John Densmore: Writer on the Storm
To protect the integrity of a book about protecting the integrity of his band’s music, Doors drummer John Densmore turned to self-publishing.It is probably hard for most people to imagine turning down several million dollars for just signing one’s name. But that is what John Densmore, drummer for the Doors, did in 2004, when Cadillac offered $15 million to use the band’s hit “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” in a car commercial—a record-breaking sum for a licensing fee. His refusal, and the hard-fought and emotional legal battle with his bandmates over their use of the band’s name, forms the narrative of Densmore’s new book, The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial.
The book offers rock ’n’ roll intrigue as well as the drummer’s full explanation for why he had to put his foot down about how the band’s music and name were used. But while Densmore’s writing in Unhinged outlines his philosophy of artistic integrity, the actions he took in self-publishing and marketing the book provide their own lesson in creating a product that sells, but on the creator’s terms.
When a major New York publishing house learned that Densmore was writing a follow-up to his first memoir, 1990’s Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors, they jumped at the opportunity to acquire it. Published by Delacorte and offering up gritty behind-the-music details about the band’s rise to fame and the Lizard King’s genius and self-destruction, Densmore’s first book had been a New York Times bestseller.
The publisher interested in the second book offered a “moderate advance” according to Densmore and things were moving forward much as they had for his first book. But then it started to become clear that he and the publisher were not on the same page.
“They started telling me to write more about Jim,” says Densmore. “I said, ‘I already did that—it was a bestseller, pick it up.’ They said, No there’s got to be more stories.
Densmore wanted to tell a different kind of music-industry story about the life of a legendary band long after it ceased releasing new albums. At Morrison’s urging, the Doors members had made an unusual agreement in its early days to give each of the four founding members an equal cut of the band’s earnings as well as veto power over any major decision.
This meant that when the Cadillac offer came, even with the enthusiastic support of two of the three living members of the band—keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger— the deal couldn’t go through without Densmore’s okay. When Manzarek and Krieger began touring as a new version of the Doors, with the Cult’s Ian Astbury as singer and the Police’s Steward Copeland on drums, using the band’s name and its logo, Densmore likewise felt it went against Morrison’s vision for the band. With the support of Morrison’s estate, he sued his former bandmates to keep them from touring under the band’s famous name.
“When I initiated the legal proceedings, some hardcore fans thought I was destroying the band,” says Densmore. “But if you read this thing, you see that I was trying to save the band and save the legacy.”
For the book, Densmore drew on 20,000 pages of trial transcripts from the three-month legal battle. The narrative includes plenty of courtroom drama, including Densmore recalling his last conversation with Morrison, Stewart Copeland taking the stand to defend Densmore, and the arrival of Morrison’s parents at the trial.
But to keep it from being a “dry courtroom thing,” Densmore also packs the events with plenty of flashbacks and anecdotes from the band’s early years and his own recent collaborations.
All in all, this was a story that Densmore wanted to tell. He found this much more compelling than the grab bag of half-remembered moments with Morrison that hadn’t made it into Riders, which the publisher seemed to want him to write.
The last straw was when the publisher tried to spike the title The Doors Unhinged. Densmore felt it perfectly captured his story. The publisher felt it was too negative and might turn off fans of the band.
“So guess what? I did it on my own.”
Breaking on Through (to Readers)
Going on the advice of a writer friend who had self-published, Densmore opted to use Amazon’s CreateSpace for the print version of his book, and Kobo for the e-book version.
He reached out to artist Shepard Fairey, also a friend, about doing the cover design. Densmore had a specific photo of the band in mind, which shows Morrison standing on the left side of the picture with Densmore next to him. Fairey ran with that idea, adding his signature red and black color scheme as well as another detail: A key in Morrison’s hand.
“In one visual, he captured the whole book—that Jim holds the key to the Doors’ legacy,” says Densmore.
Being able to do this kind of creative brainstorming, without the interference of a overseer focused only on commercial considerations, made the process a pleasure for Densmore.
“I have total control,” he says. “If it doesn’t go right, I have no one to blame but myself.”
He knew he would have to throw himself fully into marketing the book even more than he had for Riders, since this time there would be no distribution or marketing support from a publisher. Densmore needed to connect to the band’s fans, music lovers, and anyone to whom the courtroom story might appeal—and he realized bookstores might not be the best places to find these readers.
Through his recent musical performances, Densmore had come into contact with Michael Kurtz, one of the founders of Record Store Day, which celebrates independent record stores, taking place on the third Saturday in April of each year.
“These little record stores hung on and diversified, so they have vinyl, and box sets, and books, and they all have that sense of community,” says Densmore.
Working with Kurtz and distributor Baker & Taylor, Densmore decided to schedule his book launch on April 17, a few days before Record Store Day, and plotted out a longer-term book tour at dozens of independent music stores. He promoted each event with local media appearances that he organized himself.
“I’ve sold no less than several hundred books every appearance,” says Densmore, and in the first months since publication, he estimates that Unhinged has sold about 10,000 copies total. If sales continue apace, he says he will “be out of the hole” and have his legal fees covered by the year’s end.
Describing those fans who show up as “music maniacs,” Densmore suggests that this approach would work well for other musicians promoting books, in addition to another element he has brought to recent appearances—doing performances, not readings.
When Steve Harkins, vice president of music at Baker & Taylor, invited Densmore to appear at the distributor’s annual gathering of booksellers, he agreed, and decided to try something there that had worked well when he was promoting Riders almost 25 years before.
“They said, ‘You can do whatever you want for an hour,’ so I read from the book, but I accompanied myself musically and drummed while I read, lit candles at poignant sections, and developed this kind of theatrical reading,” says Densmore. “I did that for the Baker & Taylor people and they went crazy for it.”
But in the midst of the successful book tour, tragedy reared its head. Just a little more than a month after the book’s release, on May 20, Manzarek, who had been hospitalized in Germany, lost a months-long battle with cancer.
Before learning about how serious the cancer had gotten, Densmore had sent Manzarek and Kreiger the final chapter of Unhinged, which is written as an open letter to his two bandmates. Upon hearing Manzarek’s health had worsened, Densmore called him and the two chatted by phone.
With the passing of Manzarek, Densmore seems more determined than ever to ensure that the legacy of the Doors lives on. And he says he can hardly imagine a better way to do so than by getting his words out into the world on his own terms.