I met Desmond in 1968. He grew up in George Carlin's White Harlem aka Morningside Heights, a sliver of a neighborhood on the upper west side of Manhattan. Des is the other guitarist in the current version of my old band, The Planets. 100% New York Irish, handsome, blond, he's kinda like a New York City version of a surfer dude, laid back to the point of slow motion.
While he is one of the toughest guys I've ever known, Desmond's a deeply religious pussycat (albeit one with an evil sense of humor) and his religion is Rock 'n' Roll. Besides playing killer lead guitar, he's a drummer, too.
In the 70s and 80s, he toured the world as a tech/roadie for The New York Dolls, KISS, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Tim Curry... He was The Planets road manager in our heyday in the late 70s.
Okay, that's great, Binky. So, why do you bring this Desmond Whoever guy up when I'm expecting to read about Godhead Jimi?
Well, as you already know if you've read any of my other stories here on Huffington Post, I've been at the right place at the right time every now and then. But, in the 1960s, among babyboomers, there was a certain line of demarcation regarding any number of cultural pivot points. For many, I was about 3 or 4 years too young. Desmond was exactly and precisely the right age for all of it.
Just two examples of what I'm talking about...
When it was announced that The Beatles would be playing Carnegie Hall in early 1964, Desmond simply went and bought himself a ticket. Des was 14, I was 11.
When Jimi Hendrix was playing the Cafe Wha? on MacDougal St. every weekend in 1966 under the name Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, Desmond simply went down the club every Saturday. Des was 16, I was 13.
Oh, hey, look, at natural segue to the star of this week's show, Jimi...
So, it was the Spring of '68 in New York City... Desmond had just arrived stag at a full-blast loft party way downtown in what is now the elegant and trendy neighborhood of Soho/TriBeCa. In 1968, this area was almost exclusively small factory buildings either still functioning or semi-abandoned and being rented dirt cheap to these weirdo artist types. This was a truly desolate part of Manhattan.
There were at least 200 people in fifth party-ing gear in a long deep loft space about 30 feet by 90. The air was thick with reefer, dozens of people were very obviously tripping their skulls inside out, a stereo was playing sitar music. But, Des also heard some really good blues guitar coming from the very back of the loft. He slowly made his way through this dancing, writhing, tripped-out crowd that was paying no attention whatsoever to the delicious blues guitar that Des was tracking down.
Desmond arrived at the far end of the loft and sitting on a black-faced Fender Twin Reverb amp each are... Jimi and Eric! Jimi with his painted Flying V, Clapton with the Fool-painted Cream SG Standard, both just playing the shit outta the blues.
Des copped a squat on the floor about 8 feet back from the amps and lit a joint. Jimi and Eric nodded hello, Des nodded back, and watched and listened for about half an hour, an audience of one the entire time.
Seven months later, "An Electric Thanksgiving" was the way the November 28th bill at The Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center was advertised. Sold out in days, I was lucky to get a decent seat, mostly because I was going by myself.
A harpsichordist named Fernando Valenti (sounds like a caricature lounge singer, no?) opened the show. He pounded the crap out of what seemed to be, and certainly sounded like, a fragile instrument. His super-fast arpeggio-ed virtuosity was such that he almost wasn't booed off stage. But, the battle was lost when he started his fifth piece of Bach or Mozart or Bob Seger or whatever the hell he was playing. You know, the thing about the harpsichord is that it has the emotional range of _______ _________ (fill in your favorite worst actor).
And besides, the next artist on the bill that night was... The Jimi Hendrix Experience!
Sad to admit, this was the only time I saw him live... but, it was while he was still healthy and playing with the magnificent Noel and Mitch (RIP the lot of 'em!).
In the semi-dark, once the harpsichord had been hustled off, I saw two sets of three Marshall stacks being wheels into place on either side of a surprisingly sparse Ringo style pink champagne sparkle kit. And then, we all waited.
I don't remember whether they was introduced or if the band just walked out, but, I do recall Jimi sauntered out in full regalia. He was decked the fuck out. That Trippy Gypsy look he had... swirling rainbow-multicolored top that looked like a mini-wizard's robe, knee-high white boots, tons of silver hippie jewelry, afro in full bloom.
He plugged his black Fender Strat into the Marshalls, turned to Mitch, gave a nod... and Oh My God... they're opening with "Fire"! Jimi gave Mitch like a 60 second drum intro and then Noel and Jimi slammed in and... Fuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhck! It's the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
I was about 20 rows back and the charisma coming off of Jimi was almost poisonous!
Every damn myth about him is NOT a myth. He gave off an aura of genuine other-worldliness. His music clearly shows that he was tuned into a frequency no one else had ever heard, let alone created. But, on stage as well, it was clear that he was beyond special. There was something happening on the most elemental levels with Jimi.
There is a bootleg of this show available. The sequence on that boot differs from my memory. I remember them immediately into "Spanish Castle Magic" after "Fire". Jimi started some of his tricks ... the one hand hammer-on guitaring... the tongue... the hold it sideways...
The sound was perfect. Jimi's soloing was superb. Noel was totally locked with Jimi. Mitch was... well, one of the Four Horsemen of Lead Drums... Moon, Bonham, Baker, Mitchell.
Then, again without a moment's pause, into "Foxy Lady"... and now, we got the full monty... Jimi rolling around, playing with his teeth, behind his back, behind his head, rubbing the mic stand, rubbing the amps, just making amazing NOISE, putting on an utter show! The third song ended, we finally got a chance to applaud.
They then went into "I Don't Live Today", a total tour de force with more showmanship.
Every song had been under 5 minutes long so far, short and punchy.
Jimi took off his black Strat and switched to a white Gibson SG Custom that I'd heard he'd bought at Manny's a few days before from Henry, the head salesman there.
Then, Jimi very shyly and sorta dreamily spoke for the first time (not quite verbatim)...
"You know, I love giving you what you want. man, I love that shit too. Hahaha!
Right, Noel? We all love that groovy fun stuff..." and he does a quick one hand trick on the guitar... "But, I was hoping you'd allow me to play some music tonight, too..."
Oh, by all means, said We the Audience, please, Jimi, play us some "music"... we're not here to see you play with your teeth... VERY earnest applause. God, we were all so cool and hip and on the same plane with Jimi... Yeah, right.
So... he drifts back to his amps and stands about a foot in front of them and starts "Voodoo Child" (or was it "Hear My Train A-Comin'"?)... And the whole fuckin' room went... to... Venus... or Neptune... or... somewhere very far away...
I was 15 and I was sitting there actually saying to myself "Remember what this sounds like... some day you might understand it." And, I'm giving myself chills as I type this... because I do remember what it sounded like. Blues from Jupiter!
Jimi, this human being (right?), had tapped into some celestial frequency and it was coming through his fingers and Gibson Humbucker pickups and out of 24 12" speakers and three 100 watt Marshall heads.
Jimi soloed for about 6 minutes before he even sang the first verse. You could even see awe and befuddlement on Noel and Mitch's faces at one point. Clearly, sometimes their job was that of a tether.
Anyway, it was extraordinary, truly one of the greatest shows I ever saw... and possibly some of the last moments of That Flame in full heat... Less than 9 months later, by the Summer of '69, you can see that, at Woodstock, Jimi's exhausted on every physical, mental, emotional, spiritual level.
Ahhh, yes, the Summer of '69. It's either the Summer of Woodstock or a decent Bryan Adams song for most people. For me, it was the summer I saw... The Gods of Blues!
In July and August, The Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan was having a small music festival in the sculpture garden a few times a week. Most of the artists booked were very high brow Avant Garde or Jazz. But, one night they had a show representing the Indigenous Music of America... The Blues.
The band that night... Junior Wells, vocals and harp... Buddy Guy, guitar... Louie Myers, bass... Fred Below, drums. How to explain who these guys were? How about the Blues equivalent of The Who or Led Zeppelin? This was a Blues Virtuoso Supergroup. Musicians of staggering innovation, musicality, charisma, originality.
"Junior Wells - The Vanguard Years" is the CD to grab to get a taste of these four... especially for the tracks cut live at Pepper's Lounge in Chicago about two years earlier.
My pal, Anthony and I sat on folding chairs and watched and listened to these four men play amongst Picasso and Calder sculptures and fountains. A small PA, one mic, a guitar and bass amp, a drum set, a Fender Precision Bass and a Stratocaster... both from the late 1950s. One of the most overwhelming shows I've ever seen. An education in an hour. Blues played at a level of unparalleled virtuosity.
Led Zeppelin brilliantly doing "I Can't Quit You Baby" on their first album is them chasing Wells/Guy/Myers/Below like a dog chasing a car. That's how good this blues band was.
As we were leaving, I overheard this older very hip looking fella say to another "Let's go over to Steve Paul's Scene... Buddy is gonna jam with Jimi tonight."
Holy Crap! Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix jamming together! Damn! Damn! Damn! Shit!
Whoa, what's the matter?
You see, I'd never been inside Steve Paul's Scene... the single coolest club in New York because... You had to be 18 to get in. And yes, if Desmond had been with us, he woulda been able to just walk in.
Me and Anthony (a legend in my life, the one who won the dance contest and met The Who at the Murray The K show... more on Anthony very soon) wandered around midtown for about an hour trying to figure out what to do with this precious info re: Jimi and Buddy and finally decided... The hell with it, let's try to get in!
So, we walked over to the club on 46th St, just west of 8th Ave., and after scoping out the enormous doorman, screwed up our courage and strolled up to him, nodded, and tried to casually walk down the stairs to the basement cavern that was Steve Paul's Scene. We never even got a foot on the staircase.
Hand on my chest, the doorman/bouncer said, "Guys, you have to be 18, sorry..." Anthony and I were 16 and probably looked 13 or 14.
"Oh man, please... We promise we won't try to buy drinks... Jimi's down there with Buddy Guy, isn't he."
"Yes, he is... but, I can't let you down there."
He actually seemed to feel for us... which made it worse. We couldn't hate him!
After about 5 minutes of totally useless pleading, we gave up and stood around trying to hear the guitar playing from downstairs. We could make out the vaguest sounds of a band... but, it was hopeless. We were about 15 feet above and 50 feet south of two of the greatest electric guitarists in history and could only pretend we heard shit!
A few days later, I was in Manny's Music Store and my pal, George, a 19 year old stock boy, told me he'd been at The Scene that night.
"Sonuhvuhbitch, George, what was it like?!"
"Binky, it was like two Chevys draggin'... Jimi would inch ahead of Buddy, Buddy would pull ahead of Jimi... Then, Jimi broke out his wa-wa pedal [still a dazzling new toy in 1969] and Buddy shook his head and threw in the towel."
Two Chevys! One of my favorite analogies of all time!
Coda 1: Fall of '66... Pete Townshend rings up Eric Clapton and says that he thinks that he and Eric better go check out this guy called Jimi Hendrix who'd landed in London about four weeks earlier and already had quite a buzz going. Pete and Eric decide to see Jimi's late show that night... maybe at the Scotch of St. James? Anyways, Pete and Eric are standing outside the club, waiting to get in, and out walks the ever-cocky Jeff Beck, fresh from having just seen Jimi's early set. Mr. Beck's got this disgusted look on his face and Pete grabs Jeff's sleeve and jokes "So, he's that bad, huh, Jeff?" Jeff replies in a growl... "No, he's that good!" and stomps off... Pete has said that at that moment, both he and Eric looked at each other with terror in their eyes.
Coda 2: Sometime within the past decade, an interviewer asked Pete Townshend if he ever resented the fact that Jimi Hendrix got credit for things he, Pete, pioneered, the use of noise and feedback as music, the guitar destruction, the showmanship...
Pete replied, "It would have been an honor to have Jimi Hendrix fuck my wife."
Coda 3: And then, one morning in September 1970, I was standing in front of my high school when my pal, Todd walked up to me and said "Jimi Hendrix is dead."
Two weeks later, I walked past the local newsstand by my subway station and saw JANIS JOPLIN DEAD on The Daily News. Coincidentally, Todd was already in the same subway car I got into when the uptown train pulled in to take us uptown to Music & Art High School and I got to tell Todd, "Janis Joplin is dead."