When the Music’s Over

The Doors Never Sold Out to Crass Commercialism

Just try sticking a Doors song on an ad for a Buick or deodorant. The band’s drummer John Densmore explains why their music will never be a commodity.

Andrew Maclear/Redferns, via Getty

At the risk of sounding grandiose, I will say that, to me, rock ’n’ roll is sacred. It started out mid-twentieth century, and when dirt-poor Elvis bought his first Cadillac, that was his way of “blinging” the uptight ’50s. Sixty years later, I said no to Cadillac, by vetoing the idea of a Doors song becoming the soundtrack to encourage folks to buy cruise mobiles. For all those years a tradition has been building. A tradition built on the idea that this music means something. And if compromised, its power could be lessened. We need to keep the flame burning, burning through hypocrisy, seeking truth. Reggae and rap are strong off-shoots of this energy. Jay-Z knows this. That’s why in his book Decoded he writes about overconsumption: “All I got is this big house, couple cars, I don’t bring half of them shits out, I got watches I ain’t seen in months, apartment at the Trump, I only slept there once.”

One has to be always be on guard, because mega-success comes up behind you when you’re high from all the attention, and sucks the vitality out of one’s creativity. You strive so hard to get the brass ring that when you get there, it can be blinding. That’s why all the dark glasses. You don’t want the fans looking into the windows of your soul, and seeing nothing!

It seems that someone is pulling the strings, or ropes holding those brass rings, higher and higher … further out of reach. Only those with really long arms can pull themselves up to the inner circle. The question is: how do I get seen? Due to today’s technology, just about everybody can make a movie, CD, book, or videogame. Then the real challenge comes: see me, feel me, touch you, hear me. How can one get people aware of what you’re doing? How many vids are on YouTube? Trillions? So, you become a hustler … a drug dealer of sorts. You send out freebies to hook folks. Every waking hour you process how to get your work out into the public. That’s the way it was with the Doors … for several years, until we hooked the masses. Jim and I and Robby paised the streets, going from bar to bar trying to talk them into a gig. Some places had never had live music, but we tried anyway. Mostly unsuccessful, but we were driven.

With music sales dwindling, many groups try to get a leg up by lending their songs to sell products. My new book, The Doors: Unhinged Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial tackles this subject in detail. In fact, I was counter-sued for not allowing this to happen. I certainly don’t condemn a new band hawking stuff to pay the rent, but after one gets a toehold on success, maybe it’s good to drop the soundtrack to “Love Me Two Times … cause I just took Viagra.” Although there are some really “cool” ads by some really “cool” directors. Millions of bucks are spent to make them really “cool.” But the bottom line is that you’re changing the meaning of your lyrics. As Tom Waits said in a letter to The Nation in response to my piece on this subject, “corporations are hoping to hijack a culture’s memories for their product. They want an artist’s audience, credibility, good will and the energy the songs have gathered as well as given over the years. They suck the life and meaning from the songs and impregnate them with promises of a better life with their product.”

Even our great poet prince Dylan has succumbed to the temptation. I think his reasons are different though. It’s not the dough (although money is an addiction), but he hates so much being put on a pedestal, that he deliberately does things to throw us all a curve.

Everyone is so desperate to get attention for their project, they will do almost anything, and the corporate world has always encouraged this. In fact, I had to pass on a nice book deal, good front $$, for Unhinged because they wanted me to write more about Jim (Morrison). I said, “I’ve done that. It’s called Riders on the Storm (my first self-centered memoir). It was released in the ’90s. New York Times bestseller. You should pick it up.” Their answer, “there’s got to be more stories about Jim.” My answer: “Look I’m sorry I didn’t shoot heroin like Keith Richards (although I liked his book very much), or have seven wives like Gregg Allman, but this book is the antitheses of ‘Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll.’ Maybe that should be your marketing campaign.” They kept pressing and I passed on a lot of “gitas.”

On the other hand, with competition as tough as ever, it’s a real battle to get through. Willy Loman will never die. It’s in our nature. The survival instinct to put food on the table. But on the other end of the scale, when the banquet is overflowing and one has caught the brass ring, some people just keep eating, or keep counting those “gitas” as Morrison used to say. Money is like fertilizer; when hoarded it stinks, when spread around, things grow. So with a tight fist around their dough, the people at the top are damning up the flow of capitalism. Currency is a current, but corporate beavers are putting rocks in the riverbed stream of our economy. All of us have this impulse, to greater and lesser degrees. It’s a strain running through our veins called the greed gene.

This music has fed us spiritually, so when it seems to be losing its center, new movements come in to try to shore it up. Reinvigorate the muse. Each new creative wave that comes along seems to have to challenge the previous modus operandi. Elvis shocked Ike’s generation with sexuality. The hippies were too grubby for the early ’60s crowd. The punks were too angry for the “flower power” folks. But all of these musical movements had the same message: vitality. Don’t compromise the life force. Yes, to be human is to be hu-miliated, but in the face of that, is spirit which transcends the physical.

When rock loses integrity it’s time for renewal. When my ge-generation got too intoxicated with self importance, the punks came along and yelled at us. It was a wake-up call. Patti Smith was fed by the Doors, but when complacency became the main course for hippies, she wrote, “We feared that the music which had given us sustenance, was in danger of spiritual starvation.” In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde explains that there is a mystical exchange between artist and audience which feeds each other, and has nothing to do with the price of admission. But if the work is changed entirely into a commodity, you lose the “gift.” It’s hard to pin down this exchange, as it should be. But elusive as it is, it has something to do with the shared experience of being human.

Why did Jim Morrison say he’d smash a Buick on television if we did “Come On Buick, Light My Fire?” It wasn’t even his song. Because he cared about our entire catalogue, the whole body of work we created. He was paying the rent in the “Tower of Song” for a long time. He knew what was sacred, and what was profane. I’m not an atheist, I always say I believe in “the mystery,” because I hate fighting wars over the “G” word, but now I’m feeling that maybe music is my religion. It’s been the single most important thru line in my 68 years on this planet. So I don’t want my mythology diluted. Look what that did to the Native Americans. We took their spirit, and substituted the spirit in the bottle. I want my metaphysics potent. I want to get drunk and pass out on it (metaphorically). I want to crash against the rocks in ecstasy over the sound I hear. Praise be to Debussy’s Sirens … I don’t want to “Break on Through” to a new deodorant.