When Jim Morrison died of a heart attack in his bath tub in Paris
in 1971, at the age of 27, one might have reasonably assumed that
would have been the end of the Doors.
But no. On July 12 I shall be standing in a Los Angeles court
room giving evidence in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit as surviving
members of the band contest the right to continue using the Doors’
name with someone else playing the role of the late, leather-clad
Apparently, in the eyes of the American legal system, my
scribblings on popular music in this newspaper have qualified me as
an “expert witness” and I have been called upon to argue that
without Morrison, there can be no group called the Doors, any more
than you could have the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger.
That is also the position taken by the band’s former drummer,
John Densmore, and Jim Morrison’s estate. In the rival corner are
the original members Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, who last year
re-formed something purporting to be the Doors with Ian Astbury from
the goth-metal act the Cult as the “Jimitator” and singing all the
band’s classic songs, from Light My Fire to Riders on the
The potential sums of money involved are enormous. “What do I
want another $10 million for?” asked Densmore, who refused to be
involved and initiated the action to stop them. “The integrity of
the Doors legacy is worth more than that.”
No one doubts that the dense, instrumental textures created by
Krieger’s organ and Manzarek’s guitar were essential to the potency
of the Doors’ sound. But the group’s inspiration and unique sense of
drama came from Morrison. With his fallen choirboy looks, leather
pants, poetic lyrics and apocalyptic visions, he created a dynamic
tension between the sexual and the cerebral that was quite unlike
anything else in rock music at the time. He was a one-off, an
iconic, rock’n’roll shaman with an unfortunate appetite for
self-destruction that ensured him an elevated position in the
pantheon of dead greats alongside such other live-fast-die-young
rock gods as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Walking in such an icon’s shoes is an unenviable task, as Val
Kilmer discovered when he played Morrison in Oliver Stone’s
unconvincing film 13 years ago. But that never pretended to be
anything more than a celluloid representation. Seeking to relight
the fire of former glories by bringing on a substitute who was just
nine years old when Morrison died is a far more dubious enterprise.
After Densmore’s objections, the group now calls itself “The Doors
of the 21st Century”. Yet the new name seems only to mock our
memories further, for if ever there was a band whose songs, attitude
and significance belonged to the latter half of the 20th century it
was the Doors.
Modern rock music is awash with nostalgia for the golden age of
the 1960s and today there is a huge market for tribute bands.
Nothing wrong with that, and such blatant mimicry clearly fulfils a
need. Groups such as the Bootleg Beatles and the Counterfeit Stones
make a decent living by looking and sounding like someone else.
There’s even a tribute band called the Doors of Perception. But they
don’t try to pretend that they are anything other than a karaoke
After Morrison’s death, Krieger, Manzarek and Densmore made
little attempt to replace their formidable frontman and made a
couple of albums as a trio without him. The records sucked, nobody
bought them and so they did the decent thing. They accepted that
without Morrison there was no Doors and they broke up. Now two of
them have changed their mind. But the reality is that the new
version of the Doors is nothing more than another tribute band —
which just happens to include a couple of the original members,
paying tribute to their own long-lost youth. It’s all rather sad,
really. But highly lucrative. And therein lies the point.
So who might next be recalled from beyond the grave? Paul and
Ringo could re-form the Beatles, with Julian Lennon playing his dad
and Jeff Lynne filling the shoes of his old mate George. The Clash
could get back together and recruit the singer from the Strokes to
act out Joe Strummer’s guerrilla rock fantasy.
The unseemly row over the Doors legacy rather makes you respect
those who have resisted telephone number deals to rehash their past
triumphs. Roger Waters has been offered millions to get back with
his old colleagues in Pink Floyd but has adamantly refused. Robert
Plant has similarly turned down pots of gold to reform Led Zeppelin.
When he couldn’t be persuaded, Jimmy Page went out on the road
playing all the old Zep favourites with the Black Crowes instead.
But he had the dignity not to call it Led Zeppelin II.
A few years ago, Elvis Presley’s old backing group got together
to tour again. Behind them was a huge screen showing one of
Presley’s Las Vegas concerts. The real Elvis sang on film and the
band played along live on stage. There was even one wonderful cameo
during Guitar Man when the on-screen Presley turned to his
lead guitarist and said: “Play it, James.” And there was the
flesh-and-blood James Burton, 30 years older and somewhat greyer,
but still playing his socks off at the King’s command.
Somehow the suspension of disbelief in that single moment was
more convincing than anything the army of Elvis imitators ever
conjured up. It’s called charisma, and it’s a quality that cannot be
reproduced. It doesn’t matter how good Ian Astbury is, he isn’t Jim
Morrison and so the band he’s singing with can never be the Doors.