When Jim Morrison got back from London after a European tour in October 1968, he learned that the rest of The Doors had agreed, in his absence, to a $75,000 offer to use “Light My Fire” for a Buick Opel television commercial in which the song’s lyrics would be altered to “Come on, Buick, light my fire”. He immediately detested the offer, called Buick, and told them he would smash the Opel with a sledgehammer on TV if they aired the commercial. Both Buick and the other band members knew Jim meant it and came to their senses. When The Doors formed, the band agreed to split its royalties equally, as well as creative control and decision making.
Almost 40 years after the Buick incident, and with Jim Morrison deceased, the three remaining members are faced, once again, with another outlandish offer for the song. This time it is for Cadillac and their Escalade model, while the offer stands at a tempting $15,000,000. Appalled and outraged, drummer John Densmore refuses, while Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger wish to accept the offer. Densmore was thus forced to go to trial to protect the song from becoming a “commodity,” struggling to sustain its artistic integrity and to prevent The Doors’ legacy from being torn of its hinges.
In his latest book, Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes On Trial, John Densmore delivers the account of why the legacy came down to money over artistic virtue. From Ray and Robby touring under the name The Doors, to selling a classic song to Cadillac, Densmore’s relationship with the band has become strained. I spoke with John recently regarding his new book, the trial, and of course, The Doors legacy as we know it.
Would you consider the agreement that the band shared, for equal splitting, a rare arrangement for a rock band back then?
I think it’s rare for all times. I don’t know any pop music groups it wasn’t for, from Glen Miller to now. It wasn’t really the record company, it was Jim who was insecure on how to write a song. He had all these words and even had melodies; that, he was gifted with. He didn’t know anything about chord structure.
That in mind, he said, let’s share everything. Let’s share all the money, let’s share the credit as far as everything written by The Doors. That was this great pact that we had.
And then, when the guitar player and the keyboardist thought they might tour without him, let alone me, and call it The Doors, the estate and I had this struggle to get The Doors back on their hinges.
In ’68 when Buick approached the band, you guys agreed to the offer initially, in Jim’s absence.
Well, we were young and tempted by the money, which today would be millions of dollars, and Jim came back in town and said, ‘Oh great, we can do an ad campaign where I sledge hammer a Buick on stage.’ Oh?
Would any of this be happening if he were alive today?
Well, all I can do is base it on how he acted when he was alive.
I would assume he would smash an Escalade with a sledgehammer, too. I mean, a lot of people say, ‘He’s dead, how do you know?’ We can base our thoughts on the deceased by how they were living.
Does this pertain to any use of the song, whether it’s the original versions or covers of it?
Anybody can cover a Doors song. It’s just getting into the area of advertisement whereas Tom Waits said, ‘You change your lyrics to a jingle and the audience is supposedly never going to be happy unless they buy the product as well as enjoy your lyrics.’ That’s where I draw the line.
The economy is tough and the music business is tougher than ever—and I write this in the book—I wouldn’t begrudge a new band doing it. I get that.
In our case, it was different. If a new band does do that, I think they should revisit the idea to whether or not they want to morph their lyrics.
What was your initial involvement in the Jim Morrison Estate? Against Ray and Robby touring as The Doors?
Yes. I was involved in the lawsuit for a few months.
I was lobbying the [Jim Morrison Estate], sending them posters, saying ‘The Doors’ were playing and said ‘HEY, look at this! Your deceased son is performing! What do you think?’
Oh, they were outraged.
So wait. Now Ray and Robby are suing you for $40 million? I’m confused.
They counter-sued. We had contracts saying we all owned the name together. So, when you don’t have a case you try to scare the other person out. I was counter-sued for more money than all of us ever made collectively together.
Myself included. Wow.
Yeah. They accused me of being a commie, anarchistic radical, uh…
(laughs). Yes. It’s funny now, Craig, but back then … not funny.
Their lawyer sounds like a bully. That’s a pretty heavy claim, especially in a courtroom.
Yeah, at the time Rumsfeld was wire-tapping, getting public record, and maybe googling Al-Qaida and get me. Oh Boy! I mean, that’s paranoid.
It was very disturbing. It’s over. We’re all okay. A strange relationship is beginning to heal.
Why is it important to protect the artistic integrity of The Doors?
I quoted Robby in this piece I wrote for The Nation that got syndicated in Rolling Stone and the London Guardian, saying, ‘In the short run we might lose some dough, but in the long run our songs will mature and maybe be worth more dough.’
This is after he heard that someone decided not to commit suicide because of hearing one of our songs. That’s the point. It was a soundtrack for people’s lives. To me, that’s kind of a precious relationship, and I don’t want to distort that.
It does cheapens the art form to exploit it out of it’s original context.
Right. Thanks for calling it an art form. Again, I’m not blind to the fact that it’s tougher than ever and that some band may want to jump-start their career like that.
Well, never mind “Light My Fire,” I’d malfunction if I heard, say, “The End ” on a commercial for a crematorium.
Whooaa. Man, that’s provocative. But yeah, the craft of anonymity would have been gone and changed to majority rules. It gets technical. When someone dies in a partnership they obviously don’t vote.
Jim’s father, George, who passed away five years ago, was involved in the trial which I found interesting. He could have easily accepted millions of dollars but instead decided to protect his son’s legacy and image. Based on what most know of his relationship with his parents, it must have been a great experience.
I had never met him before the trial.
What a blessing to be entered into this difficult, crazy thing and then I meet Jim’s dad. You know, he was in Vietnam fighting the war, and we were writing songs against it, and here he is standing up, at 86, for his son’s legacy. I mean, this was a healing moment for him.
Many other artists came out to support you on this trial, Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder, Keith Richards.
I was very surprised by Tom Waits’ letter. I knew that Neil Young, sort of a long time advocate of not selling songs to commercials, would be interested. In fact, he wrote a song called, “This Note’s For You“, I wrote him a letter and asked him to testify and he said, ‘For sure’. I have an interview with Pete Townshend from Rolling Stone where they ask him about the song “Bargain,” which is about spiritual enlightenment, and now it’s selling [Nissan] cars.
It’s an epidemic in rock and roll more than ever it seems. Classic or current, I still find it awkward hearing my favorite bands endorsing cars I’ll never drive.
I quote this book called The Gift, Lewis Hyde, and in it he proposes that, ‘And between the artist and the receiver, a gift is transferred’.
Even if you pay a price to go to the opera or a concert or whatever, there is something special going between the two. If you turn the entire art into a commodity, you lose the gift.
I like that. It’s in line with what I wrote my book Unhinged about.
Yeah. How do you get it out to the rest of the world without fucking it up.
You’ll be at Porter Square Books in Cambridge this week. Of all places, what brings you there?
Well, I think that bookstore is my sister’s favorite bookstore. (Laughs). She lives in Cambridge, so why not?
John Densmore reads from his latest book Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes On Trial this Sunday, April 21, at 4 p.m. at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Cambridge, MA.