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Meetings With Remarkable Musicians (and Other Artists)
Foreword by Viggo Mortensen
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Whether it's the curiosity that blossoms after we listen to our favorite band's newest record, or the sheer admiration we feel after watching a knockout performance, many of us have experienced art so pure-so innovative-that we can't help but wonder afterwards: "How did they do that?" And yet, few of us are in a position to be able to ask those memorable legends where their inspiration comes from and how they translated it into something fresh and new. Fortunately for us, this book is here to offer us a bridge.
In The Seekers, John Densmore—the iconic drummer of The Doors and author of the New York Times bestseller Riders onthe Storm—digs deep into his own process and draws upon his privileged access to his fellow artists and performers in order to explore the origins of creativity itself. Weaving together anecdotes from the author's personal notebooks and experiences over the past fifty years, this book takes readers on a rich, thought-provoking journey into the soul of the artist. By understanding creativity's roots, Densmore ultimately introduces us to the realm of everyday inspirations that imbue our lives with meaning.
Inspired by the classic spiritual memoir Meetings with Remarkable Men, this book is fueled by Densmore's abundant collection of transformative experiences—both personal and professional—with everyone from Ravi Shankar to Patti Smith, Jim Morrison to Janis Joplin, Bob Marley to Gustavo Dudamel, Lou Reed to Van Morrison, Jerry Lee Lewis to his own dear, late Doors bandmate Ray Manzarek. Ultimately, the result is not only a look into the hearts and minds of some of the most important artists of the past century—but a way for readers to identify and ignite their own creative spark, and light their own fire.
An artist, She’s a real artist. He’s a unique artist. Artists are like that. Not like you and me. They feel things, they see things, they understand things in different ways than most people do. Painters, drummers, sculptors, singers, conductors, directors, designers, poets, actors, dancing masters, performers, seekers all. They are sensitive, they see underneath, they see beyond, they see the big picture, they notice the smallest detail. We admire artists, and we don’t trust them. The rest of the world gets on with its business while artists daydream and criticize people who actually get things done. They live in their own world, and they should mind their own affairs, stick to what they know. What makes artists so special anyway?
Nothing at all. No more special than you. Each of us has got their own. Each and every one, through our particular way of observing and listening, of being in the world, is free to interpret and communicate what is happening around us. There is no need to be considered or to consider oneself an “artist,” in the sense that we conventionally and exclusively use the term, in order to weigh what happens to us in the course of our lives, in order to record in our minds what our experiences mean to us, to decide what attracts and repels us, to relate to and communicate, if and as we choose to, what we find meaningful. Children do not separate themselves as artists or non-artists. Why should adults do so?
You are alive, you receive. You may fine-tune your hearing, you may work on your rhythm, your timing, and find the right moment to dip your toes in the river. Once your skin gets used to the temperature, you may find yourself wading in deeper, maybe going under all the way to your chin. You might have to give it a few tries before getting that far. You don’t have to swim. There’s nothing to know. You can get out anytime you like. Just sit onshore and watch how others disappear under the surface and come up somewhere else. Watch the rain drops on the gently flowing ripples, if they come. Feel the sun’s warmth, if it shines. Get goosebumps, if you do. See what you see, make that picture for yourself. That’s all it is, being an artist. Don’t ever swim, if it isn’t your thing, don’t go near the water. Stand on a hilltop, behind a tree, hearing others splash and laugh. No one even needs to know you were there. You understand, you sense as much as anyone else does in their own personal way, whether you’re near or far. You can simply imagine being at the bottom, you can count the minnows and tadpoles, the sinking leaves as they swirl around you. You spin at your own speed and dance to the beat you carry as you drift with the current, allowing yourself to float away. You comprehend, already creating, already leaving your mark, even if at first you
to the melody
in a drop
across the wall
on the doorknob
in your fist
its very thought
from the water
that brought us
THE TIME HAS NEVER BEEN MORE RIGHT FOR WRITING A BOOK that elucidates my lifelong commitment to the arts and creativity. It has been proven that music and arts therapy heals post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), not to mention that the arts make all of us feel better. To illuminate this urgent and timely issue, I have turned to a nearly century-old book for inspiration: the Greek-Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff’s 1927 classic book, Meetings with Remarkable Men. This widely influential spiritual memoir has a cultlike status that has inspired generations of artists and writers, including Sting, Kate Bush, Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers, acclaimed filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Peter Gabriel (who named his world-music record label Real World Records after Gurdjieff’s Views from the Real World).
Gurdjieff started working on the manuscript of Meetings with Remarkable Men, originally written in Russian, in 1927, revising it several times over the coming years. The author reminisces about “remarkable men” he has known, including his father, the Armenian priest Pogossian, his friend Prince Yuri Lubovedsky (a Russian prince interested in spiritualism and occultism), and five other sages. Gurdjieff describes these characters and weaves their stories into his account of his own travels. He calls this group the “Seekers of Truth” because ultimately they cooperate in searching for spiritual texts and masters wherever they can be found (mostly in central Asia). Most of these “Seekers of Truth” do in fact find truth in the form of a suitable spiritual destiny.
Inspired by this idea, I’ve assembled my own group of what I would call musical masters who achieved their mystical destiny through sound—from Ravi Shankar to Patti Smith, Jim Morrison to Janis Joplin, Bob Marley to Gustavo Dudamel, Lou Reed to Van Morrison, Jerry Lee Lewis to my dear late Doors bandmate Ray Manzarek. Just as painters “see” the world, musicians’ primary compass through life is their ears. Like my colleagues, I “hear” the world. The one constant thread through my life so far is that I have been constantly fed and nourished by music.
I would like to take readers along on a quest to illuminate the creative process, using storytelling and unique access to show how it happens. The Seekers will allow you to join me in exploring timeless ideas and addressing universal questions as I go backstage and into the lives and minds of these great artists.
As Sting sang in “Secret Journey” (his 1981 song inspired by Gurdjieff’s book), he saw himself as a lonely man on a private quest to make some sense of the mysteries of life and the elusive nature of love. Sting expresses the yearning need to reach a greater understanding with the help of a wise teacher, a holy man of sorts, who would guide him and whose words would continue to reverberate throughout his life. Like Sting, I’m Ronald Colman in the film Lost Horizon, trying to find Sam Jaffe (the High Lama) in all of these chapters. Great musicians are in love with sound, and their songs can be spiritual texts. Sound is what connects these giants, all of them sonic warriors constantly looking for a new vibration or reinvigorating an old one.
As I introduce readers to the iconic artists in this book, I’ll also share some insights I’ve picked up on how to live creatively on Planet Earth. I think we can get only hints of answers to these questions about how to connect with the muses, because they’re ephemeral agents from the other world. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell puts it succinctly: “God is a metaphor which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.” But we mortals keep trying, don’t we?
Because of my good fortune, I have had the opportunity to meet and interact with some extraordinary people. To be a member of The Doors and have the unusual access I have been afforded is one of the greatest blessings of my life. But what I’ve learned is that anyone can access the magical moments these gifted artists live in. Whether you have a nine-to-five job, or you sit alone at the piano playing something only you will ever hear, or you’re an aspiring artist hungry to learn how these heroes approach their work (like me), this book is a guide for the Seeker in us all.
If beauty is the only real antidote to this modern, crazy world, then, as the mythologist Michael Meade says, “Art is a form of refuge.” And if that’s true, then we’re all refugees. Meade elaborates: “We’re all looking for a sanctuary, a place to feel at peace with ourselves and the world.” William Blake said that “each day has a moment of eternity waiting for you.”
So even if you’re not a “professional” musician, you can access the same zone a professional does; you too can open the door (pun intended!) to the other world. I’m not one of the fastest drummers, and fortunately accessing that creative zone is not all about technique either. It’s about the heart: when the heart is open, the muses will be attracted and show up. In matters of spirit, the most direct connection is through music. The ancestor spirits want to participate when they sense the presence of feeling instead of logic. So just sing or play an instrument and you will quickly become enchanted. (Chanson is the French word for “song.”)
As we try to glean everything we can from these icons, notice they have accomplished this elevated status not by pursuing the outer world, but the inner world of sound. Most of these artists certainly are idols in the public’s eyes, but their initial incentive came not from wanting outward approval, but from an inner desire—an almost unstoppable drive to create something. Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony (possibly his greatest) when he was completely deaf. He could only hear it in his head, and the fact that a stagehand had to tap him on the shoulder to signal that it was time to come out for another curtain call after conducting the work is almost unimaginably sad. When composing, Ludwig would put a pencil in his mouth and press it against the piano to feel the vibrations because he couldn’t hear them. But his deafness also points to the richness of his inner sonic life. In the words of the great sage Ram Dass, “The quieter you are, the more you hear.”
The muse is very psychic, and as I said, she will come when the heart is open, but a well-crafted vessel attracts her big-time. Sometimes she blows the circuitry like in Janis Joplin’s case. Fueled by substance abuse, the muse will devastate the vessel and wound the soul. But there are also very disciplined artists, such as the impeccable Ravi Shankar, whose vessel is as solid as a rock. Bob Marley is somewhere in between. He has the right amount of craft that is needed for his message. That’s the thing about technique: you need just enough to get across your gift (and we’ve all come into this world with a unique gift to bring), but you can have too much. That is to say, you can be seduced by learning to go faster and faster, but as the great American poet Robert Bly used to say, “slow equals soul.”
I feel so blessed to have been in the presence of these great artists, some for a moment, some for an extended time over many years. Some have broken on through to the other side, while some are still here in their physical form. So this is my thank-you, my tip of the hat to these artists and musicians, classically trained or barely schooled at all. I’ve thrown in a couple of writers as well because, in my opinion, they’re looking for music in between the sentences.
The passion of what these icons are trying to say comes through in spades; they sparkle like diamonds in the rough or fully polished. That sparkle is the thread that tugs on our humanity and reminds us that we come from the same family and that everyone is struggling to make sense out of their lives. And everyone can glean inspiration from these artists. The food they offer is so rich that only a little can be savored for a lifetime. I hope you get as much as I have out of this feast.
Margret (Peggy) Mary Walsh
Drawing or painting on a canvas is frozen music.
How could I not start with my mom? She wasn’t a musician—just a force of nature whose life would span almost the entire twentieth century. My dad was quiet, and Mom was not. She loved music so much that she even let me set up and play my cacophonous drums in the living room. My parents’ musical tastes were eclectic—some good, like Beethoven, some not so good, like Mantovani.
Survival was Margaret Mary’s thing. It was the leitmotif (a repeating musical theme) throughout her life. She had four siblings, but at a young age endured losing two of them, her older sisters. Assimilating those deaths as a kid barely into her teens must have shaken her to the core. As my cousin Jim wisely said, “Hearing about the death of her sister May possibly made your mom fill space with talk.”
She got through all the struggles by painting. Drawing or painting on a canvas is frozen music. There’s space between the images, as there’s space between sounds in music. Getting her diploma from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, Peggy Margaret was obsessed with putting something on the blank canvas. Signing all her work with the name “Margret” (she took the “a” out to make the name unique), she could do figurative drawing quite well, but eventually fell in love with abstract.
I wasn’t that crazy about her work, but I knew that it saved her life. When Dad passed, I thought that, after forty years of marriage, Mom would soon follow suit. She didn’t. Instead, she blossomed. “When I have pain, I paint,” she’d say. I didn’t understand most of her paintings, but I understood the gift bestowed on her by doing them: painting stopped time. In my opinion, painting was her real religion. She thrived until the age of ninety-four, when she finally put down her brush and died.
So I’m hoping I received some of those survival genes. She loved music and allowed me to take piano lessons when I was eight years old. Peggy Margret encouraged me to practice. She even threatened to take away those lessons if I didn’t practice more. I loved the piano. I loved fooling around doing arpeggios (broken-up three-note chords) up and down the keyboard. I would do them for hours, pretending I was a concert pianist. It was then that Mom would come in my room and say, “Practice your lesson or no more lessons.” She was right, but my tendency to drift off into my own improvisations was an indication of things to come. Jazz.
There was freedom in changing the written compositions, repeating a phrase or inventing a new one to go with what was on the page. Then I’d have to get back to learning more scales and legit compositions. You have to eventually intuit how much woodshedding (practice) you should do, and how much free play you should allow to come in. That balance is the key to finding your own musical uniqueness.
Speaking of unique, I used to have a pet parakeet that I would let out of its cage, and he’d sit on my finger or shoulder. One day while “Bill” was pecking at my neck from his shoulder perch, I walked over to the piano and sat down. He certainly had heard me play while sitting in his cage and had sung along when I put more effort into it. I thought that this time I should play soft, because he was so close to the upright piano. I lightly started arpeggios in a major key (a major key is a “positive” sound). Bill joined right in, and so after a few minutes I put my finger out in front of my shoulder for him to jump on. As usual, he quickly obliged. Then I gently set him down on the white keys near the top of the keyboard. I started playing again, which didn’t upset him at all.
This became our routine—the two of us enjoying the sonorous sounds of the eighty-eight keys. Sometimes he would walk up and down the keys. Sometimes he would shit on the keys. I’d clean it up right away; I didn’t want mushy keys, and I certainly didn’t want to piss off Margaret Mary. Maybe I should have explored music more with my pet bird. We could have been an act on The Ed Sullivan Show or Comedy Central. Well, I was on Ed Sullivan later in life, but no bird was accompanying me, just a guy in black leather. That, at the time, was a unique wardrobe. Jim should have gotten a cut of the fashion trend he jump-started.
When The Doors were starving, we’d go over to my mom’s house and she would make us a spaghetti dinner. This was before Robby was in the band. My dad thought our band name was dumb, but he didn’t know the book it was taken from, The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley. He didn’t get that the idea was to open the doors of your mind. Not necessarily with drugs, although that’s what the book was about. It could also be done with alcohol. It could be done with meditation. It could even be done with books.
Ray Manzarek and his girlfriend Dorothy would always ask for second helpings of spaghetti. They didn’t have the privilege of raiding Ray’s parents’ fridge, which was an hour south in Manhattan Beach. I was worried how Jim would behave, but he was hungry too, so the vibe was cordial. When I leaned back on the two rear legs of my dining room chair, which I’d been doing for years, Mom didn’t hassle me to “sit up,” not while my bandmates were around. I still have that table and the set of six chairs, one of which creaks likes crazy from all that leaning back. Once I fell over backwards, which secretly pleased my mom. Lesson not learned.
I would say that she gave me the gift of music vicariously by dragging me to Catholic church, where I was exposed to the sounds played by the mad, drunken Irish organist. Also through her love of hearing music at home. At mass, I told Mom I couldn’t stand the smell of the incense, so she let me go up to the balcony where no one sat because Mr. K (with the red nose) played the organ way too loud for the masses. Mom said he got too carried away with the volume pedal. Sitting alone up there with him as he rocked into “Ave Maria,” I could feel the low notes shaking my seat, which vibrated my brain into a slight euphoric high.
At home, it was either corny orchestral Muzak or Beethoven played on the box. I resonated with both, but liked the drama of serious classical mo’ better. The highs (fortissimo) and lows (pianissimo) of the three Bs (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) would later seep into my percussion work. This music was a big gift Mom gave me by encouraging my piano lessons, and it later made my drumming much more musical as well.
As for her “Margarita” nickname, my mom could drink me under the table. She came from the 1950s martini crowd, so she was used to cocktails every night. I came from the ’60s pot-smoking, “alcohol is for old people” era. When she got older and I’d take her to a favorite Mexican restaurant, Margret would have several margaritas and definitely get a buzz and talk even more. I gave up on keeping up with her. Besides, I was her designated driver and one tequila was enough for the “cheap high” son. She loved the mariachis (Mexican musicians) and struck up a conversation with anyone who would listen. Even if you weren’t listening, she’d keep going.
I mentioned the exhausting chatter in my eulogy for her, and got a big laugh when I said that keeping up with ninety-two-year-old “Peggy Margarita” wasn’t possible. She’s resting in peace now, or maybe she’s having an Irish nightcap with Dad. She drove me nuts in my early years, but all the memories are sweet now.
A few days before she passed, my cousin MaryAnn said I’d better make the hour-and-a-half drive up to see her soon, because she was going fast. I said I’d leave right away. Having been up a few days before, I procrastinated, then an hour or so later I finally left for Ventura. When I got there, Peggy Margret was asleep. She hadn’t crossed over yet; she would live another day, but she would not be waking up again. Now I knew I should have left home immediately.
The caregivers said that she’d been up at 3:00 a.m. the night before and that was why she’d fallen asleep so early. They had obviously told her I was on my way because she was lying in her bed, all decked out with turquoise earrings, a turquoise necklace, and slightly smeared lipstick. A ninety-four-year-old woman still wanting to look good for her son is an image that will stay with me forever.
What’s in the eye reveals the soul.
Mr. Armour was a nerdy flute player and my junior high school music teacher. In fact, all of us musicians were nerds. It wasn’t “cool” yet to be a musician. Jocks were cool. They wore letterman sweaters with the symbol of their sport (football, baseball, track) in the middle of the “U” for University High in West Los Angeles. That’s where I eventually went after Daniel Webster Junior High.
Of course, back then, if you wore a sweater with tennis rackets in the middle of the “U” for Uni High, you might be gay. And we didn’t have that word back then. We had a much more derogatory word that started with an “f.” I didn’t have to worry about other students thinking I was gay: I was the last man on the tennis team and was never asked to play a game in competition, so I couldn’t letter. Mostly I hit the ball against the wall.
But I was obsessed with music. After I began piano lessons at age eight, I took to the instrument immediately. I couldn’t get enough of it and was already leaning toward jazz. I preferred improvising on compositions rather than learning new ones. Playing them over and over, changing little things here and there, put me into a trance as time seemed to stop moving. I was still too young to realize that art releases us from the trap of time.
When I got to Webster, I wanted to play in the symphonic band, orchestra, jazz ensemble—any musical group they had. And I really didn’t care what instrument I played. I knew they didn’t have a space for a pianist in the band or the orchestra, so I chose clarinet. The trombone seemed interesting to me, the way you slide part of the instrument with your left hand. I liked the shiny gold look of it too, but I’d heard my parents play Benny Goodman records, and clarinet seemed more “cool” than trombone. Maybe girls would like me if I played clarinet.
Alas, I had braces on my teeth at the time, and the orthodontist said, “No, you can’t play clarinet! We’re trying to push your teeth back… that instrument will push them out!” I asked Mr. Armour, who was also my homeroom teacher, what he thought. “Well, John, we need drummers for the band and the orchestra.” That was appealing because drums have a built-in “cool” vibe.
I had to start with the bass drum, a solo bass drum. Then I learned the cymbal parts. I was working my way up to the snare, which played the more sophisticated, intricate rhythms. Mr. Armour encouraged me to be patient. Later I realized that I had developed an intimate knowledge of each of the elements of the drum set, and all put together they represented the entire world of percussion. “Traps” was the jazz slang for the set, because all the elements “trapped” together.
My musical mentor also encouraged me to take private lessons. “If you really want to improve fast, that’s the way to go,” Mr. Armour said. I’ve gotta hand it to my parents: they not only put up the dough but occasionally tolerated loud drums in their house. I say “occasionally” because most of the time I was encouraged to practice on a black rubber “drum pad,” which was lame. The stick bounced back like it was hitting a drum, but it made no sound.
- A Best Classic Bands’ “Best Music Book of the Year”
- "John Densmore wrote this book about great artists he's known in the same fashion that he plays drums and lives his life. He understands and demonstrates the value of both silence and sound, space and statement. All the while, he brings us backstage to the parties and personalities that have inspired greatness and been cautionary tales of excess. He proves that it's never too late to grow and these are teachable moments from the life of a master."—John Doe of X, and co-author of Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World
- "I really enjoyed getting John's unique and insightful view of such an eclectic group of inspiring people."—Bonnie Raitt, musician and activist
- "John Densmore has the heart of a seeker. Always aiming, not for the sparrow, but for the eye of the sparrow in his search for meaning. His compass took him straight to the core of the moment and of the people he was drawn to by his uncanny ability to divine wisdom throughout his fairly frenzied life. It is reaffirming and gratifying to those of us who shared some of the same friends to revisit those unique and original souls."—Olivia Harrison, author of George Harrison: Living in the Material World
- “John Densmore is a true seeker, a force of good in the universe.”—Jack Black, actor and musician
- "John Densmore is a beautiful human being and a gift to us all. His lessons are profound and his eloquent words and voice touch us deeply."—Ron Kovic, Vietnam Veteran and author of Born on the Fourth of July
- “A joyful history lesson for music geeks.”—SPIN
- “[It's] fascinating it is to read this veteran musician's thoughts... these reflections should strike a resonant chord in any aficionado of the arts.”—All About That Jazz
- "A special kind of book... [this] easy-read is nothing short of magnificent."—LA YOGA
- On Sale
- Nov 16, 2021
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Hachette Books