John Densmore was born to a Catholic
family on December 1, 1944
in Santa Monica
. He grew up listening to the organ
in church and took piano
lessons as a young child. By junior high, he wanted to be in the school band and ended up learning drum
s and percussion
. In addition to marching band
in high school, during his sophomore year he was asked to join pop
combo "Terry and the Twilighters," although they broke up after John got together with the former girlfriend of the band's leader.
At Santa Monica Community College, John again joined the marching band, but was also becoming interested in the Los Angeles rock club scene. It was 1964, and something more interesting than bland Top 40 was developing in those clubs; something that jazz buff John was still interested in on the nights he wasn't seeing John Coltrane play. A friend he jammed with introduced him to marijuana and LSD, about which Densmore says, "A crack had appeared in the facade of reality and I had peered through."
Not long after that, John met guitarist Robby Krieger and formed a new band, the Psychedelic Rangers. Robby introduced John to Transcendental Meditation; at one TM class, John met Ray Manzarek and was invited to jam with Ray's band. The newest person working with Ray and his brothers was a singer and lyricist named Jim Morrison. When Ray's brothers dropped out because Morrison was too weird for them, John brought in Robby and The Doors were born.
After a time playing at L.A. clubs The London Fog and the Whiskey-A-Go-Go and developing their ability to play off each other in a way that Densmore called "'vamping' Jim's wild singing with a kind of shamanistic drumming," the Doors were signed by Elektra. They recorded their first album in six days; Robby and John rented a house together in Laurel Canyon, knowing that Jim would be too wild to have as a roommate (though they did find him a place to rent nearby to reduce the number of days the band had to track him down after wild nights).
John's autobiography recounts his enjoyment of the combination of the band's successful first album and the free love movement of the era, but during the recording of the Doors' second album, he met Julia Brose, who he would later marry. It was also around this time that John's brother Jim spent some time in a mental hospital; both of the Jims in John's life were causing him worry, and touring was a stressful endeavor because of the need to keep an eye on Morrison, wondering what might be going on at home, and hostility toward "long-hairs" from those who disapproved of anything associated with hippies. Even Transcendental Meditation and yoga might have a hard time calming a person down after such incidents as when John and Robby were stopped in Robby's Porsche and arrested on vagrancy charges, essentially because the arresting officers didn't like how they looked.
During the recording of the band's third album, drugged experimentation and Morrison's bringing people into the studio were slowing down the process enough that John actually quit the band briefly in frustration. He went back and was accepted without comment from the others. After the album's release and a European tour, John and Julia got back together (she had spent some time involved with Greg Allman); their relationship gave John a degree of refuge from the stress of touring. "Everyone working for or with us knew that Jim couldn't go longer than three or four gigs before losing it"; no matter how transcendent performing the music could be on good nights; the rest of the days were difficult to get through for everyone on the tours. John had a persistent stress-induced rash on his legs and back. By 1969, he was already trying to get his bandmates to agree to stop touring, but was overruled.
John got his wish in the worst way possible after the 1969 concert in Miami, Florida, where Jim Morrison was alleged to have exposed himself to the audience. All twenty-one American concerts left in the tour supporting their fourth album were canceled. During a vacation in Jamaica, Julia told John she was pregnant, and the two decided to abort the child while the band was in Mexico for one of the few concerts they would play in the next year. It stressed the relationship, but not so much that the two did not become engaged; they married in October 1970.
By the end of 1970, promoters were willing to take a chance on the Doors, but their performances weren't fun for the band anymore. They recorded a sixth album with no plans to tour, and Jim went to Paris for an extended vacation. His death there seemed to put an end to most people's view of the Doors, but John, Robby and Ray recorded two more albums. By 1973, after the first of those albums, Julia had an affair with Barry Oakley of the Allman Brothers Band, became pregnant with his child, and had to deal with Oakley's death in an accident. John and Julia divorced in 1973. Not long after, the remaining three Doors broke up. Robby and John recorded a reggae/jazz-influenced album with some English musicians as The Butts Band, but this group only lasted for one album.
John married Debbie Fife a few years after his divorce from Julia; the two had a daughter. In 1977, the Doors got back together to record backing tracks for Jim Morrison's poetry; this project was released the next year as "An American Prayer." Jim Densmore continued to be in and out of mental hospitals; he tried to make music, songs which John describes as having "childlike innocence, a sweet world of fantasy" and resembling the work of Donovan. In 1978, he committed suicide. John and Debbie separated and later divorced eight years after their marriage, keeping joint custody of their daughter between their different homes.
John has gone on to acting and writing as creative outlets, including acting in his own one-act plays. He says that "Writing isn't as much fun as playing in a band, but I can do it whenever I want and I don't have to depend on flaky musicians. The thrill of writing is a subtler high, but the obsession can be the same." (His book Riders On The Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors is certainly an easier read than his bandmate Ray's autobiography, much more down to earth without ignoring the symbolic aspects of song lyrics and such.) He has also remained a percussionist, performing music for the dance productions of Bess Snyder and Co. and writing music for the play Methusalem. And he has produced theater and film. TheDoors.com says he is currently working on a novel. However, he is currently suing Krieger and Manzarek for using the Doors name (actually, they're calling themselves "the Doors of the 21st Century") in their current project with Ian Astbury of the Cult.
Densmore, John. Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and The Doors. New York: Delta, 1990. (source of all quotations)