In a breakdown of society correlations, being a musician and being arrested go pretty much hand in hand. The reasons for this are so multifaceted that it is more befitting of a criminology course than it is for this article to get in to.
Thus, what we are focusing on this time out is the rather rare cases when a musician has been cuffed while looking around for a capo. It’s the kind of rock and roll romanticism that swells our hearts.
The stage might seem like a haven where anything goes; a sort of ‘all is fair in love and war’ platform where the rules of society are temporarily sequestered, but brave enforcement officers have, on occasion, invaded that renegade realm and slapped the cuffs on a troubadour or two.
Below we’re looking at the on five notable onstage incidents that have landed the perpetrators a spell in prison. From the righteous to the ridiculous the farcical and the ‘fair enough’.
5 musicians who were arrested mid-show:
In March 1969, Jim Morrison was arrested while in The Sunshine State performing at the Dinner Key Auditorium for allegedly exposing his Johnson while onstage. Morrison fervently denied the charge claiming the bulbous cylinder on display was merely a microphone. Whether or not he did indeed bare his spam javelin is unknown, but it landed him in the slammer regardless.
On the day of the concert, Morrison, who had been drinking heavily and had missed a connecting flight to Miami on the day of the show, arrived at the gig over an hour late as the crowd began to grow increasingly impatient. Police become restless in the conservative neighbourhood, not used to such riotous events, and tensions began to build.
According to equipment chief Vince Treanor, “somebody jumped up and poured champagne on Jim, so he took his shirt off, he was soaking wet.” Adding, “Morrison told the crowd: “Let’s see a little skin, let’s get naked” as people in the crowd began taking their clothes off. Having removed his shirt, people claimed that Morrison held it in front of his groin and started to make hand movements behind it.”
At one point in this madness, he is rumoured to have yelled, “You want to see my cock, don’t you? That’s what you came for isn’t it? Yeah!” At which point the police tugged him off stage and the rest is history… oh and they also arrest him.
Jim Morrison’s johnson clearly left its mark on the State because when Janis Joplin arrived in November, she too was arrested. In what now seems like some fictional Judd Apatow style portrayal of the times, midway through her performance, the lights went up in an attempt to quell the excitement of the crowd. Reports from the time do not indicate any specific incident that sparked the mid-show halting of the performance other than a simmering excitement that the conservative authorities worried would spill over and develop into a full-blown ‘good time’.
Fearing a knees-up en masse and the chaotic smiling hysteria that comes with it, the brave officers present did all they could to restore banal order. They clambered onto the stage and kindly asked the famed rock ‘n’ roll insouciant performer, Janis Joplin, whether she would perhaps reverse her intent and try to assist them in subduing the happy crowd into a more manageable state of ennui. In short, her response was, “fuck off.”
After a flurry of obscenities, it would seem that the officers accepted a deferral of legal order and departed the stage to the relative safety of the crowd, away from the caustic ridiculing of the foul-mouthed, bravura, Joplin. After the show, with the insults and a healthy dose of rock ‘n’ roll still ringing in their ears, the police entered Joplin’s dressing room. They sent her and her potty-mouth to a cell for the night, where she was presumably landed with the equally flimsy legal demand of washing her mouth out with soap. The charges were eventually dropped but not before she’d spent an evening in jail.
During a tour of Germany in the May of 1980 joe Strummer let frustration with CBS Records get the better of him. He took to the stage in Hamburg already clearly vexed. A rhetoric had spread among fans that the band had “sold out” on the tour proved fractious.
“In Hamburg,” Strummer told NME, “these kids attacked us, going ‘You’ve sold out, you’ve sold out’. But I figured that they hadn’t come to that conclusion, it was rather a trendy supposition that they thought ‘Oh, we’ll follow that’. I don’t think they worked it out using their own brains. A tough year. I mean, it’s changed my mind a lot. That Hamburg thing was kind of a watershed, y’know?”
Further explaining, “They were all down the front, and if they could grab hold of a microphone lead they’d pull, and it was a tug of war. And then it started getting really violent—and that was my fault in a way. How much can a man take, y’know? I was playing and I saw this guy, sort of using the guy in front of him as a punch-bag, trying to be all tough. So I rapped him on the head with a Telecaster, I just lost my temper.”
As blood gushed from the fans face the police intervened. Strummer was hauled down the cop shop and charged with “assaulting a German citizen by striking him over the head with a guitar.” At that moment he concluded, “I began to think that I’d overstepped my mark.”
While performing at New York’s Fillmore East, Pete Townshend also fell afoul of the law while up on stage. One of many such incidents for The Who. The group were in the middle of performing ‘Summertime Blues’ when a plain-clothed police officer tried to jump on stage. He began wrestling the mic from singer Roger Daltrey, who himself is no slouch with his fists, and it prompted him to defend himself abruptly. Townshend, seeing the fracas, swiped at him with a heavy boot.
What the band didn’t know, was that on the other side of the wall smoke had begun to creep into the theatre. The smoke had begun to cascade into the venue from a grocery store next door that was on fire. The undercover policeman was trying to warn all those inside of the impending danger and instead received a swift kick to the crotch from Pete Townshend.
Luckily after the band finished the song as the plain-clothes officer lay strewn on the floor, the owner of the venue was able to inform the crowd of the small fire. Everyone was safely evacuated, and the show was rescheduled for the following Sunday. Which allowed just enough time for Townshend to serve his night in prison and pay up his $30 fine.
In the Soviet Union in the late 1970s the regime had a problem on their hands as rock ‘n’ roll music began to filter into the country and the youth mobilised in secret subversive circles.
On the 14th of April, 1978, in Tbilisi, Georgia SSR. The Soviet powerhouse attempted to change the constitutional status of languages in Georgia to make Russian the official spoken tongue. They had overplayed their hand on this one, and even the threats that the might of the State brandished was not enough to suppress protest en masse.
The protestors were victorious, and the constitutional change was vetoed, but the Soviet leaders had a far bigger problem on their hands. They had effectively pulled a pin on a hand grenade of dissident and mobilised youth, and they were still holding it. Almost overnight, the underground expanded and where previously the subversive force of music was used subtly and tentatively, it now transmuted into an unmistakable snarl.
To get the youth back onside, a music festival was organised. During which the prime crop of underground acts were officially allowed to play. One such band were Aquarium and, once their raucous on-stage actions were deemed homosexual, which was illegal and persecuted in the USSR at the time, they were banned, blacklisted and placed under temporary arrest.
Aside anecdotes and a couple of deserving arrests, stories like Joplin and Aquariums are examples of music’s essential cultural voice and the rightful racket it creates in social dialogue. What might seem like an old-hat caricature of rock ‘n’ roll is still relevant today in the discourse of civil liberties. Hopefully, we will one day arrive at a time when the condemning of Colin Kaepernick’s knee-taking in a stance for freedom, liberty, and egalitarianism is deemed equally ridiculous. For now, these stories (of course barring the violence) stand as a humorous yet nettlesome examples of the joke that the future often makes of the present.