The life of Jimi Hendrix, the American guitar hero who lived in London during the Swinging Sixties, was brief. After failing to leave much of a mark in America, playing in sessions with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, he founded his own band, The Experience, in Britain and in three albums laid down an indelible musical legacy, including his epic take on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”
In a new collection of Hendrix reminiscences, the guitarist looks back to the high days of the Sixties, when wearing military dress uniforms was the fashion and when the mere appearance of a colorfully draped tall Afro-haired American drew automatic attention from the British police.
People ask me whether I dress and do my hair like this just for effect, but it’s not true. This is me. I don’t like to be misunderstood by anything or anybody, so if I want to wear a red bandanna and turquoise slacks and if I want hair down to my ankles, well, that’s me.
All those photographs you might have seen of me in a tuxedo and a bow tie playing in Wilson Pickett’s backing group were me when I was shy, scared and afraid to be myself. I had my hair slicked back and my mind combed out.
The jacket I’m wearing now is Royal Army Veterinary Corps, 1898 I believe. Very good year for uniforms. The other night I was about half a block away from the Cromwellian Club, wearing this gear. Up comes this wagon with a blue light flashing, and about five or six policemen jump out at me.
They look into my face real close and severe. Then one of them points to my jacket and says, “That’s British, isn’t it?” So I said, “Yeah, I think it is.” And they frowned and all that bit, and they said, “You’re not supposed to be wearing that. Men fought and died in that uniform.” The guy’s eyes were so bad he couldn’t read the little print on the badges.
So I said, “What, in the Veterinary Corps? Anyway, I like uniforms. I wore one long enough in the United States Army.” They said, “What? You trying to get smart with us? Show us your passport.” So we did all that bit too. I had to convince them that my accent was really American. Then they asked me what group I was with, and I said the Experience. So they made fun of that as well and made cracks about roving minstrels.
After they made a few more funnies and when they’d finally got their kicks, they said they didn’t want to see me with the gear on anymore, and they let me go. Just as I was walking away one of them said, “Hey, you said you’re with the Experience. What are you experiencing?” I said, “Harassment” and took off as quick as I could.
Part of Hendrix’s attraction was his gymnastic use of the guitar, plucking strings with his teeth, and his habit of smashing his guitar live on stage. Here Hendrix recalls how destroying his guitar first came about.
The smashing routine began by accident. I was playing in Copenhagen, and I got pulled off stage. Everything was going great. I threw my guitar back onto the stage and jumped back after it. When I picked it up there was a great crack down the middle. I just lost my temper and smashed the damn thing to pieces.
The crowd went mad – you’d have thought I’d found the “lost chord” or something. After that, whenever the press was about or I got that feeling, I just did the bit again. But it isn’t just for the show, and I can’t explain the feeling. It’s just like you want to let loose and do exactly what you want if your parents weren’t watching.
I’m not really a violent man, but people got the impression I was because of the act. You do this destruction thing maybe three or four times, and everybody thinks you do it all the time. We only do it when we feel like it. You feel very frustrated, and the music gets louder and louder, and all of a sudden, crash, bang, it goes up in smoke.
Some nights we can be really bad. If we smash something up then, it’s because that instrument, which is something you dearly love, just isn’t working that night. It’s not responding, so you want to kill it. It’s a love-hate relationship, just like you feel at times when your girlfriend starts messing around. You can do it because the music and the instrument can’t fight back.
It’s just the bad bits coming out in me. I mean, no matter how sweet and lovely you are, there are black and ugly things deep down somewhere. I bring mine out on stage, and that way no one gets hurt. And we find that it works for the audience too. We try to drain all the violence out of their systems.
We mostly build on bar patterns and emotion, not melody. We can play violent music, and in a way it releases their violence. It’s not like beating it out of each other, but like violent silk. I mean, sadness can be violent.
Maybe after people dig us presenting some violence on stage they won’t want to leave and destroy the outside world. Feeling vibrations and letting loose at a place like that is a soul-bending type of thing. It’s better than bending your soul in riots. You should never get to that point.
Reprinted with permission from the book STARTING AT ZERO: His Own Story. Copyright c 2014 Bloomsbury USA.