Jim Morrison – the rock star who flashed for freedom

It must have been something of a shock for those attending a global-warming rally this week to find themselves caught up in an international debate about a dead rock star’s penis. Before turning to the state of the planet, the governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, revealed that he had become increasingly concerned about a famous obscenity conviction of the past.

Later, when the world’s press had covered the story, the governor commented: “After reviewing the case and getting briefed on it, more and more it seems like a real injustice was done.”

The origin of Flashergate, as it has become known, is at a Doors concert in Miami in 1969. The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, was drunk and leery and, having sworn a bit and called for a revolution, he was said to have flashed the audience. “Uh-oh,” he told his manager as he came off stage, “I might have exposed myself out there.”

There was a tremendous fuss. Clean-living teenagers held a Rally for Decency which was attended by 30,000 people. That pillar of morality, President Richard Nixon, sent them a letter of support. Morrison was eventually arrested and, after a lengthy, headline-hogging trial, was found guilty of profanity and indecent exposure, and given a six-month jail sentence. He appealed but, before that could be heard, he had died from a heart attack in Paris.

For the past 40 years, a campaign has been waged to clear Morrison of the charge that he once unzipped himself on stage. At last, officialdom is paying notice and a pardon may soon be issued.

At this point, there might be one or two readers wondering quietly if, in a world teeming with injustice and cruelty, the question of whether a man, to quote a witness, “pulled out his business and started whirling it” some 41 years ago may not be the most urgent of issues facing us today. Is Flashergate really so important that it should be covered in the world’s press, explored in a lengthy New York Times report?

Apparently it is. “The battle then is the battle that’s being fought today,” another member of The Doors, Ray Manzarek, has said. “That era was the beginning of the culture wars: the straight versus the hip, the lovers versus the killers.”

Wow. Who would have thought that Jim Morrison letting it all hang out (or not) as he staggered about a stage over 40 years ago would turn out to be such an important indicator of cultural freedom? Many strange but significant events took place in the late 1960s but, until recently, that had never seemed to be one of them.

Yet perhaps Manzarek’s division of the world into the straight and the hip, killers and lovers, is not entirely dotty. Although the kind of profanity in which Morrison indulged is now more commonplace, so is moral disapproval of one kind or another. It is no longer clean-living teenagers who are rallying for decency, thank goodness, but there is no shortage of concerned, busy-body adults, willing and eager to take offence and to campaign for the source of that offence to be banned. Religious and moral objections to shows on stage or TV are now so ubiquitous that it is tempting to think that, in those culture wars, the straights have emerged as victors.

The moment has arrived for the lovers in government – people like Charlie Crist – to be heard. There are other scandals from our rock ‘n’ roll past which might be absolved by history.

The reputation of Jerry Lee Lewis, who recently celebrated his 75th birthday, has never quite recovered from the moment in 1958 when, during a tour of England, it was discovered that “the Killer”, as he liked to call himself, was married to his 13-year-old cousin. Then there is that silly story about Mick Jagger, a naked Marianne Faithfull and a chocolate bar.

These are now old men and women. It is time for ancient scandals to be out to rest, for the killers to be silenced by the lovers. If only that could happen, Jim Morrison will not have waved his todger (or not) in vain.

Independent, Friday, 19 November 2010