50 years ago, The Doors’ singer was maced backstage by the cops and then arrested while performing – we take a look at the events that led to the arrest, including new details that have come to light
The reasons, causes and explanations vary but the video does not lie. Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors—the Lizard King, Mr. Mojo Risin’—was arrested on stage by New Haven police on Dec. 9, 1967.
Like so many things in Morrison’s too-short life, the event in New Haven has taken on the stuff of legend. On the 50th anniversary of this event, PKM revisits this magic moment. Memory plays tricks on us all, and even those who were there at the New Haven Arena that night seem to view the events through a hazy lens. Many others who heard about the arrest second hand chalked it up, in the context of those tumultuous times, to “The Man” “busting The People’s music.”
Here’s some silent 8mm footage of the actual arrest shot by Aaron Lipstadt:
Danny Sugarman, in his myth-making Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive (still in print, somehow, after 37 years), didn’t even get the year correct, attributing it to a Dec. 9, 1968 concert. This throws into question his entire account of the events backstage that led to the Mace-ing, roughing up and then, later, the arrest of Morrison—the first time in rock ‘n’ roll history a performer has been arrested on stage. Oliver Stone must have taken Sugarman’s book as gospel because he, too, has the New Haven Arena show depicted as happening in 1968 in his myth-making and much-criticized film The Doors.
Ray Manzarek, the Doors’ keyboard player, claims in his book Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, that, before the concert, Morrison and a young woman were backstage talking in a hallway. Seeking more privacy, Morrison took the woman into the restroom connected to one of the dressing rooms. A police officer found them in there and told them to leave, Morrison provoked the cop (allegedly telling him to “eat it” while grabbing his crotch), the cop responded by Mace-ing Morrison. By the time Morrison made his way back to the hallway, he was blinded and in pain. After a long delay, the Doors went onstage.
Once the band got into their set, a belligerent and vengeful Morrison launched into a well-documented rant during “Back Door Man.” In the rant, Morrison can be heard calling the police officers that ringed the stage “pigs” and “little blue men in little blue hats.” He told the audience about his backstage encounter: “I want to tell you about something that happened just two minutes ago right here in New Haven… this is New Haven, Connecticut, United States of America?” He explained that he’d been Maced and was blinded for about half an hour. Just as he shouted, “the whole fucking world hates me!” the band kicked back into the melody of “Back Door Man”.
Thirty seconds later, the house lights were turned on. The crowd grew restless, and Morrison egged them on. A police officer, Lt. Kelly, approached Morrison on stage. Morrison held the microphone out to him and exhorted him to “Say your thing, man!” Kelly grabbed the microphone and other officers entered from the wings, grabbed Morrison, dragged him offstage and arrested him on charges of indecency, inciting a riot and public obscenity. The police also arrested a photographer from Life magazine (allegedly for taking a picture of a cop roughing up a teenager), and two reporters for the Village Voice. (The charges were later dropped against all four).
We have recently learned that the events leading up to Morrison’s arrest were weirder than we’ve been led to believe. According to a number of sources, the whole thing started with a fracas Morrison had with the opening act, a Connecticut-based band called Tommy & the Rivieras. It was a shower room adjoining their dressing room into which Morrison took his lady friend for privacy.
The only people still alive who were present during the encounter in the dressing room are the young woman who was with Morrison when he was Maced and the members of the Rivieras—who are still touring as a “nostalgia act”. (Had Morrison lived, does anyone believe The Doors would be playing the “nostalgia” circuit?). The identity of the young woman was a source of mystery in the ensuing years. New Haven Register columnist Randall Beach thought he’d tracked her down in 2003, having learned, from the original police report, that her name was Sandy Spodniak. This proved to be a misspelling of her name (it’s Spodnik), which made finding her difficult. Someone purporting to be a retired police detective contacted Beach but then demanded $3,500 and claimed that Rolling Stone was going to put him and the alleged woman in question on its cover. As Beach indicates in a column published 12/7/17 in the New Haven Register, he did make contact with Spodnik eventually but she refused to talk.
Earlier this year, Tommy Janette—the “Tommy” of the Rivieras—gave an interview to a reporter for WTNH News 8 in New Haven in which he offers his account of that night. At the time of the 1967 concert, Janette was 22 and his band had opened for other hit bands before then, including the Beach Boys. This was a similar gig for them—just warm up the crowd, don’t try to bring down the house, etc. About the Doors, Janette says, implausibly, “They were a new group…we didn’t know them.”
Is he kidding? The members of the Rivieras had to have known who Morrison was. By December 1967, The Doors were the most popular American rock band on the planet. “Light My Fire” had ripped through the charts all summer long and Strange Days, their second album, had been released three months earlier and was climbing the charts. That the opening act called the cops on THE VERY REASON they even had their gig is, at best, hard to believe and, at worst, ridiculously dumb. It would be like opening for The Beatles and—before you even step on stage—calling the cops on John Lennon for flipping you the finger.
The venue, the New Haven Arena, was originally built as a sports coliseum so its layout was not necessarily conducive to rock shows.
“It was aimed at sports events,” Janette told WTNH. “They’d have jamborees there where 50 teams would compete. So they had a dressing room attached to a bathroom, attached to a dressing room attached to a bathroom…all the way around the building. Theoretically, you could walk in one door and just keep opening doors and make your way all the way around.”
That, apparently, is how Morrison ended up in the bathroom attached to the Rivieras’ dressing room. He didn’t actually see, or bother them, until they called the cops on him. Janette admits as much: “Why he didn’t just knock on the door and open it is beyond me. There were ten of us in the room, we weren’t being quiet, disc jockeys were there, hair stylists. He chose to go in the door and grope the girl about two feet away from where we were with the door shut.”
And yet, why would Morrison want to open the door to their dressing room? So that the Rivieras could watch him make out with the girl?
Finally, when nature called, a member of the Rivieras entered the bathroom. He came back and told Janette, “There’s a long-haired dude in there.”
A young rock ‘n’ roll musician opens the door to the bathroom, sees Jim Morrison and surmises that it’s “some long-haired dude” and not the most famous rock star on the planet? Again, this seems implausible.
The musician reportedly told Morrison and the girl to get out of the bathroom. Morrison told him, in so many words, to go away.
At this point, Janette said, “I opened the door to the hallway and said to the cop standing there, ‘Could you go in and clear my bathroom?’ We have these new clothes on with no pockets…all of our wallets, cash and car keys out on a table. So [the cop] walked in, said to Morrison and the girl ‘you can’t be back here, you have to go’.”
Morrison told the cop the same thing he told the Rivieras.
“That’s when I went over and was two feet away,” said Janette. “We had never met the guy. Who knew who he was?” [Only every American male and female under the age of 25!] Janette had never met John Lennon either, but he would sure know who he was if he found him in his bathroom.
According to Janette, the cop told Morrison, “This is your last chance to clear out.” And Morrison responded, “This is your last chance to eat me.”
At that point, Janette says he opened the door to the hallway and shouted “fight!” and the cops poured into the Rivieras’ dressing room to subdue the star of the show, the single person on the premises that justified the crowd sitting out there in the arena seats and all the extra pay the cops were getting. In short, he called for a phalanx of cops to help subdue biggest rock star on the planet in December 1967 because…well, it does not really make sense.
Janette watched as the cops Maced and “knocked the hell out of Morrison…and the girl ran off…probably back to her mother who was wondering where she’d gone…” The cops hustled the battered Morrison out of the dressing room and, according to Janette, “Everything was fine until Morrison decided he would not go out on stage until the mayor and chief of police of New Haven came and personally apologized to him.”
Needless to add, the concert promoters were frantic and asked the Rivieras to stretch out their set in order to facilitate negotiations with the stars of the show.
The Rivieras had a 10-person stage act, with three backup singers. They did their entire repertoire and ran out of material and they were being booed.
Though Janette claims the Doors finally got on stage at about 11:45 p.m., other concertgoers don’t remember it being that late. Janette also claims that the arena owner wanted the show over by midnight, to avoid having to pay the cops and his staff overtime.
Just as Morrison launched into his lengthy tirade about his treatment at the hands of the cops during “Back Door Man,” the house lights came on. The police surrounded the stage and arrested Morrison. With a laugh, Janette said, “It was the first time in history a professional performer was arrested on stage in the middle of a performance. He made history.”
Janette claims that “the keyboard player took a swing at a cop,” which is highly unlikely, as Ray Manzarek was the oldest, most mature person on that stage and had, just before the arrest, told Morrison to cool it down because he was pissing off the cops. Indeed, if Manzarek had taken a swing at a cop, he would have been arrested on the spot, but he wasn’t arrested (Morrison was the only Door arrested). The police then began tossing people “down the hole,” which was a 15-foot drop from the stage to the lower level where the dressing rooms were located. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, though tossing a suspect down a 15-foot hole would seem to fit the description of “police brutality.”
Janette defended the arrest of the three journalists by saying, “The press did what the press always does, got in the way of the police. The cops started arresting them, too.” Then the police officer that Janette had initially asked to take care of Morrison approached him and said, “Tommy, you called me into your dressing room, so you’re the complainant”.
“So I said, ‘OK, I’ll be the complainant.’ He said, ‘I just want you to sign the arrest paper’. So I signed, we loaded up and went to our next gig. It never dawned on me that this was a big deal.”
In The Jailhouse with Jim Morrison
It was a big deal to Bob Hagerty who, at age 16, attended the concert. When the lights were turned on inside the arena, Hagerty left because he had to catch a city bus to Westville, the New Haven neighborhood where his family lived. He had become a huge fan of the Doors that year, as were most of his friends—a loosely-bound group of teens who hung out on the New Haven Green. Before the show, in fact, he and a friend named Harvey were further elated to have run into the Doors drummer, John Densmore, outside the arena. Densmore spent a few minutes chatting with them before heading into the arena.
“That’s what the scene was like in New Haven then,” said Hagerty, now a New York-based cameraman for TV and feature films. “The musicians would walk around and talk to people. Shows at Woolsey Hall on Yale campus were very loose. Nobody made a big deal out of it. Jimi Hendrix sat out there talking to everyone before his concert. That’s how I met Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company. You could never do that now, of course.”
The encounter with Densmore made the evening even more special for Hagerty. However, little did he suspect what lay in wait.
“I was sitting close to the front during the show,” he recalls. “The place had wooden folding chairs and other areas with no chairs where people could stand. It was kind of a pit. I seemed to know about half the people in the audience! They were all the hippies who used to hang out on the Green. There were some parents in the audience too because many of the kids were technically underage. The parents had no idea what this scene was like and were probably appalled because Morrison was tossing out the f-bombs right and left.”
After the police arrested Morrison on stage and the house lights came on, Hagerty briefly witnessed the mayhem before leaving.
“People were upset inside the hall when the lights came up and the concert was cut short,” he said. “It wasn’t really a riot, but they were throwing chairs around.”
After Morrison was arrested, he was not taken to the main police headquarters but to a precinct on Court Street, a little side street not far from the arena. To catch his bus, Hagerty had to walk in that direction. His bus stop was on the corner near the police station. He noticed a crowd had gathered outside the precinct.
“People were throwing stones and shouting, still angry over the situation at the arena,” he said. “The cops from the precinct began chasing them down the sidewalk. I had my back to the precinct, keeping an eye out for the bus, and was bumped from behind. I thought it was the crowd of protesters passing by but it was a cop. He was arresting me.”
According to Janette, the cop told Morrison, “This is your last chance to clear out.” And Morrison responded, “This is your last chance to eat me.”
Hagerty was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and because he fit the description of a typical rock fan, he was handcuffed and frog-marched to the jail.
“They put me in the drunk tank, which was really a large room that could fit about ten people,” he said. “My friend Tommy Burns was in there too. I never got finger printed or had my mug shot taken. We were just waiting for our parents to come get us.”
About 20 minutes later, some police officers led Morrison into the cell after his now iconic mugshot was taken and he was fingerprinted.
“It was the greatest fanboy moment of my life,” recalls Hagerty with a laugh. “I was awestruck and had difficulty speaking. I was not impaired at all, so I remember it clearly. Morrison was clearly hammered, probably on alcohol. But he spoke fairly coherently and with clarity in that sort of 1960s hip speak, about what a hassle it had been with the cop backstage and how he was making out with the girl when ‘the pig’ Maced him. He didn’t look like he’d been beaten up, I mean, there were no cuts or bruises on his face. He said his manager [Bill Siddons] was working to get him out and even offered to have his manager try to do something to get us out.”
Hagerty and Burns were too much in awe to say much while Morrison talked. Shortly thereafter, some officers came back to let Morrison out.
“As he was leaving, he somehow found a scrap of paper and a pen and wrote something down on it and then handed it to me,” said Hagerty. “He told me, ‘If you’re ever in L.A., you can crash here’. And he handed me the paper with an address on it: 7915 Sunset Boulevard, Penthouse # 5. I later gave that piece of paper to a girlfriend. She probably threw it out.”
Later that night, when Hagerty was being released, he was advised to plead guilty to disorderly conduct, a minor misdemeanor.
“I was 16 and angry that they wanted me to say I was guilty for something I didn’t do,” he said. “But then they explained that if I didn’t plead guilty, and I was convicted, I could spend some time in jail. That scared me into my plea.”
For the next week, Tommy Burns wore a pair of brown vinyl pants around the city like the kind Morrison was wearing that night.
“He told everyone he had traded pants with Morrison when they were in the jail cell together, which was of course not true,” said Hagerty. “It was stuff like that, you know, that made me stop telling the story about meeting Morrison in the drunk tank. Nobody would believe me. But it was true. And I still maintain I was an innocent bystander!”