John Densmore: The Doors Unhinged
Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes On Trial
by Michael Parillo
“Money is like fertilizer,” John Densmore writes in his second book, The Doors Unhinged. “If hoarded, it stinks…but if it gets spread around like compost, new ideas are jump-started.” Densmore is talking about his belief that those in the highest tax bracket, such as ultra-successful artists like the Doors, can serve society well by giving back a little.
Such concerns—how much do we need?—are at the heart of Unhinged, which follows Densmore’s hit 1990 autobiography, Riders on the Storm. The new book focuses on the 2004 trial where Densmore sued Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger in order to stop them from billing themselves as “the Doors of the 21st Century,” using the band’s classic, world-famous logo for the Doors part and thin, hard-to-read letters for the rest. Manzarek and Krieger in turn countersued Densmore for $40 million, largely because the drummer invoked his veto power in 2000 to prevent the band’s music from being used in a Cadillac commercial for a $15 million payout.
In what plays out as something of a courtroom drama, Densmore uses trial transcripts to present detailed blow-by-blow testimony. He also offers thoughtful reflections on the past, his unbending stance being that he’s protecting the Doors’ musical legacy and honoring the vehemently anticommercial position of late singer Jim Morrison, who’s no longer around to advocate for himself. (Morrison’s parents, however, unite with Densmore in court.) John makes good use of his sense of humor, and he flashes some anger over the trial’s attempted word twisting and character assassination. It’s enough to pin Doors fans to their seats, but some businesspeople would have preferred more “drunk Jim” tales.
“I self-published the book,” Densmore tells Modern Drummer. “I had a big New York deal, but they started telling me they didn’t like the title and they wanted more about Jim. I said, ‘Uh, I did that—it was a bestseller; this is not about excess. I didn’t do heroin like Keith [Richards], I didn’t have seven wives like Gregg [Allman]…this is the opposite.’ They went, ‘Well, there’s still gotta be more stories about Jim.’ Goodbye! So I ended up getting people and doing it myself—but I had ultimate control, so that’s good.”
Although this is hardly a drum book, rhythm is never far from Densmore’s mind. John touches on his post-Doors group Tribaljazz and his latter-day hand drumming, describes how he and Manzarek’s left hand were the Doors’ rhythm section, and waxes poetic about his hero Elvin Jones. And Police drummer Stewart Copeland, who played in the Doors of the 21st Century during the group’s inception, has a brief but key role in the trial and its outcome. “There’s drummers all over the place!” Densmore says with a laugh in our interview.
In a sense, Unhinged could serve as a handbook for successful artists, as Densmore makes insightful points, like the aforementioned fertilizer metaphor, about the difficulty of properly handling the influx of lots of cash. Such windfalls come with a measure of responsibility, he suggests—or at least he says they should. Interestingly, some of the Doors’ problems pop up because of decisions the band made in the 1960s in order to ensure absolute democracy. An even four-way split of money and songwriting credits was arranged, along with contractual veto power, “if things ever get weird.” These ideas were suggested by Morrison.
“It really came from Jim not being able to play one chord on anything,” Densmore tells MD. “He’d never sung; he didn’t know how to structure a song in the least. He was a genius, but not in a schooled sense in any way. So out of that insecurity came, ‘Let’s just do it all together, guys.’ It turned out to be brilliant; it made everybody give 200 percent. It made a band of brothers.”
The heartbreaking part of The Doors Unhinged is watching the erosion of that brotherhood as it takes place in a courtroom. Despite any nasty moments, though, Densmore the author keeps things in perspective and remains ever upbeat about the rare chemistry he had with Morrison, Manzarek, and Krieger. (Manzarek passed away, at age seventy-four, just before we went to press with this issue.) Now that the trial is long over—we won’t give away the ending here—and Densmore has said his piece in Unhinged, including a final section addressed directly to Manzarek and Krieger, how is his relationship with the guys with whom he’s forever linked in the annals of music history?
“I sent Ray and Robby the last chapter, to make sure they got there, because the beginning and middle is probably a hard pill,” John says, “although I tried to just quote their testimony rather than accuse them too much. I tell them how I cannot not love you guys, for creating such a big thing, beyond all of us, from a garage in Venice. I want to relish the magic, the goodness that came down between the four of us. So that’s what I’m headed toward.
“The clouds lifted. Robby and I are going to get together pretty soon. I didn’t say this to them, but I’ve been floating it out in interviews: Hey, I’m not gonna go out on tour with them, with a ‘Jimitator,’ but how about one or two one-off benefits with some great singer, for charity? It makes sense to me.”