How Jim Morrison’s 1969 arrest forever altered American culture

There are stories about famous people that seem to purely exist in order to sell magazines. These usually involve people from The Bachelor, or strange feuding between people you’ve vaguely heard about, that for some reason Gloria From Down The Street will pick up with her groceries. But then there are stories about famous people that manage to somehow define the era in which they were birthed. Stories that somehow capture the cultural mood of a moment in history, and forever alter culture long after they fall off the covers of magazines.

In a world where Elvis’ pants were tight enough to inspire a national coronary, it was a spectacle of controversy.

Jim Morrison’s arrest in Miami, Florida in 1969 seemed at the time like just another rock star scandal. But the shady circumstances of his charges left a long mark on the cultural identity of the United States.

It was four days after The Doors performed at Miami’s Dinner Key Auditorium that the Dade County sheriff’s department issued a warrant for Morrison’s arrest. The charges? Lewd and lascivious behavior inspired by five misdemeanors: Morrison was alleged to have flashed the audience twice, cursed in front of the crowd, and appeared drunk on stage.

It’s enough to make you want to shatter your monocle in horror. But there was some dispute as to whether any of the above actually happened. Doors guitarist Robby Krieger denied the allegations, insisting the arrest was politically motivated, while photographs of the concert entered into evidence showed no proof of Morrison’s alleged behavior. Regardless, 1970 saw Morrison fined and sentenced to six months in prison. He never served time, but was due to appeal his conviction — something itself halted following Morrison’s death in 1971 at the age of 27.

But the incident signalled a country at the intersection of moralistic repression and sexual freedom, where activities like partying, drinking and fucking were determined to be punishable offences in the eyes of the law.

The Doors represented unbridled, un-Christian wildness, the kind to inspire all kinds of messy carnal sensations in the nation’s youth. Looking back, their reefer-smoking, crowd-flashing rep looks almost quaint. But in a world where Elvis' pants were tight enough to inspire a national coronary, it was a spectacle of controversy. Not that it inspired much long-lasting sensation.

The incident inspired a collective shrug to depictions of sex and hedonism — a shift away from puritanical gesticulating...

It’s most evident in how we today frame Morrison’s legacy. Before his death, Morrison’s legal wrangling in Florida was a national scandal, the sort of event to divide observers into those largely indifferent, and those insisting it would tip the scales into cultural Sodom if left unpunished. Anita Bryant was naturally one such name, leading a 30,000-strong rally supporting the arrest.

But upon Morrison’s death, the scandal quickly became a biographical footnote, overpowered by Morrison’s music and poetry, and the mark he left on culture, art and fashion. Rather what the Florida incident inspired was a collective shrug to depictions of sex and hedonism — a shift away from puritanical gesticulating that kept all that sexy fun locked away behind closed doors.

There will always be individuals who wag their fingers, along with times when even the most enlightened of us can’t help but feel certain depictions of sexuality are a little much. But the turnaround in Morrison’s public image following his death taught us that ultimately a lot of it is generally unimportant.

In a world seemingly forever plagued by war, violence, racism and hate, a rock star allegedly wagging his junk around on stage before a crowd of drunken concert-goers is sort of… fine. Something to raise your eyebrows over in the moment? Sure. But little but a wild moment in time. It was enough at least to convince the Florida clemency board to pardon Morrison in 2010, finally admitting that a lack of evidence and Morrison’s untimely death meant he wasn’t granted a fair trial or appeal at the time.

It’s probably strange to indicate Morrison as a pioneer of cultural indifference, but when said indifference is so radical and progressive when it comes to forms of sexual expression, it’s important to tag it on to his legacy.

By Adam White

Read more on Florida in the premiere issue of Us of America, coming November.