The first I heard of Jimi Hendrix was at the Doors concert at the Alexandria Roller Rink. A deejay was giving away free concert tickets, and one of the winners was on the stage. The deejay asked if anybody had heard of Jimi Hendrix, and this guy said he’d heard the Experience while he was in England. “Yeah, it’s only three guys, and they make enough noise for a hundred.” That stuck with me. Only three guys? And loud? Must be some mistake. How could three guys be loud? The idea of sheer volume, power through amplification, was fairly novel then. Players and one amp with two speaker cabinets at most—a Fender Dual Showman was the supreme for bass. I couldn’t conceive of just stacks and stacks of amps until later.
I bought the Experience album at a music store in Williamsburg. I’d heard it in bits and pieces in the room of a dorm mate, and I had to have it. Hell, I didn’t even have my own stereo then. As with the Beatles album, I remember standing there, reading the cover again and again—“Be forewarned,” the jacket said. Now that was ominous. Almost too heavy to handle. The music was immediately captivating, but not in the way where you nod your head, say “Yeah” and start bobbing your head to a familiar groove. You kinda listened with your head cocked, your mind slightly tilted, trying to absorb a little more with each listen until every wail and feedback line had its own meaning, as right and true as sunlight hitting a crystal and exploding into a dozen hues. This was completely new music with a different frame of reference. All those words that now seem so hokey—cosmic, spacey, mind-blowing—were valid then.
Reid and I were determined to see Hendrix, and we got our chance that freshman year, 1967, when he did two shows in one day at the Washington Hilton. I’m not sure why we chose to attend the matinee—maybe I had to be back at school the following day. The show was like at 3 or 4, and we got there at 11. General admission, and we wanted to make sure we got good seats. Only a handful of other people—freaks, mostly—were on hand, so we settled down. I’ll never forget the long hours of waiting at this and many other concerts. Christ, half my life has been spent waiting for doors to open, equipment to be set up, bands to come on. The minutes stretched into long hours of tedium as we waited outside the building. More and more people trickled in, then they opened the doors and crammed us all into the lobby. More waiting. More people. Slowly, space began to shrink and we became packed tighter and tighter. Elbow to elbow became elbow in ribs, and what once was simply uncomfortable became dangerous. I was jammed against Reid and I couldn’t raise my arms. People ahead of us were yelling for others to back up. All of a sudden, I felt my body moving, but I hadn’t moved my feet. It was an awful, helpless feeling. Reid was jammed away from me—we were totally at the mercy of the crowd. If something didn’t give, we would be crushed. Then the doors in front of us opened, and people popped through like pus from a zit. Man, that felt good. There was a mad scramble for the front, and Reid and I easily could have gotten front-row seats, second row at the farthest. However, the words of the guy at the roller rink kept echoing in my head. Three guys and they play as loud as a hundred. If we sat too close, we just might get our little eardrums shattered. We didn’t want to be that experienced. So we sat in the 16th row. I remember because we counted them. To think back now—that we could have been in the front row to see Jimi Hendrix—that would’ve been something to tell our grandchildren about, although our grandchildren certainly will wonder why old farts would attach any value to such a thing It is the frustration of each generation to try to pass along, always futilely, that which made it unique to another generation, which is still seeking its own identity. The events that shape each age belong to those with their fingers in the clay.
This is as good a time as any to be real up front about something. I was, or became, a total Hendrix freak. The man became my idol. I saw him five times. In fact, he never came through the East Coast that I didn’t catch him. I had posters on the wall, I had all his records (even a British version of “Are You Experienced” with “Red House” and “Remember”). I had one of the felt Mexican-type hats with the broad brim like he wore. Of course, in this I was not alone, for all of the Graves boys were ga-ga over Jimi, and I wasn’t the only one sporting a Hendrix hat. Fanatical? Perhaps. But I—and my brothers—make no apologies. Hendrix spoke to my soul unlike any other musician. He played with passion and power, but he could feedback with finesse. Toss away all the acrobatics and novelties that later became distractions, and he was still a pioneer. He took sound, electric sound, to places it had never been. Live, he was a master. It is impossible to convey or capture a Hendrix concert on film or record, much less in words.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and perhaps putting the hyperbole before the horse.
There Reid and I were, in the 16th row, wondering—who was this brash, note-bending swashbuckler, this alleged magic boy with golden fingers and white-hot feedback. We could hardly contain our excitement. “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” “Fire” and others were burned in our hearts, and we wanted to see if the man himself measured up.
The Soft Machine’s meandering opening set was interminable. Only the light show—amoebic blobs of oil in an ocean of colored water bathing the stage—kept us from looking at our watches.
Finally, Hendrix. He was tall and lean, and his big hands and seven-league fingers made the guitar’s neck like a child’s toy. He looked like a Mexican hippie bandit, but totally cool. He radiated confidence and fun, but the music was serious, too.
The press at the time painted Hendrix as somewhat of a circus clown. Playing with his teeth, the guitar behind his back, between his legs, rolling on the floor with his Stratocaster screaming—all those showboating acrobatics claimed the spotlight, not the playing or the eloquence of his music.
I think he opened with “Foxey Lady,” but I don’t recall the song order. One thing, in “Red House,” he played a Gibson instead of his usual Stratocaster.
Up to this point in my life, I had seen the guitar only as a passive instrument (with the exception of Beck’s bashing in “Blowup”). It was played upon, and the guitarists generally stood still or shuffled a bit without making much commotion. Jimi changed that. He could be playing along, then suddenly he’d be in a crouch, his Strat point out from his crotch like a machine gun cock, then he’d be up again, grinning, popping his chewing gum. A heartbeat later, he’d take his fret hand, bring it up over the neck, slide it down to the nut and be back on the chord like lightning. His fingers would trill, and his tongue would flicker. Then there was the behind-the-back, somersault, play-it-with-your-teeth shit. Seeing it for the first was entertaining, but ultimately it proved gaudy, and for Hendrix it became his cage.
I have absolutely no musical impressions from that show. Odd. No sense of the quality of the music, of the notes played. I had seen a wild man, a Walenza on guitar, but I remember feeling I hadn’t gotten all I wanted out of the performance. Perhaps he was saving something for the evening show.
Some of his antics seemed perfunctory. Like when he busted up his amp at the end, there was clearly this old beat-up cabinet on the stack that was the designated victim, the sacrificial amp. He thrust his pelvis against the guitar, which was pressed against the stack, fucking the sound. It was loud as hell, and in its novelty pretty exciting. But it wasn’t the same as some spontaneous sacrifice on the altar of delirium, as at Monterey.
ASIDE: What propels this destructive urge? As far as I know, it never has been manifested in another musical form. Paganini and Liszt certainly didn’t trash their instruments. Perhaps it has to do with frenzy, that Bacchanalian state where the music, dance, wine (or drugs) and creative energy work themselves into a frenzy. The TUG is so strong, so primal, that creativity flops or maybe merges with its opposite, or twin, destruction. Most music is an effort at refinement; rock is basic, primitive, visceral, elemental. There’s a fine line between love and hate, between ecstasy and pain, between Woodstock and Altamont, between “Voodoo Chile” and “Wild Thing.”
Is rock adolescent? Yes, but it’s also infantile and savage, innocent and sublime. It is youth’s first rage, first kiss and last breath.