‘Seeing Jimi at the Crossroads’ – A Real Life Encounter

Thanksgiving this year coincides with the 80th birthday of one of the creative geniuses of the 20th century, Jimi Hendrix. I had the opportunity to observe Jimi in an intimate setting at a turning point in the 1960s. This piece looks back on that encounter and an extraordinary artist. Happy Thanksgiving.

 *****

‘Seeing Jimi at the Crossroads’

It’s spring, 1968. Something is in the air. The war in Vietnam is entering its 16th year. New music from the U.S. and England driving change. Dylan’s bristling “Like a Rolling Stone” is the unofficial anthem. The sweet sound of pop has evolved into something more angry and spiritual. Last night, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated outside his Memphis motel room. His last public address includes the line, “I have Been to the Mountaintop.” The King assassination leads to nationwide race riots in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, Louisville, Kansas City and dozens of other cities. New York is strangely silent. People are still in shock; many are uncertain how to express their grief. Most carry on about their business.

I am standing under a theater marquis that looms over Second Avenue in the East Village. The Who and Buddy Guy are about to perform to a sold-out show at a music venue launched a few weeks ago, the Fillmore East. I was not one of the lucky ones admitted. The former Village Theater, today part of a bank branch, presented scores of shows over the next three years, and was the leading showcase for rock.

The Who, inspiration for scores of metal and punk bands that followed them, are the first British act to headline the 2,700-seat theater, originally designed to stage acts for Yiddish-speaking immigrants who populated the Lower East Side in the 1920’s. The band is booked to play four shows over the two nights. Because of anticipated unrest in the wake of Dr. King’s death, the promoters decide to condense the shows into one per night.

The latest issue of Rolling Stone, a new magazine of culture and music, is being hawked near the ticket office. “Bloody Battle Rages in Monterey Over the Return of the Pop Festival,” the cover reads. A long interview with America’s top guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, is featured. The bluesman sounds off about disconnections and commercialism.

It’s a warm Friday night, filled with spring-time anticipation but shadowed in sadness. The mood is tempered by the rock ritual taking place at the Fillmore: Participation feels like a statement to some; community to others. Whether or not it resembles legitimate protest, the live music serves as a welcome distraction. I am a 16-year-old a rock fan, eager to participate in something bigger and, hopefully, better. When I was not inside Village music venues like the Café Au Go Go, the Bitter End or Café Wha?, listening to bands like Moby Grape or Procol Harum, I was in pursuit of those who were. Last Friday it was Cream at Hunter College.

At 9:00 a royal blue Corvette convertible, top down, comes to a stop behind the car supporting my rear. The sold-out Fillmore show has already started. The driver and his passenger climb out of the low-slung car with something under their arms. The driver, portly with long thinning hair looping around his ears, is wearing a dark business suit. His tie is loosened. He walks in my direction as if he knows me. “Do you want to see a jam later tonight? There’s a new club. They’re getting it ready to open.”

The driver takes a flyer from the stack and shows it to me. It was for a B.B. King show the following weekend at, Generation. “Sure,” I say. “Why not?”

“Hand these out and come over when you are through. This club is going to be different. It’s on Eighth Street and it’s owned by musicians.”

Eighth Street is in the posher West Village, about a ten-minute walk from my post. Shoe and clothing stores dot the street but not much in the way music can be seen. The driver and his wingman, affable if uncool, sound serious about the before hours jam. Getting into clubs is pricey and difficult without proper ID. But if you’ve got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose.

*****

It took less than an hour to hand out most of the flyers. It was diverting and gave me an opportunity to speak to several young women lucky enough to have tickets. At a little after 10:00 I walk over to 52 West Eighth Street and arrive at the door. There is no visible signage. “Is this the right place?” Just then, the door pops open from the inside, a workman emberges to have a smoke. He confirms this is the right place and lets me in. Through the door and I find myself atop a huge room with tables and chairs upturned on them. I descend a staircase to what is effectively a large basement. Workers are putting the finishing touches on the lighting. The two guys from the ‘Vette’ were there. They greet me with a wave.

This space is unfamiliar but, I am to learn, not new. In 1929, while prohibition was still the official law of the land, it was a speakeasy that eventually became a country and western-themed nightclub, the Village Barn. My parents, who were neither night owls nor clubgoers, had a photograph of them that was taken at the Village Barn in late 1945. My dad, an Army Technical Sergeant, is looking proud in his uniform, as he nurses a Seven and Seven.

Generation feels different from other music venues. First, the acoustics make it easy to hear a clear conversation across the room. There is something freeing about the wide, windowless space, with its huge square pillars and prominent stage. It is not much more than an airy basement with a easy-going ambiance. The first occupant of 52 West 8th Street in 1929 was the Film Guild Cinema. It was designed by Juilliard’s theater director and De Stijl (“the style”) member Frederick Kiesler, an exponent of pioneer modernist painter, Piet Mondrian. The country-themed Village Barn opened in the basement, possibly as a Prohibition-era speakeasy, the next year, and operated until 1968. Hans Hoffman, a leading abstract expressionist painter, lived, worked and taught there from 1938 to 1958.

*****

Eight or ten people are present. Half are on stage tuning and strumming. The musicians are awkward in their movements. There are two or three unrecognized folkies with acoustic instruments. There is young bass player and a drummer, a configuration likely to lead to a rambling jam with tentative solos. But then a figure emerges from a lightless corner.

Dressed in black, guitar case propped on two chairs, the figure, a male, carefully removes his instrument. Not fifty feet from where I am standing I can see a Fender Stratocaster emerge from the case and patient tuning begun. When the guitarist looks up, there is no doubt about his identity.

Slighter and more taciturn than I would have imagined, Jimi Hendrix pulls a box from a canvas bag like a rabbit from out of a hat. What appears is a “wah-wah” pedal, popular in the day for achieving a funky staccato effect. Hendrix completes tuning and looks to others to join him. This was not going to be the kind of rolling all-star jam that he had been participating in around town. In past and coming weeks he will have played with top blues artists at clubs like Steve Paul’s The Scene and the Café Au Go Go. These encounters included musicians like Buddy Guy, Michael Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, John Mayall and Eric Clapton. On Sunday, new names would be added, including Joni Mitchell.

Earlier in the evening Hendrix’ had a scheduled concert at Symphony Hall in Newark, N.J., just across the river from Manhattan.  An aging city comprised of poor blacks and working-class whites, Newark experienced riots during the summer of 1967. Over four days there was looting and destruction. Twenty-six people died and hundreds were injured. There was fear that Dr. King’s murder, barely 24 hours ago, would spark similar violence.

Perhaps in honor of Dr. King, or simply acknowledging the grief, Newark was quiet. It was reported that Hendrix played one long improvisation in Symphony Hall for the predominantly white suburban audience and then left the stage. Hendrix arrives back in Manhattan before 10:00 PM, likely closer to his wake-up than sleeping time. With nowhere to go and no musicians in sight he heads towards the Village. He has had his eye on the Generation, variously known as The Generation or Generation Club, initially as a rehearsal space and then as a place for musicians to gig and him to jam. For tonight, it would serve as a workshop.

Shy and focused, Hendrix is quietly endearing. It is not what I or anyone in the room expects. He is arrow straight, with no hint of chemical alteration, an anomaly for the era and, and, as reputation would have it, for Jimi. All business, if he had donned a three-piece suit instead of a ruffled silk blouse, you could have been on his way to work in an office. Perhaps he wanted to work out some kinks in light of the cancelled performance at the Civic Dome in Virginia Beach the previous night and the shortened one in Newark tonight. Or maybe he didn’t know quite how to express his grief. I learned later he was about to enter a two-week hiatus then resume work on his third and, and what would become, final studio album, “Electric Ladyland.”

 *****

Hendrix had nothing to prove to a random minion of would-be musicians and onlookers. He conveyed not only a sense of purpose but an uncanny respect for the other musicians. He seemed not to want to overwhelm them. Eye contact is kept to a minimum. Is it because he prefers not to be seen as a rock icon or because he is simply unsure of himself around new people? Dressed in clothes that only he could make look casual: a black satin shirt with ruffled collar; black Spanish hat and gold chain belt, his charisma was palpable. There is a discernible lack of pretension. He clearly wants to play and, right now, it does not much matter with whom.

The music starts. It is a loose blues shuffle that lasts for about ten minutes with no soloing or singing, just musicians getting the feel for their instruments and each other. The music abruptly stops, once to help a young woman with an acoustic guitar figure out fingering for some chords; another to provide her with the right timing. Hendrix is a patient teacher. He moves her left hand to the proper frets, his long black fingers on her stubby white ones. The scene conveys a tender intimacy. Everyone in the room watches in silence. It may have been the most auspicious guitar lesson a student could imagine. Remember, this is happening during the height of Jimi-mania. If people knew he was at the Club they would have broken down the door and police would have been called in to stop them from tearing the place apart.

With the music finally moving along, there was a sudden change of pace leading to the familiar intro. “Sunshine of Your Love,” a current Cream hit, is taken to a new level by Hendrix’ deft use of the wah-wah pedal. Hendrix being Jimi. The rhythm section struggles to keep up. I learned later that Hendrix was waiting on Buddy Guy, who was expected to conclude his set at the Fillmore later that night. “Sunshine,” featuring a 15-minute solo, filled the empty club with massive sound. It had never been played better.

Hendrix and his manager, Mike Jeffrey, bought the old Village Barn space for $50,000 in early 1968 with the intention of turning it into a club of their own. Hendrix’s accountant and advisors, Eddie Kramer and Jim Marron, however, convinced him that owning a recording studio would make better sense. The club’s promoter and perhaps not so silent partner is Steven A. Greenberg, who I had met earlier in the evening. A self-made stock promoter, “financier, entrepreneur, art collector, and philanthropist,” he was responsible for much innovative NYC nightlife. “Steven was a visionary creative genius who became the Nightlife King of NY,” stated a 2012 obituary. Owner of the Roxy [Roller Disco], 230 Fifth Avenue and the Palladium, Greenberg was a renowned collector of Art Deco. “He was a generous, charismatic and special friend to many.”

When Generation closed in late 1968 construction was begun almost immediately on Electric Lady Studios. Architect and well-known acoustician John Storyk designed each structural detail of the studio. It was the only artist-owned recording studio at the time. Construction of the studio took nearly twice the amount of time and budget. Permits were delayed numerous times, the site flooded due to heavy rains during demolition and sump pumps had to be installed (then soundproofed) after it was determined that the building sat on the tributary of an underground river, Minetta Creek. A six-figure loan from Warner Brothers was required to save the project.

Electric Lady Studio, still active today, is the oldest continuously running recording studio in New York and the first that is musician-owned. Artists who were to record there in the 1970s included Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, John Lennon and Dionne Warwick. Later customers included Lou Reed, Madonna, Eric Clapton, Placido Domingo and Michael Jackson. More recently, it has a attracted a lofty list of leading singer-songwriters, including Ed Sheeran, Adele, Taylor Swift and Kanye West.

*****

On Sunday April 7, Palm Sunday, two days after Hendrix’s appearance at Generation and three days after the King murder, an impromptu memorial was organized to honor Dr. King, the unofficial ‘Wake for Dr. King’. It was not widely advertised, and for which admission was not charged. Word-of-mouth was all that was needed to fill the 300-seat club. The gathering was comprised of leading musicians who were in town and simply wished to express their respect for the civil rights leader.

On April 15th, Easter Monday, musicians gathered again to honor King. In addition to Hendrix and B.B. King, there was Buddy Guy, Paul Butterfield, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, Al Kooper, guitarist Roy Buchanan and Joni Mitchell all of whom performed. Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop) attempted to capture the evening. The film was never released, but grainy excerpts can be found on various websites, including Pennebaker’s own.

*****

Electric Lady Studios finally opened on August 26, 1970. Hendrix was able to record there for a few weeks during construction. On August 27 he left on an Air India flight to play at the Isle of Wight Festival, a sort of UK version of Woodstock. Three weeks later he was dead from an overdose.  The coroner’s report stated that “death was by asphyxiation through aspiration of vomit due to a barbiturate overdose.”

I will always think of Jimi Hendrix as the gentle soul I observed with a few others on the night following the King assassination when he did not want to be alone. At the time he appeared more generous and grounded than caught up in his own confusing celebrity.

Hendrix’ passing at 27 seems to follow a pattern. It was the same age that Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse all left us. Other members of the 27 Club, as it has been referred to, include Kurt Cobain, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and Rolling Stone Brian Jones.

For many, Hendrix’s death resonates the way JFK’s did, or Princess Diana’s. He appeared to have so much going for him. Looking back, the Spring of ’68 was less a new beginning than the evolution of an old one. No one knew where we were headed. Looking back, the frustration and anger generated by King’s murder and, eight weeks later, Bobby Kennedy’s, were manifest in Jimi at Generation that night and likely inspired his rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock a year later. Hendrix had joined the US Army in 1961 and served as a paratrooper with the famed 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles.” He was honorably discharged a year later after breaking his ankle. Many of his service buddies were sent to Vietnam.

****

For all his accomplishments, there was a great deal inside Hendrix which was not expressed.

“Hendrix often become angry and violent when he drank too much alcohol or when he mixed alcohol with drugs,[277] wrote Hendrix biographer, Charles R. Cross. His friend Herbie Worthington said that Hendrix “simply turned into a bastard” when he drank [278] According to friend Sharon Lawrence, liquor “set off a bottled-up anger, a destructive fury he almost never displayed otherwise”.[279]

The details of Hendrix’s last day and death are unclear and widely disputed. His tempestuous relationship with his girlfriend, Monika Dannermann, a figure skater and a painter, may have played a role. The couple had argued at a friend’s on September 17, the evening prior to his death. Hendrix apologized and Dannermann and he returned to her Notting Hill flat in North London, where she said she had prepared dinner. At approximately 1:45 AM Dannerman drove Hendrix to a party, where he stayed for a short while and they had again argued. At the party he had taken at least one amphetamine pill, known as a Black Bomber. Later, at Dannemann’s place, Hendrix took nine of her Vesparax sleeping pills. He was declared dead at St. Mary Abbots Hospital at 12:35 PM.

Before departing for the party Hendrix took a bath then wrote a poem. He called it “The Story of Life.”

I wish not to be alone,
So I must respect my other heart.
Oh, the story of Jesus is the story
Of you and me.
No use in feeling lonely,
I am sending you to be free.
The story of life is quicker
Than the wink of an eye
The story of love is hello and goodbye
Until we meet again.

 

© 2022. ‘Seeing Jimi at the Crossroads’, by Bruce Berman. All rights reserved.

Image source: Soundboard (FLAC)

____________________

Bruce Berman is responsible for five non-fiction books and more than four hundred articles and reviews. He lives outside of New York City.

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