IT’S been three weeks since Ray Manzarek passed away on May 20. As co-founder and keyboardist of the Doors, he played a huge role in giving the band a distinct sound with remarkable riffs that adorned songs like ‘Light My Fire’, ‘Riders On The Storm’, ‘When The Music’s Over’, ‘Break On Through (To The Other Side)’, ‘Strange Days’ and ‘People Are Strange’, to name just a few.
On hearing of his death, my first impulse as a music blogger was to write an obituary highlighting his immense contribution and also mentioning how he was also overshadowed by the sheer showmanship and even eccentricities of the band’s frontman, the late Jim Morrison. But naturally, tributes were being paid everywhere, saying more or less the same things, and much as I tried, I couldn’t say anything that somebody else hadn’t said.
Around the same time, I began reading the book ‘The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes On Trial’, written by the band’s drummer John Densmore. It had a very interesting yet controversial subject — the bitter courtroom battles between Densmore and Morrison’s family in one camp, and Manzarek and the band’s guitarist Robby Krieger in the other. So this blog combines a Manzarek tribute with a review of that book, adding a few pertinent questions along the way.
In ‘The Doors Unhinged’, Densmore recounts his experience of suing Manzarek and Krieger for using the Doors name and logo without permission, even calling themselves ‘The Doors of the 21st Century’, using the band’s name in large font and the rest in small letters. The drummer also talks about how his former band-mates counter-sued him for a whopping 40 million dollars for vetoing a Cadillac ad that wanted to use ‘Break on Through’ as a slogan.
This is Densmore’s second book about his association with the band. His earlier ‘Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors’ was a bestseller. He’s even penned articles for various newspapers, and his passion for writing may have prompted him to begin this no-holds-barred account.
To recall from the past, the Doors were one of the world’s most popular rock bands in the late 60s and early 70s, till Morrison was found dead in a bathtub in Paris on July 3, 1971. Though they released only six studio albums till that fateful day, they created a huge impact on rock audiences worldwide with songs like ‘Light My Fire’, ‘LA Woman’, ‘Roadhouse Blues’, ‘Hello I Love You’, ‘Love Me Two Times’ and ‘The End’. Morrison was considered the ultimate rock icon of that era, his remarkable voice and his Greek God looks making up for all the instances of abusiveness, on-stage obscenity and self-destructive alcoholism that went against him.
When Morrison was alive, the Doors had gained an image of a band that didn’t sell out. The frontman laid down the condition that all four members were equal, and were also entitled to equal remuneration and credit, irrespective of their actual contribution in each song. He was also strictly against commercialisation of their songs, a famous instance being when he was upset with the others for agreeing to sell ‘Light My Fire’ for a Buick ad.
After his death, the other three members tried releasing a couple of albums (‘Other Voices’ and ‘Full Circle’), and put out a collection of Morrison’s recorded poetry set to their music (in ‘An American Prayer’). But they soon ended up doing their own things, sometimes with the help of each other.
The Morrison legend, of course, continued growing, and songs done by the original line-up kept increasing in popularity. Their tunes were in demand in Hollywood too, with Francis Ford Coppola using ‘The End’ at the beginning of ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Oliver Stone using their songs in his movie ‘The Doors’, based on the band. The soundtrack of ‘Forrest Gump’ also used ‘Break on Through’ in the soundtrack and some other Doors songs like ‘Hello I Love You’, ‘Soul Kitchen’ and ‘People Are Strange’ in the movie.
Problems started cropping up between Densmore and the others, and matters came to a head when Manzarek and Kreiger began performing as The Doors of the 21st Century, roping in the Cult’s Ian Astbury as vocalist and Stewart Copeland of the Police on drums. Things went to court, and it was full-on war between both parties.
Eventually, Densmore won the case in 2005, with the court finding Manzarek and Krieger “liable for false advertising,” and enjoining them from “performing, touring, promoting their band as The Doors, The Doors of the 21st Century, or using any other name that includes the words The Doors, without the written consent of all the partners of the old Doors partnership.” The court also enjoined Manzarek and Krieger from “using the name, likeness, voice or image of Jim Morrison to promote their bands or their concerts.”
Manzarek and Krieger continued performing together, and played Doors songs calling themselves Manzarek-Krieger. They were even meant to come to India earlier this year, but the entire festival got cancelled.
Overall, ‘The Doors Unhinged’ is a racy read, and gives a great insight into what made the band special in the early years. However, but for the times when the courtroom scenes depicting Manzarek’s and Krieger’s trials are described, this book is totally Densmore’s observation of things. Much as one agrees with and admires his stand against the corporatisation of music, it is a one-sided view where we only get to hear Densmore’s accusations of Manzarek and Krieger being greedy.
Yet, some of Densmore’s statements are remarkably pertinent and blunt. “The fact is that the Doors, the US version of the Fab Four, died in a bathtub in Paris in 1971… I don’t know whether Jim is up there resting in peace or not, but down here, we’re fighting like cats and dogs over his entrails,” he says.
‘The Doors Unhinged’ was released in April, over a month before Manzarek breathed his last. As such, one doesn’t know whether he had read some parts of the book, considering he had been ill. One doesn’t even know whether he could read the last chapter, where Densmore tries to justify through a direct letter to Manzarek and Krieger why he attempted to write it in the first place.
Here, Densmore says: “I don’t think I could handle losing you, Robby…. We were really kindled spirits, holding each other’s hands through Jim’s craziness and Ray’s arrogance. Okay, it’s hard to admit but I probably wouldn’t be able to handle losing you either, Ray, assuming of course that everyone is going to cross over before Yours Truly. The truth is that, way deep down, I have a reservoir of cherished memories of our early days together. Rapping with you, Ray, excitedly over our favourite jazz musicians… dreaming of the future, hoping this little dream of ours would actually come to fruition. It did. We had our glory days.”
In the book, Densmore makes it very clear how he admired Manzarek musically. The day the keyboardist passed away, the drummer was one of the first to issue a statement in his memory. He said: “There was no keyboard player on the planet more appropriate to support Jim Morrison’s words. Ray, I felt totally in sync with you musically. It was like we were of one mind, holding down the foundation for Robby and Jim to float on top of. I will miss my musical brother.”
That brings us to some other points. One, had Densmore been only half-way through the book when Manzarek died, would he have finished it in a similar manner or toned down some of his observations? Secondly, and more important from a fan’s point of view, where does all this leave us?
One wouldn’t know the answer to the first question. But certainly, most Doors fans would feel genuinely uncomfortable with whatever happened between the two parties. Yes, there have been squabbles in many of the great bands, right from the Beatles to Deep Purple to Guns N Roses. And there have also been cases like Queen, when two of its band members Brian May and Roger Taylor teamed up with singer Paul Rodgers many years after the demise of their frontman Freddie Mercury to form a group called ‘Queen + Paul Rodgers’. In this case, the other member John Deacon stayed away, but there was no bitterness or controversy about using the Queen name.
Whatever, all of us have loved the Doors for their music. Those glorious songs we have grown up on, and which we continue to relish today. No matter how much Densmore is justified in his stand, or for that matter whether Manzarek and Krieger really had the right to continue using the band name, it’s not fair for us fans to take sides.
Manzarek is no more. As a keyboardist, he definitely changed the game. Along with Steve Winwood of Traffic, Jon Lord of Deep Purple and Richard Wright of Pink Floyd, he was one of the main musicians from that era to give the instrument its own status in the guitar-driven world of rock. And he also produced bass riffs on his keyboard.
For the fans, the Doors shall continue to be a four-member band. Jim Morrison on vocals, Ray Manzarek on keyboards, Robby Krieger on guitar and John Densmore on drums. Let the bygones be bygones. Their music will never get over. Don’t turn out the lights.
‘The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial’ has been printed by Percussive Press. Copyright, 2013, John Densmore
(June 22: To keep updated of the latest developments, John Densmore has said in an interview to Rolling Stone magazine that he plans to get together with Robby Krieger to do a tribute to Ray Manzarek, and that he had been in touch with Manzarek after he heard of his illness. Hopefully, all the bitterness of the past decade has been forgotten)