November 27, 1942 – James Maurice Hendrix:
“Music Is Getting Too Heavy.”
Hendrix could have stayed in the US Army, where he probably would have been sent to Vietnam. Instead, he pretended he was gay. That was all it took to be discharged from the military in 1962.
Not going to war gave Hendrix the opportunity to launch his musical career, and he would soon redefine the guitar as an instrument. His talent left fans and other musicians of the era speechless, and it culminated with his headlining performance of The Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969.
Hendrix claimed he was discharged after breaking his ankle on a parachute jump, but his medical records make no mention of such an injury. In visits to the psychiatrist at Fort Campbell in spring 1962, Hendrix complained that he was in love with one of his squad mates and that he had become addicted to masturbating. He was then recommended for discharge, citing his “homosexual tendencies”.
He wasn’t drafted, Hendrix had enlisted to avoid jail time after being repeatedly arrested stealing cars in Seattle.
Like Kurt Cobain, Hendrix grew up in poverty in Washington State, dreaming from an early age of becoming a rock star, but ending up with more fame than he knew what to do with, and retreating into a haze of drug abuse.
He was born in Seattle, but he spent some of his early years with his grandmother, a full-blooded Cherokee, in Canada. He had a troubled childhood growing up in Seattle’s Central District, the only neighborhood in the city where African-Americans could buy homes. His father and mother both had drinking problems. He flunked out of Garfield High.
Before Hendrix even owned a real guitar, he played air guitar using a broom, then a hunk of wood with a single string. When he was 16 years old, his father bought him a right-handed electric guitar that Hendrix had to restring to play left-handed.
After his discharge, Hendrix formed a band with his army pal Buddy Cox and they began touring Southern clubs on the “Chitlin’ Circuit”. From 1963-65, Hendrix played to black audiences as backup for Tina Turner, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, The Isley Brothers, and Little Richard.
Unable to make a living in the USA, Hendrix traveled to England in 1966 and took London by storm with his perfect blend of Soul, Blues and Rock. He impressed the best guitarists of the era such as George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck. Hendrix lived in London for a year, forming the Jimi Hendrix Experience and released his first album.
On his way to play at the Monterey Pop Festival in summer 1967, he was mistaken for a bellhop at the Chelsea Hotel during a layover in New York City. It was a reminder of his status as a black man in America. Hendrix was uneasy being one of the first black stars to attract a white audience; he wanted to be welcomed by African-Americans too. After playing Woodstock, his manager tried to arrange a show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. The legendary theater refused, afraid that a Hendrix concert would draw too many white people. His friends teased him about his drug of choice, LSD, because it was a “white” drug.
His manager was Chas Chandler, the bassist in The Animals who wanted to become a manager and record producer. Chandler changed the spelling of “Jimmy” to “Jimi”, and he helped to form The Jimi Hendrix Experience, with Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. Six weeks after Hendrix left NYC, and four days after forming his trio, he opened at the Olympia in Paris, on the bill with French pop star Johnny Halliday.
Eight days after The Beach Boys broke an attendance record by playing to a crowd of 7,000 in two shows at The Tivoli in Stockholm, The Jimi Hendrix Experience drew 14,500 for their two shows. They became the second group, after the Rolling Stones, to sell out the Sports Arena in Copenhagen. At the Seville Theater in London, they were the first act ever to sell out both shows, and, when a return engagement was booked a month later, tickets sold out the day they became available. The press called The Jimi Hendrix Experience “an overnight smash”.
Hendix’s American success came from the booking at the 1967 Monterey Pop And Jazz Festival, based on the recommendation of Paul McCartney. Few in the audience knew that, until nine months previous, Hendrix had lived his whole life in the USA. They assumed that the freaky black English blues muscian was making his American debut.
Monterey was where Hendrix introduced his guitar-burning thing. Hendrix told Rolling Stone:
“At the Monterey Festival, I decided to destroy my guitar at the end of the song. It was a painted guitar. I’d just finished painting it that day and was really into it. I had my rawhide bag on stage, carried everything in it including kerosene for my lighter. I destroyed my guitar again in Washington, D.C. It was accidental.”
When Hendrix made his triumphant return to Seattle early in 1968, he received a key to the city and an honorary diploma from Garfield High. His father saw his son in a purple velvet cape and rainbow shirt, and he was astounded. Not only did he not realize how big a star Hendrix had become, he remembered his son as a conservative dresser with a reserved personality.
His stage act was mayhem, his costumes were bombastic, and Hendrix had an obvious ambivalence about being a rock star. Offstage, he remained quiet, boyish, and vulnerable.
In 1969, he was arrested in Toronto for possession of hashish and heroin, but was acquitted. During the trial he said he used marijuana, hashish, LSD and cocaine, but never heroin. His most popular song, Purple Haze, was a comment of the 1960s drug culture.
After his trial, Hendrix said:
“This I really believe: anybody should be able to think or do what they want as long as it doesn’t hurt somebody else.”
Tall, rangy, sexy Hendrix was one of the highest paid performers in the world and the star attraction at the biggest rock festivals. His records sold in the millions.
Early on September 18, 1970, Hendrix died in London. He had spent the previous evening at a party. Many theories swirled about the cause of death, including whispers of murder; but the official cause of death was asphyxiation, choking on his own vomit after taking too many sleeping pills.
Hendrix is a member of the 27 Club. All the members had especially difficult childhoods. All had wealth, fame and adulation, but what they achieved was not enough to undo the impact of their early years. Kurt Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Conner, said:
Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.
Other members of the 27 Club include Blues legends Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (Grateful Dead), Dave Alexander (The Stooges), Pete Ham (Badfinger), Kristen Pfaff (Hole), Jean-Michel Basquiat and Brian Jones (Rolling Stones). Johnson went first, in 1938, Winehouse was last in 2011.
Hendrix’s body is interred in Greenwood Memorial Park in Seattle. You can visit him there.
Inducted in 1992, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes him as “the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music”. A plaque identifying his former residence at 23 Brook Street, London, is next door to the former residence of composer George Frideric Handel. It was the first one issued to commemorate a pop star. The United States Postal Service issued a Hendrix commemorative postage stamp in 2014; I have a full sheet. A memorial statue of Hendrix stands near the corner of Broadway and Pine Streets in Seattle. In 2006, the city renamed a park in the Central District Jimi Hendrix Park.
In one of Hendrix’s songs, If 6 Was 9, he wrote:
I’m the one who’s got to die when it’s time for me to die so let me live my life the way I want to.”