On Dec. 9, the Florida Clemency Board, on the urging of outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist and in its last meeting of the year, will consider pardoning Doors frontman Jim Morrison who was convicted of indecent exposure after a 1969 concert at Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami. The singer died two years later; he would have turned 67 on Wednesday, Dec. 8. According to the St. Petersburg Times, it only takes one member vote to put Morrison’s case on the agenda, and then the votes of two members plus the governor to approve a pardon. Fans of the band have long campaigned for a reversal or full-out dismissal of the charge, claiming Morrison never revealed any actual body parts. To get to the bottom of the matter, The Hollywood Reporter turned to Doors drummer John Densmore for his take on the night in question, and also discussed When You’re Strange, the Doors documentary narrated by Johnny Depp, which scored a Best Long Form Video Grammy nomination on Wednesday night.
THR: Let’s start with the night of March 1, 1969.
John Densmore: Can I just make a statement? He didn’t do it! I was there; if Jim had revealed the golden shaft, I would have known. There were hundreds of photographs taken and tons of cops and no evidence. Yeah, Jim was a drunk and a sensational, crazy guy, but he also was a great artist and I want him to be remembered for the art as well as the craziness. At the time, things were pretty political with the Vietnam War — the whole country was polarized, not unlike today — and he went to see [painter-poet] Julian Beck and Judith Molina of The Living Theatre and was inspired because they wore minimal clothes and were going up the aisles saying, “No passports, no pieces.” It was pretty wild stuff. Jim tried to inject it in to the Miami concert, and he was inebriated, so it wasn’t so successful. Musically, it was terrible, but politically, it was intriguing. So that was his motive and then it became this sensational, “get the hippie band that represents the counter culture!”
THR: The request for clemency got a lot of media attention last month, why do you think there’s so much passion for this issue?
Densmore: Why is there such passion for any sort of gossipy, provocative sensual stuff? It sells! I’m not in Florida, so I don’t know [the Governor’s] policies. I’m sure he’s pleased at the ground swell — everybody knows his name now. But in reading his statements, I get a genuine feeling that after seeing all the documentaries and reading everything about this, he, like me, thinks Jim didn’t do it! It would be nice to straighten that out. Jim was charged with the wrong thing — he was drunk and disorderly but he didn’t whip it out.
THR: How drunk was he?
Densmore: Well, he wasn’t fall down drunk. He was a guy that had a buzz and I know he was excited about what he thought he might inject. Of course, as per usual, we [the band] didn’t know anything about it. During several songs, like “The End” and “When the Music’s Over,” there were long sections in which he’d do poetry or whatever he felt like doing. We knew that these areas were about improvisation and exploration. He started ranting about, “You’re letting them push you around, what are you doing out there?” and you’re, like, “Okay, here we go!”
THR: So that was par for the course? Nothing particularly unusual about that night?
Densmore: It was a little more than usual, certainly, it was rather confrontational. I was thinking about our name, which is based on a quote from William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Well he’s doing some serious cleansing, right?
THR: What was the show like musically?
Densmore: Disappointing, because Jim was ranting. I think we started the song “Touch Me” several times. We attempted and were like, “Ok, he’s not following the lyrics. Let’s try again.” That was pretty frustrating. Also the promoter had to make some extra dough and had taken the chairs out and sold another couple thousand tickets. It was hot, stuffed, seething, you could feel the chaos. In retrospect, I could easily say we walked in with a feeling of, “Something’s gonna happen here.”
THR: In a way that puts some culpability on the venue, not just the police?
Densmore: It does. That night, the cops weren’t against us at all, the country was. Every night, there was carnage from Vietnam and then there was the other side who was like, “America, love it or leave it. You’re with us or against us.”
THR: What happened the next day? Did you guys discuss the events of the previous night?
Densmore: No. Robbie [Krieger] and I had planned to go to Jamaica and then we were supposed to do a big tour, which was cancelled entirely. We were down there and got word by phone that, “Crazy things were happening in the upper 48, come on home.” And then of course we had to go through the trial.
THR: What was that like?
Densmore: Surreal. Ridiculous. Which is why [Gov. Crist] is doing something that, in my opinion, is honorable. I suppose his naysayers will say he had a nice publicity take on the way out. Who cares? I like him cleaning the slate, cleansing the doors of perception.
THR: Over the years, there’s been some criticism of how the Doors have been portrayed on film, particularly the 1991 Oliver Stone movie, The Doors. Do you agree with your bandmate Ray Manzarek that it’s mostly a work of fiction? And are you happy that When You’re Strange, the doc narrated by Johnny Depp, got so much critical acclaim this past year?
Densmore: I differ with Ray. The Oliver Stone movie was Oliver’s take on the self-destructive parts, that tightrope walk. I wish it could have been more about the sixties. I’m pleased that When You’re Strange has more of the times, Vietnam and all those struggles. But Val Kilmer was astounding. I appreciated that. I loved Oliver for giving it a go because he was in a bunker in Vietnam when it happened and he tried to figure it out later, and that’s fabulous. But I’m happy that When You’re Strange is an organic documentary. That’s the real deal.