The Doors in Mexico

Culture clash, red tape, and adoring young fans south of the border

The Doors (Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison, Robbie Krieger, John Densmore), circa 1969. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Mexico City – The "foreign intrigue" had long begun when the Doors entered Mexico for what was supposed to be a series of at least six public appearances – "intrigue" that quietly linked two revolutions, that which the Doors represented in America and that of the Mexican nation itself.

By the time it was all over, several planned and announced concerts had never been held, and the unofficial explanation was that a year earlier the students of Mexico came within an hour of overthrowing the government and since that time, it had been considered wise to prevent large gatherings of young people from happening.

Of course it was never stated that the Doors were a threat (although one television executive did call them "subversive") and none of those involved in negotiation with the Doors ever hinted the reasons for cancellation of events were political. It was, rather, just a matter of manana and permits were never signed.

There were a number of noteworthy aspects to the five-day visit in June and July ... beginning over eight weeks earlier when a 31-year-old interior decorator named Mario Olmos (one of a very few Mexican nationals with a beard) said he wanted to produce a Doors concert in the Plaza Monumental, Mexico City's huge bull ring.

Tickets to the 48,000-seat arena were to be priced from five to 12 pesos (40 cents to a dollar) to enable many of the poor to attend. It was also planned that the Doors would perform a United Nations or Red Cross benefit at the Camino Real Hotel and in an expensive (but unnamed) supper club. The idea being that in one visit the Doors could perform to all levels of Mexican society.

There were additional factors making this an unusual program of events. Only three other Anglo/American groups had preceded the Doors to Mexico (Eric Burdon's Animals, the Byrds and the Union Gap) and with Mexico's pop scene largely dependent upon American rock, a visit by a leading band would be a significant event. Too, no American group had ever played more than one concert in Mexico and none had appeared in the bull ring-ever!!

There was also the matter of hair. In recent months, the shearing of hippie types has become a favorite police sport at beach resorts like Acapulco and Mazatlan, while at the border many long-haired or bearded young people reportedly had been refused entrance into the country. There also were stories about vigilante gang attacks on long-haired males in Mexico City itselt.

Lest these tales seem exaggeration based in paranoia, the Banco Nacional de Mexico recently had prohibited its employees from wearing mustaches and sideburns and the Restaurant and Hotel Workers Union had announced it would consider the mustache issue at its next national convention. The days of Emiliano Zapata—when long, drooping bandido mustaches were not only approved but nearly necesario—had passed.

So the trip was anticipated with excitement and anxiety as slowly the necessary signatures were collected on the bull ring permission form. All the signatures but that of the Regent of this city, that is. The Regent left town unexpectedly and the concert had to be rescheduled.

Mario started greasing palms (as natural in Mexico as haggling over the price of a souvenir) and worked his way to Presidente Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, who reportedly gave his verbal okay.

When the Regent returned, however, the president's verbal go-ahead disappeared in a swirl of polemic dust (and unanswered calls) and apparently the buck was passed back to the Regent, who just never got around to saying yes or no.

Manana.

Time running short before the Doors' scheduled departure from Los Angeles, Mario then went to Javier Castro, one of the Castro Brothers, a singing and guitar-picking act that played second to Cass Elliott when she appeared so briefly in Las Vegas last year. Javier, 26, owned the Forum, a 1,000-seat supper club in the city that is roughly equivalent to the Copacabana in New York, the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles.

Mario told Javier he could deliver the Doors to Javier's posh club for four nights at $5,000 a night. Together they found a friend who provided a $20,000 cashier's check to take the Doors as a guarantee, and the next morning, a Tuesday, Ultimas Noticias carried a full-page ad beralding the appearance of the Doors at the Forum that weekend.

At this point, the Doors (still in Los Angeles) did not know that the bull ring performance was becoming more and more unlikely by the minute and that they had been booked into the Forum. The first they heard of it was when Javier and Mario came waltzing into their offices Wednesday evening with the newspaper ad in their bands. The Doors were furious.

Meetings that lasted long into the night ended with the Doors agreeing to leave the next day as planned-but it was also agreed that additional appearances would be arranged, one or two in the National Auditorium (which seats 18,000), another on one of the three television stations controlled by Telesystema Mexicana, the world's fifth-largest television production complex, run by a chum of Javier's.

The Doors office that night was subtly lighted, the desk of Bill Siddons, the Doors' manager, littered with bottles and posters and Forum newspaper ads, members of the band sitting around with long faces, talking about how maybe they should have called in that psychic the week before after all. It was with minimal enthusiasm they packed that night.

"Jeem! Jeem! Where es Jeem?" The Doors walked through customs and into the lobby of Mexico City's airport. Jim Morrison's physiognomy was well-known among Mexican young people, but not in its currently bearded style.

Others spotted Ray Manzarek's wife Dorothy, who is Oriental. "Joko?" the reporters asked. "Mira [look], Joko es aqui. Where es the Beatles?"

It was a mob scene. There were dozens of photographers shouting aqui (here!) and una mas (one more!) and youngsters bearing Doors albums for autographs. Mercedes Carreno, an attractive auburn Mexican actress, was there. Along with Mario and several representatives of the Forum, one of them a woman called Malu-short for Marie Louise. She was a French and Indian woman left by her husband to raise two sons and served as the club's publicist, as well as a knowledgeable guide through darkest cultural Mexico.

Not far from the confusion of arrival, still in the customs area, two men in dark suits and tinted glasses approached Vince Treanor, the organ-playing Bach expert who serves as the Doors sound wizard. He was standing amid several tons of equipment—amplifiers, speakers, instruments, wiring, you name it—all still in crates.

"These crates will have to be opened," one of the men said.

"All of them?"

"Si."

Vince panicked and shouted for Javier. Javier came over, all smiles, took the two men for a walk.

"What you're looking at is the 1,000-peso walk," said Bill Belmont, now a resident of San Franciseo and working with Country Joe but until 1960 a resident of Mexico, and called into all this by Siddons to serve as a friend-trans-lator-arbitor. Palms were being greased again, Belmont said, and the crates were not opened.

The Doors were taken to the Hosteria "Parc des Princes," a hotel built along traditional Mexican colonial lines in the city's equivalent of Beverly Hills – a huge gate and a far Mexican guard (armed with a pistol that had a silver grip, for which he had a little plastic raincoat) to keep the nosy fans away. Chauffered Cadillac limousines (white and black) and body guards were placed at the group's disposal by the club owner.

It was a sure thing, they were told, that they'd be playing the National Auditorium. Also lots of TV. Some of them went to the city's only discotheque, EI Club, to celebrate. They stayed there until it closed, at 5 AM.

Friday there was a cursory equipment check made at the Forum and the first rumblings of what was to come were heard, as it began to look as if the four shows at the Forum were going to be all the Doors would do. (Putting this into perspective, the cost of attending one show—including dinner and the music of a few local bands—was $16 per person ... and a Mexican laborer earns 50 cents a 12-hour day.)

Still there was hope held out, of course, as Siddons and Belmont and others began what turned into a five-day meeting, with only the locations and faces changing periodically.

Meantime, there were additional rumblings about Morrison's beard. The other Doors thought this was the time to shave it off. It didn't fit, they said, and it didn't look like the Jim Morrison on the posters then being sold all over Mexico City. Siddons was asked to talk to Morrison about it, which he did. The beard stayed.

(There is no open strife within the group, but it is clear that Morrison is drifting slowly away. No longer do they socialize together. Morrison would like to record old blues songs and songs like "Heartbreak Hotel," but the other three reportedly do not. They remain friends and musical partners, but the relationship, along with the time, has changed.)

In front of the Forum, rock bands had been playing since eight o'clock and nearly a thousand persons were gathered along Insurgentes Avenue (one of many streets in Mexico City with revolutionary names) to listen and to watch. The entire front of the club had been covered with murals, one of them a 15-by-15-foot painting of Morrison's face. On the side of the building it said "Hoy [Today] The Doors." Mario Olmos said he was determined to turn this city on to American rock and had promoted the four shows well.

Back at the hotel, the Doors were drinking cognac in the dining room. Slowly, about 11:30, they gathered themselves and their wives and girls together to make the 15-minute drive to the club in the matching black and white Cadillacs.

Getting out of the limousines to rush for the stage door, young Mexican fans elbowed Morrison to one side to get at the others. Again he hadn't been recognized. (The next night he would shout to the crowd: "Hey kids ... over here!")

Inside the club the small stage was jammed with the sons and daughters of the city's moneyed junior set. A local band was playing and singing American rock hits, including a note-for-note version of "Light My Fire," dancers dancing on the stage nose-to-nose with the guitarists. The Doors looked on in amazement from the balcony and wondered if the dancers would leave the stage when they went on.

In the dressing room, they told small jokes and played with the oxygen tank nervously. And Morrison worried about the short speech he had written. He said he couldn't memorize it and asked if everybody thought it would be okay to read it. Everybody said yes.

"Buenas noches, senores y senoritas," he said between "When the Music's Over" and "Touch Me." Then he said the city was marvelous-o and introduced the boys in the band. On organ there was Ramon Manzarek. On drums, Juan Densmore. On guitar, Roberto Krieger.

The audience roared.

After the show, Jim went back to the discotheque, where at about 4:30, he fell asleep, a drink in one hand, his head on the table as the pretty people of Mexico City frugged and yammered around him.

Saturday morning, over a noontime breakfast by the hotel pool, someone reflected on all the royal treatment extended the Doors thus far and said, "It's like we came from Los Angeles to Los Angeles, only now we have Mexican waiters."

Later that day, Morrison and a few others saw the first fragments of "real" Mexico, en route to the Indian pyramids to the north and east of the city. The narrow back road to los piramides ran an interesting course, past small villages of mean little houses of adobe and stone, huddling around ancient crumbling churches ... through somewhat larger towns where sides of darkening beef were seen in the unrefrigerated air resting on counters inside small grocery shops ... all of it flanked by a flat landscape of amazing clarity, looking as if the land under the scattered trees were swept daily by broom.

Morrison slept periodically as the limousine rushed through the poverty and Mexico City's Top 40 station ("Numero uno ... uno ... uno ... uno!") filled the car with songs by American groups.

The striking contrasts of modern Mexican life were being lined up, parading themselves in gaudy and mind-boggling display: the Parisian style of Paseo de las Reformas, the street that led from the hotel to the club, alongside the 1,000-year-old pyramids; Colonel Sanders' pollo frito de Kentucky practically on the same menu with the nectar of the Aztec gods, pulque, made from cactus juice; the aloof wealth of the Cadillac limousine rushing past dead burros lying by country roads; an entire section of the city's streets named for Archimedes and Goethe and others who invented thought, vs. what was becoming apparent as a dictatorship, applying subtle yet incredible pressures on the student.

There are 90,000 students at the University of Mexico. Another 60,000 at Polytechnic Institute. Last summer the students were within one hour of taking the government. Only the professors prevented it, when they changed sides at the last minute. Since then, between 300 and 1,000 students have been killed, most of them machine-gunned or merely taken away in the middle of the night.

The politics of Mexico are as puzzling to the visitor as the customs are, and still closely linked to the revolution that began 60 years ago, when the dictatorship of Gen. Porfirio Diaz was brought to an end. The violence continued for a dozen years after that and from the early twenties through the early forties, the presidents were military men. Then came the civilian presidents, but still Mexico was essentially a one-party nation.

Some believe the student unrest of the past year is rooted in a desire for a more democratic approach.

By Saturday dinnertime it was being suggested that perhaps the Doors would perform free on Sunday in the Alameda, an open amphitheater in the park. Free shows were held there every Sunday afternoon ... with government sanction, of course. It'd be a lot of work for Vince, tearing down all the sound equipment and setting it up again in the park, then tearing it down a second time to get it back to the Forum for Sunday's evening show, but it'd be worth it. At last the Doors would be playing for the people.

Of course it never happened—considered too "dangerous," the bureaucrats said, mentioning the fact that the Doors would be completely surrounded by the crowd with no hasty exit possible—and that night again the Forum was packed with young Mexican Doors fans. And as on the first night. the repetitious call from the audience was for "The End."

"Mexico is an Oedipal country," said Bill Belmont backstage as the calls for "The End" from drunken young Spanish youth rang out. (There is no "drinking age" in Mexico City.)

The Doors played "The End" and as they approached the section beginning "The killer awoke before dawn/He put his boots on...", so many of the teenagers present began to shush each other, it sounded like a room full of snakes.

"Father!" said Jim Morrison.

"I want to kill you!" chorused nearly 1,000 voices (in English).

Morrison looked at them, stunned.

"Mother ...", he said, tentatively ...

Following the show, someone approached the limousine with an eight-inch cooking tin, rapped gently on the closed window. The window was lowered and the tin was handed in. It was full of mushrooms. "Really get you high," the boy said.

• • •

Sunday morning (afternoon) got under way reading the Spanish-language reviews. Some of the critics liked the Doors. Some didn't.

A critic for El Heraldo, for example, said Morrison was a "redbearded pirate mixed with Fidel Castro and the Hunchback of Notre Dame." Morrison was trastornado (out of his skull), he said, and besides that, this nasty old gringo "stroked his beard like an ogre who'd just eaten his victim, and liked it." He also said Morrison was muy fuerte (loud), muy acido.

"That's the best review we've ever gotten," Ray Manzarek said, sitting in the rear of an American compact, en route to the Thieves' Market. (Manzarek had been called a "mad monk" in the review.) Ray and his wife and Bobby Krieger and his girlfriend Lynn were going shopping. Frank and Kathy Lisciandro and Vince were going, too, to record the visit on film.

The shopping scene was a crowded one. In Mexico, apparently, they throw nothing away; rather they drag it to the Thieves' Market, where they lay it out in rows and ask an outrageous price (and settle for a great deal less) for it. While hundreds and hundreds mill around – and with two Doors present, tug gently on the sleeves of the musicians, holding bits of paper and ball-point pens for autographs.

After an hour or so, one of the young drivers suggested a restaurant outside the city, in a fine residential neighborhood in the state of Mexico. There would be singers and guitarists there, he said.

The driver was Ricardo Kirschner, whose sophistication and charm belied his years. He spent the entire meal drinking bulls (a blend of rum with three kinds of beer), running around ordering exotic foods (fried blood, bull's intestines, etc.), insisting the party of 12 try everything, constantly toasting everyone—"Salud!"—singing along with the balladeers, translating the songs, waving a small cigar and saying, "I never smoke except when I get a little drunk." He was 18.

One of the visitors the Doors had had backstage the night before was Adolfo Diaz Ordaz, the Carnaby-clad son of the president. He was back again Sunday afternoon at the anthropological museum, where permission had been laboriously obtained (palms had been greased) for the Doors to film. But now there were at least 30 in the group. Mercedes, the actress, was there. So was someone identified as a bastard-son of Henry Miller. Adolfo had brought three bodyguards and nearly a dozen of what Bill Belmont called "presidential groupies."

Mexico City has a peculiar breed of sycophant, the "presidential groupies" forming a part of this band. Most are American girls, many of them one-time students at one or another of the city's many universities who failed to return home at the close of a term, preferring to remain a part of the city's heady international set. In that most in the Doors party had taken wives and girlfriends along, only a few of these pretty expatriates tried to cling to the group. They did, however, have walk-on parts in the film the Doors shot in the museum – looking at the Aztec calendar, standing by the models of a Mexico City 1,000 years dead, staring at the terrifying sacrificial stones.

Early Sunday evening, Bill Siddons and Bill Belmont, among others, reviewed all that hadn't happened thus far:

–The bull ring concert had fallen through.

–The benefit, first for the United Nations and then for the Red Cross, had collapsed.

–No television shows had materialized.

–A permit for a show or shows at the National Auditorium was choked in lethargy.

–A free concert in the park never got beyond the first levels of Mexican bureaucracy.

In fact, the only things that had happened were the shows at the Forum, which the Doors hadn't wanted to begin with, and two live radio shows – broadcasts of the Forum shows that had been arranged by Javier in exchange for commercial time, and these the Doors hadn't been told about.

So a meeting was called at the hotel with Javier to determine what, if anything, might be done to supplement the meager (for the Doors) $20,000 for the Forum gig and increase the size of the audience. By meeting's end, Javier had agreed to pick up several thousand dollars' worth of expenses – air fare, equipment freight charges, hotel room costs, etc. Javier also agreed to work with Siddons and Belmont in getting a television show, while Siddons and Belmont decided they couldn't count on help from anyone and so would go seek a show of their own.

Monday was a day of shopping and rest for the Doors. "Montezuma's revenge" had come to call on John Densmore following a huge Mexican meal and still he was recovering from that. Robby went looking for a new guitar. Jim stayed around the hotel and read, planning to join Ray and some of the others that night at El Acuario, a bar that was a maze of cubicles, some of which had to be climbed into like a tree house.

They were recognized immediately by the young drinkers in the place and after autographs were signed, the Doors records on the juke box began. "The End" was so worn the words were indiscernible.

Johnny was the driver this day. (He, too, was the embodiment of Mexico's contrasts, usually wearing Edwardian tweed suits and "Byrd glasses" pitched on the end of his nose, but speaking not a word of English and always a half-hour late.) He explained, through the better-than-middling Spanish of Frank Lisciandro, more of the student situation in Mexico.

All the student hangouts were closed after the revolt and brutal repression of the previous summer, he said, tactfully describing the incidents as "todos los dificultades" (all the difficulties). He explained that the government didn't want students to congregate anywhere any more and so places like El Acuario were told to change the clientele or close. As a result, the only exclusively student watering holes in existence now were secret ones, in private homes near the university.

In Mexico, Johnny said, the police were called not pigs but dogs. Perros. Because they bite.

From El Acuario the group went to the Plaza de Garibaldi (named for the Italian revolutionary), where mariachi bands come together each night in an informal outdoor concert-hiring hall. These are the players who apparently are not quite fortunate enough to find regular gigs, but they are no less enthusiastic than others in the city, especially when, Norteamericanos arrive in long black limousines. Jim and Ray and the others had their pictures taken with one of the bands, then walked across the square to Salon Tenampa, the neighborhood's noisiest mariachi bar, where Morrison had his portrait sketched, paid an outrageous price for the tray the waiter was using to deliver the group's drinks, and joined everyone in tossing down several tequilas.

Considerably earlier Monday a meeting had been set with the city's mayor. Like so much else in the hectic schedule, it didn't happen, but in this instance (for a change) it was Bill Siddons and not the government who was late. Siddons and Belmont then went on to meet with Francisco Aquirre, the owner of Channel 13, one of the independent television stations. This meeting was quite brief, with it only being agreed that they'd meet again that night at 8:30 to screen two Doors films, the 40-minute documentary, Feast of Friends, and the short film made to promote a Doors single of more than a year earlier, "Unknown Soldier."

The evening meeting was held at the station offices, in a room the size of a tennis court, executed in exquisite Louis XIV furnishings – a 24-seat table, the chairs inlaid with gold. The two films were projected on one wall.

After which Francisco Aquirre said, in an extremely cordial manner, that he thought Feast of Friends was subversivo. Especially the part that showed policemen striking young people with billy clubs. He said he also thought "The End," included in the sound track, a bit heavy for his viewers' tastes. And as for "Unknown Soldier," Francisco was visibly shocked.

However ... in that the Doors did seem to be so popular with the young people of Mexico, perhaps something could be arranged, perhaps these minor objections could be overlooked. In fact, Francisco said he would give the Doors as much television time as they wanted—two hours, three, four—to run both films, to play music, to be interviewed, to do anything they wanted!

There was, of course, a minor catch. Francisco just didn't see how he could justify giving the Doors any money for this, After all, hadn't he, Francisco Aquirre, made the Doors in Mexico? Hadn't one of the five radio stations he owned in Mexico City—Numero uno... uno... uno... uno!—played "Light My Fire" 50 times a week since it had been released? (He dragged out playlists to prove his claim.) Hadn't he scheduled the Doors records on many of the other 31 radio stations he owned, throughout Mexico? And didn't the Doors want to reach a huge audience, rather than just play to so few at the Forum? No es verdad? (Isn't this true?)

Siddons and Belmont were amazed and amused, and decided to play the game of Mexico: they said neither yes nor no.

Morrison, Manzarek and friends were tooling along the Reforma, meanwhile, laughing and talking with a carload of young long-haired Americans they'd met in traffic. At a stoplight, one of them rushed up to the limousine and handed in a lighted joint. Morrison nodded for the group to follow them to the Terraza Casino, where the Doors had been told a new Electric Flag was playing.

It wasn't true, but Morrison paid the 20 pesos ($1.75) per person cover for the five Americans (who were broke) and the party of more than a dozen now walked in, taking a huge front table. The Terraza was one of those places found in any city, listing items on the menu of interest to turistas – "Hippie Sandwich Con Queso de Huautla... Alambres Con Love... Doors Daikiri."

The first band to play was Los Sinners. They were surprisingly good. The Doors left as the second was setting up.

Then on to the Forum, a few blocks away, to perform to another packed house. This was the final night in Mexico, unless something could be set at still another meeting at that moment taking place in a small room overlooking the stage.

Those present at the meeting included Fernando Diaz Bardosa, whose uncle owned Telesystema and who had somehow been blamed for the Doors not getting the National Auditorium; Bill Siddons; Bill Belmont; Frank Lisciandro; Malu; and Javier Castro. Also someone who was identified as the man in charge of Telesystema's daytime TV fare, who said little, and an unidentified couple, who gave the meeting a bizarre touch by necking all the way through it.

Fernando knew the Doors had been talking with Channel 13 and felt he was in a bidding situation, so he offered the group $20,000 for a two-hour special. The special would be based on ideas of the Doors and would be presented (on film, live and/or on videotape) at the Doors' convenience. The Doors represented a life style that would be good for Mexico, Fernando said over and over again. He was sincere and charming and convincing, all at once, and it sounded too good to be true.

Soon after the Doors had completed their set and were resting in the dressing room, the meeting moved to the club's storage room, where everyone sat on crates of anchovies and artichoke hearts. Fernando's handwritten contract was typed and Javier said he wanted half the $20,000 the Doors were to get. (As some sort of "finder's fee," presumably, although it was difficult to assess exactly what he'd found.) This started everyone shouting and Siddons refused to sign the contract on general principles and Fernando got extremely indignant and everyone marched their egos and plans back and forth and finally, for some inexplicable reason, not only Siddons but everyone in the room signed the piece of paper.

The contract actually meant nothing, except the Doors were at some unspecified time in the very vague future supposed to do some sort of television show for Telesystema Mexicana – for $20,000. (Of which it was finally determined Javier would get $5,000 if he gave the Doors two more nights of work and got them two concerts at the National Auditorium – although none of this was in the contract.) There wasn't even anything on the piece of paper preventing the Doors from doing a similar show for a competing station first.

Nonetheless, once the contract was ascrawl with signatures, champagne and cigars were brought out. Everybody was ecstatic, life-long buddies. It was nearly dawn.

The visit was approaching its conclusion. Thousands of Mexicans had stared at the beards and long hair of the Doors, but none had made any truly derogatory comment. (One boy called Morrison "Jesus Christ.") The country was repeatedly described at a "political pot boiling," but the Doors seemed to have been kept away from that – except for the fact that many of the planned concerts weren't held.

It seemed, in fact, the only ones aware the Doors had come to Mexico City were the nation's young. The people the government worried about.

The Doors returned to the hotel. Johnny was driving again and in an effort to lose a car following the limousine, he sped along the Reforma at 80 miles an hour, slowing to 50 for the 90-degree turns.

The pace was so fast, everyone began to laugh. As each turn screeched into the immediate past, the Doors, in good-natured panic, roared their approval of Johnny's driving.

"Pronto! Pronto!" Morrison shouted, forming a gun with his finger and thumb and making the throaty sounds of pistol shots.