up being their only number one LP. But the band’s public appearances were becoming increasingly frenzied – due in part to their lead singer’s alcoholism and drug dependency.
Playing in the U.K. with Jefferson Airplane in 1968, Morrison keeled over on stage after taking various substances. Then the following March he arrived late and inebriated to a gig in Miami, Florida. Apparently inspired by a so-called “antagonistic” style of performance art, the singer shouted abuse at the crowd. Four days later he was then arrested over claims that he’d used profanity, simulated sex on stage and had been drunk during the show.
Morrison was sentenced to six months in prison, but he stayed out of jail pending appeal on a $50,000 bond. The prison time, however, was never served before his death. And despite their frontman’s personal struggles, the band’s fortunes remained largely untarnished. In December 1968 The Doors released the single “Touch Me” – which topped the Cashbox Top 100 the next month and hit number three in the Billboard Hot 100.
Six months later, in July 1969, The Doors released their fourth album The Soft Parade and it climbed to number six in the Billboard 200. The following February the group then released Morrison Hotel, but not before the record’s namesake had landed in trouble again. The singer was charged with harassing attendants on a flight to Phoenix, Arizona.
Charges were dropped due to what was claimed to have been a case of mistaken identity. But on 12 December, just after Morrison’s 27th birthday, an incident was to happen that would stop the band performing for good. On stage in New Orleans, the rock star appeared to have a break down after smashing his microphone into the stage and then refusing to sing. Sadly, it was to be his last live show.
But The Doors had one more ace up their sleeve with their final album: 1971’s blues-influenced L.A. Woman. Featuring the now infamous track “Riders on the Storm,” the album did well and was the band’s second-best-selling album. A few months after its release, however, Morrison was to be found dead in a bathtub in Paris on July 3, 1971.
Morrison had been staying in the city with his long-term girlfriend Pamela Courson. The cause of his death is unknown due to the lack of an autopsy, but the death certificate noted it as heart failure. Morrison was only 27 when he died and was buried in the “Poet’s Corner” of Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris alongside Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde.
Morrison’s funeral was a small affair; it was attended by The Doors’ manager Bill Siddons with just a handful of other mourners. In fact, it wasn’t until three years later that drummer Densmore even went to Paris to visit the singer’s grave.
In his 1990 biography Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and The Doors, Densmore described the moment when he went to see the ex-frontman’s resting place. He wrote, “It smelled like rain. I had hoped it would storm. Then we wouldn’t have had to see his grave.”
Densmore went on, “My heartbeat was increasing. I looked over at [Robby Krieger], [Danny Sugerman], and [Hervé Muller] in the car as we approached the cemetery.” The drummer added, “’Let’s get this over with,’ I mumbled to myself as we walked past [the] guardhouse.”
And the musician was even more candid in a 2020 interview with The Guardian, saying, “Did I hate Jim? No. I hated his self-destruction. [Morrison] was a kamikaze who went out at 27 – what can I say?” Densmore also described the iconic singer as a “psychopath and “the voice that struck terror into me.”
Densmore’s harsh words about his former bandmate might seem somewhat surprising, as since the latter’s death, he has actually been a staunch defender of Morrison’s legacy. In 2003 keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Krieger wanted to tour as The Doors of the 21st Century. They also wanted to give the right for their music to be used in a car commercial.
Densmore subsequently sued the other band members for attempting to sell the song for the ad and touring under the aforementioned name. He went on, “I know. I sued my bandmates – am I crazy?! 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? [Morisson’s] ghost is behind me all the time.” However, Densmore added, “My knees were shaking pretty strong when they upped the offer of $5 million to $15 million.”
“But my head was saying, ‘Break on Through’ for a gas-guzzling SUV? No!” Nevertheless, that’s not to say Morrison and Densmore always saw eye to eye – far from it. The drummer wasn’t shy of a bit of parting himself, telling The Guardian that he was into meditation when he met Morrison as he “couldn’t take acid all the time.”
Densmore went on, “When we took LSD, it was legal. We were street scientists exploring the mind. I experimented with cocaine during the 1970s and ‘80s. But it wasn’t my drug of choice. Ugh… drug. I hate that word.”
“I was shocked when heroin became popular,” Densmore continued. “Even [Morisson] knew heroin was a serious drug. Heroin tried to make you forget. It scared me, so I stayed away.” But it wasn’t only Morrison’s so-called “kamikaze” attitude to life that shocked Densmore: it was a fear of the man himself.
The drummer said, “On the outside, [Morisson] seemed normal. But he had an aggressiveness toward life and women.” For example, Densmore claimed that in the band’s early days he found Morrison holding a woman’s arm behind her back while holding a knife to her. And at the time, he said that he did nothing.
“I was really young. I couldn’t work out whether they were lovers, friends or enemies,” Densmore said. “I just felt like I needed to get out of there.” Then, asked what he’d do if such an incident had happened now, the drummer replied, “I would say, ‘What the f*** are you guys doing? Please take it down a few notches here.’”
And there’s another alleged incident that Densmore might prefer to forget. Morrison’s girlfriend Pamela Courson apparently performed a sex act on him while he recorded a song. Densmore went on, “Urgh. See, I’m at a loss for words. [It was] sexist, what can I say?” Then, he denied that it actually happened – even though the scene features in Oliver Stone’s 1990 biopic movie.
Despite Densmore’s trepidation about his bandmate, the drummer is generous in his appraisal of Morrison’s good looks and talent as a songwriter. He told The Guardian, “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!”
Even though he wasn’t a high achiever in English at high school, Densmore said he has a new love of writing that he feels he owes in part to Morrison. The drummer added, “It’s funny. I got Cs in English at school. I hated it.”
Densmore continued, “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 channeling his passion for life. Actually, not for life – as I said, he was a kamikaze who went out at 27. But I want to set an example.”
Interestingly, Densmore told the U.K. newspaper that he had lobbied to stop Morrison from gigging before the latter’s death. He added, “Some people wanted to keep shoveling coal in the engine and I was like, ‘Wait a minute. So what if we have one less album? Maybe he’ll live?’” Then, asked why he continued, Densmore responded, “Because I wasn’t mature enough to say that at the time. I wasn’t trying to enable him. It was another era.”
Densmore then went on to opine about where his ex-bandmate would be now if he’d survived. The musician said, “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.”
Elsewhere, Densmore has made peace with his fellow bandmates. Manzarek sadly died in May 2013 from cancer complications, and Densmore joined guitarist Krieger to hold a charity benefit concert in his honor.
So Densmore appears to be on good terms with his former bandmates now, but his grudging respect for The Doors’ former frontman took a long time to win. He mused in his interview with The Guardian, “It took me years to forgive [Morisson]. And now I miss him so much for his artistry.”