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2 December 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 10:02am

Jimi Hendrix’s demons

Beneath the guitarist's flamboyant virtuosity lay a life scarred by childhood neglect and depression.   

By Jon Savage

In early autumn 1969, Jimi Hendrix was kidnapped off the late-night streets of Manhattan. Leaving a club called Salvation 2, he was accosted by four men and whisked away in a car. After two days of negotiations involving his manager Mike Jeffery and his label Warner Brothers, Hendrix was returned unharmed, but in shock. It is thought that the kidnapping was conducted by minor mafiosi, hoping to get a piece of the biggest rock star on the planet. Mob retribution against them quickly followed.

Hendrix’s involvement with Salvation 2 was dangerous in itself. Situated in Sheridan Square, Manhattan, the mafia-run joint was managed by a cocaine dealer called Bobby Woods (who was found dead a couple of years later with five bullets in his head). Hendrix had been coerced by his manager into playing there with his new and short-lived group Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. Jeffery had to call in some favours to ensure Hendrix’s release.

This contiguity to organised crime was only one of the many volatile currents swirling around Hendrix’s head in 1969. His rapid ascension, announced by his triumph at Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 – a performance shown in American cinemas from early 1969 on – had rendered him a lightning rod for the period’s stresses and strains. Simultaneously idolised and dehumanised, he was, as his friend Linda Keith remembers, “depressed and anxious” when she encountered him in September 1969.

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It seemed that every way he turned, Hendrix was boxed in: by the conflicting demands of art and commerce; by the yawning gap between his persona as a psychedelic spaceman and the reality of his closeness to organised crime; by the expectations of his white fans and the indifference shown to him by the black community. Assailed at once by Black Panther operatives and white fans offering sex and drugs, Hendrix, in Keith’s words, “wished he could go back in time to when things used to be simpler”.

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Of all the late Sixties superstars, Hendrix was the one who embodied freedom and self-determination. As he sang on his early manifesto, “If 6 Was 9”: “I’m the one that’s going to die when it’s time for me to die/So let me live my life the way I want to.” The central paradox of his life as a rock star – one of the world’s earliest and most flamboyant, indeed the one that set the mould – was that he was anything but free to do so.

How had it come to this? The conclusion offered by Philip Norman in Wild Thing, the latest entrant in the long list of Hendrix biographies is that, although blessed with an extremely strong artistic vision, psychic abilities and a virtuosity beyond the realms of most mortals, this young American was singularly ill-equipped to deal with inter-national fame and the notoriety of being seen as a black, erotic superman. It was all far too much, and in the end, nobody took care of him when he needed it. But then, nobody ever had.

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Born in November 1942 and raised in Seattle, Hendrix had a dreadful upbringing. The first son of Al Hendrix and Lucille Jeter, he was rarely supported by either parent: his father was harsh and abusive, while his mother was an elusive, if evanescent presence. Through much of his first 18 years he had no fixed name (being variously called Jim, Buster and Johnny), no fixed abode, and – as well as his brother Leon – three other siblings who, born with serious health problems, were lodged with the state.

The damage was permanent. In “Belly Button Window”, one of his finest later songs, Hendrix addresses his parents from inside the womb: “And I’m looking out my belly button window/And I swear I see nothing but a lot of frowns/And I’m wondering if they want me around.” Even when he became successful beyond all imagining, his father continued to berate him on his rare returns to his hometown: nothing he ever did was good enough.

Seeking escape and stability, Hendrix left Seattle to join the army at the age of 18 – the beginning of a peripatetic odyssey that would see him criss-cross the segregated South until his journey to England six years later. During that time he played with several groups – the King Kasuals, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers – and backed the cream of black American talent: the Impressions, the Isley Brothers, Jerry Butler, Slim Harpo, Solomon Burke, the Marvelettes and, for several months, Little Richard.

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Even so, he was treated as little more than a nuisance or a chattel. Hendrix found it impossible to conform to the slick suited conformity required of black American acts during that period, and his irrepressibility and ability to upstage saw him traded for two horn players by Solomon Burke; ditched at the side of the road by Otis Redding; and fired by Little Richard, who famously stated, “I am the only one allowed to be pretty.” He was frequently broke, homeless, starving, and without his most essential life companion – his guitar.

During this period, there are hints that Hendrix was not like other men: he was caught masturbating in the showers by a sergeant in Fort Campbell barracks; Little Richard claims to have watched his girlfriend Rosa Lee Brooks having sex with Hendrix; at one show in Huntington Beach, he “went onstage in a woman’s blouse and black wide-brimmed hat of the kind Rudolph Valentino used to wear to dance the bolero in silent movies”. On his first acid trip in 1966, Hendrix looked in the mirror and saw Marilyn Monroe looking back.

Clearly, he was very much in touch with his anima. Indeed, it was this overt femininity in his choice of clothing that helped to make him such a sensation when he first became a pop star in England in late 1966 and early 1967. As John Pearse, the co-founder of hippie boutique Granny Takes a Trip, remembers, Jimi always went straight for the women’s section: “He loved these highly coloured blouses with big puffy sleeves. He’d grab them by the armful, not even bothering to try them on.”

However, like the similarly androgynous Brian Jones, this female identification did not preclude indiscriminate sex, possessiveness and, on a few occasions, violent abuse – a severe stain on his character. Like his father, Hendrix was a nasty drunk: whisky in particular was his downfall. Yet he also wrote exquisite songs to and for women, including “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, and “Angel” – the last two dedicated to memories of his mother, who died when he was 15.

Hendrix did not reveal himself easily. In general, he is remembered by his friends, family and colleagues as spacey, quiet and withdrawn offstage. He had a good sense of humour, an enquiring mind and, in his relationship with Kathy Etchingham, kept good domestic order. The difference between persona and person was sharp: the journalist Sharon Lawrence had pictured someone “wild and terrifying” from the publicity but instead found herself shaking hands with “a shy, polite human being”. These characteristics would bend and buckle under pressure.

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The lift-off, when it came, was meteoric. By 1966, Hendrix had racked up studio time on singles by Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, but he was still an anomaly: a black American musician who had not come up through gospel, who had taken LSD – very much seen as a white person’s drug – and was obsessed with Bob Dylan. Scuffling in the Greenwich Village clubs, he was discovered by Linda Keith, Keith Richards’ then partner, who alerted the Animals’ bass player, Chas Chandler.

The Animals were then in New York during their final tour. Their singer Eric Burdon called them “a fragmentation grenade”, ready to explode. Chandler wanted out: despite two years at the top, he was exhausted and had received a tiny proportion of the money owed to the band by their manager Mike Jeffery – a man now usually spoken of in terms of the famous gangster film, Get Carter. Once he took on Hendrix’s management, Chandler invited Jeffery in as his business partner, an inexplicable decision that would have far-reaching consequences.

Arriving in London in late September 1966, Hendrix was carefully inserted by Chandler into the heart of the Sixties pop elite. After his long apprenticeship in the US, within a month he had wowed the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who and Eric Clapton. By the spring of 1967, he had scored three huge pop hits that defined the beginning of the rock era: “Hey Joe”, “Purple Haze” and the surprisingly soulful, Curtis Mayfield-style “The Wind Cries Mary” – a regretful account of a huge row between him and Kathy Etchingham.

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His experience in Britain provided Hendrix with emotional stability, a regular home and a regular partner – and a group, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, with Folkestone guitarist Noel Redding on bass and former child actor Mitch Mitchell on drums. He had dreamed of this success as a child, when, according to Norman, “a little boy still known as Buster would see the numbers one, nine and two sixes in his sleep, then awake with ‘a strange feeling that I was here for something and that I was going to have a chance to be heard’.”

It wasn’t all straightforward. In England, Hendrix was, as Burdon recalled, “a stranger in a strange land”. He was written about in racist terms: “the Wild Man of Borneo”, “a Hottentot on the rampage”. But his impact was huge. In England, Hendrix was at once a novelty, a weirdo and – during a time when the charts were filled with Englebert Humperdinck – an inspired, revolutionary musician who played what Melody Maker journalist Nick Jones called “flying music. Love and freedom. Body, soul, funk, feeling, feedback and freak.”

Hendrix’s acid flamboyance concealed doubt, exhaustion and depression. Three of the songs on his 1967 debut, Are You Experienced, are as direct as they are bleak: “Love or Confusion”, “Manic Depression”, “I Don’t Live Today”. His fourth single, “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”, was an elegant song built around a harpsichord figure and an autobiographical lyric that belied the electric showman: “All my loneliness I have felt today/It’s like a little more than enough/To make a man throw himself away.”

The pace was relentless: he played around 250 shows during 1967, and a further 150 in the US the next year. The records kept getting better: the playful, explosive Axis: Bold as Love was a quantum leap forward in writing, performance and production quality. Like its predecessor, it went top ten both in the UK and the US, but it marked the end of Hendrix’s British period; staying in the US album charts for nearly 18 months, Are You Experienced made him a superstar in America and it was there that the Experience spent most of 1968.

Released late that year, Electric Ladyland was a double album of such virtuosity that it threatened to eclipse the Beatles’ White Album. However much it was couched in counterculture gloss, Hendrix’s vision was dark: songs about racial disturbance sat next to apocalyptic presentiments, all capped by a transformative Dylan cover (“All Along the Watchtower”) and an extraordinary, nearly 14-minute song about escape from a world in flames, the ambient, oceanic “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)”.

Electric Ladyland was Hendrix’s perfectly realised masterpiece and, to some extent, his millstone. During the seemingly endless sessions for the record, Chas Chandler had quit, leaving his artist in the not so tender hands of Mike Jeffery. Soon into the new year, Kathy Etchingham also left, unable to deal with the new regime of liggers, cocaine and guns.

By June 1969, the Experience was also gone: Hendrix was tired of the limited line-up, and wanted to expand more into black music, funk and jazz. A collaboration with Miles Davis was mooted.

His August 1969 appearance at Woodstock became the climax of the film which, released in March 1970, was a box office smash. Hendrix released the contract-compromised live album The Band of Gypsys in March 1970, but would not release another studio album during his lifetime. The rest of 1969 and much of 1970 was spent in a series of false starts, short-lived groups, and endless studio sessions – some in his own studio, Electric Lady, the building of which sent him into greater debt and took up much of his energy.

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The pressures began to mount. Despite selling millions of albums, Hendrix was perennially short of money and tied to his manipulative manager, who also began to intervene in Hendrix’s creative decisions. Drugs didn’t help: Hendrix was a prodigious consumer of psychedelics but he began to get involved with cocaine, a very different drug.

When you’re a superstar, everyone knows who you are. So many people wanted a slice of Hendrix that he found it difficult to keep his balance. Like his contemporaries, he was also casting around for a post-psychedelic direction. The great songs that he recorded during this period – “Freedom”, “Angel”, and “Ezy Rider” to name but three – show a greater rhythmic sophistication, but then Hendrix could often spiral off: he needed a good editor. Nevertheless, there was enough material for a strong double album, which was his plan in summer 1970.

Norman’s account of Hendrix’s last few days in London resemble nothing else but the drowning man seeing his life flash before his eyes. All his previous friends and colleagues – Burdon, Chandler, Etchingham, Jeffery – appear in cameos, but the main event is Hendrix’s bizarre and fraught relationship with Monika Dannemann, a German ice skater and ­artist who attached herself to the musician and ­never let go. This London period is a ­brutal, ­compressed cavalcade of drugs, parties, furious rows and, in the end, catastrophic carelessness.

Hendrix died, choking on his own vomit, in a rented flat in London that he was staying in with Dannemann, early on 18 September 1970. Her account of the events of that night were contradictory and confusing, and have since been effectively disproved. Hendrix and Dannemann had had a huge row early on that evening in front of several witnesses, which continued, on and off, into the small hours. What- ever happened in that smallish room, it’s awful to think that he died amid such emotional disturbance.

As in other mythical rock star deaths, fans have made headway with the idea that Hendrix was killed by the mafia, or by Mike Jeffery, from whom Hendrix was seeking to detach in the last weeks of his life. However, assessing the data put forward by several books – Kathy Etchingham’s Through Gypsy Eyes, Tony Brown’s Hendrix: the Final Days, and this new biography – it seems clear that Hendrix was emotionally exhausted by the events of the day and simply wanted temporary oblivion. That it was permanent was an accident.

Hendrix has been well served by previous chroniclers such as Charles Shaar Murray, Harry Shapiro, and Charles Cross, but this is a good read that throws up interesting facts about the hugely exploitative nature of the 1960s music industry and its relationship to organised crime. Norman is a serial biographer, but here he is invested in his subject, and it shows. His reportage skills also serve him well in sifting through the various claims about Hendrix’s life and death, preventing him from spiralling off into conspiracy theory or hyperbole.

It’s hard not to conclude that Hendrix was, for all his fame, talent and allure, essentially alone for almost all his 27 years. Living out of hotel rooms, dragged from pillar to post, he was not strong enough mentally or physically to survive the extraordinary success that he had dreamed of as a child. Wild Thing reveals some of the man behind the well-encrusted mythology, and sends the reader back to those wonderful records that still radiate with a supernal light. 

Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix
Philip Norman
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 400pp, £20

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed