Because of research I am doing for a memoir I am writing, I have been watching old Ed Sullivan shows—or whatever I can find online. Recently I learned something that amused me—and disturbed me. The Ed Sullivan Show was mainstream American TV, yet he had the Beatles on several times and the likes of the Rolling Stones as well as The Doors on the show. But censorship, then and now, still persists in our culture; it has just changed in which words are triggers and which aren’t. So before you read on, ask yourself: of Mick or Jim, who bucked the censors and who kowtowed?
When Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones came on the show to sing “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” someone from the show said they had to change the lyrics. So what did Mick sing, with a little scowl on his face, but nonetheless he sang it? “Let’s spend some time together. . .” Unbelievable but true. I saw the clip.
When Jim Morrison and The Doors came on the show to sing “Light My Fire,” do you know which word they were asked not to sing? “Higher.” What did they do? They said okay, then sang the lyric anyway. “You know that it would be untrue, You know that I would be a liar, If I was to say to you, Girl we couldn’t get much higher . . .” Yep. And because of that, the producer told them that the show’s plans to have them return 6 or 7 more times, was cancelled.
The Doors never appeared on Ed Sullivan again.
The Rolling Stones appeared on the show six times.
So sex and drugs. Those were the two taboos in the Sixties for mainstream media.
What about now? I hesitate to tell about my own experience because of being blacklisted by prospective employers or fellowship boards. Or I worry that my son will read this. So there is a chilling effect, as they say, a self-censorship that goes on all the time for artists—even before we knew we were all under surveillance.
So I won’t name names. Let’s just say, that it is still verboten to use certain words: the “F” word and the “C” word, even if it is in a work of art and is not pornography, when giving a reading on a public radio show or in other public venues. Yes, it’s okay in a bar. But if there’s institutional or government funding, then the organizers worry about losing their funds. Of being shut down. As one radio show I know was, for a few months, because of a breach of decorum: that is, a poet cursed in a poem.
What are we to do about this? I still want to write and publish the work that I do. And most of it is not political and does not use “bad language.” I’m a well-pedigreed poet with a Ph.D. in English from an Ivy League institution. I’m not a performance poet. I don’t smear my body with human excrement. I don’t burn the American flag. I don’t use religious symbols in sacrireligious ways. Though who knows? I might some day. I’m a bit of a contrarian. No artist likes to be told what they can and can’t say in their work.
The problem is: If I ask myself what I would have done, I probably would have done what Mick did. In fact, a member of The Doors who spoke about the incident and its aftermath was kind of dismayed when he found out how many gigs they’d just ruined. It sounded like if he had had it to do over, he might have been in favor of kowtowing too. But who can speak for Jim Morrison?