Before Jim Morrison was a legend—the pouty, slithering id of the freak-flag generation—the Lizard King was just another L.A. longhair in a rock band, sitting on the sofa during a tedious rehearsal at his guitarist’s parents’ house.
Even then, before he and his band the Doors were vaulted into stratospheric fame, Morrison was audacious. He suggested to his bandmates—Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore—that they share songwriting credits evenly (though Morrison was writing most of the songs at that point), and that they make all decisions about the band’s future unanimously.
In rock’s long, sordid history of selling out, Morrison’s gesture is a significant moment that still resonates more than 50 years later. In the epic battle between artistic idealism and commercial pragmatism, idealism rarely comes out on top. But, at least for the first three albums of the band’s fabled career, all songs were officially credited to “the Doors.”
Morrison’s nod to Three-Musketeers egalitarianism would be put to the test just a couple of years later, after the Doors had become legitimate stars, when Buick came calling with an offer of $75,000 to use “Light My Fire,” the band’s signature song, in a commercial. Morrison, as was his habit, was nowhere to be found when the offer came to the band, and—facing a deadline—the other Doors agreed to the deal. When Morrison found out, he went berserk. “You guys just made a pact with the Devil!” he thundered. The Doors soon backed out of the deal.
If it was Morrison’s intent to convince his bandmates of the purity of art in the face of commerce, he succeeded spectacularly in at least one instance. Doors drummer John Densmore was, to quote Hamilton, “in the room where it happened.” And long after Morrison’s death in 1971 at the age of 27, Densmore has emerged as one of rock music’s most stalwart holdouts against commercialism.
Densmore, 74, comes to Streetlight Records in Santa Cruz for an Aug. 24 book signing to promote his book The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes On Trial. The book opens with the story of Morrison’s confrontation with his bandmates on the Buick deal. But the bulk of Unhinged focuses on the long and bitter legal battle between Densmore and the other surviving members of the Doors. At issue was the legacy of the band and Morrison’s rejection of crass commercialism.
In a phone interview with GT, Densmore says that he opened his book with the Buick episode to give readers a sense of Morrison’s passion on the issue of selling out. “I wanted to show what I had learned from Jim, because he had passed on, and I was just trying to honor my ancestor,” he says.
Even though the band shared songwriting credits, “Light My Fire” was mostly composed by guitarist Robby Krieger. “If he cared that much about a song that Robby primarily wrote, that said to me that he cared about all our songs, the whole catalogue,” says Densmore. “I’ve tried not to forget that.”
In 2002, Densmore vetoed a proposed deal from Cadillac that would have paid the band $15 million for the use of “Break On Through (to the Other Side)” in a commercial for luxury SUVs (Cadillac turned to Led Zeppelin instead). He did the same on a deal with Apple that would have netted the surviving Doors another $4 million.
“All I was doing was trying to honor (Morrison’s) legacy,” says Densmore. “Look, if you’re a new band trying to pay the rent, do a commercial. I get it. But if you’ve had some success, like we had, maybe you should revisit that decision.” Quoting Tom Waits, who has publicly defended Densmore’s actions, Densmore says, “When you sell rock songs for commercials, you change your lyrics to a jingle and the music to the sound of coins in your pocket.”
Densmore’s vetoes irked his former bandmates, particularly keyboardist Ray Manzarek. But what dragged them all into court was Densmore’s insistence that Manzarek and Krieger could not tour as the Doors. In 2003, Manzarek and Krieger recruited former Police drummer Stewart Copeland and singer Ian Astbury of the Cult, and began touring as “The Doors of the 21st Century,” using the famous Doors logo. Densmore filed an injunction against Manzarek and Krieger, who then counter-sued, seeking $40 million in damages.
Densmore then persuaded the families of Morrison and his girlfriend Pamela Courson (who died in 1974) to join sides with him in the suit, a canny move that symbolically underscored Densmore’s contention that he was only acting per Morrison’s wishes.
To say the least, Morrison had an unusual relationship with his birth family, to the point that he once publicly declared his parents to be dead—which they probably wished they were after hearing his crazed Oedipal rant about murdering his father and having sex with his mother in “The End.” Considering Morrison’s father George Morrison was a U.S. Navy admiral and commander of naval forces during the Vietnam War, the estrangement between father and son was emblematic of the famed generation gap in the 1960s.
“Yeah, there was a pretty clear cutting of the umbilical cord there,” deadpans Densmore. “I had never met Jim’s dad, and if it wasn’t for the trial, I never would have. But he came up to me, stuck his hand out and said, ‘Y’know, these are weird circumstances, but it’s great to meet you.’ And I felt the same. There was a kind of healing of the whole trauma of the ’60s for me. I mean, here was this career military man, and he was coming to stand up for his counter-culture son’s artistic legacy.”
Densmore’s record of defending Morrison’s wishes to avoid commercial endorsements isn’t entirely clean. He and the other Doors allowed “Riders on the Storm” to be used in a tire commercial in the U.K., but Densmore believes it was a mistake and says he donated his share of that deal to charity.
For a band named after Aldous Huxley’s account of his psychedelic experience The Doors of Perception, and who scored hits with such transcendent songs such as “Break On Through” and “People Are Strange,” Densmore feels that the Doors had a particular responsibility to avoid the taint of commercialism.
But the trial, which began in 2004, wasn’t about advertising. Densmore believed that Manzarek and Krieger were exploiting the Doors’ name and logo, and that the trio had agreed that the Doors as a performing entity died with Morrison. Manzarek and Krieger were finessing the issue by calling themselves the Doors of the 21st Century, but Densmore claimed that the last part of that rather clunky name was printed in much smaller type in the promotional material.
“To be clear,” says Densmore, “I love Ray and Robby’s playing. I was not discouraging that. I was just saying, ‘C’mon, call it something else.’ ‘Former members of the Doors,’ or ‘Founding members,’ whatever. The Doors without Jim is kind of ludicrous.”
Densmore drew on several powerhouse names in the music business for support during the trial, including Waits, Neil Young, Eddie Vedder, Tom Petty, and others. Even Copeland, who was in the beginning part of the newly constituted band, ended up standing with Densmore. On the other side, Manzarek made the argument in court that Morrison’s reaction to the Buick ad in 1968 had no bearing on the Cadillac deal in 2003. Manzarek suggested that had he lived, Morrison would have probably evolved on his attitudes towards making money, and accepted the deal. He also claimed that the all-for-one arrangement that gave each band member veto power over all decisions was “part of the Doors mythology” and “a fiction.”
In the end, the court sided with Densmore, and the decision was upheld on appeal. Manzarek and Krieger pushed the case all the way to the California Supreme Court, which refused to rule on it. The legal dispute was over. Densmore received a quarter of the profits from the Doors of the 21st Century tour, and his former bandmates continued to perform as D21C and finally, simply, Manzarek-Krieger.
“Financially, I came out OK,” says Densmore. “But emotionally, I was completely drained.”
Not surprisingly, the trial drove a wedge between Densmore and the other Doors. But in the final chapter of The Doors Unhinged, Densmore makes an effort to make peace with Manzarek and Krieger. Directly addressing them both, Densmore admitted that he “couldn’t handle losing” either of them.
“What I wanted to say to them was, ‘Look, I know this book will be a hard pill for you to swallow, but I want you to know I love you guys and we created magic together in a garage.’ That’s the bottom line.”
Manzarek died in 2013 of cancer of the bile duct. Densmore says that he and the iconic keyboard player had a chance to reconcile before his death. “When I heard he was sick, we were semi-estranged,” says Densmore. “So I called him. We didn’t know then it was going to be our last conversation, but it was a good conversation and it was healing. We didn’t talk about the legal stuff, just health and family and stuff.” Since Manzarek’s death, Densmore and Krieger have also reconciled, and they’ve even performed together.
Densmore’s stand is remarkable because it’s so rare. Songs from so many of the archetypal artists of classic rock’s dinosaur era have appeared in advertising—Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, U2—that the hoary old Boomer cry of “sellout” doesn’t have much meaning anymore.
Maybe Manzarek was right. Maybe a middle-aged Jim Morrison would have welcomed a big payday and somehow framed getting a Doors song on a Cadillac ad as a subversive act. The Doors’ music has been used prominently in films—Forrest Gump, Monsters Inc., Apocalypse Now, and, of course, Oliver Stone’s biopic The Doors. The band was paid handsomely for those projects, and Densmore cashed those checks without a guilty conscience. He has no problem with making money, he says.
But he makes a clear distinction when it comes to the world of advertising. Allowing Jim Morrison’s sinister snarl on “Break On Through” to be used to sell what he calls “a gas-guzzling, global warming Sherman Tank called a Cadillac Escalade” would have destroyed the credibility the band built with its millions of fans, in his view.
In his book, Densmore quotes Robby Krieger—who, remember, was on Manzarek’s side in the suit—as making the ultimate argument against selling out. “Many kids have said to me that ‘Light My Fire’ was playing when they first made love or fought in Vietnam,” Densmore quotes Krieger as saying. “If we’re only one of two or three groups who don’t do commercials, that will help the value of our songs in the long run. The publishing will suffer a little, but we should be proud of our stance.”
Densmore is at work on another book, this one about the musicians who have inspired him. Included in the book, he says, will be a chapter on Manzarek, the talented keyboardist who also handled bass duties on his keys. “He could split his brain into two musicians, and that’s magic,” says Densmore.
He’s even evolving in his attitudes about Morrison, whose alcoholism and unpredictable behavior in the last years of his life have undermined his image as rock’s dangerous mystic poet. “People ask me all the time, ‘What if Jim had lived?’ And I used to say that he wouldn’t have lived. He was a kamikaze drunk, determined to destroy himself. But now, you look at people like Eminem, who was a creative angry guy like Jim. Well, it’s cool to be clean now. Maybe Jim would have been fine.”
As for his own image, Densmore has emerged as an unlikely symbol for integrity in rock music. “Look, I have ‘The Doors’ etched across my forehead forever, and that’s a good thing. But it’s been all been downhill since ‘Light My Fire,’” he says. “When all this started, I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m suing my bandmates? Am I nuts?’ Then there was always Jim’s ghost over there in the corner, saying, ‘Do this for me.’”
Despite it all, Densmore still retains a sense of humor about the question of selling out. “I don’t know,” he quips. “What do you think? How about ‘Love me two times, because I just took Viagra?’ That would be a great commercial!”
John Densmore will sign copies of his new book ‘The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes On Trial’ from 3-5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24, at Streetlight Records, 939 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free.