1969: The Details Of When Jim Morrison Got Arrested On Stage For Indecency
At the Dinner Key Auditorium in Miami, Florida, on March 1, 1969 Jim Morrison and The Doors walked onstage to thousands of people crammed into a hot, overstuffed venue. By all accounts the band - John Densmore, Ray Manzarek, and Robby Krieger - played a hypnotic set, but their musicianship was overshadowed as it often was by Morrison’s antics. That night, inspired by a cosmic buzz and who knows what substances he allegedly incited a riot while exposing himself from the stage.
We say allegedly because no one actually knows what happened. He was knocked off the stage and rushed out of the audience by police but an arrest wouldn’t come for days. After the band left Florida six warrants for his arrest were issued, one for “lewd and lascivious behavior in public by exposing his private parts and by simulating masturbation and oral copulation,” the rest were misdemeanors like public drunkennness and profanity. There was clearly a moral panic over the way that Morrison inspired his audience, but were the police right to arrest him? Or were they just scared of the Lizard King, this Messianic figure of the ‘60s counter culture?
No one can agree on what happened when Morrison got on stage
Accounts vary as to what happened when The Doors took the stage at the Dinner Key Auditorium in front of 10,000 people on March 1, 1969. Even the date is debated; an article in Rolling Stone from 1969 says that the show was on March 2, the Miami Herald says it was on the first. The promoter for the show, Ken Collier, says that the band was about an hour into a chaotic, winding set when Morrison started telling the audience, “Let’s have a good time, let’s have a revolution, everybody come up onstage.” Drummer John Densmore said it was much of the same: Morrison was drunk, he poured champagne over his head, the music was hypnotic. What happened next and what came out of Morrison’s sweaty leather pants is still up for debate.
Morrison’s wardrobe malfunction
By 1969 Morrison was far from the rock ’n roll sex god of the band’s 1967 debut. His hair was dirty and he wore a beard fit for a cult leader. He was only 25 years old at the time but he was already one foot through his final door into infinity. Morrison was known for his onstage antics whether he spent the set reciting poetry or refusing to sing the words to the band’s biggest hit “Light My Fire,” but this was different. The Miami Herald reports that about an hour into “a lousy concert” Morrison peeled his leather pants down a wee bit too far and simulated masturbation, but that he didn’t do anything illegal. If anything he pretended to expose himself, but Miami-Dade County officials were foaming at the mouth to dish out justice to the singer so they saw what they wanted to see when they saw Jim Morrison misbehaving at all on stage. They needed to make an example of him.
The Doors left the country after the concert
Whether the Lizard King’s lizard really made an appearance in Miami or not, the band left Florida and the rest of America behind. They had a tour planned and wanted to relax before getting back into the grind of being The Doors. No one knew that Morrison was in trouble because the police didn’t arrest him and no charges were files until four days after the concert. Drummer John Densmore explained:
Robbie and I had planned to go to Jamaica and then we were supposed to do a big tour, which was canceled entirely. We were down there and got word by phone that, ‘Crazy things were happening in the upper 48, come on home.’
The band’s manager said that people saw Morrison’s shirt, nothing else
Bringing it back to Florida, what did people see? No one can agree on whether Morrison exposed himself, if he pretended to expose himself, or if they saw something else entirely. At the time of the event the band’s manager, Bill Siddons, said that what fans really saw was Morrison’s shirt. In 1969, he explained to Rolling Stone:
[The concert was] just another dirty Doors show. It didn’t seem to be too big a deal until the police chief took it on as his crusade… I mean no one in the group saw him do it. Morrison said he did it, but not onstage. Like he had been tucking in his shirt or something and he might have slipped a little. But offstage.
Great. Case closed. Nothing to see here. Jim Morrison never exposed himself, he just fiddled with his shirt in front of 10,000 people. The only problem with Siddons’ version of the events is that many of the fans at the show that night say that Morrison wasn’t wearing a shirt by this point in the performance.
Blame the Living Theater
What good has live theater ever done for us? Thanks to theater we can’t say Macbeth in public without getting cursed, and Jim Morrison maybe exposed himself. According to both Siddons and John Densmore, Morrison had attended a performance by the Living Theater the night before and found inspiration in their work. The group was experimental to say the least. They often shed their clothing and conveyed messages of the counter culture. It’s easy to see someone like Jim Morrison getting way into them and trying to emulate the group for his audience. Siddons says:
We had seen the Living Theater the night before, you know, and Jim copped a few lines. He said some things like ‘Why don’t we have a revolution here?’ and things like that—but that’s not inciting to riot.
Years after the fact, Densmore corroborated Siddons’ account of what inspired Morrison:
[Morrison] went to see Julian Beck and Judith Molina of The Living Theater and was inspired because they wore minimal clothes and were going up the aisles saying, ‘No passports, no pieces.’ It was pretty wild stuff. Jim tried to inject it in to the Miami concert, and he was inebriated, so it wasn’t so successful. Musically, it was terrible, but politically, it was intriguing.
The show’s promoter is pretty sure he saw Jim Morrison break on through (his pants)
One of the promoters on this ill fated Doors show was Ken Collier, the owner of a venue called Thee Image. In 1969 he spoke to Rolling Stone about what he saw on the night in question and as he describes it the whole show was a riot waiting to happen. Collier said that Morrison commanded the audience to get on stage and touch him. Then the singer asked, “Do you wanna see my c**k?”
After that Collier ran onstage and wrestled the microphone away from Morrison and tried to calm the audience, saying, “Keep calm, sit down, keep quiet, peace, this can’t happen in Miami, we’re not going to have this in Miami, sit down…”
According to Collier this is when Morrison exposed himself to the audience, although he admits that he didn’t actually see a penis. However he believes that it happened because some trusted observers told him that saw the whole thing.
The promoter destroyed the band’s equipment
Collier’s whole peace and love bit did little to quell the audience. Morrison was going nuts and maybe exposing himself while the band continued to play. By 1969 they were used to carrying on while Morrison performed in his own kind of show. When Collier realized that no one could hear him he started ripping cords from Robby Krieger’s amplifier and kicking in John Densmore’s drum heads to quiet the band. Rolling Stone reports that by this point Morrison was in a fist fight with Collier’s brother and that the two toppled offstage. When Morrison hit the ground the show was over. The audience left in a daze and the singer was taken back to the green room. Oddly enough despite the large police presence (reports say there were at least 30 cops watching the show) no charges were filed on the night of the event.
The state of Florida wanted to make a point with Morrison’s arrest
When charges were finally placed against Morrison it was clear that state officials wanted to show that some rock star couldn’t just zip into Florida and make a mockery of public decency. Even though the singer probably didn’t expose himself they didn’t care, they wanted him up against the wall. Larry Mahoney, a reporter for the Miami Herald at the time, was covering the show and he thinks that the conservative state of Florida just had it out for Morrison. In 1969 he told Rolling Stone:
I saw it all, and I wasn’t offended at the obscenity. What did offend me was that he was trying to start a riot… The reaction was a lot bigger than I thought it would be. I personally don’t want to see Morrison hung. He didn’t hurt anybody. But Florida’s a very conservative, staid place … and I talked with Morrison afterward and he seemed to me to be in a very poor emotional condition. He might not be able to stand three and a half years in Raiford Penitentiary.
The investigation was a mess
When charges were finally filed against Morrison it was days after the event and the press smelled a rat. The president of the Crime Commission of Greater Miami wanted a Grand Jury to investigate Morrison and he wanted to hang Collier out to dry for inviting The Doors to Florida in the first place. The Miami Herald noted that with so many officers on duty at the show, that one of them should have made an arrest if any laws had been broken, unfortunately sanity did not win out in 1969. Joe Durant, an assistant to State Attorney Richard E. Gerstein, said at the time:
I was extremely shocked at the facts in this case as to what this man did, and the State Attorney’s Office will prosecute him and ask for the maximum sentence on each count to run consecutively.
The state government attempted to throw the book at Morrison, and on September 20, 1970 he was convicted of indecent exposure and profanity after a 16 day trial. He was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay a $500 fine. Morrison stayed out of jail on a $50,000 bond while his defense filed an appeal. He passed away eight months later, and the whole thing faded away. At least until 2010 when the Florida Clemency Board pardoned the singer for his two misdemeanor convictions.
In retrospect the whole thing was blown out of proportion
When everything was said and done most people agree that Morrison probably didn’t expose himself in front of an audience that was 10,000 people deep. There are no photos of the exposure in question, and even people who were onstage at the time can’t explain what happened. Drummer John Densmore says that Morrison never exposed himself, if anyone would know it would be him. In 2010 he told The Hollywood Reporter:
He didn’t do it! I was there; if Jim had revealed the golden shaft, I would have known. There were hundreds of photographs taken and tons of cops and no evidence. Yeah, Jim was a drunk and a sensational, crazy guy, but he also was a great artist and I want him to be remembered for the art as well as the craziness.