HENDRIX '70: Clearing the Haze

by Michael Fairchild

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Despite Jimi Hendrix's groundbreaking appearances with A Band Of Gypsys on New Year's Eve 1969/70, a die was already cast within some journalistic circles: 1970 was to be the year when it would become fashionable to think of Jimi as on the skids, over the hill, and burnt out. With hindsight, it should've been expected.

As a centerpiece of egalitarian hippie culture, Jimi invoked the wrath of many brothers and sisters when word spread in 1969 that he was earning record-breaking pay for his gigs. Then the break-up of the Experience left him even more vulnerable. No matter what he did, surely nothing could measure up to the novel excitement of the original Experience, or so it seemed.

"The Hendrix concert grossed around $35,000 of YOUR bread!...who's the villian here? That's right kiddies, our HEROES are screwing us!...The worst of it is yet to come, Love Brothers. At the upcoming Newport Pop Festival [June 1969], the Doors are getting $75,000 for Morrison to get his rocks off, and Hendrix is getting ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS! I've declared all-out war on these hypocrites...they are taking advantage of the fact we dig their music...Hendrix and others have copped-out to the American standard of happiness and success...when he starts shitting on the people that helped him get to the mythical 'top' I have to open fire."

San Diego Door - June 5, 1969

In a review of 1969, Rolling Stone gave Jimi the "No News Is Big News" award, reporting, "Jimi Hendrix had a big year. A pretty neat trick for a musician who made no music." Did it matter that 1969 kicked of with an outrageous Hendrix appearance on BBC-TV, followed by a 25-city tour of Europe? Or that two sold-out shows were filmed in London's Albert Hall in February? In March, Jimi appeared with Delaney & Bonnie for a benefit gig at the Palladium in L.A., and in April the JHE began a 10-week record-breaking tour of America. In June, the Smash Hits LP came out and went gold. Then, in July, Jimi did The Tonight Show and The Dick Cavett Show. Woodstock followed in August. In September his new band played a Harlem benefit festival, returned to The Dick Cavett Show, and showcased at the Salvation Club in New York.

During 1969, Jimi wrote and recorded more than a dozen new songs. In the autumn, he put together A Band Of Gypsys. Still, all this was just "no news" to rock journalists primed to push the Golden Calf off his pedestal.

A Band Of Gypsys was their first target. A typical review of Jimi's new sound concluded, "One is left with the lingering feeling that he has failed to grow…" Then Rolling Stone proclaimed that most of the new songs "sounded like Purple Haze."

Message To Love - Band Of Gypsys New Year 1969-1970
by far the best version of this song - studio or live

Message To Love - Band Of Gypsys New Year 1969-1970
by far the best version of this song - studio or live

Melody Maker chimed in by describing the Gypsys' futuristic funk as "old fashioned" (!!) before urging Jimi to "find himself and take a more active role in the business of rock than he has since the days of the Experience."

These views aren't mere critical hallucinations. They give us a sense of what Hendrix was up against. But what still gets under the skin of Billy Cox, the bassist for A Band Of Gypsys, are accusations that Jimi "finally succumbed to the pressure to form an all-black band." (Let It Rock). Describing the real pressure his friend was under, Cox says, "Jimi had a financial problem, so A Band Of Gypsys got together to help bail him out."

Then, fanning the flames of his detractors, Jimi walked off the stage at his first major appearance of the new decade. Johnny Winter said of this January 1970 Madison Square Garden set, "He just couldn't play. When I saw him, it gave me the chills. It was the most horrible thing I'd ever seen...it was like he was already dead...It was just completely uninspired... he just took his guitar off, sat on the stage and told the audience, 'I'm sorry, we just can't get it together.' One of his people said he was sick, and led him off...It didn't have anything to do with the group - he had already died!"

Madision Sq. Garden, Jan. 1970 "already died" (?!)

Ten other acts shared the bill before a sold-out house that night. The occasion was a benefit concert for the Vietnam Moratorium Committee. After several months of sponsoring nationwide rallies, a benefit "peace festival" was staged to raise funds for a $50,000 Moratorium Committee deficit. During the preceding year, nearly 10,000 American soldiers had died in Vietnam. The root of the Moratorium was a bummer, and Jimi played the soundtrack. Even his "illness" fit the occasion. A recording proves the music isn't "bad"; for most of his quick set Jimi is very low key, a subdued mood befitting a really somber occasion, when you think about it.

Temple U. Philadelphia, May 1970

But this isolated incident aside, the notion that Hendrix had "already died" during his last year is common in dozens of articles, and even Hendrix biographies. Shortly after Jimi's real death, Steve Miller told Record Mirror, "I played a show with Hendrix at Temple University in Philadelphia, and at that time the cat's scene was so far gone that he walked by me and smelled like he was dying...his band couldn't play...I'm sorry that the audience encourages people to burn themselves up and I'm sorry that he didn't have any more sense than he had, 'cause he was dead a long time ago."

Geronimo with Feather in Headband

Years after I read this, I found a recording of Jimi's Philadelphia (5/16/70) set. Even on hand-held-recorder cassettes, his riffs sizzle like flame-throwing fingers slithering atop the strings. Philadelphia freaks whimper and scream. An 8mm film reveals Jimi's star-spangled outfit. He's playing for the Temple University audience on the day following an ambush of students at Jackson State, on the heels of Ohio's Kent State massacre. With a pink feather propped in his headband, Jimi looks like Geronimo on the warpath. A scathing-mayhem Machine Gun riles Temple U. radicals. Pushing leads to insane extremes, the amps expel torrents and howls. Abruptly the tumult shuts down, catching the freaked-out crowd unaware. A full 10 seconds pass before their blown heads regain enough breath to cheer.

The Temple film also shows Miller's opening set. His left-hand Strat is upside-down and re-strung for right-handed playing - the signature Hendrix outline in reverse. Jimi may have been "dead a long time ago" to Miller, but to all the collectors I know, Temple Stadium Hendrix music is considered superb.

Machine Gun at Temple Stadium

Johnny B. Goode at Temple Stadium

Falling from grace is the only direction left for stars at the top, especially after a supernova like the one Jimi laid on rock. But critic impatience with Hendrix should have been a mere breather from the hype, something to make his next great disc seem like a dramatic rebound (which The Cry of Love LP would have been). Instead, Jimi died while they were still gearing up for pot-shots. With his death in September 1970, assertions that he'd passed his peak suddenly petrified to a standard postmortem view. The irony is that, musically, Jimi was only getting better.

Hendrix '70 catatonia tales soon gained credibility through articles by Chris Welch, the British author of the first Hendrix biography. Writing for Sunday Mirror not long after Jimi's death, Welch, who was privy to the early JHE showcase gigs in London, claimed that Jimi's "great years were 1966 and 1967, yet all the promise seemed to fade between those dates - after a couple of unique albums and some extraordinary tours..."

The "burn-out" die was cast when Hendrix: A Biography came out in 1972. In this first book-length account of Jimi's life, Welch recalls; "The great days of the JHE were already over in a matter of months. From then on, whenever I saw them, a steady decline had set in...Those first gigs in the London discos were tight, explosive and fresh. Later, the band became ragged, loose and aimless."

Welch then asks, "What went wrong?" His answer is that Jimi "had long grown beyond the showmanship of 1967. The sorry truth was that he had nothing to replace it onstage...most of his latter concerts proved anti-climactic...As soon as the nightly routine began to pale, that's when the band began to fall apart. And the rest of Jimi's years in England and in the States were spent searching for an alternative...In the process of shaking down his old image he seemed bereft of ideas."

Berkeley, CA - May "1970"

Rolling Stone picked up the thread in an article titled, "Later Hendrix - Only For The Faithful." Jimi is described at his last British gig as a "broken man, barely going through the motions," while the music "reveals the dishearteningly desultory level to which his playing had by then descended." We were told that the Film About Jimi Hendrix soundtrack discs "document Hendrix's personal degradation...as he neared the end."

Melody Maker agreed that "Jimi Hendrix's career had declined - both artistically and commercially - by 1970." Rock magazine concurred: "In the year before his death...stories ran that Jimi had burned himself out, exhausted his creativity and - in short - was on the skids when he finally checked out...the abundance of mediocre live recordings...lent credence to the stories that he had indeed shot his load..."

Even Guitar (UK) magazine said that after Electric Ladyland, Jimi's "imagination seems to be on the wane...If complaints could be made about Jimi's later style, he could easily be charged with repetition. If you've heard one of these solos, you really have effectively heard them all." The axe fell with a curt "two thirds of his later playing is unworthy of hearing."

Foul seeds were sown and monsters were grown. Thus, when Jerry Hopkins sat down to write his 1982 Hendrix bio, he simply lined up Jimi's best-known 1970 gigs for target practice. Removing 99 percent of the insights from a favorable review of Los Angeles (4/25/70), Hopkins chose one negative line: "More a personality than a musician," and cites another review calling the gig "deadly dull." We're also told, "Jimi looked and sounded very bored" for his Berkeley (5/30/70) film, and a promoter is quoted as saying of New York Pop (7/17/70), "(Jimi) was consuming drugs nonstop...I remember (his manager) saying, 'Put him on or he won't make it!'" Likewise, Maui (7/30/70) "was horrible, and the audio was worse," and following the opening number at the Isle of Wight (8/30/70), "It was all downhill after that."

Foxy Lady - New York Pop - July 17, 1970

By the mid-1980s, the truth about Jimi's last year of concerts seemed like a long-lost cause. Finally, Ted Nugent informed us that "by late 1968...he had lost touch with his instrument. I know a lot of people will scream, but it's true, chumps. He came out and did a caricature of Jimi Hendrix."

The issue is summed up thusly in Superstars: "Had Jimi Hendrix died two years earlier he would have gone down as the greatest star in the rock 'n' roll galaxy...in 1970 people were saying that Jimi was over the hill, and he never got a chance to prove them wrong...Jimi spent two years spoiling the picture and then broke the frame."

A generation has passed and the haze has cleared. At last we wake up and smell the bottled water. Jimi had the chance to "prove them wrong," and he did. Slowly, over the past quarter century, like fragments from a deep-sea wreck, one-by-one, recordings of Hendrix concerts have surfaced and circulated. To date, over 120 (out of a total of 527 shows) are represented on tape. This audio-evidence of nearly a quarter of Jimi's total concert music speaks for itself and certainly does "prove them wrong" on the issue of Hendrix '70.

A surprising level of misinformation about Jimi's 1970 activities was reported in the decade following his death. For example, a 1974 article in Let It Rock told us that after the New Year's '70 Band Of Gypsys concerts, Jimi was "clearly lost and in need of help...he wasn't even into jamming anymore...He did a few sporadic North American appearances."

Even though his Band Of Gypsys LP went to No. 5 in Billboard charts in June 1970, and stayed in the charts for 61 weeks, Circus printed that "he disappeared for two years, as far as the public was concerned." A month later, Rock magazine added, "In the year before his death, he seldom played concerts." As late as 1978, Gone But Not Forgotten drove home the point, "Jimi started to make fewer and fewer appearances. He died of an overdose (incorrect) on Sept. 18, 1970."

Machine Gun - from Band of Gypsys album 1970

The fact is, prior to Jimi's death in September, he performed no less than 40 concerts in 1970, five of them were big outdoor festivals. Fortunately, 30 of these "unknown shows" are preserved on tape, most of which are cassettes from portable recorders held by audience members.

In the summer of '70, "bootleg" albums cut from home-made recordings were still a brand new way to hear your favorite artist. Bootlegs of Dylan, Zeppelin and Tull are the first that I remember seeing. Then in July, the first bootlegged Hendrix concert appeared. It was from the April 25, 1970 Los Angeles Forum appearance.