Bob Dylan is singing "The Times They Are A-Changin' " in a television ad for healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente these days, and who could argue? With Led Zeppelin pitching Cadillacs, the Rolling Stones strutting in an Ameriquest Mortgage ad and Paul McCartney warbling for Fidelity Investments, it's clear that the old counterculture heroes of classic rock are now firmly entrenched as the house band of corporate America.
That only makes the case of John Densmore all the more intriguing.
Once, back when rock 'n' roll still seemed dangerous, Densmore was the drummer for the Doors, the band with dark hits such as "Light My Fire" and "People Are Strange." That band more or less went into the grave with lead singer Jim Morrison in 1971, but, like all top classic-rock franchises, it now has the chance to exploit a lucrative afterlife in television commercials. Offers keep coming in, such as the $15 million dangled by Cadillac last year to lease the song "Break On Through (to the Other Side)" to hawk its luxury SUVs.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 06, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
The Doors -- An article in Wednesday's Section A about the rock group the Doors misspelled the last name of the band's former manager, Danny Sugerman, as Sugarman.
To the surprise of the corporation and the chagrin of his former bandmates, Densmore vetoed the idea. He said he did the same when Apple Computer called with a $4-million offer, and every time "some deodorant company wants to use 'Light My Fire.' "
The reason? Prepare to get a lump in your throat -- or to roll your eyes.
"People lost their virginity to this music, got high for the first time to this music," Densmore said. "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."
That not only sets the Doors apart from the long, long list of classic rock acts that have had their songs licensed for major U.S. commercial campaigns, it also has added considerably to Densmore's estrangement from former bandmates Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger, a trio that last set eyes on one another in the Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse last year.
"Everyone wanted him to do it," said John Branca, an attorney who worked on the Cadillac proposal. "I told him that, really, people don't frown on this anymore. It's considered a branding exercise for the music. He told me he just couldn't sell a song to a company that was polluting the world.
"I shook my head," Branca said, "but, hey, you have to respect that. How many of your principles would you reconsider when people start talking millions of dollars?"
Densmore relented once. Back in the 1970s, he agreed to let "Riders on the Storm" be used to sell Pirelli Tires in a TV spot in England. When he saw it he was sick. "I gave every cent to charity. Jim's ghost was in my ear, and I felt terrible. If I needed proof that it was the wrong thing to do, I got it."
Since then, the animus between the drummer and Manzarek and Krieger has intensified, including a bitter dispute over naming rights.
In August, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Gregory W. Alarcon ruled that Manzarek and Krieger could no longer tour together as the "Doors of the 21st Century." The pair, with former Cult singer Ian Astbury handling Morrison's vocal duties, were in Canada at the time and grudgingly switched their marquee to the acronym "D21C."
Densmore had filed the suit in 2003 to block the neo-Doors from using any permutation of the old band's name. In this battle, he was joined by the Morrison estate, which is the late singer's parents and the parents of his late girlfriend, Pamela Courson.
An audit is underway to determine how much money Krieger and Manzarek must turn over from their two years of touring with their old band name. The touring grossed $8 million, court documents show.
Manzarek said the view that Densmore was selflessly protecting the Doors legacy was laughable.
"John is going to get about a million dollars for doing nothing," Manzarek said. "He gets an equal share as us, and we were out there working. A free million bucks. That's a gig I'd like."
Manzarek, whose keyboards strongly contribute to the singular sound of the Doors, said his old friend should join the neo-Doors. "He should come and play drums with us," Manzarek said, "not fight us at every turn."
Even if Densmore is loath to tour and disdainful of Astbury playing the late Morrison ("Nobody can fill those leather pants"), Manzarek said his old mate should allow Doors hits to be used in tasteful commercials that could add flicker to the band's pop-culture memory. He pointed out that Zeppelin and U2 recently relented in their long holdouts against ad licensing and that there was hardly a stigma these days to the practice.
"We're all getting older," said Manzarek, the band's eldest member, now 66. "We should, the three of us, be playing these songs because, hey, the end is always near. Morrison was a poet, and above all, a poet wants his words heard."