The Doors of the 21st Century is a new project led by keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robbie Krieger, who co-founded the Doors in 1965 in Los Angeles with singer Jim Morrison and drummer John Densmore. The Doors closed in 1973, two years after Morrison's death in Paris, and the surviving members went their own ways, with, they say, no inclination to revive a history that includes enduring rock radio staples such as "Light My Fire," "Touch Me," "Break On Through (To the Other Side)" and "L.A. Woman" -- not to mention a continuing fascination with both the Doors' music and the dark, Dionysian imagery that Morrison projected.
But a reunion for a 2000 tribute album and an edition of VH1's "Storytellers," for which they were joined by an all-star aggregation of contemporary rock singers, changed all that. Stoked by the fan interest, Manzarek and Krieger chose one of those vocalists, Ian Astbury of the Cult, and started to make music again together. (Densmore opted out of the endeavor due to hearing damage).
"The intersection of time, opportunity and desire all came together at the 21st century," Manzarek, 64, explains. "Opportunity and desire did not exist in the `80s and `90s.
"When I'd go on the road ... everybody wanted to know Doors, Doors, Doors. ...`When are you guys gonna get together. And Robbie got the same thing. And we were like, `Jim Morrison's dead,' and the fans said `We don't care, for God's sake. We know he's dead. Just use one of those lead singers that you played with (on VH1). So that's what we did."
And while some may view any representation of the Doors without the charismatic and theatrically inventive Morrison as heresy, Manzarek contends that unlike something like Creedence Clearwater Revisited -- which features only the original rhythm section of Creedence Clearwater Revival -- he and Krieger, 57, comprise a valid representation of the group and its catalog of music, which has sold 50 million albums.
"I understand the worship of Morrison," says Manzarek, who, with Krieger and Densmore, recorded two more Doors albums after Morrison's death. "He's dead. It's like James Dean, except James Dean stood alone, so you could worship James Dean. But Jim was part of a band. The band was called the Doors. It was four guys. Listen to the music, man.
"So of course Jim's not here. But this is what you get; you get Krieger and Manzarek, the guys who wrote or helped write the songs, playing their asses off. You get Ian Astbury from the Cult, singing great. And you get all those songs, all the great Doors songs sounding like they should. That's legitimate."
Some would beg to differ, however -- and not just for aesthetic reasons. Densmore, who claims Manzarek and Krieger are operating as the Doors without his permission, lost a bid for a temporary restraining order against the group in May but is going ahead with a breach of contract suit seeking a share of revenues from any future concert and recorded music revenue. The estates of Morrison and his widow, Pamela Courson, have also filed a copyright infringement suit, claiming their own 25 percent share of the group's profits.
Meanwhile, Manzarek and Krieger have "amicably" settled a suit against them by former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, who for a time replaced Densmore until the Doors of the 21st Century hired Los Angeles sessionhand Ty Dennis. Angelo Barbera is the band's bassist.
"They all want a piece of the action," Manzarek says of the assorted litigants. "They want their cuts." He's particularly galled by Morrison/Courson estates, saying that "If Jim was singing, he would get the quarter share.... You have to do some work to get the bread. Those guys aren't doing any work here.
"I mean, this is the Doors 21st Century; it says right there in the ads, for God's sake. Any fool can figure out that it's not the same as the Doors, and everyone knows that Jim Morrison's dead and he's not gonna be there, and so you lose."
Watching from the sidelines, new singer Astbury has been quick to defend his bandmates as legitimate purveyors of any Doors music. "These are songs they've written," Astbury, 41, notes. "This is their music. And I think that they have every right in the world to go out and perform them to the best of their abilities."
Even Copeland voices some support for the group he sued, arguing that Morrison was only part and parcel of its sound -- albeit a big part. "Jim Morrison was really great, but it was the band that worked for me," Copeland explains. "Jim was just the singer in the band. Robbie and Ray really do have a musical identity that's really strong and was a big part of that sound."
Manzarek agrees that the image and myth that Morrison cultivated did obscure the fact that most of the Doors songs were group compositions -- and that hits such as "Light My Fire," "Love Me Two Times" and "Touch Me" were written solely by Krieger.
Ultimately, he says, some fresh music will help make that point. While a new compilation, "The Absolute Best of the Doors," is due out Aug. 12, the Doors of the 21st Century have already started working on their own material, with lyrics provided by Astbury and others -- including poets such as Jim Carroll and Michael McClure, as well as rockers Henry Rollins and John Doe of X.
About a half-dozen songs have been finished -- titles include "Cop's Tale," "American Express," "Tension" and "The Streets of Crocodiles" -- and recording is expected to begin this fall. But Manzarek says the group won't pull out more than two of them at a time in concert. "How many new songs can we play for people?" he notes. "They're coming to a Doors concert; they don't want to hear new songs. `My God, I want to hear `Light My Fire!' "
But, he hopes, the new songs will add validity to the enterprise.
"They're new songs; when you hear them you'll go `That's not an old Doors song," Manzarek explains. "But it'll be music by Krieger and Manzarek; the same guys who wrote the Doors music are writing this new music. It'll be a continuation of the ouvre.
"This was never intended to be a `tribute' band. It was always intended to be a vehicle for new compositions. We'll play the old songs live and put in a couple of new songs and then make a new record. That was always the plan. This is a real band, not just a blast back to the past."