Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Jim Morrison, poet, songwriter and lead singer for the legendary rock band the Doors, may or may not have exposed himself to thousands of fans packed into a hall in Miami on a hot night in 1969.
The lack of clear proof and the politically charged context of the times persuaded outgoing Florida Governor Charlie Crist that an injustice might well had been done when a jury convicted him of indecent exposure and profanity, both misdemeanors.
So, at Crist’s urging, the Florida clemency board posthumously pardoned Morrison yesterday.
It comes 40 years after Morrison’s conviction and 39 years after Morrison died in a Paris bathtub at the age of 27 of an apparent heart attack, even as the verdict was on appeal.
But at least it comes. It puts Morrison in company with comedian Lenny Bruce, pardoned posthumously 37 years after his obscenity conviction.
It also gives Morrison something in common with America’s only pardoned president, Richard Nixon. Morrison’s offense against decency occurred early in Nixon’s presidency, years before he’d be run out of office on allegations of constitutional crimes.
But before Nixon faced his own downfall, he put himself firmly on the side of those who condemned Morrison’s apparent lack of morals, as you will see.
Morrison’s case bore all the signs of a political prosecution, a rebuke from the cultural right to punish a symbol of Dionysian rebellion.
Drugs, Sex, Rock
Traditional standards of decency and order seemed to be falling apart all over America in the 1960s. Civil rights and political leaders were getting assassinated. Urban riots were setting cities on fire while young folks were protesting war and getting high.
And they were listening to drug and sex-themed rock and roll that their parents found deeply disturbing, when they could understand the lyrics. Rock concerts, including some of the Doors’, had broken into riots.
This was the background when, on March 1, 1969, Morrison’s drunken, verbally abusive and sexually provocative performance produced near riotous chaos.
Morrison sang very little but he did a lot of ranting and invoking of four-letter words. He harangued the audience, calling them “idiots” and “slaves.” He cuddled a lamb someone had brought to the concert.
Drenched in champagne, he took off his shirt and urged the audience to strip. He teased them as if he was going to haul out his manhood, saying that was what they had come to see, after all. And he acted as if he had given them what they wanted.
Some would later say they saw it. Some, even those close enough to tell, swore it never happened. Either way, it wasn’t Morrison’s finest hour.
However objectionable, the performance probably would have passed as a footnote in rock history had it not been for a scathing Miami Herald review, and the outrage the article inflamed.
“The hypnotically erotic Morrison flaunted the laws of obscenity, indecent exposure and incitement to riot,” the newspaper reported, “appearing to masturbate in full view of his audience, screaming obscenities and exposing himself.”
The article slammed police for not intervening, according to a Morrison biography, “Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison,” by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky. The book is the chief source of my description of the concert and its aftermath.
Thus, the Doors and, more specifically, Morrison and the Miami show became a battle cry for conservatives in the culture war of the late 1960s.
Rally for Decency
Politicians claimed Morrison was out to poison and pervert America’s youth. Some 30,000 people poured into the Orange Bowl for a Rally for Decency. Celebrity headliners included singer Anita Bryant, long before she mounted her anti-homosexual campaign in the 1970s.
President Nixon, then in office for about three months, called the rally’s organizers to congratulate them. He had been elected on a law-and-order campaign, and there was no question which side of the cultural war he occupied.
The head of the Greater Miami Crime Commission called for a grand jury investigation into what he called “a conspiracy to corrupt the morals of our youth.”
There was no such criminal statute, of course, but the grand jury did what it could with what it had.
At trial, testimony was mixed as to whether Morrison had actually pulled out his penis for viewing or only pretended to. He denied it, and of the many photos taken that night, none showed it exposed.
With that kind of evidence, you’d expect reasonable doubt. What resulted looks a lot like a compromise verdict. The jury acquitted Morrison of a felony and other charges, but convicted of two misdemeanors.
Miami was supposed to have been the opener of a 20-concert tour for the Doors, but city after city cancelled. Radio stations stopped playing their records, at least for a while. Morrison’s relationships with other band members soured.
For Morrison and for the Doors, the conviction was the beginning of their end.
Yesterday’s action pardons Morrison for what he may or may not have done without drawing a conclusion.
It doesn’t pardon those people who, in their drive for decency, accomplished an indecent act.
(Ann Woolner is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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