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John Densmore reveals all in The Doors: Unhinged'

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Book signing with The Doors' drummer at Bull Moose in Scarborough 4/20 at 2 p.m.

Somewhere today, a 15-year-old kid is buying his first Doors album and is listening to the beautifully dark and mysterious songs with the same sense of wonder felt by generations of kids before him. As he digs deeper into the band's catalog and explores their history, he will attach a personal value to the band's name. The songs will accompany him during pivotal moments in his life and memories will be made with The Doors providing the soundtrack.   

As Doors drummer John Densmore sees it, part of his job today is to make sure that the value placed upon the band's name, image and music by that 15 year old, and millions of other Doors fans like him, remains untarnished.

In Densmore's new chronicle of the lawsuit against his estranged former band-mates, 'The Doors: Unhinged (Jim Morrison's Legacy Goes on Trial),' he recounts a heated 1968 rehearsal when the band's lead singer and principal lyricist learned that their first hit, 'Light My Fire,' was about to be used for a TV ad campaign to sell cars. The other members of the band, without Morrison's consent, had agreed to license the song in exchange for a truck-load of money.  

'Morrison went ballistic,' Densmore writes. After Jim threatened to smash one of the cars to dust on live television, the ad contract disappeared along with the pure trust shared among the four members of The Doors. 'We had agreed that the songs would not be used in commercials,' Densmore told me in a phone interview. 'Early on, Jim came up with the idea of the four of us sharing everything all for one and one for all.' That included songwriting credit, concert receipts, record royalties and use of the band's name.

After Morrison's 1971 death, shared power of veto continued among the surviving members, and Densmore exercised his right several times when new offers to attach the band's songs to products floated into The Doors' office. 'The money was so big that some people thought I was nuts. Jim is gone and I'm going to hang on to what he wanted,' Densmore told me. He's quick to add that he understands why unestablished artists would consider it.  

'With today's economy - and the music industry is pretty tough - if a new band wants to use their songs to sell some product to pay the rent, I get it,' he said. 'But if you get going and get successful, you may want to reexamine that.'

In 2002, former Doors Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger launched a band called 'The Doors of the 21st Century' without Densmore and certainly without Jim Morrison. The new group featured Ian Astbury of The Cult on vocals and Stewart Copeland of The Police on drums. Concert posters featured the classic Doors logo with an appended 'of the 21st Century' in tiny 'squint and you miss it' font. 

When his former band mates refused to change the name, Densmore felt compelled to file an injunction against them an act that tied all involved in viciously tight legal knots that took more than five years to untangle. Bolstering John's efforts on this journey were a sympathetic legal team and in-court support from Jim Morrison's parents and mother-in-law.

Densmore's book recounts every shocking detail of the case that, at times, had opposing counsel trying to paint the drummer as an un-American subversive in the eyes of the jury.  'Yeah, it was heavy,' Densmore recalls.  'When you don't have a case, you character-assassinate and you try to use fear by counter-suing for more money than all of us ever made collectively ever.' 

Finally, in May 2008, after the California Supreme Court refused to hear the case, the Court of Appeals upheld the judge's original ruling, and Densmore was victorious. 'Now, The Doors are back on their hinges,' he told me. 'Jim's estate and I persevered. As for Ray and Robby, we're starting to heal. They know that the band is Jim, Ray, Robby, John. It's not Robby, Ray, Ian, Tom, Fred and Stewart, or whoever.'  

Densmore says that, if the opportunity is right, he can see a time when he rejoins Krieger and Manzarek on stage, but not as The Doors and not with what Densmore calls 'a Jimitator.' 'Can you imagine The Stones without Mick?' he asked. 'I don't think so. The Police without Sting? No.' 

In the last chapter of 'The Doors: Unhinged,' Densmore extends an olive branch of sorts to his former band mates. He told me that he emailed the segment to Ray and Robby. 'I sent them the last chapter with a note saying, I want to make sure you get to this. The first part of the book is probably going to be a hard pill to swallow but, in this last chapter, I wax on about why, of course, I love you guys.  We created something so much bigger than all of us and you're my musical brothers,' so they read that part anyway and they'll get the whole book very soon.'

John Densmore will launch a book signing tour for 'The Doors: Unhinged' on Saturday, April 20 at Bull Moose, 456 Payne Road, Scarborough.  

Q&A with John Densmore

Densmore: Before we begin, I need to address the fact that I too am a 'Maine-ard.' My dad was born in York Beach and then drove across the country with the family when he was 12. So my roots are in your state.

Dow: I didn't know that. I'm glad to hear that you have some Maine ties. Have you visited here before? 

Densmore: I have, but not enough. That will change now.

Dow: It will be great to have you in Maine for Record Store Day. I think you're really going to like the people of Bull Moose. Let's talk about your book. At what point in the legal drama surrounding your case against Ray and Robby did you decide to write this book?

Densmore: Early on, when that happened, some fans thought that I was ruining the band they loved. 'You're suing the other guys? Are you kidding?' That's when I thought, 'You know? I need to write the whole story down, so then you'll get the whole journey.' I'm trying preserve the purity and the legacy of this band, not wreck it. During the trial, at the point where I was accused (by opposing counsel) of funding Al Qaeda, I was not thinking of writing a book, I was just devastated.  

Dow: Do you think there was any permanent damage done to The Doors' legacy by the other guys going out as 'Doors of the 21st Century?'

Densmore: I don't think there is permanent damage. Ray and Robby are great musicians and I'm glad they're out there playing and I want them to be out there playing, but without Jim, you can't call it 'The Doors.' 'Founding members of The Doors,' 'Former members of The Doors' that's all fine. 

Dow: I have a lot of respect for you for the fact that you haven't allowed Doors songs to be associated with products. Many of those songs mean a lot to me, and I think a great song is often cheapened when it becomes a commercial.

Densmore: To some, I suppose it sounds strange to hear that I turned down huge amounts of money by vetoing the idea of using Doors songs for commercials. 'Break on through to a new Cadillac or a new deodorant.' I don't think so. Thanks to Jim's idea of all of us sharing everything, because he didn't really know how to play a chord on any instrument or write a song, we all have a nice house and a couple of groovy cars. We're good. If it was different, maybe I wouldn't have felt as strong. As Tom Waits said, 'Do you want to turn your lyrics into a jingle?' 

Dow: There are some bands, The Who for example, who look at it differently. How do you feel about that?  

Densmore: That's why I put the excerpt from Pete Townshend's interview in 'Rolling Stone' in my book where he says, 'Listen, you may have fallen in love with Shirley while listening to my songs. I don't give a f*** about Shirley, I'll do what I want with these songs.' I mean it's almost comical - it's true! And that's the other point. He wrote em all. He can do what he wants. It's a free country; you can make as much money as you want, whatever.  

Due to Jim's 'Come on Buick, Light My Fire'' debacle - where he was so mad, he wanted to smash a Buick on television with a sledgehammer - he's gone, I'm going to hang onto what he wanted.

Dow: One thing I've always wondered about is the shared songwriting credit agreement between the four of you 'All songs by The Doors.' That stuck for the first three albums but then it changed on 'The Soft Parade.' Was that because of Robbie's song 'Tell All The People?'  

Densmore: Whoa you know your stuff. That is correct. That's a lyric that Robbie wrote and Jim was like 'I don't want people to think that that I'm saying, 'Follow me down,' so on that particular album, we credit the individual writers of the songs. Then we went back to 'all music by The Doors.' 

Dow: I think the band's recorded legacy has been served very well. I especially like the surround sound mixes and the audiophile releases on CD and vinyl. What's left in the archive that has yet to be issued?  

Densmore: The bottom of the barrel, Mike. But I do want to give a tip of the hat to Bruce Botnick, our longtime engineer and also co-producer on 'L.A. Woman.' He's been involved with all of these reissues updating technology, digital, whatever it is. And this is the guy who recorded all of the songs originally, so he knows our music. I feel secure having him do all of this stuff. 

Dow: Of the books, films and documentaries, who has come closest to telling the real story of The Doors? 

Densmore: There are many ways to look at this diamond. Oliver Stone did quite an amazing job but that movie is not the whole story. No one's done the whole story. There's a documentary that Johnny Depp narrated that I like quite a lot, 'When You're Strange,' there's the documentary on the making of 'L.A. Woman.'  There's no one particular document that captures the whole thing. 

Dow: After your book signing tour, what's next for you, musically or otherwise?

Densmore: I'm going to fall down for a while. Man, I have to do all of these morning shows! (laughing) I'm a night person! I'm going to write some more, but I think this is going to go on for a while. I worked really hard on this book, so I'm going to go out and promote it as much as I can.  

'The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard each morning on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.3,104.7and 107.7.

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