Although Madison Avenue keeps calling, the band’s drummer, John Densmore, explains why he’s going to keep saying no
Rolling Stone Magazine, December 26, 2002 – January 9, 2003 issue reprinted the following John Densmore interview which appeared in ‘The Nation’ July 8th, 2002 issue
Riders on the Storm
by JOHN DENSMORE
from the July 8, 2002 issue
Dread ripples through me as I listen to a phone message from our manager saying that we (The Doors) have another offer of huge amounts of money if we would just allow one of our songs to be used as the background for a commercial. They don’t give up! I guess it’s hard to imagine that everybody doesn’t have a price. Maybe ’cause, as the cement heads try to pave the entire world, they’re paving their inner world as well. No imagination left upstairs.
Apple Computer called on a Tuesday–they already had the audacity to spend money to cut “When the Music’s Over” into an ad for their new cube computer software. They want to air it the next weekend, and will give us a million and a half dollars! A MILLION AND A HALF DOLLARS! Apple is a pretty hip company…we use computers…. Dammit! Why did Jim (Morrison) have to have such integrity?
I’m pretty clear that we shouldn’t do it. We don’t need the money. But I get such pressure from one particular bandmate (the one who wears glasses and plays keyboards).
“Commercials will give us more exposure,” he says. I ask him, “so you’re not for it because of the money?” He says “no,” but his first question is always “how much?” when we get one of these offers, and he always says he’s for it. He never suggests we play Robin Hood, either. If I learned anything from Jim, it’s respect for what we created. I have to pass. Thank God, back in 1965 Jim said we should split everything, and everyone has veto power. Of course, every time I pass, they double the offer!
It all started in 1967, when Buick proffered $75,000 to use “Light My Fire” to hawk its new hot little offering–the Opel. As the story goes–which everyone knows who’s read my autobiography or seen Oliver Stone’s movie–Ray, Robby and John (that’s me) OK’d it, while Jim was out of town. He came back and went nuts. And it wasn’t even his song (Robby primarily having penned “LMF”)! In retrospect, his calling up Buick and saying that if they aired the ad, he’d smash an Opel on television with a sledgehammer was fantastic! I guess that’s one of the reasons I miss the guy.
It actually all really started back in ’65, when we were a garage band and Jim suggested sharing all the songwriting credits and money. Since he didn’t play an instrument–literally couldn’t play one chord on piano or guitar, but had lyrics and melodies coming out of his ears–the communal pot idea felt like a love-in. Just so no one got too weird, he tagged that veto thought on. Democracy in action…only sometimes avenues between “Doors” seem clogged with bureaucratic BS. In the past ten years it’s definitely intensified…maybe we need a third party. What was that original intent? Liberty and justice for all songs…and the pursuit of happiness…. What is happiness? More money? More fame? The Vietnamese believe that you’re born with happiness; you don’t have to pursue it. We tried to bomb that out of them back in my youth. From the looks of things, we might have succeeded.
This is sounding pretty depressing, John; where are you going here? The whole world is hopefully heading toward democracy. That’s a good thing, John…. Oh, yeah: the greed gene. Vaclav Havel had it right when he took over as president of Czechoslovakia, after the fall of Communism. He said, “We’re not going to rush into this too quickly, because I don’t know if there’s that much difference between KGB and IBM.”
Whoa! Here comes another one: “Dear John Densmore, this letter is an offer of up to one million dollars for your celebrity endorsement of our product. We have the best weight loss, diet and exercise program, far better than anything on the market. The problem is the celebrity must be overweight. Then the celebrity must use our product for four weeks, which will take off up to 20 pounds of their excess body fat. If your endorsement works in the focus group tests, you will immediately get $10,000.00 up front and more money will start rolling in every month after that–up to a million dollars or more.” Wow! Let’s see…I’ve weighed 130 pounds for thirty-five years–since my 20s…I’ll have to gain quite a bit…sort of like a De Niro thing…he gained fifty pounds for Raging Bull–and won an Oscar! I’m an artist, too, like him…
We used to build our cities and towns around churches. Now banks are at the centers of our densely populated areas. I know, it’s the 1990s…. No, John, it’s the new millennium, you dinosaur. Rock dinosaur, that is. My hair isn’t as long as it used to be. I don’t smoke much weed anymore, and I even have a small bald spot. The dollar is almighty, and ads are kool, as cool as the coolest rock videos.
Why did Jim have to say we were “erotic politicians”? If I had been the drummer for the Grassroots, it probably wouldn’t have cut me to the core when I heard John Lennon’s “Revolution” selling tennis shoes…and Nikes, to boot! That song was the soundtrack to part of my youth, when the streets were filled with passionate citizens expressing their First Amendment right to free speech. Hey…the streets are filled again! Or were, before 9/11. And they’re protesting what I’m trying to wax on and on about here. Corporate greed! Maybe I should stick to music. I guess that’s why I hit the streets with Bonnie Raitt during the 1996 Democratic National Convention. We serenaded the troops. Bob Hope did it during World War II, only our troops are those dressed in baggy Bermuda shorts, sporting dreadlocks. Some have the shaved Army look, but they’re always ready to fight against the Orwellian nightmare. A woman activist friend of mine said that with the networking of the Net, what’s bubbling under this brave new world will make the ’60s unrest look like peanuts. I don’t want “Anarchy, Now,” a worn-out hippie phrase, but I would like to see a middle class again in this country.
Europe seems saner right now. They are more green than us. They’re paranoid about our genetically altered food and they’re trying to make NATO a little more independent in case we get too zealous in our policing of the globe. When The Doors made their first jaunt from the colonies to perform in the mother country back in ’67, the record companies seemed a little saner, too. The retailers in England could order only what they thought they could sell; no returns to the manufacturers. That eliminated the tremendous hype that this country still produces, creating a buzz of “double platinum” sales, and then having half of the CDs returned. Today, there is a time limit of three to six months for the rackjobbers to get those duds back to the company.
Our band used to be on a small folk label. Judy Collins, Love and the Butterfield Blues Band were our Elektra labelmates. We could call up the president, Jac Holzman, and have a chat…and this was before we made it. Well, Jac sold out for $10 million back in ’70, and we were now owned by a corporation. Actually, today just five corps own almost the entire record business, where numbers are the bottom line. At least we aren’t on the one owned by Seagram’s! Wait a minute…maybe we’d get free booze…probably not. Advances are always recoupable, booze probably is too.
Those impeccable English artists are falling prey as well. Pete Townshend keeps fooling us again, selling Who songs to yuppies hungry for SUVs. I hope Sting has given those Shaman chiefs he hangs out with from the rainforest a ride in the back of that Jag he’s advertising, ’cause as beautiful as the burlwood interiors are, the car–named after an animal possibly facing extinction–is a gas guzzler. If you knew me back in the ’60s, you might say that this rant–I mean, piece–now has a self-righteous ring to it, me having had the name Jaguar John back then. I had the first XJ-6 when they came out, long before the car became popular with accountants. That’s when I sold it for a Rolls Royce-looking Jag, the Mark IV, a super gas guzzler. That was back when the first whiffs of rock stardom furled up my nose. Hopefully, I’ve learned something since those heady times, like: “What good is a used-up world?” Plus, it’s not a given that one should do commercials for the products one uses. The Brits might bust me here, having heard “Riders on the Storm” during the ’70s (in Britain only) pushing tires for their roadsters, but our singer’s ghost brought me to my senses and I gave my portion to charity. I still don’t think the Polish member of our band has learned the lesson of the Opel, but I am now adamant that three commercials and we’re out of our singer’s respect. “Jim’s dead!” our piano player responds to this line of thought. That is precisely why we should resist, in my opinion. The late, transcendental George Harrison had something to say about this issue. The Beatles “could have made millions of extra dollars [doing commercials], but we thought it would belittle our image or our songs,” he said. “It would be real handy if we could talk to John [Lennon]…because that quarter of us is gone…and yet it isn’t, because Yoko’s there, Beatling more than ever.” Was he talking about the Nike ad, or John and Yoko’s nude album cover shot now selling vodka?
Actually, it was John and Yoko who inspired me to start a 10 percent tithe, way back in the early ’80s. In the Playboy interview, John mentioned that they were doing the old tradition, and it stuck in my mind. If everybody gave 10 percent, this world might recapture a bit of balance. According to my calculations, as one gets up into the multi category, you up the ante. Last year I nervously committed to 15 percent, and that old feeling rose again: the greed gene. When you get to multi-multi, you should give away half every year. Excuse me, Mr. Gates, but the concept of billionaire is obscene. I know you give a lot away, and it’s easy for me to mouth off, but I do know something about it. During the Oliver Stone film on our band, the record royalties tripled, and as I wrote those 10 percent checks, my hand was shaking. Why? It only meant that I was making much more for myself. It was the hand of greed. I am reminded of the sound of greed, trying to talk me into not vetoing a Doors song for a cigarette ad in Japan.
“It’s the only way to get a hit over there, John. They love commercials. It’s the new thing!”
“What about encouraging kids to smoke, Ray?”
“You always have to be PC, don’t you, John?” I stuck to my guns and vetoed the offer, thinking about the karma if we did it. Manzarek has recently been battling stomach ulcers. So muster up courage, you capitalists; hoarding hurts the system–inner as well as outer.
So it’s been a lonely road resisting the chants of the rising solicitations: “Everybody has a price, don’t they?” Every time we (or I) resist, they up the ante. An Internet company recently offered three mil for “Break on Through.” Jim’s “pal” (as he portrays himself in his bio) said yes, and Robby joined me in a resounding no! “We’ll give them another half mil, and throw in a computer!” the prez of Apple pleaded late one night.
Robby stepped up to the plate again the other day, and I was very pleased that he’s been a longtime friend. I was trying to get through to our ivory tinkler, with the rap that playing Robin Hood is fun, but the “bottom line” is that our songs have a higher purpose, like keeping the integrity of their original meaning for our fans. “Many kids have said to me that ‘Light My Fire,’ for example, was playing when they first made love, or were fighting in Nam, or got high–pivotal moments in their lives.” Robby jumped in. “If we’re only one of two or three groups who don’t do commercials, that will help the value of our songs in the long run. The publishing will suffer a little, but we should be proud of our stance.” Then Robby hit a home run. “When I heard from one fan that our songs saved him from committing suicide, I realized, that’s it–we can’t sell off these songs.”
So, in the spirit of the Bob Dylan line, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears,” we have been manipulated, begged, extorted and bribed to make a pact with the devil. While I was writing this article, Toyota Holland went over the line and did it for us. They took the opening melodic lines of “Light My Fire” to sell their cars. We’ve called up attorneys in the Netherlands to chase them down, but in the meantime, folks in Amsterdam think we sold out. Jim loved Amsterdam.