“A black dwarf cowboy Oscar Wilde in Egyptian drag with a voice like raspberry preserves, thick and sweet.”
—-Novelist Tom Robbins writing about Hendrix for the Seattle underground newspaper, Helix.
Jimi Hendrix was to release only two more studio albums in his lifetime – Axis: Bold as Love in late ’67 and Electric Ladyland in late ’68. Both are fine albums but by Ladyland, the Experience was somewhat starting to splinter. Bold as Love shows the band still intact, with some of Hendrix’ best songs. (“Spanish Castle Magic,” “Little Wing,” “Castles Made of Sand.”)
“Little Wing” in particular has gone on to become a standard with numerous cover versions. (Hendrix died while Eric Clapton was recording his Layla album, and covered the song as a tribute).
Recording of Electric Ladyland proved to be the last straw for Chas Chandler in working with Jimi so he quit. Hendrix, who seemed to have a real problem setting boundaries, was by this point inviting everyone and anyone into the studio, making for a chaotic environment.
In addition, the relationship with his bandmates in general and Noel Redding in particular were starting to fray. One song, “Voodoo Chile,” was recorded by Hendrix, drummer Mitchell, Steve Winwood and bassist Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane. This was in part due to Hendrix’s increasing frustration with Redding’s limitations on his instrument and also due to Redding having started another band.
Ladyland got mixed reviews at first but over time has come to be seen as perhaps Hendrix’ final work. Among other songs, it contains Jimi’s cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” This version has so much superseded the original that even Dylan plays it this way. Dylan loved it, said he was “overwhelmed” by it and considers it a tribute to Jimi when he plays it.
Interestingly, it wasn’t even Jimi’s first choice off of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album. But he had heard an early tape of the album and wanted to play something. He got it so early the lyrics weren’t even yet published. You can hear him slurring over some of them, trying to guess the words.
Redding – now frustrated with the session – walked out and so Traffic’s Dave Mason played bass. And at this point in time, Jimi jammed with anyone who could keep up with him. A happy discovery of my research was finding a blues with Johnny Winter on bottleneck.
Here’s a live version of “Watchtower” from the 1970 Isle of Wight concert:
The band spent much of 1968 touring the world, with Hendrix increasingly resorting to drugs to escape the pressures of fame. He never seemed to say ‘no’ to any request to play and rarely gave himself time off whether recording, jamming or building his Electric Lady recording studio. (Still functioning on West 8th St. NYC).
Everybody – fans, press, groupies, managers – seemed to want a piece of Jimi. At one point he went away to Hawaii to film a movie (Rainbow Bridge) and was able to relax. And once there, found himself wishing he didn’t have to return so soon to – as Joni Mitchell famously said – “stoking the starmaker machinery.”
The final performance of the Experience was in Denver, CO in June of 1969. This festival was marked by a riot with fans jumping on top of, and partially destroying, the band’s van and the police using tear gas to control the audience. After this fiasco, Noel Redding – now fearful for his life – got on a plane back to England, over and out.
By the merest coincidence, in that same year, Hendrix’ manager rented him a house in a town in upstate New York, not too far from Woodstock. And as we all know, Jimi – by now the world’s highest-paid rock musician – was booked at the festival as a headliner.
Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox were in this makeshift band along with a couple of other musicians. By the time Hendrix came on stage – at around 8:30 Monday morning, there were only 40,000 people left out of an estimated 4 – 500,000.
Jimi’s most famous song from this iconic festival was his rendition of the American national anthem, the “Star Spangled Banner.” Typically Hendrix wasn’t political but people took this as his form of protest. Asked later by television host Dick Cavett if his version was not unorthodox, Hendrix replied that he thought it was “beautiful.” You can see that brief exchange here: (1:18)
In the last year of his life, Hendrix tried to draw closer to the black community. He returned to a three-piece band (Band of Gypsys) consisting of two African-American men, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, and would occasionally dedicate a song or performance to the activist group, Black Panthers. (The US in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s was such a hotbed of social upheaval and anti-war protest that artists such as Hendrix were routinely expected – not asked to but expected – to make political statements, give free concerts, etc.)
This great song, recorded at the Fillmore East on January 1st 1970, is the Band of Gypsys from their self-titled album and is arguably seen as Jimi’s strongest anti-war statement. (But having served in 101st Airborne, he was never anti-military.)
In this, the last year of his life, Jimi had plans to go further with his music. He’d been hanging out with jazzman Miles Davis, with whom he had a mutual admiration society. The two even jammed privately. (Imagine that).
Hendrix had enough material for several albums already recorded. And he was still on a frantic drug-and-alcohol driven pace. It’s hard to say if his drive was because of a premonition of death he had gotten the previous year from a Tarot card reader or because Jimi was just such a workaholic. A little of both I think.
Hendrix’ last concert was on Sept. 6, 1970 in Fehrman, Germany. It was a chaotic mess run over by a German biker gang that rivaled the Stones at Altamont for disaster. By the time the band came on, the mood of the crowd had turned so ugly that the crowd greeted them with boos and jeers.
Hendrix at first tried to disarm them then eventually said, “Fuck you. I don’t care if you boo. Just boo in tune.” A German anarchist band followed and supposedly lit the match that burned the stage to the ground. And with that, the “Love + Peace Festival” (no shit) drew to a merciful close.
Two weeks later, now back in London and exhausted from his fame, touring, playing the same songs to increasingly unappreciative crowds, and fed up with that whole starmaker machinery, Jimi hooked up with old girlfriend Monika Dannemann. They spent a few days visiting friends, getting high and having arguments. Jimi wrote a poem, or perhaps song lyrics, called “The Story of Life,” the last thing he’d ever compose.
Dannemann and he were staying at the Samarkand Hotel in Notting Hill. (Still there). The actual circumstances around Jimi’s death are disputable to this day. But it would appear that Hendrix could not sleep and took some of Dannemann’s sleeping pills, in fact 9 of them, 18 times the recommended dosage. And it was this combination of alcohol, amphetamines and sleeping pills that caused him to choke to death on his own vomit.
I don’t have room to go into all the details of Jimi’s death but suffice it to say that after an inquest, suicide was ruled out. (Eric Burdon – who was the first person Dannemann called – was initially convinced that it was a suicide as he believed that Jimi’s poem was his final goodbye.)
Jimi was interred at Greenwood Cemetery in Seattle, where his mother was also buried. More than two hundred people attended the funeral, including Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, as well as Miles Davis, John Hammond, and Johnny Winter.
A house in London that Jimi lived in for a time with girlfriend Kathy Etchingham is now a museum called Handel and Hendrix in London. So-called because Handel lived in the same building 200 years prior. (And hey, if they’ve decided to elevate Handel to Jimi’s level, who are we to argue?) 😀
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum says this: “Jimi Hendrix was arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music. Hendrix expanded the range and vocabulary of the electric guitar into areas no musician had ever ventured before. His boundless drive, technical ability and creative application of such effects as wah-wah and distortion forever transformed the sound of rock and roll.”
Hendrix’ family – which got involved in their own lawsuits – have been the executors of Jimi’s estate and have been releasing albums since 1971. To date they have released or authorized participation in 11 studio CD’s. 21 live CD’s, 16 compilations and box sets, 20 extended plays, 22 singles, 12 “official bootlegs,” (including Fehrman, Germany), and a whole bunch of things with Hendrix as sideman. The list is here if you’re curious.
Are most of these any good? Don’t know. I’ve heard the Blues album and liked it. And I recently listened to some of what the estate claims will be the final studio CD, People, Hell and Angels. (A name Jimi had come up with long ago). And while it didn’t break any new ground, it sounded pretty damn good to me. But why wait 40 years to release it?
Al Hendrix, Chas Chandler, Michael Jeffrey, Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell and Monika Dannemann have all passed away, Mitchell as recently as 2008 while touring with a Hendrix tribute band. Mitchell is considered one of the greatest rock drummers ever, (number 8 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list) having influenced everyone from Stuart Copeland of the Police to Roger Taylor of Queen.
For some reason, while writing this series I had one song in my head the whole time. It’s from the first album released after Jimi’s death, 1971’s The Cry of Love. It’s called “Angel” and it seems appropriate since it was written for Jimi’s mother, its lyrics were read at Jimi’s funeral and the song was played at Jimi’s father’s funeral:
Other than on TV and in the Woodstock movie, I never got to see Hendrix perform in his brief lifetime. But in a way, due to all the exposure he got, I feel like I did. His musicianship (and life) continues to inspire my own guitar-playing and that of thousands of guitarists, musicians and artists around the world. And that is, I think, his true legacy.
The story of life is quicker
Than the wink of an eye
The story of love
Is hello and goodbye
Until we meet again
One of the last pictures taken of Jimi Hendrix.