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Q&A: John Densmore on Reconciling With the Doors

He and Robby Krieger plan L.A. tribute to the late Ray Manzarek

June 19, 2013 12:05 PM ET
John Densmore
John Densmore
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

For a full decade, the Doors were at war with one another, entangled in dueling lawsuits and memoirs and locked in disputes over the licensing of their music and use of the Doors name on the road. But when keyboardist Ray Manzarek was hospitalized this year with a rare form of cancer, communications between the old friends and collaborators finally began to thaw.

"The inner circle knew Ray had cancer for a while," drummer John Densmore tells Rolling Stone of his former bandmate, who died last month in Germany. "Then I heard he was really sick and called him. He said thank you for the prayers and told me chemo was fucked. So there was a closing, thank God."

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Doors, 'The Doors'

In a new book, The Doors Unhinged, Densmore writes of the unexpected break in the band's long partnership that continued even after Jim Morrison's death in 1971. The trouble began when Densmore refused to sign off on a lucrative deal to sell "Break On Through (To the Other Side)" to a 2002 Cadillac commercial and intensified when Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger began touring as the Doors of the 21st Century.

The book opens with a scene of Morrison enraged and hurt after the band licensed "Light My Fire" for a 1968 Buick commercial in his absence, and picks up decades later in a courtroom, with Densmore suing to stop use of the Doors name on tour. He was countersued for $40 million in damages for the drummer's refusal to accept the Cadillac deal and other offers. Densmore prevailed, and along the way he shares stories from the band's history, about getting moral support from Tom Waits and Eddie Vedder, and of finally meeting Morrison's parents.

The self-published book has Densmore on a new tour of indie record stores for signings, including a stop last week at Amoeba in Hollywood, which drew several hundred fans. Doors activity has never stopped, with last year's collaboration with Skrillex, "Breakin' a Sweat," and a comprehensive iPad app released in May; Densmore expects to join Krieger for a live tribute to Manzarek in Los Angeles.

For years, the Doors always seemed to be on the same page, then something went sour.
We were always on the same page musically.

You did a VH1 Storytellers special in 2001, the American Prayer album in 1978 and many other things together after Jim died.
The Doors are back on our hinges. Ray and Robby – I just think they made a mistake thinking the Doors [could exist] without Jim, like the Police without Sting. That's straightened out. It was a really rough struggle.

What made you want to write a book on this very specific event in the Doors story?
When it was over, I was very pleased that Jim's estate and I persevered, but it was pretty rigorous. In the beginning, when I started the lawsuit, the hardcore fans thought I was ruining the band. I really wanted for anyone who was interested to see the journey I went through and what I was trying to do. And maybe it's metaphoric for other people's personal struggles with money. In there I say, "Money is like fertilizer: when it's hoarded, it stinks. When spread around, stuff grows."

You include a moment when the Doors had new managers who approached Jim with something like "You don't really need these guys. You're the star." What was Jim's reaction to that?
The managers said, "You're the money. Dump these guys." And at the next rehearsal, he says, "Let's dump them!" We were really equal. And that's why somehow, even for L.A. Woman, where Jim was clearly an alcoholic with a disease, when we were alone we were blessed by the muse. We don't own that.

The book opens with a pretty dark scene: Morrison is enraged about a deal the band made to sell "Light My Fire" to a Buick commercial.
I'm very proud of the first two words of the book: "Fuck you!"

You describe it not just as a blowup but an actual turning point, shaking trust within the band.
What blows my mind is that "Light My Fire" was primarily Robby's song – Jim threw in "love become a funeral pyre." Typical Morrison. If he flips out over "Come on, Buick, light my fire," what does that mean about his caring for the whole catalog, everything we represented? I'm not going to forget that.

Early on, the Doors decided to split and credit everything equally. Was that from conviction, or were you not yet educated about the standard ways of the music business?
That was Jim's suggestion before we ever had a record deal, before we had a gig. It was maybe naïve, but he could have later changed it, and didn't. He was the lyricist and could have got half of everything.

What does that say about what mattered to him?
Community. Amazing. There's sacredness when people are committed together for something.

It was once the norm for bands to refuse to sell their music for commercials, but now that's flipped around.
If you're a new band trying to pay the rent, then what the hell, do what you've got to do. But if you get going and you've got a toehold on success, you might want to look at that again. Tom Waits wrote a letter in response to my article in the Nation that said, "You want to look at changing your lyrics into a jingle. Is that what you want to do? Then it's the sound of coins in your pocket." I love that guy.

It's a big question. And I have Pete Townshend say in Rolling Stone, "You fell in love to Shirley to my song? I don't give a fuck about Shirley, I'll do what I want." True.

The Doors aren't billionaires, but we have deep pockets. I know that Ray and Robby, like me, have a nice house and a couple of groovy cars, so I'm going to veto this stuff. If they were struggling, it might be different. I knew money was going to be a very volatile subject. I've already been called a socialist elitist weirdo from the right.

In the book, you seemed especially hurt by the break with Robby.
Well, we were best friends, and it really feels nice to connect again. I said to Robby a few weeks ago in an email: "Let's have our musical reunion for Ray. Let's play some Doors songs at the Whisky or Wiltern – there's a lot of great musicians in L.A. that we know and love and admire the band. I'd like to break the ice that way." It should happen pretty soon.

The three of you did appear on a Skrillex track last year.
That was fun. At first, I was like, drum machines? When drum machines were first invented, Ringo said, "I'm the drum machine!" We pride ourselves on the groove. But I was into electronic music in high school – Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Schoenberg. I met [Skrillex] and he's a musician and plays guitar and piano. I needed to hear the stuff before I committed. It's got to feel right, and it did. In fact, I called him a month or two ago, and said, "I've got a beat that I think would fit with you . . ."

You were joined in your lawsuit by Morrison's parents.
I never thought that entering into this horrible train wreck would produce a blessing like meeting Jim's dad. Wow. Here's this guy who was on the other side of the fence during Vietnam. He was over there on a battleship, and we wrote "The Unknown Soldier" against it. He at 86 comes to support Jim's legacy? Whoa.

Did you discuss "The End" with his father by any chance?
I heard that he got nervous when he heard it.

Getting to know him, did it tell you something about Jim that you didn't know before?
Maybe there was a will, a strong sense of presence. Jim had that too. Jim had a will to get this rock concert he heard in his head before he even met us to come to fruition. Maybe there's something there.

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