It was 1968. The Doors were rehearsing. During a break, an agitated Jim Morrison confronted keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore, launching into a profanity-laced tirade over a betrayal of the band's ethos. The others had contractually agreed to allow Buick to use "Light My Fire" for commercial advertising without the singer/poet's approval.
"This was a guy who was incapable of compromise and believed so much in all our songs that he said he would smash a Buick on television with a sledgehammer if we okayed 'Come On, Buick, Light My Fire,'" Densmore says.
Thirty-five years after the ordeal, with Morrison long gone, the drummer found himself at odds with his band mates over the use of their name. Manzarek and Krieger had refashioned themselves as a touring act called the Doors of the 21st Century, with Ian Astbury of the Cult handling vocal duties. The new band advertised their July 25, 2003, show at the Pacific Amphitheater in Costa Mesa using the famous Doors logo with a background image of the 1967 Strange Days album cover; the words "21st Century" appeared in barely discernible lettering.
Densmore filed a lawsuit in 2003 for breach of contract and trademark infringement. The ensuing legal drama fills the pages of Densmore's new book, The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison's Legacy Goes on Trial. It threads through the arguments of the court case while expanding on the author's own social philosophy, particularly on the question of selling songs for commercial advertising. "What do you think about 'Break On Through' to a new deodorant or 'Love Me Two Times' because I just took Viagra?" he asks.
Manzarek and Krieger responded to Densmore with a countersuit seeking $40 million in damages. Their lawyers took heavy-handed attempts at undermining Densmore's credibility, at one point even accusing the drummer of funding al-Qaeda.
"Many times I thought, 'What the hell am I doing? This integrity is making me a real lonely guy,'" he says. "'Is it worth it?'"
But Morrison's legacy was on his side. Back before fame shone upon the Doors, the singer suggested collectively sharing all the songwriting credits and giving each member veto power. This idealism wasn't solely part of the band's lore, but also sealed in the legal documents of the Doors Music Co., amended at the behest of Morrison himself before departing to Paris and beyond in 1971. "They didn't have a case," Densmore reflects. "We had a contract saying we all own the name."
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More than two years after the initial filing, the judge agreed, finding Manzarek and Krieger liable for false advertising and ordering them to stop performing under any name utilizing "The Doors" without everyone's written consent. Sadly, Manzarek's death this week at the age of 74 after a long battle with cancer dashes any chances of an onstage reunion.
After learning of Manzarek's passing in Germany, the drummer released a statement. "It was like we were of one mind, holding down the foundation for Robby and Jim to float on top of," Densmore says. "I will miss my musical brother."
Even though the process of mending ties with his band mates had only begun, it does offer some consolation as Densmore tries to look toward the future. "In the last section, I got a little emotional writing how, of course, I love Ray and Robby because of what we created together," he says. John Densmore signs copies of The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison's Legacy Goes on Trial at Fingerprints, 420 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 433-4996; www.fingerprintsmusic.com. June 1 2 p.m. RSVP by pre-purchasing the book from Fingerprints. All ages.