March 31, 2016


Jimi Hendrix: 'You never told me he was that good' (Ed Vulliamy, August 2010, The Guardian)

He was born to a father who cared, but not greatly, and a mother he barely knew - she died when he was 15 - but adored (she's said to be the focus of two of his three great ballads, "Little Wing" and "Angel"). He had always been enthralled by guitar playing - a "natural", immersed in R&B on the radio and the music of blues giants Albert King and Muddy Waters. When he was 18, he was offered the chance to avoid jail for a minor misdemeanour by joining the army, which he did, training for the 101st Airborne Division.

His military career was marked by friendship with a bass player called Billy Cox from West Virginia, with whom he would play his last concerts, and a report which read: "Individual is unable to conform to military rules and regulations. Misses bed check: sleeps while supposed to be working: unsatisfactory duty performance."

Hendrix engineered his discharge in time to avoid being mobilised to Vietnam and worked hard as a backing guitarist for Little Richard, Curtis Knight, the Isley Brothers and others. But, arriving in New York to try and establish himself in his own right, Hendrix found he did not fit. The writer Paul Gilroy, in his recent book Darker Than Blue, makes the point that Hendrix's life and music were propelled by two important factors: his being an "ex-paratrooper who gradually became an advocate of peace" and his "transgressions of redundant musical and racial rules".

Hendrix didn't fit because he wasn't black enough for Harlem, nor white enough for Greenwich Village. His music was closer to the blues than any other genre; the Delta and Chicago blues which had captivated a generation of musicians, not so much in the US as in London, musicians such as John Mayall and Alexis Korner, and thereafter Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page among many others.

As luck would have it, the Brits were in town and Linda Keith, girlfriend of the Stones' Keith Richards, persuaded Chas Chandler, bass player of the Animals, to go and listen to Hendrix play at the Cafe Wha? club in the Village. Chandler wanted to move into management and happened to be fixated by a song, "Hey Joe", by Tim Rose.

"It was a song Chas knew would be a hit if only he could find the right person to play it," says Keith Altham, then of the New Musical Express, who would later become a kind of embedded reporter with the Hendrix London entourage. "There he was, this incredible man, playing a wild version of that very song. It was like an epiphany for Chas - it was meant to be."

"To be honest," remembers Tappy Wright, the Animals' roadie who came to Cafe Wha? with Chandler that night, "I wasn't too impressed at first, but when he started playing with his teeth, and behind his head, it was obvious that here was someone different."

Before long, Hendrix was aboard the plane to London with Chandler and the Animals' manager, Michael Jeffery, to be met by Tony Garland, who would end up being general factotum for Hendrix's management company, Anim. "When he arrived," recalls Garland now, sitting on his barge beside the canal in Maida Vale, west London, where he now lives, "I filled out the customs form. We couldn't say he'd come to work because he didn't have a permit, so I told them he was a famous American star coming to collect his royalties."

It is strange, tracking down Hendrix's inner circle in London. His own musicians in his great band, the Experience - Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell - are dead. Likewise, his two managers, Chandler and Jeffery, and one of his closest musician friends, the Rolling Stone Brian Jones; the other, Eric Burdon of the Animals, declined to be interviewed. But some members of the close-knit entourage are still around, such as Kathy Etchingham and Keith Altham, wearing a flaming orange jacket befitting the time of which he agrees to speak, in defiance of a heart attack only a few days before.

Music in London had reached a tumultuously creative moment when Hendrix arrived and was perfectly poised to receive him. "The performers were just your mates who played guitars," recalls Altham. "It was tight - everyone knew everyone else. It was just Pete from the Who, Eric of Cream, or Brian and Mick of the Stones, all going to each other's gigs."

For reasons never quite explained, the blues - both in their acoustic Delta form, and Chicago blues plugged into an amplifier - had captivated this generation of English musicians more deeply than their American counterparts. Elderly blues musicians found themselves, to their amazement, courted for concerts, such as an unforgettable night at Hammersmith with Son House and Bukka White. Champion Jack Dupree married and settled in Yorkshire. "People [here] felt a certain affinity with the blues, music which added a bit of colour to grey life," Altham continues. And as Garland points out: "White America was listening to Doris Day - black American music got nowhere near white AM radio. Jimi was too white for black radio. Here, there were a lot of white guys listening to blues from America and wanting to sound like their heroes."

Things happened at speed after Hendrix landed. "'Come down to the Scotch,' Chas told me the day Jimi arrived and hear what I found in New York," recalls Altham. "Jimi couldn't play because he had no work permit, but he jammed that night, and my first impression was that he'd make a great jazz musician." That was the night, his first in London, that Hendrix met Kathy Etchingham. "It happened straightaway," she recalls. "Here was this man: different, funny, coy - even about his own playing."

"A short while later," recalls Altham, "Chas took me to hear him at the Bag O'Nails club [in Soho] for one of his first proper gigs, turned to me and said, 'What'ya think?' I said I'd never heard anything like it in all my life." At a concert in the same series, remembers Garland, "Michael Jeffery put an arm round Chas, another round me and said, 'I think we've cracked it, mate.'" They had: Kit Lambert, according to Altham, literally scrambled across the tables to Chas at one of the shows and said, "in his plummy accent", he had to sign him. Chas needed a record contract, Decca had turned Hendrix down (along with the Beatles) and Lambert was about to launch a new label, Track Records, with interest from Polydor: "The deal was done, on the back of a napkin," says Altham.

Hendrix had formed his band at speed: a rhythm guitarist from Kent called Noel Redding - who had applied to join the Animals but to whom Hendrix now allocated bass guitar - and Mitch Mitchell, a jazz drummer seeking to mould himself in the style of John Coltrane's great percussionist, Elvin Jones. With a stroke of genius, Jeffery came up with the only name befitting what was to follow: the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Is there any line in rock'n'roll more assuredly seductive as: "Are you experienced?/ Have you ever been experienced?/ Well, I have" (from 1967's "Are You Experienced")?

Paul McCartney, John Lennon and the other Beatles quickly converged to hear this phenomenon, along with the Stones and Pete Townshend. Arriving one night at the Bag O'Nails, Altham met Brian Jones "walking back up the stairs with tears in his eyes. I said, 'Brian, what is it?' and he replied, 'It's what he does, it chokes me' - only he put it better than that".

There was also curiosity from the emergent powerhouse of British blues: Cream and Eric Clapton. There was a particular night when Cream allowed Jimi to join them for a jam at the Regent Street Polytechnic in central London. Meeting Clapton had been among the enticements Chandler had used to lure Hendrix to Britain: "Hendrix blew into a version of [Howlin' Wolf's] 'Killing Floor'," recalls Garland, "and plays it at breakneck tempo, just like that - it stopped you in your tracks." Altham recalls Chandler going backstage after Clapton left in the middle of the song "which he had yet to master himself"; Clapton was furiously puffing on a cigarette and telling Chas: "You never told me he was that fucking good."

With a reputation, a recording contract and the adoration of his peers, Hendrix was allocated a flat belonging to Ringo Starr, in Montagu Square, in which he lived with Etchingham, Chandler and Chandler's Swedish girlfriend, Lotta. It was not ideal, but base camp for an initial tour - as opening act for Cat Stevens and Engelbert Humperdinck, with the Walker Brothers topping the bill.

Something was needed, Chandler thought, whereby Hendrix could blow the successive acts off the stage and Altham had the beginning of an idea. He said: "'It's a pity that you can't set fire to your guitar.' There was a pregnant pause in the dressing room, after which Chas said, 'Go out and get some lighter fuel.'" Garland remembers: "I went out into Seven Sisters Road [in north London] to buy lighter fluid. At first, it didn't make sense to me - there were too many things going on to worry about lighter fluid - but it all became clear in the end."

Altham borrowed a lighter from Gary - the third Walker brother and drummer - and that night, at the Astoria theatre in central London, Hendrix set his guitar ablaze for the first time. "One of the security guards said, 'Why are you waving it around your head?'" recalls Altham. "'Cause I'm trying to put it out,' replied Jimi. 

Posted by at March 31, 2016 3:10 PM