It was a New York winter day, frozen and gray and violently blustery. Indoors, out of the fearful cold, people seemed somehow gentler toward one another – strange in New York City – as if it was enough to battle the elements, no need to battle each other.
Inside his manager's neo-turn-of-the-century apartment, on a sofa near the radiant fireplace, sat Jimi Hendrix, in a gentle, almost reticent frame of mind. The light snow had begun to fall. You could see that through the narrow slits where the curtain allowed the merest sliver of daylight and streetscene to penetrate into the gloomy dark room.
On the same sofa, and on a richly upholstered chair next to it, sat the members of Jimi Hendrix's new band. He had broken up the old Experience (Noel Redding on bass, Mitch Mitchell, drums) at some indeterminate point during the Fall. He had been living and jamming with an all-purpose crew of musicians – everything from older black gentlemen from the South who played blues guitar, to a band of avant garde jazz/space musicians under the general leadership of a flute player named Juma – and talking about coming up with something new.
That avant garde/blues/rock and roll experiment faltered at some point along the way, and Hendrix announced a new band with the same instrumentation as the old Experience: it would have Hendrix singing and guitaring, Buddy Miles on drums and vocals, and Billy Cox, an old Army buddy of Jimi's, on bass. The new band was called the Band of Gypsies.
By various accounts, they sounded pretty tough. The sound was not much different from the Experience; and, yes, they were still working up their repertoire; and there were early complaints about Buddy Miles' lengthy stretches of singing. But when they played Fillmore East, they dazzled everybody, including Bill Graham, who said he thought they had played perhaps the best set he had ever heard in his hall.
Off to a great start – and then, just like that, Hendrix dropped the Band of Gypsies. Or shelved them, anyway.
Now he had a new band to which he was going to devote his principal energies, as his number one thing. He had decided, through his publicity agent, that the time had come to rap about changes he was going through, about his new band, and about anything else that came up.
First, the news: the other two cats in his band are Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, from the original Experience. The Experience is back together again, and everybody's pals, and no hard feelings. Considering the attrition rate among rock and roll bands during the past year, this has approximately the news value of a trial separation between Dick & Liz. But this was the big news Hendrix' press agent was eager to Get Across, so this is what we started on, as Michael Jeffreys, Jimi's manager, brought on wine and booze.
The original plan (as described) was a rap with Hendrix. The actual circumstances brought together half a dozen people to rap in the flicker of a fireplace, on a day when Hendrix seemed just happy to listen to the others.
Then, too, there's the matter of Jimi's own personal terms of communication. To some question – precisely what it was cannot be recalled – Hendrix answered: "Start with a shovel, wind up with a spoon." A beautiful punch line. Does anybody know the joke?
Conversation went slowly at first – throughout, for that matter – and to goose it, I brought up the issue of the Black Panthers. One thing that's been written of Hendrix over recent months is that he's forming closer ties with black militant groups, possibly the Black Panthers . . .
That was about as far as I got before Hendrix laughed aloud. "I heard about that too. In Rolling Stone. Tell me all about it." He opened his eyes wide and grinned.
We thought the reporter who wrote our story had gotten his information straight from Hendrix.
"The thing is," said Mitch Mitchell, in his precise British accent, "we got the White Tigers."
All three of the Experience laughed privately among themselves. It was a private joke.
So it's not true about Jimi and the Panthers?
"No, man," he said. "Listen: Everybody has wars within themselves. We form different things and it comes out to be war against other people and so forth and so on."
Jimi Hendrix does not aim for one color or groups. He digs all colors and all peoples. He wants that known.
Does that mean he doesn't relate personally to the Panthers?
"It isn't that I don't relate to them . . . " he said, and then trailed off in contemplation.
Did he mean he doesn't feel part of what they're doing?
"I naturally feel part of what they're doing. In certain respects. But everybody has their own way of doing things. They get justified as they justify others, in their attempts to get personal freedom. That's all it is."
Hendrix is with them, then?
"Yeah. But not the aggression or violence or whatever you want to call it. I'm not for guerrilla warfare."
Mitchell hunched up his shoulders monkey-like and said, "Gor-illas?"
Hendrix, grinning and looking at the floor: "I got a pet monkey called Charlie Chan." They all fell out laughing, the Panther issue forgotten. Hendrix grabbed his knees, leaning low to gaze at the burning logs.
Otis Redding, according to black business associates, had been planning an all-black recording enterprise. Studios and production and publicity and distribution. The whole thing, from the songwriter to the customer. Otis had been heavily involved in the planning at the time of his death. One of his goals was to bring older stars who'd slipped some back onto the charts. Men like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and others. But Otis had died and nobody had picked up his plan. Did this sound appealing to Hendrix? He is one of the most likely black musicians to front such an organization, in terms of income and prestige.
Jimi objected to the idea on the grounds that it was restricted to one race. "It's the same thing as being Catholic or something," he began, then dropped it.
When Hendrix had been in court recently in Toronto on a dope bust that had taken place months earlier, he had told the court that he had "outgrown dope." What a perfect thing to say! That's what all the good-guy reformed "dope abusers" who come around lecturing high school kids and women's clubs always say. They saw the light. They saw that dope was wasting their precious talents. They saw that they didn't need dope. They outgrew it. Hendrix told the court he had outgrown dope, and immediately, on the strength of years of brainwashing, they reevaluated him. If he'd outgrown dope – this young fellow with his hair neatly cut, attired in sports jacket and slacks – then he must be a decent chap. Hendrix was acquitted.
Now he sat, crosslegged, in the quiet old splendor of this Manhattan living-room, wearing all the familiar Jimi Hendrix costumery, a v-neck satin shirt of green, monumental wristwatch, jewelled pendant at his neck, violet bell-bottoms and pink boots.
Had this familiar visage turned his head away from dope? Outgrown it?
"At least," laughed Hendrix softly, "stop it from growing."
General mirth, accompanied by side-of-the-mouth muttering among all three of the Experience. More mirth. Laughter. Snickers.
Had he outgrown it?
Long pause, deep look on Jimi's face. "I don't know. I'm too . . . " He has said this seriously. All of a sudden he flashed his little-boy grin. "I'm too . . . wrecked right now . . . " This was Hendrix the comedian. This side of Jimi is the one people love. He does it all with slip-second timing, a shrug, an eye cast downward, a slightly over-accented word. It's the essence of his charm, and figures, in many ways, in the way he makes music. "I'll have to check into it," he added, getting serious again. About dope. "Oh yes, it's true, it's true. I don't take as much. That's what I was trying to tell them."
He didn't know much – nothing, in fact – about John and Yoko's peace festival in Toronto, but said he'd feel comfortable going back up there now, despite the bust. And anyway, he doesn't like to worry about things that happened in the past. "My hangup is getting hung up with things that happened in the past. I try not to."
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