Ex-Door Lighting Their Ire
Drummer John Densmore refuses to let the group's songs be used in TV ads, much to the chagrin of his former bandmates.
By Geoff Boucher
Times Staff Writer
October 5, 2005
Bob Dylan is singing "The Times They Are A-Changin' " in a television ad for healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente these days, and who could argue? With Led Zeppelin pitching Cadillacs, the Rolling Stones strutting in an Ameriquest Mortgage ad and Paul McCartney warbling for Fidelity Investments, it's clear that the old counterculture heroes of classic rock are now firmly entrenched as the house band of corporate America.
That only makes the case of John Densmore all the more intriguing.
Once, back when rock 'n' roll still seemed dangerous, Densmore was the drummer for the Doors, the band with dark hits such as "Light My Fire" and "People Are Strange." That band more or less went into the grave with lead singer Jim Morrison in 1971, but, like all top classic-rock franchises, it now has the chance to exploit a lucrative afterlife in television commercials. Offers keep coming in, such as the $15 million dangled by Cadillac last year to lease the song "Break On Through (to the Other Side)" to hawk its luxury SUVs.
To the surprise of the corporation and the chagrin of his former bandmates, Densmore vetoed the idea. He said he did the same when Apple Computer called with a $4-million offer, and every time "some deodorant company wants to use 'Light My Fire.' "
The reason? Prepare to get a lump in your throat — or to roll your eyes.
"People lost their virginity to this music, got high for the first time to this music," Densmore said. "I've had people say kids died in Vietnam listening to this music, other people say they know someone who didn't commit suicide because of this music…. On stage, when we played these songs, they felt mysterious and magic. That's not for rent."
That not only sets the Doors apart from the long, long list of classic rock acts that have had their songs licensed for major U.S. commercial campaigns, it also has added considerably to Densmore's estrangement from former bandmates Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger, a trio that last set eyes on one another in the Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse last year.
"Everyone wanted him to do it," said John Branca, an attorney who worked on the Cadillac proposal. "I told him that, really, people don't frown on this anymore. It's considered a branding exercise for the music. He told me he just couldn't sell a song to a company that was polluting the world.
"I shook my head," Branca said, "but, hey, you have to respect that. How many of your principles would you reconsider when people start talking millions of dollars?"
Densmore relented once. Back in the 1970s, he agreed to let "Riders on the Storm" be used to sell Pirelli Tires in a TV spot in England. When he saw it he was sick. "I gave every cent to charity. Jim's ghost was in my ear, and I felt terrible. If I needed proof that it was the wrong thing to do, I got it."
Since then, the animus between the drummer and Manzarek and Krieger has intensified, including a bitter dispute over naming rights.
In August, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Gregory W. Alarcon ruled that Manzarek and Krieger could no longer tour together as the "Doors of the 21st Century." The pair, with former Cult singer Ian Astbury handling Morrison's vocal duties, were in Canada at the time and grudgingly switched their marquee to the acronym "D21C."
Densmore had filed the suit in 2003 to block the neo-Doors from using any permutation of the old band's name. In this battle, he was joined by the Morrison estate, which is the late singer's parents and the parents of his late girlfriend, Pamela Courson.
An audit is underway to determine how much money Krieger and Manzarek must turn over from their two years of touring with their old band name. The touring grossed $8 million, court documents show.
Manzarek said the view that Densmore was selflessly protecting the Doors legacy was laughable.
"John is going to get about a million dollars for doing nothing," Manzarek said. "He gets an equal share as us, and we were out there working. A free million bucks. That's a gig I'd like."
Manzarek, whose keyboards strongly contribute to the singular sound of the Doors, said his old friend should join the neo-Doors. "He should come and play drums with us," Manzarek said, "not fight us at every turn."
Even if Densmore is loath to tour and disdainful of Astbury playing the late Morrison ("Nobody can fill those leather pants"), Manzarek said his old mate should allow Doors hits to be used in tasteful commercials that could add flicker to the band's pop-culture memory. He pointed out that Zeppelin and U2 recently relented in their long holdouts against ad licensing and that there was hardly a stigma these days to the practice.
"We're all getting older," said Manzarek, the band's eldest member, now 66. "We should, the three of us, be playing these songs because, hey, the end is always near. Morrison was a poet, and above all, a poet wants his words heard."
Perhaps more years of life would have changed his view, but in 1969 it was quite clear that the poet of the Doors did not want to be a pitchman.
The Doors had formed in 1965. As the decade was ending, they were hailed in some quarters as the "Rolling Stones of America." An advertising firm came to the band with an offer: $50,000 to allow their biggest hit, "Light My Fire," to be used in a commercial for the Buick Opel.
Morrison was in Europe and his bandmates voted in his absence; Densmore, Krieger and Manzarek agreed to the deal. Morrison returned and was furious, vowing to sledgehammer a Buick on stage at every concert if the commercial went forward. It did not.
In November 1970, the lesson learned from the Buick fiasco was put in writing. The Doors members agreed that any licensing agreement would require a unanimous vote. Even before that, the band had agreed that the members would share equally in all music publishing rights, an arrangement that set them apart from most bands.
Those agreements also set the stage for Densmore to be a human handbrake that again and again stops the Doors profit machine from speeding down new avenues.
"There's a lot of pressure, from everyone," Densmore said recently with a weary sigh. "Pressure from the guys, the manager, the [Morrison] estate."
He was sitting in the back-house office of his Santa Monica home. The walls are covered with photos and newspaper clippings, among them a framed Morrison poem about the vantage point of man beyond the grave. Among the lines:
No more money
no more fancy dress
This other kingdom seems by far the best….
Morrison is dead but hardly forgotten. Just the opposite, his popularity has surged in the years since his heart gave out.
There was the one-two punch of the 1979 release of the film "Apocalypse Now," with its signature moments using the band's music, and the 1980 publication of the band tell-all book "No One Here Gets Out Alive" by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman. In 1991, another revival was stirred by Oliver Stone's movie "The Doors." Since that film's release, 14 million Doors albums have been sold in the United States alone.
Those album sales combine with the money generated by radio airplay, merchandising and the other royalty streams to put steady deposits into the bank accounts of the surviving members and the Morrison estate.
Densmore said that the money coming in should relieve pressure on the band to drift into areas that would trample the legacy. "When Ray calls, I always ask him, 'What is it you want to buy?' "
Still, there are no bigger paydays these days available for classic-rock outfits than the low-sweat licensing deals for television commercials and the warm embrace of the concert road tour. That was underscored last year when Manzarek and Krieger alleged that Densmore had committed a "breach of fiduciary duty" to the Doors partnership. Basically, the argument was that the money now was so good that Densmore couldn't reasonably say no.
When Cadillac offered $15 million last year, the money made Densmore dizzy ("More money than any of us have made on anything we've ever done," he said), but he was resolute. "Robbie was on the fence; Ray wanted to do it," Densmore said. "All of it made me think about this book I want to write. It's about greed."
Manzarek, on the other hand, describes the car commercial in tie-dyed hues. "Cadillac said we could all fly out to Detroit and give input as they start putting together their hybrid models and the way they would be presented to the public…. Artists and corporations working together, that's the 21st century. That's the true Age of Aquarius. But John's ego wouldn't let him see it was a good thing to do."
In the end, Cadillac held on to the motto "Break Through" but used a different dark anthem — the commercial, now in heavy rotation, features Zeppelin's frenetic 1972 single "Rock and Roll." Cadillac's eight-figure offer was enough to coax the band to plunge into the advertising profit stream.
When Nike used the Beatles' recording of "Revolution" for a sneaker ad two decades ago, there was widespread criticism. The hubbub quieted when the commercial was retired after one year. Nowadays, the debate is largely muted. The new take? Holding out is bad for music.
"Using your music in the modern landscape is not selling out; if it's done right, it's giving it new life," said Amy Kavanaugh, an executive vice president at Edelman, the Los Angeles public relations and marketing firm that has worked with Starbucks on the coffee merchant's extensive branding efforts with music.
Even among the classic-rock purist audience, there is a shift in expectation. Pete Howard, editor in chief of Ice magazine, a music publication tailored to audiophiles and intense rock music collectors, not only thinks that the Doors should take money for the songs of the past, he believes that they are risking their future if they don't.
"They get a gold star for integrity, but they are missing a train that is leaving the station," Howard said. "Advertising is no longer a dirty word to the Woodstock generation, and in fact, in this landscape, the band will find that if it relies on people who hear the music in films, on radio in prerecorded formats, that with each decade their niche among music fans will narrow. It's advertising — with its broad audience and ubiquity — that gets new ears."
If Densmore is a dinosaur, he is not the last surviving one. Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles continue to say no to commercials. So do Neil Young and Carlos Santana. But all of them still pull in concert revenues that make that choice far easier. Densmore himself points out that if he were poor he might make a different choice.
But his stance against commercialization has won a chorus of support from the true believers of rock. In the Nation, Tom Waits wrote a letter in praise of Densmore: Corporations "suck the life and meaning from the songs and impregnate them with promises of a better life with their product. Eventually, artists will be going onstage like race-car drivers covered in hundreds of logos."
Waits has since learned that holding out isn't necessarily effective: He is suing General Motors for using what he describes as a Waits sound-alike in its European car commercials. Which make and model is involved? The Buick Opel, the same car that led Morrison to slam shut the band's corporate flirtations.
"Is it that they just didn't learn or they just don't care? I don't know," Densmore said, shaking his head. "Maybe I'm the one who is just out of touch with the times."
Now he waits to see if his old bandmates will appeal the court decision banning the use of the Doors name for their concert tours. For the time being, Manzarek has said that the band will continue on with the name Riders on the Storm. Densmore said he would not dispute them on that. Manzarek said the fans and reviews have been great, and Astbury has the same "dark, shamanistic, powerful, Celtic-Christian, mystical" vibe as his old friend Morrison. Manzarek said the group will soon record a new studio album.
"It doesn't matter what we call it, it's still Robbie and I together playing 'Light My Fire' and 'Love Me Two Times.' John should come and play and let us celebrate and keep this music alive," Manzarek said. "Look, what do I say to the cynics? I would like to play with Jim Morrison again. But you know what? I can't call him. I'm sorry. He's dead. He's busy. He's in eternity."
Densmore said he tires of the fighting.
So what about that invitation from Manzarek?
"I would love to play with the Doors and play those songs again. I would. And I will play again as the Doors. Just as soon as Jim shows up."