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The Doors' John Densmore on a Manzarek benefit show and "The Doors Unhinged"

John Densmore with a copy of his book
Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

The Doors are synonymous with a specific sound and style, that je ne sais quoi. I mean, if someone says something reminds them of The Doors, you immediately know what they are talking about. Whether it’s the hustle and flow of the fusion instrumentals, the wildly poetic subject matter, or Jim Morrison’s haunting charisma and velvety vocals that so appropriately jump to urgent wails—we all know what it means to channel The Doors.

And even though the active career of the L.A. rock quartet -- comprised of vocalist Jim Morrison, guitarist Robby Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and drummer John Densmore – technically died in a bathtub in 1971, the music still lives on today.

As one of the world’s best-selling bands, not much time goes by without hearing songs like “Light My Fire” or “Break On Through”; and that’s without any selling out to ads. Morrison’s rock star style is still seen in the fashion sense of youth today, and thousands still flock to his grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in France, tossing flowers or toasting to the rock and roll gods. Side note: I am actually guilty of both; and my best friend was politely asked to leave his grave a few weeks ago when she overstayed her wine picnic welcome.

While the band may represent the excessive nature and artistry of the ’60s, it’s also upholds that notion of respect for what you’ve created; of not giving up your art to the one thing it’s meant to stand against.

Well, at least drummer Densmore (the oldest surviving member of the band) still feels that way; a belief that caused a difficult lawsuit with his fellow band members, spurring his 2013 self-published book “The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial.”

In 2003, Densmore and Morrison’s family made a case that Manzarek and Krieger shouldn’t use the Doors’ name for their touring band “The Doors of the 21st Century.” The group adopted the name D21C after the court sided with Densmore in 2005, and went on to play under an array of other names until Manzarek passed away from bile duct cancer in 2013. Manzarek and Krieger reacted with a $40 million countersuit against Densmore for his refusal to allow Cadillac use of the song “Light My Fire” in a 2002 commercial; all of the members would’ve split a cool $15 million. But Densmore emerged as the victor in that suit, too.

“Jim firmly objected to the idea of using Doors’ songs for commercials,” says Densmore during our interview, referring to when Buick sought to use their hit “Light My Fire” in a commercial in 1968. “That’s what Jim didn’t want when he was alive, and that’s all I’ve got to go on.”

After all the legalities, Densmore says he finally took a step back and couldn't help but wonder why the members had all put themselves through the legal ordeal: How did they get there? That concept is the core of “The Doors Unhinged,” which guides the reader through the true story of both court battles that ran in the L.A. Superior Court in 2004.

Densmore has been self-promoting his book in small bookstores and record stores, and is appearing at Zia Records on Thunderbird this Sunday, August 17, at 2 pm. Head to the store location, grab a copy of his book, and get a signed edition and a photo. This is the musician’s third time in Arizona for his tour.

“Maybe I should move to Phoenix like Alice [Cooper]?” Densmore suggests. “Maybe I didn’t realize my book was written for Republicans. Hey-oh!”

And it’s that mix of quirky humor and intellect that the reader can expect from the book: a mixture of Densmore’s personal thoughts and comic bits, along with testimonies and research from the court transcripts.

“I skimmed—skimmed, Lauren—20,000 pages of transcripts,” explains Densmore. “And I culled it down to about 500, and then I thought, ‘well now I don’t want to make this a dry courtroom thing,’ so I put in humor and my inner thoughts to spice it up. I drift off and explore whatever, like sitting in with Eddie Vedder or Carlos Santana, or philosophizing about the George Bush administration.”

Densmore says that the feedback has mostly been positive on the book that’s been out for more than a year.

“I loved it when I was on Tavis Smiley [talk show] and he said that I was either really honoring my ancestor, or else I was just crazy not to accept all that dough,” he jokes.

However, the subject matter of the book dives pretty deep into the human psyche, and I can’t help but contemplate a quote from Densmore in a 2002 piece in The Nation:

People lost their virginity to this music, got high for the first time to this music. 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.”

The other side of “The Doors Unhinged” is about exposing how our “greed genes” cause us to desire more and more wealth, compromising our values, original visions, friendships, and the well-being of society in order to get it.

“Lauren, because Jim couldn’t play an instrument, he was insecure. And he said, let’s split all the credit and the money. So I know to the penny what everyone gets in the Doors,” says Densmore firmly. “The late great Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger both have had a nice house and several groovy cars just like me! So, you know, if they were starving maybe I’d be a little more open to that… but they are doing fine, and uh, so, it’s easier to honor Jim’s wishes that way. “

It seems that Krieger and Manzarek eventually agreed on some level, because the members reconciled long before “The Doors Unhinged” was published. In fact, Densmore sent both Manzarek and Krieger the last chapter of the book before publishing so they could see where he states how much he loves them, and that they are his musical brothers.

They’ve even collaborated together in some unexpected places. Krieger, Manzarek and Densmore appear alongside each other in a 2012 documentary called RE: GENERATION, which features Densmore working on the new track “Breakin’ a Sweat’ with Skrillex. They’re also heard on a 2013 hip-hop remake of “Strange Days” for hip-hop/rock artist – and Doors’ fanatic -- Tech N9ne.

“With Skrillex, you know, at first I was…as Ringo Starr said when drum machines were invented, excuse my French Lauren, I’m a fucking drum machine,” states Densmore. “I went into the studio to see Sonny, or Skrillex, and well, he was a musician I found out. Rather than just a technician, you know what I mean? He wanted live music on top of electronics, and I liked the idea.”

When asked if there’s anyone he wishes to collaborate with, Densmore takes a long pause. After accusing me of putting him on the spot (“There’s a few musicians I have not played with. Who are they, John?”), he admits that while he certainly admires U2, and that he would do anything with producer Rick Rubin, who spans hip hop to Johnny Cash.

Manzarek’s passing from bile duct cancer in 2013 also brought the former bandmates together, and planted the seed for a benefit/tribute concert in honor of Manzarek.

“There are a few musicians on that list that I’d be ecstatic to play with, but if I say their names and they read that it would pressure them…and I want them to say yes or no to me, not read it in the paper,” thoughtfully says Densmore. “The difficulty is getting all these famous musicians together for one night in the same city. Everyone has horrendous schedules.”

For now Densmore sees the concert happening in early 2015, but there’s hardly any details in place, but the one thing you can count on is that Densmore’s favorite song to play live, “Light My Fire,” will be on the set list.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be a giant concert, or at the Whiskey a Go Go, where we were the house band; a place we have such a heart-felt feeling towards,” he says. “We could maybe film it there for others to watch.”

Densmore’s influence, writing style, and conversational notions show he’s not one to weave a complicated path to personal happiness. He’s happy with his choice of self-publishing “The Doors Unhinged,” due to the fact that the major publishing company wanted to change everything about it. And although marketing the book is a full-time job, he loves meeting all the fans.

“I experience three generations of fans, even in one family sometimes. Some daughter is with her dad, who maybe he turned her on to The Doors. Then the daughter is holding a baby or a little toddler who will listen to us later. It’s the sweetest thing. There’s a line I have: ‘One of Jim’s jobs was to help each generation cut its umbilical cord.’”

That statement just fits perfectly with The Doors’ mentality—an equal balance of mental support and mania, a clarity you can find if you fight through the hazy embellishments of mind-altering substances, psychedelics and seduction to get there.

It calls to Densmore’s first book, the 1990 New York Times bestseller “Riders on the Storm,” where he dives deep into the history of the band. I bring up how Densmore states in the book that when Jim sang “I am the Lizard King/I can do anything” for the first time, he knew Morrison had lost his “center.” What were some of his favorite memories with the iconic artist?

“Many times on stage…sometimes he would… I had these flowers. You know; it’s the sixties, I was a flower child and had flowers tied to my cymbals,” says Densmore. “Once or twice, while we’re soloing, he would come right up, unwind the flowers from the cymbals stand, and stick them under my drum. I had to keep playing though, and my sticks would be smashing the flowers. So, hmmm… is this a metaphoric statement from the Lizard King about ‘flower power’?”

Then Densmore exhales slowly thinks for a moment.

“Well, and this is random eclectic memory, but it embodies Jim perfectly. So I’m driving Jim to breakfast, and he takes out a quarter and says, ‘do you think we’re gonna make it?’ and I said ‘definitely.’ And he said, ‘you wanna bet?’ and I said ‘Sure.’ And then he pops the quarter in his mouth and swallows it. I swear to God. I mean, this guy was out there, okay?”

Nowadays you see artists who experience the same mental breakdowns, and come back stronger and healthier than ever; take Eminem for example. It’s interesting to imagine how Jim would’ve created music within the past few decades, or if the band would’ve stuck together.

“People have asked me for a long time if I think Jim was around today, would he have gotten it together. And you know -- artists do come back stronger sometimes. Like Eric Clapton or Eminem, who is kind of a very creative and kind of angry guy like Jim,” says Densmore. “They’ve all been in recovery or whatever, and it’s cool now to recover. It wasn’t cool then, and we didn’t know that Jim had a disease called alcoholism. And I used to say he was a kamikaze drunk, and nothing could stop him. But ah—I take it back. I change my mind now. It’s a different time.

“You know, Ray and Jim went to film school, so we were interested in films; especially visual with music and how they went together. Maybe we would’ve been doing something like that. Jim could be all cleaned up and we could be making art.”