In 1968, Jim Morrison threatened to sue General Motors and destroy a Buick Opel with a sledgehammer in public if The Doors went through with allowing the auto company to use “Light My Fire” in a television commercial for the car.
The other Doors — keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore — agreed to the deal without their lead vocalist’s input, because he couldn’t be reached at the time. But when Morrison found out, his reaction was so vehement that it not only put a stop to the commercial, it created a rift in the band. The “one-for-all, all-for-one” mentality that had been the bedrock of The Doors’ success had started to crumble.
The idea that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts was proven true when Morrison died in 1971. The surviving members carried on for two tepidly received albums, then called it quits.
But The Doors’ reputation as one of rock’s greatest bands and Morrison’s elevation to cult-hero status had only just begun. And as both grew to almost mythical proportions, requests to use the band’s music in commercials intensified — as did the money. Manzarek and Krieger wanted to license the songs. Densmore, remembering Morrison’s reaction to the Buick commercial, refused.
Then, in 2002, Manzarek and Krieger formed a new band with vocalist Ian Astbury of The Cult and a succession of drummers. They called it The Doors of the 21st Century and began to tour, using the band’s legendary logo and Morrison’s image to promote the shows. Densmore and Morrison’s estate sued, and Densmore was counter-sued for refusing to license The Doors’ music.
Thus began a years-long legal battle that pitted members of one of the most successful and respected bands against each other. Instead of coming together in a rehearsal hall or concert arena, they were facing off in a courtroom.
Densmore ultimately prevailed, and has documented the struggle in a new book, “The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial” (Percussive Press, $14.95). To kick off a book tour, he will be signing copies at Bull Moose in Scarborough at 2 p.m. Saturday for Record Store Day, an annual celebration of independent record stores. (Click to read more about Record Store Day.)
It will be a coming home of sorts for Densmore. Although he was born and raised in Los Angeles, his father was born in York and moved to California with his family when he was 12. Densmore, who has visited Maine a few times (“it’s quite beautiful, and quite chilly in the winter”), recently answered some questions via phone from his home in L.A.
“The Doors Unhinged” is a fascinating read. … What prompted you to write the book in the first place, and at what point did you determine that you needed to write it?
Well, The Doors were knocked off their hinges for a few years by the idea that the guitar player and keyboard player could go on with the name without Jim. And I’m like, The Doors without Jim Morrison? The Stones without Mick? What are we doing here? The Police without Sting? I don’t think so. So I rallied Jim’s estate, and we entered into a legal struggle.
And initially, some hardcore fans thought that we were crazy, you know — “You’re destroying the band! You’re suing the other (members)? What are you doing?!” Well, if you read this whole journey I went through, hopefully you’ll get that we were trying to preserve the band — the original members and the name and Jim’s legacy and vision of what we were.
I’m surprised some die-hards had that reaction. I would have thought it would have been the reverse — I can imagine it would be like Paul and Ringo going out as The Beatles without John and George.
Yeah, that would be weird. But y’know, if Ray and Robby are coming to your hometown, and they’re great musicians, and they’re playing Doors songs — “Oh, I want to see it! That’s so great!” And it is great. But it’s not The Doors. So that’s the part that they’ve got to remember.
Why did you decide to put it all down in a book?
To set the record straight of what I was doing, and how hard it was, and maybe — oh, this is kind of self-centered, I don’t know — but maybe it’s a metaphor for other issues for people, personal and national, or whatever. Y’know, the undercurrent of this book is currency, isn’t it? Greed. And the word “currency” comes from the word “current,” so therefore, currency is supposed to flow. And these corporate beavers are damming up the flow with hoarding.
Money’s like — I’m soapboxing now — money’s like fertilizer: When spread around, things grow; when hoarded, it stinks. It may be metaphoric for our whole country. That’s kind of pompous, but whatever. The subject of money is so volatile, I know I’m going to stir up some people’s anger. (Laughs.) But it’s good to talk about!
You mention in your book that The Doors had a unique relationship — and it was actually Morrison’s idea — that you all share everything as equal partners, including the songwriting royalties, and if any one member disagreed on something, it wouldn’t happen. At what point did Ray either lose sight of that or try to disavow that agreement?
Oh. Boy, you’re pinpointing trouble. (Laughs.) I mean, y’know all along, Ray has, y’know, enjoyed, as we all have, the financial success of the band. At what point did he — ooo, boy, that’s — oh! You’ve got me on the spot here, Rod!
Well, does it date back to the Buick incident? Was it that early? Or was it after Jim died, or was it just recently?
Well I suppose, yeah, Buick is a good flashpoint, because Jim’s reaction was so funny and ballistic — “Oh, yeah, let’s do it! I’ll smash a Buick on television with a sledgehammer! Great!” And yeah, Ray was — well, we were all young, and I suppose that money now, in today’s world, would have been millions of dollars, and was tempting. It was tempting. But I can’t seem to get Jim’s reaction out of my mind. Yeah, I’d say the Buick incident was sort of the beginning of troubles about art vs. economics.
When you refer to Robby in the book, there’s a sense of sadness for a lost friend. When you refer to Ray, there’s a sense of bitterness, of resentment. You even refer to him as your “nemesis” at times. There’s this sense that Ray was, more so than Robby, the one pushing for the use of The Doors name and logo, and was the driving force behind the counter-lawsuit against you. Would you agree with that?
I agree with that, but I did send Ray and Robby the last chapter of the book just recently, and certainly (will send) the whole book very soon, when it’s finished printing. I wanted to make sure they got to that, and I sent a note saying, “Listen — it’s probably going to be a hard pill to swallow, but please read this last chapter where I say, ‘My God, how can I not love you guys? We created this magic in a garage that got so much bigger than all of us, and you will always be my musical brothers.’ So on a creative level, I’m trying to honor that and maybe throw an olive branch out.
Now, I’m not gonna go on tour with them with some “Jimitator.” (Laughs) but, well, maybe for some Live Aid benefit or something, maybe a one-off, altruistic endeavor with some wonderful singer, that’s fine.
So you’re not disavowing performing with them again.
I’m actually throwing out the idea, if it was not a tour for big bucks.
And would you call yourself The Doors if you did it?
It would probably be, uh I don’t, know, Eddie Vedder with The Doors, or Bono with The Doors. I don’t know, Rod, I’m fishing here.
I interviewed Ray in 2003 when they were first taking what they were calling “The Doors of the 21st Century” out on tour. I would like to read you a few of his comments from that interview, if I may.
I asked him for his response to the lawsuit filed by you and Jim’s estate. He said, “It’s another typical American frivolous lawsuit. It’s a nuisance suit that has to be addressed, but it’s just a nuisance suit someone’s got an ax to grind and wants to make sure people know his name and that he’s an important drummer.”
(Laughs). Oh, dear. And you want my response to that?!
Yes, and he also said you told him that you would have joined the tour if they got David Bowie to sing lead.
Oh, but Jim’s hair wasn’t red! (Laughs.) I’ve said for years that no one can fill Jim’s leather pants well, through trials and tribulation, through appeals and even trying to go to the Supreme Court, Jim’s estate and I have prevailed. And I’m pleased. And that’s the answer to that. And I don’t wanna — it’s a statement he made when we initially began this trouble, and it obviously riled him up. And I’m trying to calm things down.
Is it finally settled now? Have all the appeals been exhausted?
Oh, sure. Oh, yeah, yeah.
So have you talked to them since?
We’ve emailed for my own feelings, I needed to have available this story, and now I feel a cloud lifting having my story available.
Do you collaborate on things like the “Perception” box set (released in 2006) or the 40th anniversary reissue of “L.A. Woman”?
Do you participate in that as a group, or separately?
Well, due to technology, certainly, we don’t have to have meetings, we can email. All of those projects are primarily headed up by Bruce Botnick, our longtime engineer who recorded everything originally So he sends us stuff, and we go to his house.
In your earlier book, “Riders on the Storm” (1991), you wrote in depth about your relationship with Jim — about how you admired him and loved him like a brother, but you were also at times afraid of him, of his “Mr. Hyde” persona. Did that come out just when he was drinking, or was it more unpredictable?
Oh, primarily when he was drinking, yeah. And back then, we didn’t know he had a disease called alcoholism. Y’know, people ask, “If Jim were alive today, would he be clean and sober?” And I’ve always said, “No. He was a kamikaze drunk.” But y’know, I’m changing my mind now maybe he could have — I don’t know. Monday-morning quarterbacking is easy.
What is one of your fondest memories of Jim?
Wow. Um maybe when — this was a guy who never sang before us, and he was so nervous in the first few club gigs, he wouldn’t face the audience. He wanted to look at us, because that made him feel secure. I would say that when we were the house band at the Whiskey, and he got the courage to turn around and look at the people he was singing to. It was really sweet and empowering.
What do you hope people take away from reading “The Doors Unhinged?”
Even in hard economic times, if you hang onto integrity, in the long run, you’ll feel better about yourself and the world. Not that it will necessarily financially pay off, but — what did Tom Waits say? “You change your lyrics to a jingle, you just sold your audience.” But I want to say that new bands who are trying to pay the rent, I get that, that they might need to do that
Lewis Hyde, who has this book called “The Gift,” says there’s a gift to every artistic endeavor, even if you pay through an opera ticket or a concert ticket. But if you turn the whole art into a commodity, then that gift between the artist and the listener is gone. And you don’t want to do that.
Deputy Managing Editor Rod Harmon may be contacted at 791-6450 or: