Jimi Hendrix 1968

“Will he burn it tonight?” asked a neat blonde of her boyfriend, squashed in beside her on the packed floor of the Fillmore auditorium. “He did at Monterey,” the boyfriend said, recalling the Pop Festival at which the guitarist, in a moment of elation, actually put a match to his guitar. The blonde and her boyfriend went on watching the stage, crammed with huge silver-fronted Fender amps, a double drum set, and whispering stage hands. Mitch Mitchell, the drummer, came on first, sat down, smiled, and adjusted his cymbals. Then came bassist Noel Redding, gold glasses glinting on his fair delicate face, and plugged into his amp.

“There he is,” said the blonde, and yes, said the applause, there he was, Jimi Hendrix, a cigarette slouched in his mouth, dressed in tight black pants draped with a silver belt, and a pale rainbow shirt half hidden by a black leather vest.

“Dig this, baby,” he mumbled into the mike. His left hand swung high over his frizz-bouffant hair making a shadow on the exploding sun lightshow, then down onto his guitar and the Jimi Hendrix Experience roared into ‘Red House’. It was the first night of the group’s second American tour. During the first tour, last summer, they were almost unknown. But this time two LP’s and eight months of legend preceded them.

The crowds in San Francisco – Hendrix’s three February nights there were the biggest in the Fillmore’s history – were drooling for Hendrix in the flesh. They got him. This time he didn’t burn his guitar (“I was feeling mild”) but, with the blatantly erotic arrogance that is his trademark, he gave them what they wanted.

He played all the favorites, ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Foxy Lady’, ‘Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. He played flicking his gleaming white Stratocaster between his legs and propelling it out of his groin with a nimble grind of his hips. Bending his head over the strings, he plucked them with his teeth as if eating them, occasionally pulling away to take deep breaths. Falling back and lying almost prone, he pumped the guitar neck as it stood high on his belly.

He made sound by swinging the guitar before him and just tapping the body. He played with no hands at all, letting the wah-wah pedal bend and break the noise into madly distorted melodic lines. And all at top volume, the bass and drums building a wall of black noise heard as much by pressure on the eyeballs as with the ears.

The black Elvis? He is that in England. In America James Brown is, but only for Negroes; could Hendrix become that for American whites? The title, rich in potential imagery, is a mantle waiting to be bestowed. Within his wildness, Hendrix plays on the audience’s reaction to his sexual violence with an ironic and even gentle humor. The D.A.R. sensed what he is up to: they managed to block one appearance with the Monkees last summer, because he was too “erotic.” But if Jimi knows about his erotic appeal, he won’t admit it.

“Man, it’s the music, that’s what comes first,” he said, taking a quick swig of Johnny Walker Black in his motel room. “People who put down our performance, they’re people who can’t use their eyes and ears at the same time. They’ve got a button on their shoulder blades that keeps only one working at a time. Look, man, we might play sometimes just standing there; sometimes we do the whole diabolical bit when we’re in the studio and there’s nobody to watch. It’s how we feel. How we feel and getting the music out, that’s all. As soon as people understand that, the better.”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, now doing a two month tour, was formed in October, 1966, just weeks after Hendrix came to London from Greenwich Village encouraged by former Animal Chas Chandler. Mitchell, 21, came from Georgie Fame’s band, a top English rhythm and blues group, and 22-year-old Redding switched to bass from guitar which he had played with several small time bands. Their first job, after only a few weeks of rehearsal, was at the Paris Olympia on a bill with Johnny Hallyday.

Their first record, ‘Hey Joe’, got to number four on the English charts; a tour of England and steady dates at in London clubs, plus a follow-up hit with ‘Purple Haze’, made them the hottest name around. Men’s hairdressers started featuring the “Experience style”. Paul McCartney got them invited to the Monterey Pop Festival and they were a smash hit.

But Jimi Hendrix, born James Marshall Hendrix 22 years ago in Seattle, Washington, goes a lot futher back. Now hip rock’s enfant terrible, he quit high school for the paratroopers at 16 (“Anybody could be in the army, I had to do it special, but, man, I was bored”). Musically he came up the black route, learning guitar to Muddy Waters records on his back porch, playing in Negro clubs in Nashville, begging his way onto Harlem bandstands, and touring for two years in the bands of rhythm and blues headliners: the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, and King Curtis. He even played the Fillmore once, but that was backing Ike and Tina Turner before the Haight-Ashbury scene.

“I always wanted more than that,” he said. “I had these dreams that something was gonna happen, seeing the numbers 1966 in my sleep, so I was just passing time till then. I wanted my own scene, making my music, not playing the same riffs. Like once with Little Richard, me and another guy got fancy shirts ‘cause we were tired of wearing the uniform. Richard called a meeting. ‘I am Little Richard, I am Little Richard,’ he said, ‘the King, the King of Rock and Rhythm. I am the only one allowed to be pretty. Take off those shirts.’ Man, it was all like that. Bad pay, lousy living, and getting burned.”

Early in 1966 he finally got to Greenwich Village where, as Jimmy James, he played the Cafe Wha? with his own hastily formed group, the Blue Flames. It was his break and the bridge to today’s Hendrix. He started to write songs – he has written hundreds – and play what he calls his “rock-blues-funky-freak” sound.

“Dylan really turned me on – not the words or his guitar, but as a way to get myself together. A cat like that can do it to you. Race, that was okay. In the Village, people were more friendly than in Harlem where it’s all cold and mean. Your own people hurt you more. Anyway, I had always wanted a more integrated sound. Top-Forty stuff is all out of gospel, so they try to get everybody up and clapping, shouting, ‘yeah, yeah.’ We don’t want everybody up. They should just sit there and dig it. And they must dig it, or we wouldn’t be here.”

A John Wayne movie played silently on the television set in the stale and disordered room, and Hendrix started alternating slugs of scotch and Courvoisier. He stopped and turned toward the window, looking out over San Francisco. “This looks like Brussels, all built on hills. Beautiful. But no city I’ve ever seen is as pretty as Seattle, all that water and mountains. I couldn’t live there, but it was beautiful.”

Besides his music, Hendrix doesn’t do much. He wants to retire young and buy a lot of motels and real estate with his money. Sometimes he thinks of producing records or going to the Juilliard School of Music to learn theory and composition. In London he lives with his manager, but plans to buy a house in a mews. In his spare time he reads Isaac Asimov’s science fiction. His musical favorites as he listed them are Charlie Mingus, Roland Kirk, Bach, Muddy Waters, Bukka White, Albert Collins, Albert King, and Elmore James.

“Where do you stop? There are so many, oh, man, so many more, all good. Sound, and being good, that’s important. Like we’re trying to find out what we really dig. We got plans for a play-type scene with people moving on stage and everything pertaining to the song and every song a story. We’ll keep moving. It get’s tiring doing the same thing, coming out and saying, ‘Now we’ll play this song,’ and ‘Now we’ll play that one.’ People take us strange ways, but I don’t care how they take us. Man, we’ll be moving. ‘Cause man, in this life, you gotta do what you want, you gotta let your mind and fancy flow, flow, flow free.”

© Michael Lydon, 1968

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