(photo credit: Courtesy)
People tend to remember where they were when they heard momentous news, such as
JFK’s assassination, the moon landing or 9/11. I was at my friend Stuart’s house
when I heard that Jimi Hendrix was dead.
It was September 18, 1970 – 40
years ago this past weekend. I was 16 and played guitar in a basement band in a
suburb of Hartford, Connecticut. I had all of Hendrix’s albums and knew all his
songs and riffs.
I went to see him every time he came to town. And, like
him, I played a Stratocaster (although as much as I tried, I couldn’t get it to
sound like his).
Hendrix’s fingers were long and slim, capable of amazing
reach and speed.
One moment he was a blast furnace throwing off torrents
of white embers, the next – after a segue so even and seamless you hardly felt
the shift – a golden sunset, the gentle lapping of an outgoing tide. Sometimes
he’d bend an especially sweet note – slowly, very slowly – until it swelled and
yelped and howled as if a thousand lunatics on meth and reverb had been let
loose in the sound system. (And those were the days of analog fuzz boxes, phase
shifters, wah wah pedals and feedback – none of the digital Star Wars
electronics that today turn Junior into Eddie Van Halen in just one lesson.)
Although I appreciated him more for his ballads, most people found Hendrix’s
brilliance in the din, the darkness, the energy and the occult. Indeed, to close
his show, he’d often kneel astride his Strat, douse it with lighter fluid and
flip in a match. With flames dancing higher, the strings would groan and the
pickups would scream, and Hendrix, eyes closed, mouth half-open in thrall, would
writhe like a pagan priest at the Altar of Doom.
He was like no
entertainer before him (and the impresarios quickly took note).
wore blazing swaths of velvet and silk adorned with dazzling bandanas and love
beads. He slammed, splintered and torched electric guitars and drawled of sex,
drugs and revolt. Clearly, he was not the role model your middleclass parents
had in mind – which meant that with the Kennedys being blown away and the
Vietnam war careening out of control, he was exactly what you were looking for.
He was revolt, in its purest sense, and it was inevitable that an entire
generation of guitar-playing American boys would grow up trying to emulate
At age 27, though, barely four years after exploding onto the scene,
Jimi Hendrix was dead, having overdosed and drowned in his own vomit in a seedy
London apartment half a world away from home. The news literally blew me down,
as if that little transistor radio in Stuart’s kitchen had been a triple stack
of Marshall amps at full volume. (Don’t forget, too, that it was not yet semi-de
rigueur for rock stars to die in mid-career: While Brian Jones had gone the year
before, Janis Joplin wouldn’t pack it in for another two weeks, and Duane Allman
and Jim Morrison for another year.) The cynics say that for Hendrix, dying was a
wise career move. Toward the end, critics had begun writing that he was getting
tired and stale and that his live performances, more and more dope-addled, were
becoming sloppy (if he showed up at all).
But for me, having never gotten
closer than Row 22, it was – and is – as if there had been a death in the
Had he lived, Hendrix would be closing in on 68.
to imagine him trudging with the missus out to the mailbox, where, like in those
ads for retired people, they nod and smile as they tear open the Social Security
check. Instead, like too many of his living contemporaries, he’d probably be
hauling his wattles, hearing aids and titanium knees on stage for the boomers
who’ve kept their turntables and pre-punk tastes – but also just as likely to
cover all the back taxes and alimony.
So maybe the cynics have a point,
for on that day 40 years ago Hendrix became an unassailable legend, an artist
forever at the top, an enduring photograph of a slim young man with smooth skin,
a full head of hair and wearing every hue of the rainbow. Just like he wrote in
“One Rainy Wish”: Gold and rose, the colors of the dream I had/ Not too long
ago/ Misty blue and lilac too/ Never to grow old.