May 10, 1968: The Doors’ First Riot at Chicago Coliseum

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Morrison Onstage: Riot in Progress?

While still a student at Florida State University (FSU) Jim Morrison took a class in the psychology of crowds. Along with his own independent reading of Norman O. Brown’s book “Life Against Death,” Morrison came to the conclusion that crowds, just like people, could have sexual neuroses, and like people those neuroses could be diagnosed and treated. To prove his theory he tried to enlist some friends into disrupting a speaker by strategically placing them in the crowd and at appropriate moments in the speech shouting slogans that could “cure” the crowd, make love to it, or cause it to riot. His friends declined to take him up on the offer.

At UCLA, Morrison and film school friend Dennis Jakob told people they were going to start a band called “The Doors: Open and Closed.” Thwarted in his previous attempts to influence crowd psychology, did Jim Morrison come to the conclusion that through rock and roll he had found a way to prove his theories on crowds? Did he find the perfect position to influence crowds, in front of an audience? To cure them? To make love to them? To cause them to riot? On May 10, 1968, a riot broke out at The Doors’ concert at the Chicago Coliseum in what may have been the first consciously created riot by Jim Morrison.

Chicago Coliseum, late 1950s
The Chicago Coliseum, from a postcard in the late 1950s

May of 1968 was the beginning of Morrison’s dissatisfaction with being a rock star. The Doors wasn’t becoming what Morrison had envisioned, a mixture of theatre and poetry. The Doors were becoming ‘pop stars.’ “Light My Fire” had become Billboard’s number one song the summer before and Morrison was appearing in teeny-bopper, teenage heartthrob magazines such as “16” instead of serious writeups in underground papers. Furthermore, The Doors’ third album, which was to include Morrison’s tour-de-force “Celebration of the Lizard,” was unraveling.

The Doors at the Chicago Coliseum Promo Poster

At the Chicago Coliseum, Morrison was escorted to the stage by a phalanx of Chicago police who in August of ‘68 would be accused of a riot of their own in dispersing the yippie (Youth International Party) demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention. As Morrison took the stage he was greeted by an eruption from the crowd. The Doors played songs most suited for stirring a reaction from the crowd: “Unknown Soldier,” “Break on Through,” “Five to One,” and “When the Music’s Over.” Morrison used every trick of stage performance he had learned: writhing, falling, leaping, throwing himself to the ground, and sliding the maracas into his pants. One instance of this was during “Five to One” when Morrison came to the lyric “they got the guns” he pointed at the guns the police lining the stage were wearing. When The Doors left the stage, the crowd, wanting more, rushed the stage and destroyed it.

Some music, footage, and photos from the concert:

In “Peace Frog,” one of Morrison’s most autobiographical songs, Morrison lists some very personal references to his past. First comes Venice where of course he had the rooftop visions that produced The Doors’ first songs. The second is New Haven where Morrison became the first rock star arrested onstage. The most personal reference in “Peace Frog” is the ‘Indians bleeding on dawn’s highway’ section which recounts the accident Morrison witnessed as a child where he thought the soul of an Indian may have jumped into his.

The final reference in “Peace Frog” is Chicago. Most people assume Chicago is there as reference to the Chicago police riots of August 1968. But why would Morrison include a more historical reference amid the extremely personal references? Could it be that Morrison had his performance at the Chicago Coliseum in mind when writing “Peace Frog?” A concert Morrison considered on par with the events of Venice Beach and New Haven, his first consciously provoked riot.

Originally published May 10, 2015.

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