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Interviewing Jimi Hendrix

09/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

He was a lithe, light-skinned African American who grew up in a Pacific Rim state, had briefly served in one of the nation's most elite patriotic institutions, and had, in a couple of years' time, become the most charismatic man in America, so wildly adored by upscale young whites he was called a one-man racial-barrier breaker. Now, in front of a euphoric crowd (and nervous crowd-control officers), he was putting his personal stamp on an official Founding Fathers text at the conclusion of an event that led to onlookers' enduring self-congratulation about the nation (or, one might say, the "nation").

Forty years before Barack Obama took the presidential oath of office, this was Jimi Hendrix playing The Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock.

I interviewed Jimi shortly after Woodstock, in the town next to Woodstock where he was living. My article appeared in Rolling Stone, and over the decades, without my realizing it, it gained underground salience as a key piece of the Jimi Hendrix Puzzle: proof of how, counter to image, he was thoughtful and fragile. And he was that. The Jimi I met was achingly vulnerable: polite, self-deprecating, unhappy at being perceived as a "clown," distractedly melancholic -- walking around his house emptying ashtrays ("I'm like a clucking old grandmother"), apologizing for mumbling, rifling through a record collection that included Marlene Dietrich and Schoenberg and Wes Montgomery (widely considered the electric guitar virtuoso's electric guitar virtuoso) -- and Dylan, whom Jimi told me he adored but whom he feared hadn't remembered once meeting him. Actually, the best proof of that side of Jimi Hendrix is -- if you can get your hands on it -- a tape of his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. Doubling over, walking pigeon-toed, coughing, frail, and self-abnegating (he said "I'm sorry" or "Excuse me" to Cavett about a dozen times), this Jimi Hendrix -- the same one I met and interviewed -- was in retrospect not long for this world, the seeming opposite of his image as the super-macho, highly sexual, guitar-burning "rock demigod." (Mine may be a partial view. For the fully dimensional Jimi, I recommend the masterly, definitive biography by Charles Cross, Room Full of Mirrors) In those days, no one really took care of superstars. There was not the self-important, electronically connected, expensively suited, whip-smart phalanx of assistants, publicists, stylists, lawyers, minders, business managers, personal trainers and physicians that exist today. You might have groupies and hangers-on, but a rock star could die -- naively bewildered, sloppily untended, obscenely young -- of an overdose like a regular Joe. All three of the rock stars that I (quite unoriginally) mentioned as the subject of dangerously huge veneration in the first sentence of my Rolling Stone piece -- Jimi, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison -- would be dead within a year and a half, none out of his or her twenties.

Jimi had been a Dickens-worthy half-orphan on the streets of Seattle, and had -- after his service in the 101st Airborne and on the magnificent "chitlin circuit" -- been a penniless self-annointed flower child/dandy in Greenwich Village, only to become an overnight -- seriously: overnight -- superstar within the sophisticated, did-their-homework rock world of mid-'60s London. (White English musicians like Eric Clapton and Eric Burden knew and loved Delta blues more than almost any of their white American male counterparts.) Jimi joined with two very pale English musicians, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell -- all three were skinny, slight, and fluffy-haired -- and they came to America, wearing those beaded and embroidered Moroccan vests everyone wore back then, calling themselves The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was the year of The Doors and Cream -- and, if you were a Max's Kansas City habitue (and Max's in the late '60s was the hip epicenter of planet earth), of locals Tim Hardin and Richie Havens and Tim Buckley: brooding, eloquent, magisterial (Havens) or (the Tims) incipiently tragic. The Jimi Hendrix Experience therefore had a lot of competition, but they -- meaning: Jimi -- beat it. I'm not sure we've since seen Jimi's equal, an opinion that millions of rock fans (and now also recent American history students) would agree with.

Woodstock, "Three Days of Peace and Music," was a festival planned for August 15, 16, and 17, 1969, in Bethel, New York, at $18 to $24 for the entire three days. Two promoters in their early twenties, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang, backed by a twenty-six-year old financier named John Roberts, wanted it to be the biggest rock festival ever. They had duly emptied their pockets, doubling Jefferson Airplane's going $6,000 fee to $12,000 (that's roughly $30,000 to $70,000 in 2009 money: think of, say, American Idol judges' salaries and pause for a gasp of incredulity) and paying Jimi, now the biggest rock star in the country, $32,000 (that's about$160,00 today). His manager had asked for $150,000 ($800,000 today), but settled on the smaller figure on the condition that no act follow Jimi. Woodstock would feature the most glamorous top acts -- Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and Richie Havens (who would open the show); the Grateful Dead, the Who, Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish, Tim Hardin, the Band (who were becoming the group, by way of their quirky Canadian-cum-deep-South roots, their fresh-from-the-Civil-War-sounding depth and pathos, and their championing by Dylan), Ravi Shankar, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and tomorrow's stars: Sly and the Family Stone; Santana; Credence Clearwater Revival.

Throughout Kornfeld and Lang's negotiations with the town of Wallkill, New York, they continued to insist that a crowd of, at most, 50,000 would be attending. But, given the aggressive promotion the festival was receiving in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, the New York Times, and on the radio, the townspeople doubted the numbers would stay that low. A month before the festival, the town of Walkill abruptly rescinded its offer.

The promoters looked for a savior -- and they found one in Max Yasgur, the biggest dairy farmer in the valley and the holder of an NYU law degree. Yasgur offered his 600-acre farm for $75,000 even though, with the crowd-count now whispered to be an astonishing 200,000, extensive trampling seemed likely. The promoters enlisted the Hog Farm, the country's most famous commune, led by ex-Cambridge folkie Hugh Romney (an old friend of Joan Baez), who now called himself Wavy Gravy, to bestow back-to-the-land authenticity and to provide infrastructure: security, food stands, shelter, a "free school" for kids. Wavy Gravy called his cross-country counterpart Ken Kesey at his commune in Oregon, and dozens of overalls-clad, acid-tab-bearing Merry Pranksters were promptly dispatched east in psychedelic school busses.

The divide between young/hip and old/straight had been around since 1966's Human Be-In in the Haight Ashbury, and it had been celebrated with every smoked joint, every dunking of a knotted cotton T-shirt into a tub of Rit dye, every raised two-finger peace sign. It had taken three years for the lifestyle's tentacles to stretch to the vast domain of American middle class youth, and now that that it had, a Haj to a Mecca seemed in order. Where the Monterey Pop Festival, during 1967's Summer of Love, had been the hip elite -- a jazz-concert's savvy crowd of fans close to the age, taste, and "coolness" level of the performers -- Woodstock would be hip democracy: wildly enthusiastic college kids, working- and middle class hippies, and drug-brined riffraff. Where Monterey Pop had been a bellwether boutique, Woodstock would be Wal-Mart. As Arnold Skolnick -- the artist who designed the festival's catbird-on-guitar logo (yep, that was a catbird, not a dove) -- put it, "Something was tapped -- a nerve -- in this country. And everybody just came."

The Bethel town elders were angrily hectoring Yasgur to give back the money and keep the hippies from overrunning their orderly town. But Yasgur held firm to his agreement, even as reports shot through the news that 800,000 people -- sixteen times the original maximum estimate -- were on their way there. (In the end, about 450,000 came.) Traffic was blocked for 20 miles; many festival-goers left their cars on the highway or sides of the streets and, truly like pilgrims now, were walking. The performers were being airdropped in by army helicopter, often after having flown to a nearby airfield in chartered planes.

The almost-half-million exuberant souls withstood the rain and mud and inadequacy of facilities (there were only 620 portable toilets) with joyful brio. Street signs sprouted up: Groovy Path, Gentle Way, High Way. People made love and shared food, tents, acid, dope, bandaids, water, blankets. A couple of babies were born. Three people died, and 400 bad acid trips required medical attention, but no violence broke out. Swami Satchidananda wafted in and gave the crowd his blessing. Max Yasgur (suddenly the biggest rock star of all) intoned to the mike, "This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place, and I think you people have proven something to the world: that a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music and God bless you for it!"

Missing in the recent spate of media commemoration of Woodstock is the enormous importance of one performer who did not attend: Joni Mitchell. Joni wrote the masterpiece that made the event a legend. Out of an abundance of caution, she was barred by her managers from leaving her Manhattan hotel room. "The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock," she has said. Watching the festival on TV, Joni saw "a modern miracle, a modern loaves-and-fishes story. For a herd of people that large to cooperate so well, it was pretty remarkable." She also viewed the spectacle through the proud eyes of the granddaughter of farmers; that's why she put Yasgur's name so prominently in the song she started writing in her hotel room.

Joni wrote her song in counterintuitive minor mode; it had a primordial, dark-Edenic / Nordic winter-forest sound, with Biblical echoes that started with the first line "I came upon a child of God; he was walking along a road" and were dotted throughout ("the garden," "the time of man"). The mirage of "the bombers riding shotgun in the sky" -- she conflated the peaceful helicopters soaring into the meadow with the military craft of the Vietnam War -- "turning into butterflies across our nation" held the naïve hope that fueled the day. But it was the first line of the chorus: "We are stardust, we are golden" -- the slight dissonance of noun made parallel with adjective; set to those spectral, pessimistic chords -- that made the song so hauntingly elegiac and conveyed the impression of hundreds of thousands of people speaking as one. Years later, Camille Paglia, in her book Break, Blow, Burn, would place the lyrics to Woodstock along with works by Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson -- and Shakespeare -- on her list of 43 best poems produced in the English language. Whether or not that's an exaggeration, from her hotel chair, "Joni contributed more towards people's understanding of that day than anybody that was there," said her friend David Crosby -- who, with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, did perform at Woodstock. They made Joni's Woodstock into their defining hit, and it is truly a song for the ages.

As for Jimi, as dawn broke on the last hour of the last day of the marathon festival, he performed the National Anthem in his inimitable way -- keening, baroque, talking-blues-psychedelic -- but, on this song, on this morning, he topped himself and created an historic interpretation. And, a few weeks later, I was lucky enough to meet the man behind that stirring tribute. He was, as my article shows, having identity questions and, like someone else much later, dreaming about his -- musical -- fatherland and trying to authenticate himself as a man and as a communicator. That churning angst no doubt informed his wildly original version of "The Star Spangled Banner" and helped make it so searching and poignant.

And, in that very different but very catalytic era, 40 years ago, what Jimi Henrix was struggling with -- and what he accomplished and what he represented to young America -- helped bring us to the country and the leadership we have today.

Some of the -- non-Jimi -- material in this post, in slightly different form -- as well as much more on the era -- appears in the author's
Girls Like Us.