In “The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial,” former Doors drummer John Densmore writes about his lawsuit against former Doors bandmates Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger. Densmore wants them to stop touring as The Doors of the Twenty-First Century and also prevent them from selling “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” to General Motors Co. for Cadillac commercials. Like the late legend Morrison, he thinks commodification ruins art, and by suing he acts in accordance with this belief. “The Doors Unhinged” is an excellent read for Doors fans and anyone who loves music and, like Densmore, believes that songs are a sacred gift and that to sell a song to a corporation is to compromise that sacredness.
Jim Morrison was the face, voice and lyricist of the Doors, as well as their visionary member who had the idea that the Doors would be a band of “brothers” in which all four musicians would share profits equally and where decisions had to be unanimous. If one of the four members vetoed a commercial offer, that would be enough to kill it. “Unhinged” begins with Morrison yelling at his bandmates for signing a contract that for $50,000 would have allowed Buick to use “Light My Fire” in a sports car commercial. Morrison put an end to that agreement, but thirty years later, in 2002, the issue resurfaced when Manzarek and Krieger began touring and playing Doors music and, in 2003, wanted to sign a $15 million contract with GM. Densmore vetoed the sale, and demanded that Manzarek and Krieger stop misrepresenting themselves as the Doors reincarnated.
Because Manzarek and Krieger ignored Densmore’s demands, in 2004 Densmore filed a lawsuit against them, which was supported by the Courson and Morrison estates. In response, Manzarek and Krieger countersued Densmore for $40 million in lost revenue. A win on their part would have ruined Densmore. In fact, money is never enough for Densmore’s former bandmates, and he asks Manzarek: “What do you want to buy? What do you need that you haven’t got?”
“The Doors Unhinged” is a riveting account of this three-year-long lawsuit and of his fight for Morrison and the Doors’ legacy. Because it contains Densmore’s reflections on the co-opting of 1960s and seventies countercultural music by partnering it with luxury items such as Cadillacs, along with his thoughts on what he calls “the greed gene,” it’s also a compelling personal narrative. Densmore’s telling of the court trial is engrossing and his life becomes an example of how to live with integrity. He never claims to be a hero, and yet at the end of “The Doors Unhinged” I thought of him as a hero for our times. A musician who never stops learning new approaches to composition and who, late in life, writes good books. A rich man who donates ten percent of his income to charity every year. A writer who rejects an offer for “The Doors Unhinged” from a Big Five publisher because they want him to add sad Morrison stories—he signs a contract with the independent press Akashic Books instead. A lifelong practitioner of meditation.
Even though I knew that Densmore would win his case, I read for the courtroom drama and also to learn what it costs Densmore to keep Jim Morrison and the Doors musical legacy alive. I’d say that it costs Densmore a great deal and, along with many others, I’m deeply grateful.
“The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial”
By John Densmore
Akashic Books, 360 pages