Jimi's Last Ride

Epic plans, earthly troubles and sweet music: the guitar god's frenetic final months and lost recordings

April 1, 2010
hendrix last ride
Jimi Hendrix on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Plitz/Good Times/Cache Agency

On the evening of August 26th, 1970, Jimi Hendrix walked through the street-level door at 52 West 8th Street in New York's Greenwich Village into paradise. Electric Lady Studios was the guitarist's own state-of-the-art recording facility, and he had personally supervised many of its psychedelic details, like the mural of an elfin woman at the console of a spaceship. Tonight was the official opening party. Guests including guitarist Johnny Winter, Yoko Ono and Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood enjoyed Japanese food in Studio A, where Hendrix usually had stacks of amplifiers.

Hendrix, however, avoided the crush. One of rock's most flamboyant showmen but a reserved, intensely shy man offstage, he was remote and despondent, spending much of the night sitting in a barber chair in a quiet corner of the reception area.

It would be his last night at Electric Lady. Hendrix died in London three weeks later. He was 27.

The studio that was supposed to be Hendrix's sanctuary was also a source of stress and frustration. He was scrambling for money despite hit-record sales to fund the construction at Electric Lady; changing band lineups; and battling his manager. But even at a low ebb, he was looking, as he put it in one song at the time, "Straight Ahead."

The Seattle-born guitarist had already revolutionized the blues roots, amplified fury and orchestral future of the electric guitar on three worldwide-hit albums – 1967's Are You Experienced, 1968's Axis: Bold as Love and the '68 double album Electric Ladyland – made with the Jimi Hendrix Experience: the British rhythm section of drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding. There had also been constant touring and growing tensions, especially with Redding over money and the latter's own ambitions as a singer and songwriter. Even before Hendrix broke up the Experience in mid-'69, he was pushing his music beyond electric blues and acid rock, recording with jazz and soul players such as drummer Buddy Miles, bassist Dave Holland and future Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist John McLaughlin.

"My initial success was a step in the right direction," Hendrix said in a June 1969 interview, as Electric Lady's construction was getting under way, "but it was only a step, just a change. Now I plan to get into other things. A couple of years ago, all I wanted was to be heard. 'Let me in' was the thing. Now I'm trying to figure out the wisest way to be heard."

Located under a movie theater in a space that was most recently Generation, a rock club, with a striking brick facade that stuck out over the pavement like a pregnant woman's belly, Electric Lady was conceived by Hendrix, with his manager, Michael Jeffrey, and his stalwart recording engineer, Eddie Kramer, in early 1969. Design and construction took more than a year. The final cost was about $1 million.

It was a historic enterprise. Electric Lady was the first major commercial studio in New York created specially for and owned by a Sixties rock star. In comparison, the Beatles and Bob Dylan mostly recorded in facilities owned by their record labels, according to strict corporate rules. For years, at Abbey Road in London, the Beatles worked with studio engineers who were required to dress in white lab coats.

For Hendrix, Electric Lady was also a refuge from the whirlwind. He was exhausted by his celebrity – "I don't want to be a clown anymore, I don't want to be a rock & roll star," he complained to Rolling Stone in 1969 – and frustrated with the pressure from Jeffrey to stay on the road making the fast, big money. Hendrix spent much of 1968 as well as the spring of '69 touring North America.

At Electric Lady, Hendrix – who had been touring nonstop since the mid-Sixties, when he was a sideman for R&B stars like Little Richard and the Isley Brothers – finally had a place of his own, where he could live with his music without interference. "That was the dream," says veteran studio architect John Storyk, who was only 22 when Hendrix commissioned him to design Electric Lady. "As an artist, this became your home."

Hendrix held his first formal recording session in Studio A on June 15th, 1970, two months before the opening party. The site was in disarray; a second studio was still being built at the end of the hall. But Hendrix got right to work with his current trio: Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox, a trusted old friend from Hendrix's early-Sixties spell in the Army. They played a new instrumental, "All God's Children." Then Hendrix cut guitar overdubs for the turbulent rocker "Ezy Ryder" and jammed with a studio guest, Traffic's Steve Winwood, on one of Hendrix's favorite recent originals, "Valleys of Neptune." That number, in a different incarnation, is now the centerpiece of an album of previously unreleased Hendrix studio recordings, also called Valleys of Neptune.

For the next several weeks, Hendrix concentrated on finishing the year's worth of songs and endless takes he had accumulated for his long-overdue fourth studio album. "We had two closets full of Jimi Hendrix tapes, floor to ceiling, with all of the jams and stuff we had done," says Kramer, who had been Hendrix's steady engineer since Are You Experienced. "He would say, 'Pull that take over there.' Or 'Go to this section, yeah, stop. That's what we need.'" Sessions at Electric Lady started at about 8 p.m. and ran long into the next day. Hendrix was so keen to spend every waking minute at Electric Lady that he would show up ahead of schedule.

"That was a huge change I saw in him," Kramer notes. "In the past, we would call for sessions at the Record Plant for seven, and he wouldn't come until midnight, because he was jamming somewhere. At Electric Lady, we'd call a session for seven, and he was often there early. And if he saw a lady standing in the control room, he would get her a chair. The guy was so polite – and proud of the place."

But Hendrix did not enjoy himself at the opening party. Publicist Jane Friedman, whose company represented the guitarist in America, found him at one point sitting alone on the staircase. "I thought, 'Is he exhausted?' " she says. "I walked up to him and said, 'What's the matter?' He admitted he wasn't very happy." Hendrix had good reasons. He was then in a volatile relationship with one of his girlfriends, Devon Wilson – the inspiration for the bloodthirsty vamp in the galloping rocker "Dolly Dagger." And Hendrix had to stop work at Electric Lady because Jeffrey had booked another tour; Hendrix was flying to London the next day. The last straw was a food fight started by some guests in his pristine new studio. He split in disgust.

But Hendrix talked with another guest before he left: Patti Smith, then a 23-year-old unknown singer-poet managed by Friedman. Smith was sitting on the stairs, where Hendrix joined her. "I was too nervous to go into the party," she recalls. "He said, 'What are you doing? Not going in?' We talked about the studio. He just loved it. He was so excited by it. Listening to him talk was beautiful in every way."

Hendrix never saw Electric Lady again. After playing concerts in Britain, Scandinavia and Germany, including an epic, intermittently brilliant show for 600,000 people on the Isle of Wight, Hendrix – unhappy with the shows and concerned for Cox, who was ill – canceled the remaining dates. He died in London, in his sleep, on September 18th. The official cause of death was "inhalation of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication." Hendrix was an avid fan of LSD and pot and had used heroin (but never succumbed to full-blown addiction). This time, he took an overpowering dose of a sedative, Vesperax.

Forty years later, Electric Lady is still open for business, at the same location. The outdoor-belly facade is gone; the "electric lady" mural, painted by Lance Jost, is now on the curved wall of Studio A. Led ZeppelinStevie Wonder and David Bowie worked on major records there in the Seventies. More recent clients include the Black Crowes and Ryan Adams.

And Smith has gone back often to record; she made her 1975 debut LP, Horses, there. "Every time I go in, I can look at the stair we sat on," she says. "That's why I love to record there. It has his spirit."

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