A peek behind the Doors

The last act of the '60s rock legend isn't one of harmony. Surviving band members, now in their 60s, are squabbling over past hurts and present profits.

Published June 7, 2005

Ray Manzarek still laughs about it now, remembering the painfully prophetic phone call from former Doors bandmate Robby Krieger after the guitarist read Manzarek's 1998 autobiography, Light My Fire.

"John's going to be mad," Manzarek recalled Krieger saying, anticipating drummer John Densmore wouldn't appreciate hearing that lead singer Jim Morrison wanted to kick Densmore out of the band long before they hit the big time.

Five years later, Densmore filed a lawsuit against Manzarek and Krieger, alleging their new band, the Doors of the 21st Century, was deceptive to fans and undermined business agreements made by the company that controls the original Doors name. A California judge has set a June 16 hearing and could deliver a ruling soon.

Now, nearly four decades after the Doors first hit it big, the surviving members are still fighting over the band's legacy, even as Manzarek, who plays keyboards, and Krieger kick off the new leg of a classic rock cavalcade called the Strange Days Tour, coming to Tampa on Wednesday.

And though the tour's name references the Doors' psychedelia-drenched 1967 sophomore album, it could just as well describe what has happened to the band since Morrison's death in 1971.

"(Densmore) sent a copy of my book to me burnt up," said Manzarek, who wrote that Morrison wanted to eject the drummer because he "couldn't stand him as a human being," even as the group was building a reputation in Los Angeles.

"(Densmore) used to go out and do a one man show . . . where he mocked Jim Morrison as a manic depressive," Manzarek said. "The audience laughed at Jim in a mean, vindictive and spiteful way. My retaliation was to say what Jim had to say about John. John's retaliation was to sue me."

Densmore's wife, actor-filmmaker Leslie Neale, said the drummer was traveling and could not be reached. His attorney, Jerome Mandel, said the lawsuit isn't about the demise of an old partnership, but safeguarding the legacy of the Doors' name.

The suit seeks to bar Manzarek and Krieger from using "The Doors" in any band name and asks that all profits from the Doors of the 21st Century be turned over to Densmore and the company that controls the original Doors name. That entity is owned by the surviving band members and the parents of Morrison and his partner, Pamela Courson.

To gauge the money at issue, court papers note that Manzarek and Krieger earned $5,000 to $10,000 per show performing as solo acts but had offers of $150,000 and $200,000 for the new band.

Morrison's and Courson's parents joined Densmore in the lawsuit, which the drummer has said was inspired by the new band's decision to bring on former Cult front man Ian Astbury as singer, along with advertising and merchandising that evokes the original group's logos and name.

"The Doors' name is not only an important legacy, it's a valuable commodity," said Mandel. "It's a matter of principle that was intensely litigated."

Manzarek is convinced that Morrison and Courson, now deceased, would never have supported the lawsuit.

"I saw (Morrison's father) for the first time in court," said the keyboardist, noting that the singer - a Melbourne native who briefly attended St. Petersburg Junior College and Florida State University before heading to California - had long been estranged from his parents. "The people who Jim had completely cut out of his life have sided with the drummer who Jim wanted to fire. It's a Florida soap opera."

Manzarek and I met in 1996, just after he released a two-disc audio CD telling stories about his history with Morrison and the Doors. I was the St. Petersburg Times' music critic then and suggested Manzarek might consider writing a book. Later, I helped him develop an outline, and he thanked me with a dedication in Light My Fire.

Given the success of Doors-related merchandise - including more than 50-million records sold, Danny Sugerman's bestselling 1980 book, No One Here Gets Out Alive, and Oliver Stone's 1991 biopic, The Doors - it's no wonder the band seems more popular now than in its heyday.

Disbanded in 1973 after efforts to replace Morrison failed (court papers said the surviving trio asked Joe Cocker and Paul McCartney to take the gig after their own efforts to share lead vocals failed), the surviving Doors reunited for an episode of VH1's Storytellers series in 2000 with a rotation of singers, including Astbury.

When talk turned to a more permanent reunion, Manzarek said Densmore held out, citing the effects of the hearing disorder tinnitus. Densmore's lawsuit said the new band originally hired ex-Police member Stewart Copeland as a fill-in drummer for two concerts, then announced that the group would become a regularly touring act, essentially firing him.

(Copeland would later file his own lawsuit against the new band when it replaced him; that action has been settled.)

Does it surprise Manzarek that the Doors remain embroiled in conflict?

"Yes, it does," he said. " "Grow up' is all I can say. Can we put our teenage high school grudges behind us? My God, we're all in our 60s now."

But by many accounts, the Doors of the 21st Century is a trip back in time, featuring Manzarek, Krieger, drummer Ty Dennis and bassist Angelo Barbera. With Astbury providing an eerily Morrisonesque vibe, the new band has traveled the world as Manzarek and Krieger discover what it means to be touring rockers who also qualify for senior citizen discounts.

"You have be in good shape . . . and you have to still have the desire to play the music," said Manzarek, 66. "If you like the music you've made, you'll always want to go out and play it."

Inevitably, talk turns to Morrison's death, attributed to respiratory failure and heart attack, yet shrouded in conspiracy theories because there was no autopsy or public viewing.

In the past, Manzarek blamed Morrison's decline on his turn from marijuana and hallucinogenics to liquor. Now he states the case differently.

"It was success," he said. "He was the same age (27) as Jimi Hendrix, the same age as Janis Joplin and the same age as Kurt Cobain. They couldn't make it past that hurdle into adulthood. The people worship you . . . you become godlike. And they just couldn't carry that weight without intoxication."

And to those who say the new Doors is just flogging the spirit of a long-gone group, Manzarek offers hearty laughter. He's enjoying the latest act of a band many thought had played its last note more than 30 years ago.

"Jim Morrison was . . . a great young American poet working in the genre of rock 'n' roll," Manzarek said. "And what does a poet want more than anything? For his words to be read . . . for his words to live in live performance. He would probably say, "Let them know my words, rather than my antics.' "

-- Eric Deggans is a Times editorial writer. He can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com

The Doors of the 21st Century performs with Vanilla Fudge, the Yardbirds and Pat Travers at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Ford Amphitheatre, Interstate 4 at U.S. 301 N, Tampa. $35-$55. (813) 740-2446 or (813) 287-8844 or (727) 898-2100.