In John Densmore's new book The Doors: Unhinged, the drummer of the legendary rock band writes about music, commerce and the very tricky task of maintaining personal integrity in the face of mountains of corporate cash. It's situation he experienced firsthand in 1968, when Buick offered The Doors $75,000 for the use of their 1967 hit "Light My Fire." Although it seemed an offer they couldn't refuse, lead singer Jim Morrison had a very different opinion.
"Jim went ballistic," says Densmore. "The song was mainly penned by [Doors guitarist] Robby Krieger, but Jim went nuts over the thought of us selling the song for advertising. He cared about the whole catalog and what we represented. He said he would smash a Buick on television with a sledgehammer. That was a good, strong no, and I never forgot that."
Morrison's opposition nixed the deal due to the unique structure of the band. The four members of The Doors — Densmore, Morrison, Krieger and Ray Manzarek — were equal partners in all regards: records, publishing and performing. Every dime was shared equally, and all four members had veto power over business decisions. "It made us all give 200 percent," Densmore says.
After Morrison's death in July 1971, the remaining Doors discovered the equal partnership extended beyond financial matters. "We had a very lucrative deal for five albums after Jim died," Densmore says. "We struggled through two. Then we threw in the towel and passed on a whole bunch of opportunities because without Jim, what were we?"
In the intervening years, the surviving members of The Doors reunited for special projects and performances, but the band's legacy remained largely unsoiled by cash-grab "reunion" tours or the licensing of their music for advertising. It was an ideal on which Densmore stood firm, and that often strained his relationship with the other Doors. In 2003, Densmore vetoed a $15 million offer from Morrison's old nemesis, General Motors, for a Cadillac ad campaign. It caused a rift between the former bandmates that widened when Krieger and Manzarek formed a new band that same year: "The Doors of the 21st Century."
"They had 'The Doors' in very large print and '21st Century' in really small print," Densmore says. "So it was like The Doors were back, and they weren't." The conflict over fair usage of The Doors' name provoked almost six years of legal wrangling, with Krieger and Manzarek on one side and Densmore and Morrison's estate on the other.
"The Doors: Unhinged is about my struggle to keep The Doors pure," Densmore says. "The Doors without Jim is ludicrous. Since it was Jim's idea to split everything, we all have nice houses and a couple of groovy cars. It's not like we've struggled to pay the rent. When I initiated the lawsuit, some hardcore fans thought I was ruining the band they loved. But if you read the book, hopefully you'll get the impression I was trying to preserve the band's legacy."
The court eventually ruled in favor of Densmore and Morrison's estate, preserving the equal shares and veto power of the band's original agreement and setting guidelines for the usage of the band's name. Although the legalities may have preserved The Doors' artistic legacy, it exacted a cost on personal relationships.
"It was strained," Densmore says. "When I finished writing the book, I sent them the last chapter with a note saying, 'This book is going to be a hard pill to swallow, but I want to make sure you get to this last chapter because I talk about how much I love you guys.' Then when I heard Ray was getting really sick, I called him. Thank God we had a closing conversation. I told him I was thinking of him and he thanked me."
Manzarek died in May from bile duct cancer. Densmore and Krieger are currently planning a tribute concert to benefit cancer research — proof that the spirit of camaraderie that brought the group together more than 40 years ago could not be extinguished by writs and injunctions.
"We were musical brothers," Densmore says. "How could we not be with having created something in a garage that got so much bigger than all of us?"