“It feels a little weird. Here we are doing this interview, and our streets are filled with protesters in regards to Ferguson,” Doors drummer John Densmore says.
Densmore and “Obey” artist Shepard Fairey sat down with Billboard the day before Thanksgiving for their only joint conversation to discuss their Black Friday (Nov. 28) collaboration, a 12-inch recording of the Doors’ “Ghost Song” and Peter LaFarge’s “Drums,” to benefit Honor The Treaties.
The package for the release features artwork by Fairey, photographer Aaron Huey and Cheyenne Randall. While the release came about to celebrate Honor The Treaties, an “organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of Indigenous communities through art and advocacy,” both Densmore and Fairey found a lot of relevance in 2014 and everything going on in Ferguson, Mo.
In fact, by the end of the utterly fascinating conversation on the role of art and music in social protest from the 1965 Watts riots to the protests in the street of Ferguson, Densmore and Fairey had come to the conclusion they wanted everyone to wait to buy the record to make a statement by not spending money on Black Friday. Who would expect less from the pair?
The collaboration came about for Black Friday, correct?
Shepard Fairey: Yeah. John, was it your idea for Black Friday? As soon as I heard that, my interpretation, which I didn’t even bother confirming because maybe I’m overly confident, was that with the whitewashing of Thanksgiving happened, the idea of the darker side of the things we’ve stolen from Native Americans, other than just recipes, was the impetus for Black Friday. But you tell me, please.
John Densmore: First of all, I met Shepard when he did the cover of my new book, The Doors Unhinged, and then I noticed he had this thing with Aaron Huey, the great photographer of National Geographic for Honor The Treaties and I went to the site and I went, “Wow.” Then I went to the site and I saw Aaron’s talk on Ted and I went, “Wow.” I guess, you, Shepard, asked me if I’d be a board member and I went, “Yeah.” Then I had this light bulb about wait a minute, the Doors’ “Ghost Song” is very Native American and I had done this “Drums” Peter LaFarge tribute and I thought, “Oh my god, back to back on a 12-inch for Record Store Day.” We were trying for April 18, but due to whatever problems, delays, it wound up on Black Friday. And like you, Shepard, I’m thinking, “Oh, this wasn’t a coincidence.” The day before is when the first people of these lands taught us how to give back and what did we do?
It is interesting timing, with all going on in the country right now.
Densmore: In Aaron’s brilliant Ted Talk he says, “Wachichu is people who take the best meat.” And so the people who came over here supposedly discovering America, they were fleeing religious prosecution and oppression, then they, people who looked like me and Shepard, oppressed. Whoa, karma, karma come back. So I think genocide of Native Americans is the root of our history and until we talk about it, apologize, chew on it or whatever, oh boy, race relations are gonna be our big struggle.
Fairey: I agree with that and in talking about the Honor The Treaties project and the treatment of Native Americans, of course I’m very passionate about this specific scenario with this specific group of people, but it’s also symbolic of something that’s broader in terms of inequality, injustice on economic lines, racial lines, cultural lines in any number of places, where one group just doesn’t have the same opportunities or is looked upon as favorably to even qualify for those opportunities as others.
And what’s going on in Ferguson, there’s an analogy to plenty of things that have happened with the American Indian movement or the Black Panthers where if the roles were reversed, imagine if Michael Brown had claimed that he was being punched in the face by Darren Wilson and had to shoot Darren Wilson to save his own life in the middle of the streets in Ferguson, Missouri, what that grand jury would have brought down. That guy would be facing, Missouri’s got the death penalty, right? These biases and prejudices, they’re not obvious until you are able to empathize if the roles were reversed what the outcome would be. So I see plenty of connections between things that have happened to Native Americans and what happened in Ferguson.
The thing that’s incredibly disturbing to me about Ferguson is that even though I don’t agree with looting and destruction, the treatment of the protesters before any of it deteriorated into chaotic unrest was so bad that it almost had nowhere to go but there. But then authority uses the resulting unrest that they basically created to justify their oppressive tactics in the first place and that’s an authoritarian culture that exists in so many different places. A lot of the treatment of Native Americans was, “Well, we have to treat them that way because they’re savages.” This is a historical thing, like John said, the hypocrisy from fleeing oppression from Europe to now perpetuating it. I wish everyone would just apply the treat other people like you want to be treated principle to things.
Densmore: Beautifully put, and let me just tie it into music. Some of the lyrics on Peter LaFarge’s “Drums” are about how they had to take off the beautiful clothes that Shepard portrays in a lot of his stuff, put on those uniforms and Christian schools, that’s all in the lyrics.
Where do music and art tie into these protests and helping convey the message of change?
Fairey: I think that there are a lot of historical things. I was just listening to Bob Marley in my office a couple of days ago after the grand jury decided not to indict. I was listening to “Johnny Was,” the song says, “Woman holds her head and cry/Cause her son had been shot down in the street and died.” And I think Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded “Ohio” in two weeks, within two weeks they had it ready to press up after Kent State. And now there are even more digital tools to allow people to create and share. There’s no one piece of art or music that I’ve seen come out of the situation in Ferguson that has, to me, become the symbolic anthem or the symbolic visual, but the use of these mediums that, I think, break though the petty sides of arguments and connect with people emotionally, the value of that can’t be overemphasized. That’s one of the things I’m always trying to do with my art, make a visual that I think is compelling enough to lure someone in to care about what the contest is, what the ideas are. And potentially break through a predisposition of indifference.
The Doors did it really beautifully with a lot of their work; there are a lot of layers to it. The crazy thing is I read a piece when the Iraq War was starting about why there weren’t as many acts that were on the radio that were using music in a way that the Doors, Neil Young, Springsteen — any number of people have in the past and gotten on the radio. And it said because the Clear Channel monopoly and their banning of even songs like “Imagine.” Rage Against the Machine is not gonna be played on Clear Channel. Even the people that create, in this day and age, that type of music, the same opportunities weren’t there. Of course there’s the digital medium, which allows it to get out there in the more fractured system we have, which is great too, it’s empowering. I think art and music are always gonna serve the needs of people, expressing their feelings about any number of situations that everyone’s sort of soaking up together. That’s the beauty of art and music, these things that can be transmitted symbolically are a big part of the dialogue.
Densmore: So art and music are the mirror of society and I, of course, like Shepard, the violence, please draw the line, but it is rather exciting to see democracy in action out there. I’m old and let me tell you we stopped the Vietnam War by what we’re watching on television today. And I remember the Watts riots and I sort of related; I saw the smoke, but I didn’t live in South Central and by the ’92 uprising I knew that nothing had changed and I wanted to go out and break things almost myself. So we slowly evolve.
Shepard, could you have ever imagined one day you’d be working with the Doors?
Fairey: No, I wouldn’t have and John might not remember this because it’s probably more significant to me, but in 2005 I got to do a Jim Morrison portrait for a Doors handmade box set. So the Doors manager, Jeff Jampol, gave a couple of pieces of my work to the members of the Doors that were still alive and I was seated at a dinner that was a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Toyota Prius, which I drive one, and they asked me to DJ. So they sat me across from John and I was really nervous to sit across from John Densmore of the Doors, but I knew that I had a little bit of an icebreaker because I’d done the Jim Morrison portrait. So I struck up a conversation with him and really liked him and John, somehow we stayed in touch from there. I don’t remember exactly.
Densmore: My son was an intern for you, we both owned Prius’ and whatever. But I’ve always admired your stuff. Steve, the music was pretty much there, it was the cover and Shepard astutely said we should definitely have a Native American artist do the other side and Cheyenne Randall stepped up to the plate with a beauty and then Shepard’s thing with the sun, gorgeous.
What do you want people to do with this record?
Densmore: Maybe the ultimate compliment for this “Ghost Song” “Drums” project is that it doesn’t sell on Black Friday, total boycott. I know that’s backwards, but f— it, I get both sides.
Fairey: Not to drill too far down on this idea, but my “Obey” project, when people have said what’s the ultimate success of your “Obey” project, I’ve said, “That it’s obsolete, that it’s not needed because people are analytical enough to not be easily manipulated and submit to obedience.” Think of the cumulative power we have, I’m not saying not spending money on Black Friday is the solution to Ferguson. But when the people make a powerful statement and that would be an incredibly powerful statement I’d be very glad to be part of that statement because the following day we can sell the record.
Densmore: So don’t buy this record!