Tuesday, June 7, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors


Perhaps unfairly, in the caricature of the Doors that's been propagated since the ludicrous (but still strangely satisfying) 1991 Oliver Stone movie about the band, John Densmore has been relegated to being the "whiny" member of the group, the one who didn't get along with Jim Morrison and complained about everything. Ray Manzarek was the gregarious, ebullient one, Robby Krieger the quiet, introspective driving force behind most of their music, and Jim Morrison...well, we all know about Jim. John's excellent and unique drumming in the Doors has oftentimes been largely overlooked and his personality has taken a hit...even well researched new books on the Doors paint him as the perennially negative one. In addition to numerous biographies on the Doors and Jim Morrison (a couple of which have been reviewed here on this site), Ray Manzarek also published a memoir several years back. While that book was good, it was also peppered with his over-the-top proselytizing and perpetuation of the Doors and Jim Morrison myths. John Densmore, along with Robby Krieger as the quietest of the Doors, published his own book in 1991. Krieger supplied a quote on the back cover which simply stated "this is the real story of the Doors"...but is this true?


The subtitle of Densmore's book is "My Life With the Doors and Jim Morrison," but I'll say up front that this sells the book a little bit short. True, the main focus is on his life and career in the band and with their mercurial lead singer, as well as the long-lasting effects it's had on his life. However, there is also a story of personal discovery and a journey for inner peace and understanding that bubbles just below the surface. In particular, his story focuses on the two Jims in his life, Morrison and Densmore (his younger brother). John starts the book discussing his childhood in the Los Angeles suburbs and how his growing love of jazz and blues music helped him overcome his insecurity and shyness. After playing in a succession of local groups, he and a guitarist he'd met along the way, Robby Krieger, decided to form a group with another local musician, UCLA film student Ray Manzarek and his two brothers. This quintet even managed to record a demo tape before Ray's two brothers decided to leave...however, he knew just the person to join their trio. Fellow UCLA film student Jim Morrison completed the lineup and brought his considerable poetic and melodic skills to the collective. The rest is, obviously, history as the Doors went on to become one of the most influential and popular bands of the 1960s, their impact being felt and their legacy still going strong today. Equally strong today is the myth of Jim Morrison, which is split into two predominating camps: that he was either a tortured genius who couldn't handle the fame and attention and burned out, or that he was a first-class asshole and a drunk who slurred his way through the band's career, churning out pretentious lyrics passed off as poetry. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle and that's something Densmore tries to get at, even tossing in some (mostly) friendly barbs a Ray's building-up of the Morrison myth since the singer's death.



The overall tenor of the book is, however, fairly dour...there's never a really joyful sense to the overall story even though John does get exuberant when discussing his beloved music, drumming, and the initial flush of creativity and success the Doors had in 1966 and 1967. There's an undercurrent of dread running throughout, though, as he struggles against wanting to continue creating music with the band, the other three members of which he considers his brothers, and wanting to quit because of having to deal with Jim's increasingly erratic, destructive, and addictive behavior. He actually did quit once, in 1968 during the sessions for the Waiting For the Sun album, but quickly rejoined. Eventually, the band's trajectory took them down the path that's now well known to history and Jim ended up dying in Paris in 1971 at the age of 27, becoming the fourth 1960s rock legend in two years (after Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin) to die at that age. There's not much factually new revealed during John's discussion of the Doors' career; rather he offers his personal perspective on the entire experience and how Jim's life and death affected him then and continues to now. Running alongside all of this is his battle against insecurity and his two failed marriages, as well as the troubling descent into mental illness of his younger brother Jim. The young boy who was so talented at painting (and later at music, although less so) became an unstable man who was prone to what seemed, at least in my opinion based on John's descriptions, as manic-depressive type behavior. Tragically, he ended up committing suicide and the death of the two Jims, both of whom John tried to help so many times, haunted him for many years. Throughout the book are a series of "letters" that Densmore has written to Morrison looking back on their friendship and their time in the band. Some of them are admonishing and almost scornful, but most are wistful and sad at the self-destructive behavior and squandered talent of his friend. Through these letters, many of which relate the changes in the band to John's personal life, there is an inner journey, aided by his lifelong dedication to meditation, that eventually leads Densmore to a separate peace. By the end of the book, he is secure and content with the Doors' legacy, his new career as a writer of and actor in plays, and as a father.



While John Densmore's book doesn't shed much new light on any of the Doors' music or the inner workings of the band, it definitely offers valuable insight and an alternative perspective compared to Ray Manzarek's. It does seem to be rather heavily focused on Morrison and at points almost reads like a Morrison biography that happened to be written by his bandmate. However, as one of only three other people who lived with Jim day in and day out for six years, it's also understandable that Morrison's talent, behavior, demise, and the creation of his legend in the wake of his death would have a profound influence on Densmore. Riders on the Storm is quite enjoyable and fascinating...the pace of the narrative is snappy and it touches on all of the important highs and lows of the Doors' career and music in adequate detail. He does get some facts wrong (coincidentally, as it was the previous book I reviewed, about their appearance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival!) but overall, it's a valuable and informative look at the band from the inside. Whereas Manzarek's book was often too over-the-top in its promulgation of the Morrison legend, Densmore's can be seen as tilting perhaps a little bit too much in the other direction in trying to tear it down. It does bring a needed balance, though, and with a look at the Doors from two band members, on the whole it's the more enjoyable of the books, even twenty-five years after publication.



MY RATING 8/10

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