Unhinged: Doors Drummer John Densmore Puts Bandmates On Trial To Preserve Jim Morrison’s Legacy

Let’s face it: A reunion of the Doors as we’d like to see it won’t be happening anytime soon. Due to the tragic death of lead shaman Jim Morrison in 1971, it would take some pretty heavy duty paranormal activity (or maybe holograms) to truly bring the four points of the diamond back together to make music once again. But the 2002 formation of keyboard player Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robbie Krieger with The Cult’s singer Ian Astbury has struck a sour note with Doors drummer John Densmore, and the both the legal and ethical repercussions are still being felt over a decade later.

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The 68-year old stick-man stopped by VH1 Classic On Tap recently to discuss his new tell-all memoir, The Doors: UnhingedThe book details the lawsuit he and Morrison’s family have launched against Manzarek and Krieger, claiming that use of the name “Doors of the 21st Century” and the Doors logo for the Astbury collaboration was a violation of their band agreement. Densmore had reportedly been asked to join his former bandmates on the road, yet he refused, feeling that it was essentially a cash grab that defrauded the public.

But that didn’t mean it wasn’t devastating to drag his musical brothers through a lawsuit. “It was retching,” he told us. “It was like, ’Am I sabotaging here?’ I was trying to uphold Jim’s integrity and he’s not here and I don’t want to forget him. And I might lose my shirt doing this!” Luckily he kept his clothes, but did face accusations of being a “communist, anarchist a al-Qaeda supporter” in court. Rock ’n’ roll, baby!  Despite the unfortunate mudslinging, in 2005 a judge ruled in Densmore’s favor, and Manzarek and Krieger changed their name first to D21C, then Riders on the Storm, and finally Manzarek-Krieger.

The question many fans have is, “Why now?” Densmore has already participated in several Doors reunions in the past, with a host of lead singers stepping in to fill Jim’s leather pants. In 2000 he and his Doors brethren delivered the album Stoned Immaculate: The Music Of The Doors, featuring vocal help from Steven Tyler, Bo Diddley, Creed’s Scott Stapp, Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland, Ian Astbury, and even the disembodied voice of Morrison himself, among others. There was also the 1999 episode of VH1’s Storytellers featuring many of the same guests. So what made this Doors of the 21st Century tour any different?

VH1 Storytellers was a great tribute, with five or six singers. So it was a tribute to Jim. But when you go on the road with one of those singers, I’ve got a problem with that.” He feels that, quite simply, The Doors without Jim Morrison at the front of the stage can not, should not, and will not be the Doors. “Stones without Mick? Nah,” he laughs. In the end, he blames it all on our innate “greed gene”.

The ridiculous amount of available money has always a complicating (some would say corrupting) factor in popular rock, and the line between artistic integrity and “a smart financial move” keeps opportunistically moving all the time. The free love/free society baby boomer generation has grown up, cut their hair, got a job and (for the most part), done quite well for themselves. Now that they’re staring down the barrel of retirement, many have some splurge-cash to spend on themselves. Suddenly baby boomers are an excellent demographic for those looking to make a buck. Nostalgia is a hot commodity, after all.

When there’s money to be made, but suits come flocking. How do artists “of a certain age” keep the sixties ideal of pure creativity unencumbered with corporate blah alive in an age where consumerism and mass media is at an all time high? Is it a naive notion even to try? Should they just take the money and run?

The youthful Doors of the 1960s made a pact never to sell out. The precedent was set in 1968, when Morrison was horrified to learn that his bandmates were considering a $75,000 offer from Buick to use “Light My Fire” in an ad to sell their new Opel line. When Jim began to talk about smashing a Buick on stage every night as part of his “new act”, the ad men quickly backed off.

It was not exactly a subtle point Jim was making, and for Densmore it still echoes loudly today. So when Cadillac offered the group $15 million (the largest ad deal in history at that time) to use their song “Break On Through (To The Other Side)”, the answer seemed obvious: No way. But Manzarek and Krieger both seemed on board for the idea. Because the band had been founded on the idealistic four-way split “All-For-One, One-For-All” principle, Densmore held out, and effectively vetoed the project.

In the end Led Zeppelin walked away with the record busting deal for their track “Rock and Roll”, but Densmore walked away with his sense of artistic integrity intact. “For us, anyone can record our songs. Anyone can cover our songs. Sometimes I’ll be in an elevator and I’ll hear a corny instrumental version of ’Light My Fire’. But it’s not selling cigarettes or deodorant, and that’s where we draw the line.”

In case the lawsuits weren’t an indication, John’s hard-line stance has obviously caused some friction with his fellow surviving Doors. He hopes that the new book could start a dialogue between the men and set them on the road towards friendship. “We’ve kind of turned the corner. We’re starting to communicate again. Healing has begun.”

Most importantly for us fans, he also weighed in on the likelihood of the three playing together again. “We might, maybe, get together. We haven’t talked about it. But we’d maybe get together, like Pink Floyd did, for a benefit. That would be a sweet thing.” But who would be on vocals? Who could possibly stand in for the mighty Lizard King? Who would be worthy of the Doors legacy? “Really the only one left I’m just dying to play with is Jimmy Fallon,” he reveals. Huh. Not exactly our first choice, but we’ll take what we can get.

For much more, check out the full interview with John Densmore, airing tonight on VH1 Classic On Tap!

[Photo: Getty Images]

VH1 Music Editor + Seltzer Enthusiast
@jordanruntagh