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The Doors’ Miami Incident: What Did Jim Morrison Really Do?
Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
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The Doors’ Miami Incident: What Did Jim Morrison Really Do?

The Doors’ ‘Miami Incident’ of 1969 is one of the most notorious concerts in rock history. But what really happened? Here’s the full story…

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Whether they courted it or not, controversy was never far away from The Doors. Thanks to the cumulative success of their acclaimed, self-titled debut album and their chart-topping single Light My Fire, the Californian quartet became one of rock’s biggest bands during 1967, but trouble continually rode shotgun – and sometimes landed them on the wrong side of the law. Indeed, in December 1967, frontman Jim Morrison became the first rock star ever to be arrested onstage, at a show in New Haven, Connecticut, which ended in a riot. On that occasion, the charges filed against Morrison – obscenity and incitement to riot – were dropped, but the singer ended up in the dock following a notorious concert appearance in 1969. Usually referred to in Doors lore as the “Miami Incident”, the aftermath of this particular concert put Morrison’s liberty and his band’s future in grave jeopardy.

The “Miami Incident” has since gone down in rock’n’roll mythology. In a nutshell, it involved The Doors’ first (and last) concert in Florida, at Miami’s Dinner Key Auditorium, on 1 March 1969, during which Jim Morrison was alleged to have exposed himself. Morrison was later arraigned on multiple charges relating to what the Florida police report referred to as “lewd and lascivious behaviour in public”. But did he really do the deed? And was the posthumous pardon he received justified?

From instigating incident to career-threatening fallout, this is the full story of The Doors’ notorious concert at Miami’s Dinner Key Auditorium on 1 March 1969.

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The backstory: “The chaos actually began in LA”

With hindsight, it’s no surprise that The Doors’ Miami concert made such a splash, as the group made great copy during the late 60s. Before the band travelled to Florida, they’d topped the US charts with their third album, Waiting For The Sun, and its attendant hit, Hello, I Love You, and they were playing some of the biggest shows of their career.

Early in 1969, sessions were ongoing for the band’s fourth album, The Soft Parade, with The Doors breaking out of Los Angeles to play well-received shows in cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, in addition to a triumphant appearance in front of an estimated 24,000 people at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, on 21 January. Their upcoming Miami show, scheduled for 1 March, should have been the first date of a career-topping US tour, yet the band noted a strange vibe in the air even before they flew east.

“The chaos actually began in LA a few days before the March ’69 Miami concert,” drummer John Densmore recalled in his memoir, Riders On The Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison And The Doors. “[Band manager] Bill Siddons received word that the promoter there sold eight or nine thousand tickets at fifty cents or a dollar more than the agreed-upon price, so there were bad vibes before we even left town.”

He added: “If the promoters had been honest with us in the first place, the disaster might have been averted. If we had known then that they had a history of not paying groups, or not paying them what was promised, maybe we wouldn’t have boarded Delta Airlines for Florida. If, if, if.”

The gig: “Jim was going to confront the Doors fans!”

Nonetheless, The Doors did catch their flight east – well, all apart from their lead singer, who somehow conspired to miss take-off. Catching a later flight meant a stopover en route to Miami, so Morrison ended up in New Orleans, where he continued drinking while waiting for the final leg to Florida. He was cutting it fine. The Doors were due onstage at the Dinner Key Auditorium at 8pm local time, and Morrison only rolled up – somewhat worse for wear – at around 8.15pm. By this time, the band had discovered they were about to enter an extremely volatile arena.

Keyboardist Ray Manzarek sets the scene in his memoir, Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors: “It was a hot, southern, Tennessee Williams night in Dade County – the County of the Dead – Florida. Fifteen thousand people had been shoehorned into a decommissioned naval (appropriate) seaplane hangar that safely held ten thousand. The audience was moody and restless. The air was humid and slightly fetid. It smelled of the swamp. Of rot. There was an agitation in the mob. An expectation. They eagerly, almost hungrily awaited the ‘Kings Of Acid Rock.’”

The Doors thus steamed into their set – a little later than planned – which featured the likes of Break On Through (To The Other Side), Five To One and their usually excellent cover of Willie Dixon’s Back Door Man. Morrison, however, frequently went off-piste, interrupting the songs with drunken diatribes and ad libs. Inevitably, the crowd were also baying for Light My Fire, which the band did eventually play – after a fashion.

Eye-witness reports vary, but according to the wife of Ken Collier, one of the gig’s promoters, Morrison was “trying to incite a riot”. Talking to Rolling Stone magazine, she explained, “He was saying, ‘Let’s have a good time, let’s have a revolution, everybody come up onstage.’”

There was method in Morrison’s madness. Prior to leaving for Miami, The Doors’ frontman had attended an experimental theatre show in Los Angeles which had affected him deeply.

“Jim’s inspiration came from seeing Julian and Judith (Molina) Beck’s Living Theatre a few nights previously at the University of Southern California,” Densmore wrote in Riders On The Storm. “They were a confrontational performance group that got Jim’s creative juices flowing again and scared the shit out of me.”

As Manzarek recalled, Jim was mesmerised by the company. “He even joined the troupe onstage for the last performance. Ranting and raving himself. Leaping about the stage and shouting out his cries for freedom and power. ‘We want the world, and we want it now!’ He was exhilarated. He loved this confrontational theatre. And then the idea struck him. He was going to do the same thing! He was going to confront his audiences with these cries for freedom. He was going to confront the Doors fans! He was going to do that at our next gig… and that was Miami.”

Did Jim Morrison really expose himself onstage in Miami?

The Doors’ audience was indeed volatile in Miami that night. Photos from the event show Morrison wearing a leather hat adorned with a skull-and-crossbones; some also show him holding a baby lamb offered up to him by one crowd member during the performance. In Riders On The Storm, John Densmore also recalled that “someone from the audience threw a gallon of orange fluorescent Day-Glo paint on us”, while champagne was poured over Morrison’s head. By this stage, around 60 audience members had clambered onstage, some of whom pulled off the singer’s shirt.

“He was soaking wet,” The Doors’ then road manager, Vince Treanor, said in Densmore’s memoir. “‘Let’s see a little skin, let’s get naked,’ said he, and the clothes started to come off. I’m referring to the audience.”

However, while it has been established that Morrison did openly ask the crowd the question “Do you wanna see my cock?”, eye-witnesses, ranging from those quoted in Rolling Stone’s report, which was published on 5 April 1969, a little over a month after the concert, through all of The Doors’ personal recollections, are unanimous in their assertion that the singer absolutely did not expose himself to the crowd.

“Vince divined the situation immediately and wrestled with Jim in front of the multitude,” Ray Manzarek wrote in Light My Fire. “The shirt did come off but the pants stayed on.”

“I went out past the hi-hat and John’s snare [drum], up behind Jim,” Treanor explained, “and I put my fingers into his belt loops, twisting them, so he couldn’t unbuckle or unsnap them.”

Manzarek concludes: “Folks, he never exposed himself. But it’s become a myth, hasn’t it? It’s become an American rock and roll myth. And it’s a lot more fun to believe the myth, isn’t it? So we do.”

The reaction: “We shared beers with the local cops… There was no moral outrage”

Ultimately, The Doors’ performance in Miami ended in chaos. With the band trying to find a way to let go of the music and leave the stage, Larry Pizzi, a friend of the local promoter who had a black belt in karate, grabbed hold of Jim Morrison and flipped him off the stage and into the crowd.

“Jim was now in the middle of the auditorium, leading a snake dance with ten thousand people following him,” Densmore remembered. “I looked down from the balcony, and the audience looked like a giant whirlpool with Jim at the center. As I went into the dressing room, Bill [Siddons] came racing out.

“‘Get him out of there!’ I warned ‘He could get hurt!’ ‘That’s what I’m going to do!’ Bill screamed.”

After being extracted from the throng, Jim Morrison appeared backstage “with a group of people laughing and talking”, Densmore wrote. “He was sober now; a concert being better for a hangover than drinking several cups of coffee!”

Despite Morrison’s subsequent arraignment, the powers that be initially had no axe to grind with The Doors. On the contrary, their priority was to offer the band some hospitality.

“The Miami Incident in March 1969 would later become the most infamous episode in Doors history,” guitarist Robby Krieger would write in his memoir, Set The Night On Fire: Living, Dying And Playing Guitar With The Doors. “But after we left the stage, we shared beers with the local cops in our dressing room. There was no moral outrage. There was no scandal. There was no discussion about Jim exposing himself because it just plain didn’t happen. No one got hurt. There weren’t even any chairs to destroy because the promoters had pulled them all out to sell more tickets. The cops laughed with us about how wild the whole night had been, and when it was time for us to go they wished us well.”

The aftermath: “We were personae non gratae. We couldn’t play anywhere”

Following their show in Miami, The Doors all departed for a vacation on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. It had long been booked and had been designed as a break for the band before they continued on with their US tour. Indeed, the foursome were blissfully unaware that the Dade County Sheriff’s office had issued six warrants for Jim Morrison’s arrest, for “lewd and lascivious behaviour in public by exposing his private parts and by simulating masturbation and oral copulation”, four whole days after the show. In his absence, the singer was charged with a single felony count and three misdemeanours.

Krieger recalled, “Just before we were scheduled to return to the States to continue our tour, we got a call from Bill Siddons to tell us our concert in Miami had created a firestorm of controversy. Headlines. Criminal charges.”

“We had booked out first real tour,” Manzarek would lament. “Miami was the first gig of a twenty-city jaunt around the country. We had never previously done more than four gigs in a row. This time we were going to barnstorm the entire country. Siddons had been planning it for weeks. He had been working like a dog and done a superb job. And it all fell apart. Like falling dominoes. One after another. They all canceled… We were personae non gratae. We couldn’t play anywhere.”

Densmore was incredulous: “I couldn’t believe the charges!” he later wrote. “Yes, Jim had been drunk. But simulating oral copulation? They must have been alluding to Jim getting down on his knees to get a closer look at Robby’s fingers as he played guitar. Since he didn’t play an instrument, he was enamoured of other musicians. Later a photograph was used as evidence of this obscene act of fellatio on Robby, which was actually Jim honouring Robby’s talent.”

The court case: “It was a farce… And yet they were convinced he did it”

On returning from Jamaica, Morrison turned himself into the police, but as he was able to post bail, he remained free until a date for his hearing could be set. With the wheels of justice moving slowly, Morrison’s trial was eventually pushed back several times, allowing The Doors time to make up some of the momentum they lost after Miami.

Gradually convincing promoters to take a chance on them, the band began gigging again later in 1969, and they also used the additional time to write and record their fifth album, Morrison Hotel, a raw, ballsy record which saw the band reconnect with their blues roots.

“If there was a silver lining to the Miami Incident, it was that our canceled shows left us with nothing but time to write,” Krieger recalled in Set The Night On Fire. “We just got in the studio and jammed, and the songs came together organically.”

It was September 1970 by the time The Doors finally returned to Miami for the court case. An experienced lawyer, Max Fink, represented Jim Morrison, and The Doors all gave evidence in support of their frontman, but virtually every witness called by the prosecution was somehow connected to the police or the district attorney’s office.

“It was a farce. It was absurd. It was Kafka, Beckett, and Ionesco all rolled into one,” Manzarek wrote in Light My Fire. “One hundred fifty photos were offered in evidence but there was not a single photo of Jim’s schlong… If he had whipped it out, why was there no photo?… And yet they were convinced that he did it.”

The verdict: “How could any rational jury find him guilty?”

Incredibly, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Morrison was convicted for exposing himself, while the more minor charges for public drunkenness were dropped. Unfortunately, the singer turned down a plea bargain – which would have required the band to play a free concert in Miami – and, as a result, he was sentenced to six months in Florida’s notorious Raiford State Penitentiary and given an additional $500 fine.

However, Morrison was bailed a second time (on a $50,000 bond) and allowed to remain free while his appeal was pending. In the end, because he left for Europe following completion of The Doors’ LA Woman album, and died in Paris, on 3 July 1971, he never did see the inside of a jail. However, the simple fact the Miami jury convicted Morrison on such unreliable evidence shocked everyone around the band.

“I was in denial. How could any rational jury find him guilty?” Krieger later wrote. “But this was The System, and sometimes The System isn’t rational. And it was also Florida, where nothing ever makes sense. Jim was found guilty of indecent exposure, even though he hadn’t exposed himself, and he was found not guilty of drunkenness, even though he had been unmistakeably drunk.”

The exoneration: “It was far too little, far too late”

In retrospect, it’s easy to understand why Jim Morrison was convicted. In the climate of the times, the establishment viewed bands such as The Doors as a threat to the status quo, and the Richard Nixon-endorsed Rally For Decency, which took place in Miami ahead of Morrison’s trial, needed a countercultural icon to make an example of. In their eyes, Jim Morrison was the ideal candidate.

However, the truth will out… Eventually. In December 2010, almost 40 years after his death, Morrison was posthumously exonerated, partially due to the efforts of outgoing Florida governor Charlie Crist, who, in explaining his decision, cited lingering doubts about what really happened that fateful night at the Dinner Key Auditorium.

“Forty years later, and without technically apologising for anything, the governor of Florida arranged for Jim to receive a pardon,” Robby Krieger wrote in Set The Night On Fire. “I suppose if it’s a choice between pardoning him or letting the conviction stand, I choose the pardon, but we all felt like it was far too little, far too late. The Miami Incident began with politicians using Jim Morrison to show how righteous they were, and it ended with politicians using Jim Morrison to show how gracious they were. And that, unfortunately, is how The System works.”

“I think that was the culmination, in a way, of our mass performing career,” Jim Morrison said of the Miami gig, in his final ever interview, with Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres. “Subconsciously, I think I was trying to get that across in that concert – I was trying to reduce it to absurdity, and it worked too well.”

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