In his new book The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial, Doors drummer John Densmore spins a funny yet lurid, behind-the-scenes tale of his six-year feud with former bandmates Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek – a greed-filled courtroom battle in which he was accused of being an anti-American, card-carrying communist who supports al Qaeda.
Densmore said the rift started in 2003, when Cadillac offered the band a record-breaking $15 million deal. Krieger and Manzarek wanted the deal but Densmore balked, recalling a studio session in 1968 when Jim Morrison, the band’s enigmatic lead singer who died in 1971, discovered the band was considering taking $75,000 for a Buick ad. In that commercial, the car company would use the band’s hit “Light My Fire,” changing the lyrics from “Come on baby light my fire” to “Come on Buick light my fire.”
“Jim told us he couldn’t trust us anymore,” Densmore tells Rolling Stone. “We had agreed that we would never use our music in any commercial, but the money Buick offered us had been hard to refuse. Jim accused us of making a deal with the devil and said he would smash a Buick with a sledgehammer onstage if we let them [change the lyrics].”
Then Krieger and Manzarek started touring under the Doors name. The band advertised themselves as The Doors of the 21st Century, with “The Doors” appearing in big, bold letters and everything else in small fine print.
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“They started using the name the Doors,” Densmore says. “I sent some example of the ad to the estate and said, “Hey, your deceased son has been resurrected and has been performing. Apparently I am, too.” I asked Robby to stop and he said he would. But he didn’t.”
As far as Densmore was concerned, the Doors died in a bathtub in Paris in 1971. It was crucial to honor Morrison’s absence. “I was not trying to stop them from playing,” Densmore said. “They were great. Anyone can play Doors songs, unless it’s for an ad for some product. I just wanted them to be clear [that it wasn’t the Doors].”
Densmore and the Morrison estate, which includes Morrison’s parents and his widow, sued Krieger and Manzarek to prevent them from using the name or taking the Cadillac deal. Krieger and Manzarek counter-sued, claiming they were being hamstrung by the estate and prevented from making a living as musicians.
Based on courtroom transcripts, Densmore works up a cautionary tale of the ugly collision of art and money. Densmore writes that the opposing legal team attacked his character and labeled him un-American and a communist for not taking the Cadillac deal.
“They tried to convince the jury I was an eco-terrorist because I am involved with a handful of peaceful, credible environmental organizations,” said Densmore, who was once arrested with Bonnie Raitt for protesting the cutting down of old-growth trees. “I couldn’t believe some of things I heard them say. I felt betrayed, hurt and very alone. . . Now, you can probably google my name and al Qaeda will come up. Great, let’s go to Abu Ghraib! It was really disturbing.”
During the trial, several musicians –including Raitt, Neil Young, Eddie Vedder, Tom Petty, Tom Waits and Randy Newman – all showed support for Densmore.
“Though it’s something I don’t like to think about, there will come a time when I will be a Dead Rock Star,” wrote Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on the book. “I can only hope that in my inevitable absence there will be someone with the integrity and principled behavior of Mr. Densmore looking after whatever legacy our group may leave behind.” Petty said the book was a must-read for any musician who feels their work is worth more than money.
In a shocking turn of events, Police drummer Stewart Copeland, who played with Krieger and Manzarek in the Doors of the 21st Century, took the stand to speak out against the misuse of the name. “Copeland told the truth,” Densmore said, “which exposed lies. Copeland challenged their use of the Doors name. He said that it wouldn’t be appropriate to call themselves the Doors. But if they didn’t, the limos and big arenas might disappear.”
In speaking with Densmore and reading his book, Manzarek comes across as an arrogant control-freak, while there is a genuine feeling of loss for Krieger as a friend. Yet, Densmore said he’s now on speaking terms with both of them. (“I just talked to Robby a few days ago,” he says cheerfully.) Yet despite years of in-fighting and ugly accusations, Densmore would still consider a Doors reunion.
“Being in a band is like polygamy, only without the sex,” Densmore said. “Things happen. But I’d get together for a one-off if there’s a good reason – but it would have to be for charity, not for money.”