This is the second installment of the Subversive Bands series from HistoryDojo. Please find the first installment on John Lennon here.
In the files the FBI, historians like myself can find a rich trove of salacious material. I highly recommend that you check out the archives of the FBI for yourself. Here is the link. Feel free to stroll through the files detailing the political suppression and silencing of any alternative voices the the FBI has led on for the last eighty years. It makes for some great reading, and might just cause many people to rethink their loyal trust of this government agency, who defense of our nation is often misunderstood as innocent of any bias.
The investigation into bands determined to be subversive is just one example of this abuse of trust and power by the FBI.
In the first installment of the Subversive Banks series by Historydojo, we examined how the anti-war activism of John Lennon got him into trouble with the Bureau, and he was nearly deported because he dared to challenge the violence of the Vietnam War.
In the case of The Doors, and specifically the lead singer, Jim Morrison, the FBI’s interest was less in dense of America’s foreign policy and instead more in line with maintaining the Bureau’s standards of decency.
Here is a screen capture of a letter from the FBI’s files about the subversive nature of the “excretory matter” that the Doors represented:
The virulence of the language here is notable, especially considering that this was only a few decades after the Holocaust. Nevertheless, to the leadership generation of the post World War Two generation, music such as Jim Morrison and the Doors was “the filthiest and most vulgar thing the human mind could conceive.”
Jim Morrison came to the attention of the FBI after nearly exposing himself on stage oin Miami. It is debatable wheter he did, and members of the Doors deny it ever happened. Nevertheless, Morrison was arrested for indecency, and the FBI became involved.
At the time when the FBI was investigation many of these “subversive bands” the United States was undergoing a generation shift, moving from the “greatest generation” to the “baby boomer” generation. The young college students were challenging the government of the United States to reflect their younger perspective, changing the standards by which the nation had governed itself during the preceding thirty years.
Rock and Roll music was the artistic form of this rebellion change. Since Chuck Berry had first burst onto the scene with his swinging guitar and slick hip-focused dance moves, the mainstream standards censors had been struggling with how to react to the rise of “black music”, because rock and roll had come from African American artists.
The source of the music being from a non-white origin made it threatening in the eyes of the FBI, who had take the position of defending the “American way of life” as it defined it from all changes or “threats. Rock and Roll was considered a threat because it was attractive to white youth and come from a non-white source. It implied inherent mixing of races, sexuality and anti-authoritarianism. These could not be allowed, in the eyes of the FBI and it’s supreme leader, J.Edgar Hoover.
To us now, such a reaction is silly, but for historians it is notable of the time. The gross exaggeration of this letter reveals just how conformist and repressive the post war era really was. Today, little is shocking to the senses. The President routinely mocks African Americans, women, veterans and even the physically handicapped, and yet maintains a near majority of support from the American people.
Seventy years ago, singing about youthful rebellion sparked an investigation in the name of national security interests. The contrast from then to now is revealing for how far we have come, and helps us to ponder if standards exists any longer, and whether new standards might be needed.
I once visited the grave of Jim Morrison in Paris. The idea came to my friend and I to go and see the famous site where this momentary rock legend is buried while we were travelling through Europe after college. Staying in Paris for two weeks was wonderful, but after hitting the major tourist sites, and running low on money, the idea of going to the cemetery to see the grave of the Doors front man was something else to do in Paris that we had not already done.
I thought it would be funny to place a pornographic magazine on his grave, both as a joke about Jim Morrison’s sexual artistry and his challenge to decency laws, but also to laugh at the people who were sitting around his grave, looking sad and forlorn. Morrison had been dead nearly thirty years at that point, and unless you believed he was living in Tibet with Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, we wasn’t coming back anytime soon.
I laid the magazine on his headstone and there was an audible gasp from the other visitors. I didn’t bother staying long, and I am sure the magazine was promptly removed. Nevertheless, it represents to me a youthful act of rebellion and a statement about mainstream decency. I sometimes regret doing it, but at the time I was having fun, being young in Paris. In many ways that is exactly what Jim Morrison and the Doors represented to their many fans. They were icons of youth, coming of age, and challenging the standards that were handed down from an older generation.