The Doors' challenging year: 1969

Mayhem, Miami and 'The Soft Parade' present challenges for Jim Morrison and The Doors in 1969.
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 The Doors (Photo by Estate of Edmund Teske/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Doors (Photo by Estate of Edmund Teske/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

By Gillian G. Gaar

Two years after The Doors'breakthrough in 1967 with “Light My Fire” and their debut album The Doors, 1969 saw the group plunged into controversy, with the resulting turmoil almost breaking up the band. Though they were back on track by the year’s end, it was nonetheless a trying time. After the band’s lead singer, Jim Morrison, was arrested on charges of lewd behavior and indecent exposure following a concert in Miami, the tour meant to promote their upcoming album, The Soft Parade, was cancelled. And when the album was finally released, it failed to do as well as the band’s previous albums, with every single released post-Miami failing to even crack the Top 40.

At the time of its release, The Soft Parade also faced criticism that The Doors were abandoning their rock roots; the songs not only featured horns, but also a string section. That hadn’t hurt the pop friendly single “Touch Me”; released in December 1968, it reached No. 3. But when the album came out, judgment was swift. Rolling Stone was particularly harsh, writing, “The Soft Parade is worse than infuriating, it’s sad. It’s sad because one of the most potentially moving forces in rock has allowed itself to degenerate.” The band’s keyboardist, Ray Manzerak, begged to differ, saying, “The Soft Parade is Doors music just like all the other albums. We just brought in a little whipped cream to put over the top.” But even guitarist Robby Krieger later admitted, “I’d like to re-release that album without any of the horns or strings.”

Now the fans will be able to decide for themselves. The 50th anniversary reissue of the album, set for October 18, will not only have a remastered version of the album (by Bruce Botnick, the band’s original engineer and mixer), but will also feature “Doors only” mixes of the album tracks (some with a new guitar overdub from Krieger). The reissue will feature more bonus material as well, offering a greater look than ever before at the painstaking process of making the record, which spanned 10 months — the longest time The Doors ever spent in the studio working on an album.

The first Soft Parade session was held in July 1968, when the band recorded the tribal stomper “Wild Child.” Regular sessions commenced in October. But Morrison was no longer composing material at the rate he’d previously been, one reason the sessions went on for so long. “Jim was really not interested after about the third album,” the band’s producer, Paul Rothchild, observed. “When we made The Soft Parade, it was like pulling teeth to get Jim into it.”

There were ultimately nine songs; four each from Morrison and Krieger, as well as “Do It,” which the two co-wrote. There was the occasional disagreement, as when Morrison argued about a line in Krieger’s utopian song “Tell All the People”: “Can’t you see me growing/get your guns.” As Krieger explained, “He was afraid of people coming to our shows with guns.” Krieger refused to change the line, and Morrison ultimately sang the song as written. But he insisted the album’s tracks should have individual songwriting credits; previously songs had been jointly credited to the group. Krieger did take Morrison’s lyrical advice regarding “Touch Me,” which had originally been titled “Hit Me”; Morrison suggested he change the title to something more positive.

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The plan for the new year was to record the album in between live performances. The band’s first show of 1969 saw them making their debut at Madison Square Garden on January 24. Like the show at the Forum in Inglewood, California, in December 1968, the band added a bass player, and a horn and string section to their lineup. And in contrast to his earlier lean-shaven look, Morrison now had a full beard, the first sign of his chipping away at his rock star image; he had put on weight as well. As always, he enjoyed playing with the crowd; when he hurled his leather jacket into the audience, it was torn apart in a frenzy.

There was a six-week break until the next show. “Wishful Sinful” was released as a single in February, its romantic lyric embellished by soaring strings and an English Horn solo; it reached No. 44. Morrison was now spending more of his time drinking; it was one reason he’d put on weight, and had also contributed to his lack of interest in songwriting. Now it began causing him legal problems; on February 7, he was arrested for drunk driving.

Album sessions continued. On February 25, fueled by a dinner of Mexican food and beer, the band recorded an extended jam that included improvisational sequences as well as a few snatches of rock ‘n’ roll, like “Mystery Train” and “Love Me Tender,” though according to Manzarek, the best parts of the jam weren’t recorded, due to a reel change. The sprawling number was later given the name “Rock Is Dead.” Various edits of the session have appeared on bootlegs over the years, with a 16-minute edit released on the 1997 Box Set. The Soft Parade reissue will feature the track in its entirety.

Morrison then found inspiration in the antics of the experimental theater troupe The Living Theatre, whose provocative shows, which featured obscenities and nudity, often got the company in trouble with the authorities. When the troupe came to Los Angeles at the end of February, Morrison bought tickets to each of their four performances. On the night of the 28th, the company performed their best-known piece, Paradise Now, during which the cast moved through the audience, citing societal rules that impinged on their personal freedom, such as not being allowed to smoke marijuana, or take off one’s clothes. Morrison was mesmerized, and eagerly joined in when the audience was asked to participate; with his beard, most people didn’t realize it was Jim Morrison.

He then brought The Living Theatre’s freewheeling anarchy to The Doors’ next show, March 1 in Miami, the first date of what was to be a two-month tour. Morrison arrived late, and very drunk, having missed his first plane and passing the time while waiting for the next plane by drinking, and continuing to imbibe as he traveled across the country.

The scene at Miami’s Dinner Key Auditorium was fraught; 13,000 people had been stuffed into a space meant for 7,000, then were kept waiting for hours. A drunken Jim bawled his way through the set, barely singing more than a few lines from any song. In between, he ranted and berated the audience for what he saw as their complacency: “Letting people push you around! How long are you gonna let them push you around!”

Then he started taking off his clothes. When he removed his shirt, the band’s roadie, Vince Treanor, ran out on stage and hooked his fingers into the belt loops of Morrison’s trousers to hold them up. Morrison nonetheless teased the crowd, holding his shirt in front of him and “flashing” the audience, though no one who was close to him, including the other band members, thought he actually exposed himself.

The promoter tried to stop the show, and the house lights were turned on. Fights broke out in the audience, and the band left the stage as it began teetering. Morrison had been pushed into the crowd, and soon began leading people in a dance around the main floor. He finally escaped to a balcony, then disappeared backstage. The show was over.

What exactly transpired that night would be much debated, but at the time no one thought anything was amiss. With the next show not scheduled until March 9, the band took a break, Manzarek and his wife flying to Guadeloupe, while Morrison, Krieger and drummer John Densmore headed for Jamaica.

But in Miami, trouble was brewing. On March 3, the Miami Herald claimed that “Morrison appeared to masturbate in full view of the audience, screamed obscenities, and exposed himself,” and the story began to spread. The FBI took an interest, filing a report that stated in part, “MORRISON’s program lasted one hour, during which time he sang one song and for the remainder he grunted, groaned, gyrated and gestured along with inflammatory remarks. He screamed obscenities and exposed himself, which resulted in a number of people on stage being hit and slugged and thrown to the floor.” On March 5, Miami police issued an arrest warrant, charging Morrison with drunkenness, open profanity, lewd and lascivious behavior, and indecent exposure. Morrison was also hit with federal charges for “interstate flight,” even though the Miami warrant hadn’t been issued until after he’d already left Florida.

The tour fell apart. “A black cloud descended over The Doors,” Jac Holzman, president of the band’s record label, Elektra, later said. “Jim had made this wrenching, violent move for reasons I’m not sure even he himself knew, although I thought that down deep it all made some kind of sense to him.” Jim echoed this view when he spoke to Circus magazine in October 1970, saying, “I think I was just fed up with the image that had been created around me in which I sometimes consciously and most of the time unconsciously cooperated with it. It just got too much for me to really stomach and so I just put an end to it in one glorious evening.”

But that was speaking with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, Morrison seemed less clear about his motivations; while Doors manager Bill Siddons recalled him saying, “Uh-oh, I think I exposed myself out there” after the show, Manzarek remembered him playing innocent the next day: “Did I do anything wrong? I don’t remember a thing. I had a lot of drinks and don’t remember getting to Miami.” But he told his girlfriend Pamela Courson that he had exposed himself, explaining, “Honey, I just wanted to see how it looked in the spotlight.”

 Jim Morrison. Photo by Estate of Edmund Teske/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Jim Morrison. Photo by Estate of Edmund Teske/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

“Jim, he was so engaging, and if he did something bad, he would always be so sorry and then you would just forgive him immediately and forget about it,” Krieger said in 2017, though he admitted, “It just happened more often as time went on.” But the fallout from the Miami bust couldn’t be easily forgotten. The federal charges were quickly dealt with. Morrison turned himself in to the FBI’s L.A. office on April 4, where he was arrested and released on bail; the charges were dropped by the end of the month. The Miami case wouldn’t go away as easily. After further negotiations, Morrison turned himself in to the Miami authorities on November 9; he was arrested, released on bail, with a trial was set for the following year.

With the tour cancelled, The Doors returned to working on The Soft Parade. It was Krieger’s songs that featured the string overdubs; Morrison’s numbers were more “classic Doors.” The insinuating “Shaman’s Blues” would have fit nicely on either The Doors or Strange Days. Krieger’s “Runnin’ Blue” was one of the oddest Doors songs, opening with an acapella tribute to Otis Redding, then becoming a bluegrass romp in the choruses. “The Soft Parade” was the epic closing track, opening with Morrison’s startling transformation into a fire and brimstone preacher, followed by nearly 10 minutes of surrealistic poetry against a continually changing musical backdrop. The Soft Parade reissue will also include previously unreleased outtakes from the sessions, including an early version of “Roadhouse Blues” with Manzarek on lead vocals.

In April, The Doors made a return to performing. The band flew to New York, for an April 28 appearance on the TV show Critique, on what was then called the National Educational Television network (the forerunner of the Public Broadcasting Service; PBS). The band played a six song set: “Tell All the People,” “Alabama Song,” which segued into “Back Door Man,” “Wishful Sinful,” “Build Me a Woman” (which would later appear on Absolutely Live) and a rare performance of “The Soft Parade.” Morrison was the most animated for this number, strolling around the stage, moving in time to the music, even making a few jumps.

The next day, they returned to the studio to record an interview with host Richard Goldstein. They didn’t talk about Miami for legal reasons; instead, the band members spoke about the potential of rock concerts to generate a feeling of community, and the political apathy of American audiences compared to their European counterparts. Morrison, looking tired and wearing sunglasses, called the blues and country America’s only indigenous music, adding, “I guess what’s happening now is that rock is kinda dying out and everyone’s going back to their roots again. Some are going back into country and some are going back into basic blues” — foreshadowing The Doors’ own musical direction on their next album.

“Tell All the People” was released in May; the song fared even worse than “Wishful Sinful,” peaking at No. 57. Around this time, Morrison gave an extensive interview to Jerry Hopkins (who would become his future biographer) for Rolling Stone, hoping it would help revamp his, and the band’s, image. It was a thoughtful interview, with Morrison talking about manipulating the media (admitting that, “it can turn on you”), and why he enjoyed provoking people at concerts (“Let’s just say I was testing the bounds of reality. I was curious to see what would happen”), among other topics. He was especially pleased that Rolling Stone agreed to publish one of his new poems, “An American Prayer,” alongside the interview.

There were also a few live performances. Morrison made an impromptu appearance at L.A. club the Whisky a Go Go, and read his poetry at a few events, including a fundraiser benefitting Norman Mailer’s New York City mayoral bid on May 30 and 31. The latter event also featured a screening of The Doors documentary Feast of Friends; following the screening, Morrison and Krieger performed a few numbers.

In mid-June, The Doors finally returned to full-scale live performances with shows in Chicago and Minneapolis. They were warned they had to be on their best behavior, and agreed to toe the line; when fans heckled Morrison in Minneapolis with shouts of “Take it off!,” he responded with a jocular, “No, you ain’t gonna get that one again!” The same month, the band made their only appearance in Mexico, performing for four nights at a supper club called the Forum, with a modest capacity of 1,000. The Mexican audiences were especially receptive to the spoken-word section of “The End.” “They literally rocked the rafters loose,” Variety said in its review of the engagement.

The Soft Parade was finally released in July, with an understated cover shot by Joel Brodsky of the four neatly attired Doors grouped around a camera tripod. Despite the mixed critical reception, the album still reached the Top 10, peaking at No. 6, and gave the band yet another gold record, showing that the recent controversies hadn’t damaged the band too much. But pulling yet another single off the album was certainly ill advised; “Runnin’ Blue,” released in August, only made it as far as No. 64.

There were 13 further live shows between July and October. The band’s three shows at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood on July 21 and 22 were their first gigs in the L.A. area since the Forum show the previous December, and were set up to record a live album. Attendees at the sold out shows also received a copy of a new poem by Morrison: “Ode to L.A. While Thinking of Brian Jones — Deceased,” dedicated to the founding member of The Rolling Stones who’d drowned in the swimming pool at his home in England on July 3.

It was the first time L.A. audiences had seen a fully bearded, heavier Morrison; “more the rabbinical student than the Sex God,” as the Los Angeles Free Press observed. But the publication also lauded the performance, describing Morrison’s singing as “better than even his greatest fans thought he could sing.” Cash Box agreed, calling the show “one of the best and most powerful exhibitions of music performance ever witnessed locally.” It was ultimately felt that the recordings didn’t adequately capture the feeling of The Doors’ live performance; they wouldn’t be released officially until 2001.

Yet inconsistency also plagued the band when they performed live. Led Zeppelin shared the bill with The Doors on July 27 at the Seattle Pop Festival (actually held in the neighboring suburb of Woodinville). The band’s lead singer, Robert Plant, had been looking forward to seeing the group, but came away disappointed. He told the New Musical Express that Morrison seemed, “screwed up … [he] did all those things that I suppose were originally sexual things but as he got dirtier and more screwed up, they just became bizarre … It seemed that he realized the Doors were on the way down.”

The band got better notices when they played the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival festival on September 13, following a set by John Lennon, making his first full concert appearance without The Beatles, heading up the Plastic Ono Band with his wife, Yoko Ono. The Globe and Mail wrote that though the band “seemed rather down,” nonetheless “Morrison’s greatness as a performer still is evident, in his bursts of movement, and the exciting climax at the end.” The band’s final live show of the year was October 4 in Las Vegas.

No sooner had Morrison returned from Miami in November, having been released on bail, he landed in more legal difficulties, when he was arrested on November 11 for being drunk and disorderly on a flight from L.A. to Phoenix to see The Rolling Stones; now he was again facing federal charges. But the band had also begun working on their next album, Morrison Hotel, which would be completed in January 1970, and see The Doors returning to the blues music they’d always loved. The band had weathered the storms of 1969, and, with Soft Parade, showed that they were still interested in stretching out musically, as they would continue to do on their next two albums with Jim Morrison as well. The Soft Parade offers a window into this transitional period.

The Doors’ ‘Soft Parade’ hits 50 with box set announcement