He arrived as a nobody but immediately had London’s greatest rock stars at his feet. Charles R Cross reveals the wild rise of Jimi Hendrix
In May 1966, a second-rate rhythm-and-blues group called Curtis Knight and the Squires were playing a woeful gig in the almost empty Cheetah Club in New York City when Linda Keith, a strikingly beautiful British model, found she couldn’t take her eyes off their guitar player.
“He had these amazing hands,” she recalled. “I found myself simply mesmerised by watching him play . . . He was clearly a star, though he was such an odd-looking star, and it was such an odd place, it didn’t seem right.”
Later that night, friends invited him back to an apartment on fashionable 63rd Street. Linda went too. Someone asked if he’d like some “acid”. “No, I don’t want any of that, but I’d love to try some of that LSD stuff,” he said naively, not knowing they were one and the same.
He later described to a friend that on his first acid trip he “looked into the mirror and thought I was Marilyn Monroe”. After May 1966 he chose to look in that mirror often. Lysergic acid diethylamide became a lens that filtered much of the music he would create during the rest of his short life as one of the world’s greatest rock stars.
The guitarist, who introduced himself as Jimmy James, was a 23-year-old veteran of the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, the network of black venues that dotted the United States in what was still a largely segregated music scene.
His background was one of deprivation in the northwestern city of Seattle. His mother had died from drink and he had been neglected by his father, who also suffered from alcoholism. As a boy he had become obsessed with the guitar, but he was so poor that his first treasured instrument was a throwaway with only one string. As a teenager he had joined the army to escape a prison sentence for riding in a stolen car — only to get out again by pretending to be gay, in order to become a full-time musician.
Since then he had played in obscurity for several years for black stars from Little Richard to Wilson Pickett, learning complex licks from some of America’s greatest blues guitarists and developing his musical voice. Yet he was still so poor he didn’t even own a guitar. And, as he eventually told Linda Keith, his real name was not Jimmy James but Jimi Hendrix.
Linda Keith was everything he was not: Jewish, well-off, highly educated, and part of swinging London’s in crowd. Her boyfriend was Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. The Stones were soon to arrive in the US on tour; she had come over early to get a taste of New York’s club scene.
Linda denies that the relationship with Jimi that night was sexual. “I was going out with Keith [Richards],” she said. “And I was a middle-class girl with middle-class values.” Instead they discussed a mutual passion: the blues. She played him obscure 45rpm records from Richards’s private collection.
Within days she bought Jimi a guitar, and with it he began to explore the coffee house scene in Greenwich Village. Jimi’s wild antics and over-the-top clothes hadn’t fitted in among his fellow blacks up in Harlem, but when he strode through largely white Greenwich Village in striped trousers and a calypso shirt with huge puffy sleeves, he found his outrageousness was embraced.
The Café Wha — a dark basement with earthen walls — didn’t have a liquor licence and consequently attracted small crowds of almost exclusively white teenagers. Musical acts were paid $6 for five sets. On the day he auditioned, Janice Hargrove was in the audience. “Anybody could get up and try out,” she recalled. “Most people were so-so. Jimi played, and everyone in the club was totally blown away, all 15 people.”
At the end of the evening Jimi was invited back. Free from the restraints of the Chitlin’ Circuit, he played the guitar with his teeth, behind his back and under his legs, and he humped it in a manner that was clearly sexual.
Inspired by Bob Dylan, acid, Linda Keith and new friends he was meeting in the Village, the “Jimi Hendrix” the world would soon come to know was created that summer in a dim basement New York club.
Linda took Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ manager, to the Wha, hoping he’d sign Jimi, but he was unimpressed. “The part of me that did like the music could see that he was trouble,” remembered Oldham, “and I had enough trouble already with the Stones . . . Keith was the kind of guy who might actually kill someone involved with his girlfriend.”
Linda argued that she and Jimi never began a serious romantic relationship, because he refused to settle down. She was amazed at how he managed to juggle his many girlfriends and how he conned each into thinking she was his sole focus. “He had this depth with women,” she observed. “All the women who say they were the great love of his life, they probably were in that moment.”
Jimi protested that his wandering ways were part of his “nature”. Linda recalled being in Jimi’s hotel room once when there were seven women sleeping in his bed. Despite his philandering, she worked tirelessly to bring him to the attention of the world.
Help came at last in the form of Bryan “Chas” Chandler, the bass player in the Animals. He planned to leave the group and he was looking for producing opportunities. After Linda dragged him to the Wha to hear Jimi play, Chandler became so excited that he spilt a milkshake on his suit.
When Chandler invited Jimi to England the idea scared him at first. He knew so little about Britain that he asked whether his new electric guitar would work with British electricity.
Chandler and Michael Jeffery, who managed the Animals, became Jimi’s co-managers. Jeffery was a mysterious figure behind the dark glasses he wore at all times. Like many rock managers he used fear and intimidation to his advantage in business dealings.
Immigration laws in Britain were strict, and getting Jimi into the country required correspondence to be forged that made it look as if he was being asked to come to the UK by a promoter. Jimi still had doubts. He told friends he’d be back soon.
On the evening of September 23, 1966, Jimi boarded a Pam Am flight at Kennedy airport. All he had for luggage was his guitar and a small bag that contained a change of clothes, his pink plastic hair curlers and a jar of Valderma face cream for his acne. In his pocket he had $40, borrowed from a friend.
He arrived at Heathrow at nine the next morning. A member of the Animals’ road crew carried his guitar through customs because of laws restricting foreigners from entering England for employment.
On the way from the airport they stopped by the Fulham house of Zoot Money, a bandleader, and his wife Ronnie. Jimi pulled out his Fender Stratocaster and attempted to play a few songs through the Moneys’ stereo. When that failed he grabbed an acoustic guitar.
Upstairs 20-year-old Kathy Etchingham was sleeping late after a night out. Etchingham was an attractive hairdresser and part-time DJ. She had previously dated Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Keith Moon of the Who.
Etchingham was woken by the commotion downstairs. “Ronnie said, ‘Wake up, Kathy. You’ve got to come and see this guy Chas has brought back. He looks like the Wild Man of Borneo’.”
That evening, his first in London, Jimi was on stage at the Scotch of St James, a club that attracted a clientele of musicians. As he started to play guitar blues, the club went silent and the crowd watched in a shared rapture.
“He was just amazing,” Etchingham recalled. “People had never seen anything like it.” There were so few musicians who were black on the London scene, and so many fans of American blues, that he was afforded instant credibility.
Eric Burdon of the Animals was at the club. “It was haunting how good he was,” Burdon said. “You just stopped and watched.”
At his hotel Jimi and Kathy went to the bar, where he asked, “Would you like to come to my room?” Etchingham consented. They would stay together for the next two years, on and off, and Etchingham would be one of his longest-term girlfriends. She became Jimi’s entrée into a new social world. Her friends, who included members of the Who, the Rolling Stones and many other bands, soon became his friends.
Jimi had been in England less than 24 hours and his life had been transformed. He’d already wowed a key segment of London’s music scene and found himself a girlfriend. He had spent 23 years feeling like an outcast. In one single day it felt like his entire life had permanently been recast.
Hendrix could not have arrived at a better moment. London in 1966 was at the height of the explosion of fashion, photography, film, art, theatre and music. Time magazine had done a “Swinging London” cover story in April, broadcasting to the world that the city was the cultural trendsetter.
Within days of his arrival, Jimi dazzled more music aficionados by jamming effortlessly with the Brian Auger Trinity, a blues-based rock band. “Everyone’s jaw dropped to the floor,” Auger recalled.
Then on Saturday, October 1, a week after Jimi landed at Heathrow, Eric Clapton and his fellow members of Cream were playing a show at the Central London Polytechnic. Chandler asked Clapton if Jimi might jam with them. The request was so preposterous that no one in Cream knew quite what to say. No one had ever asked to jam with them before; most would have been too intimidated by their reputation as the best band in Britain. Jack Bruce finally said: “Sure, he can plug into my bass amp.”
Jimi began “Killin’ Floor” — a blues classic often played by one of Clapton’s heroes, Albert King.
“I’d grown up around Eric, and I knew what a fan he was of Albert King, who had a slow version of that song,” recalled Tony Garland, Michael Jeffrey’s publicist. “When Jimi started his take, though, it was about three times as fast as Albert King’s version and you could see Eric’s jaw drop — he didn’t know what was going to come next.”
Graffiti all over London at the time proclaimed: “Clapton is God.” Jimi had been in London for a week and he had already met God and burned him.
Chandler now hired a 20-year-old guitarist, Noel Redding, and a drummer, John “Mitch” Mitchell, to form Jimi’s own band: the Jimi Hendrix Experience. On an initial wage of £15 a week, Jimi updated his wardrobe at some of London’s fashion boutiques, Granny Takes a Trip and I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet. He replaced his ragged New York overcoat with an antique military jacket and bought velvet trousers in bright colours.
“People would just stop and stare at him,” Etchingham recalled. “It wasn’t because they knew his music; it was just because he looked so strange.” He was harassed about the military jacket by pensioners, whom he calmed down by revealing he was a vet of America’s 101st Airborne regiment.
Jimi and Kathy were still staying in a hotel, an expense he could ill afford. When Etchingham ran into Ringo Starr at a club he offered a two-bedroom flat he wasn’t using, and they moved to 34 Montagu Square, Marylebone, along with Chandler and his girlfriend.
Hendrix turned 24 that November, the first birthday he celebrated as a rising star. Yet despite his growing fame he carried a folded pound note in the band of his broad-brimmed hat in case of emergencies. He told Etchingham: “When you’ve been penniless, you never forget it.”
Performing in clubs where musicians hung out — Blaises, the Upper Cut, the Ram Jam, the Speakeasy, the 71/2, and the Bag O’ Nails — Hendrix earned little. But members of bands far more famous, including the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, came to watch and to chat him up.
Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones became Jimi’s biggest booster, dragging other stars to see him play. Jimi, who had initially marvelled at all the legends he was meeting, now watched as his own heroes acted starstruck around him. After one show, Eric Clapton invited him back to his flat. But though the mood was friendly, “it was a very strained meeting”, Etchingham recalled. “They were both in awe of each other.”
His first record, Hey Joe, was released on December 16 and became an immediate hit, reaching number six in the charts. The success wasn’t entirely organic, however. According to Etchingham, Jimi’s management “were going around to record shops and buying them all up just to push it up the charts . . . I know it happened because I bought several of them myself”.
To celebrate, Jimi had a pint at a pub. He’d rarely drunk alcohol in America, but in Britain he began to drink more. He started chain smoking, and drugs were also omnipresent on the UK music scene.
The band used amphetamines to stay up all night recording tracks for their first album. “We’d be playing in Manchester, and then we’d drive back to London,” Redding said. “We’d get back at three in the morning and put down the tracks. And then we’d go to bed at five and get up the next morning only to have to go back up north again for another show. And we’d be back in London that next night doing more recording.”
Jimi began writing songs, sometimes in the oddest circumstances. On January 10, 1967, Etchingham was attempting to make a meal and Jimi insulted her cooking. “I started throwing pots and I stormed out,” Kathy said. When she returned Jimi had written The Wind Cries Mary. Mary was her middle name.
Next day, January 11, was the most productive in the history of the Experience. After an all-day studio session, which had been more difficult than usual — they’d spent four hours on Purple Haze — Jimi and the band still had two shows to do at the Bag O’Nails, a nightclub at the bottom of a long stairway in a dank Soho basement.
The crowd that gathered that night was the ultimate Who’s Who of London’s rock elite. Most accounts include Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, John Entwistle of the Who, Donovan, Georgie Fame, Denny Laine, Terry Reid, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Lulu, the Hollies, the Small Faces and the Animals.
When Terry Reid sat down he was surprised to find McCartney sitting next to him. “Have you seen this guy yet? He’s amazing,” the Beatle said.
Jimi shocked them by opening his set with Wild Thing, a pop hit that this rock elite regarded as contemptible. But Reid observed: “He banged the shit out of this bloody thing, and takes off into outer space. Imagine the most horrible song in the world turned into the most beautiful.”
Reid bumped into Brian Jones who told him: “It’s all wet down in the front . . . from all the guitar players crying.”
When Jimi played the Speakeasy club near the end of January, Jagger arrived with Marianne Faithfull. During a set break, Jimi came to their table and flagrantly flirted with her in front of the singer. Jagger strutted around like a peacock trying to outshine Hendrix’s plumage. Jimi reacted with outright hostility and his display with Faithfull was brazen.
“He asked me why I was with Mick,” she recalled, a question few men at the time would dare pose. In an attempt to bed her, Jimi told her he’d written The Wind Cries Mary for her. Faithfull, however, stayed true to her name.
“It’s one of the greatest regrets in my life,” she said. “I should have just got up and said, ‘Okay, mate, let’s go’.”
Jimi was still involved with Etchingham, but he seemed incapable of fidelity. One night after a show in Manchester, Etchingham caught him having sex in a women’s lavatory with a girl he’d just met. Kathy had become hardened to such betrayals. Her only response was resignation: “Hurry up or we’ll miss the train back to London.” Jimi’s excuse: “She wanted my autograph.”
Meanwhile, like his father before him, Jimi suffered from tremendous jealousy, which was ignited when he drank. He imagined every man was after Etchingham. One night at the Bag O’Nails, Kathy was on the phone and Jimi thought she was talking to another man. Jimi grabbed the receiver and began hitting her with it; his sudden violence was as shocking as it was hurtful, because it was so out of character. She screamed. At that moment John Lennon and Paul McCartney walked in and calmly took the phone away from Jimi.
In the long history of British rock’n’roll, no single performer had ever enjoyed such a rapid rise to London fame as Jimi Hendrix had. By late spring, Chandler and Jeffrey were beginning to tackle America, where Jimi was still unknown. When he heard that he would soon be heading to California to play in the Monterey music festival, Jimi enthused: “I’m going home . . . Home to America again.”
Before going, however, Jimi gave London one of the legendary moments of his career. On June 4 the Experience planned two “farewell England” concerts (early and late) at the Saville Theatre, which was owned by Epstein, the Beatles’ manager.
Because of Epstein, there was a possibility the Beatles would attend, their first public outing since the release of their landmark album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It had been out for only three days and was already top of the charts — with the Experience’s first album at number two.
Thirty minutes before the Experience were set to go on, Jimi stormed into the dressing room and announced to Noel and Mitch that he had a new song to open their set. He put the Beatles’ new Sgt Pepper on a portable record player and, as his band sat dumbfounded, played the title track. “We’ll open with this,” Jimi announced.
“We thought he’d gone daft,” Noel recalled. Jimi played the song a few times as they learnt the chords.
The Experience came onstage to thunderous applause. Paul McCartney and George Harrison were sitting in Epstein’s box. Jimi thanked the audience for coming to what would be his last shows in England “for a long, long time”. And with that he started into Sgt Pepper.
His gall was unbelievable. To cover the song just three days after the album had been released, with the Beatles in the audience, was one of the gutsiest moves he ever made. “The Beatles couldn’t believe it,” Eddie Kramer, Jimi’s sound engineer, recalled. “Here was Hendrix playing a song off their album that had just come out, and he’d taken the song and figured out a completely new arrangement, which was a killer. It took balls and straight-ahead testosterone.”
As his set ended Jimi smashed his guitar in pieces and kicked the shards out into the audience. After the show the Experience were invited to Brian Epstein’s for a private party. To their amazement McCartney opened the door holding a huge joint in his mouth. He passed it to Jimi and said: “That was f****** great, man.”
A year earlier Jimi had been playing to an empty club with Curtis Knight and the Squires. In what had seemed like the blink of an eye he was the toast of London and, better yet, he was smoking the Beatles’ marijuana.
There was more to come. In a short time he would become the world’s highest paid rock star. And yet within three years — exhausted, disillusioned and riddled with drugs — he would be dead.
Source : http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/article549855.ece