Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rock & Roll Heaven: Jimi Hendrix

The rock world's loss of Janis Joplin at such a young age was an especially difficult blow for the youth of America in 1970, in large part because it was their 2nd such blow in a short period.

Just two weeks before Janis' death by drug overdose, on the other side of the world, legendary American rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix had died under somewhat mysterious circumstances.

In London, England, Hendrix attended a late-night party on Thursday night, September 17th. He was picked up from the party in the early morning hours of Friday the 18th by his girlfriend, Monika Dannemann, who drove him back to her apartment at the Samarkand Hotel. Dannemann's story, which frequently changed, was that Hendrix then took nine of her sleeping pills.

What is definitely known is that at 11:18am the next morning, someone made a phone call for an ambulance to go to the room. The ambulance crew arrived just nine minutes later, and found the door to the flat was open. They saw a man lying on the bed, and there was no one else in the room.

As they looked closer, they found the man in what they described as a 'horrific' condition. There was red and brown vomit covering him, and covering the pillow and bed as well. The man's airway had been completely blocked, and he was clearly dead. Police arrived quickly as well, and the man was transported to the hospital where he was officially pronounced as dead on arrival.


Dannemann became a further source of controversy when she publicly stated that Hendrix was alive when he was taken from the apartment. More fuel was added to the 'mystery death' fire when that night on the BBC News, rock star Eric Burdon announced that Hendrix had died as a result of a suicide. Burdon, an original member of 'The Animals' rock band, stated that lyrics to a Hendrix song and the circumstances as he knew them led him to make this statement.

Obviously drawn to the spotlight that Hendrix' death created, Dannemann's statements have proven completely irrelevant over the years. Any reasonable evaluation of the evidence shows that Hendrix likely returned from the party, where he had been drinking considerably, popped some sleeping pills, and fell into bed. At some point he vomited, choked on it, and died. Whether Dannemann was there when this happened, was asleep or unconscious herself, or had left the room and later found him, the odds are that it was she who made the ambulance call.

There have been speculations that she suffocated him, or slipped the sleeping pills into a drink, or had some other role in his death, but all that is pure innuendo. The coroner ruled that most of the vomit was red wine. Hendrix drank too much, and mixed it with too many sleeping pills, and likely died of an accidental overdose. No real mystery here.

Jimi Hendrix had been born as Johnny Allen Hendrix in Seattle, Washington during the early months of U.S. involvement in World War II to a 17-year old girl who had gotten pregnant by an American serviceman. She gave him up to some friends to raise in California, but Hendrix' father took custody of him after being released from his military duties and changed the boy's name to his own name of 'James'.

The parents got back together, married, and ended up having four other children, most of whom had physical handicaps, before finally divorcing when Hendrix was just nine years old. His mother would die just a few years later. In the aftermath of her death, at the age of 16, Hendrix purchased his first acoustic guitar with a $5 allowance that his father had given him. He practiced incessantly, and at age 17 his dad bought him his first electric guitar. Jimi played in a couple of local bands, and was influenced early on by blues and the music of Elvis Presley.

In 1961, Hendrix was arrested for riding in a stolen car, and was given the choice of two years in jail or two in the military. He took the military time, and spent a year in the army before being discharged early under murky circumstances that were likely because of his sub-par performance and attitude. He made an important contact in the army on meeting Billy Cox, a man who would be a key partner and influence in his musical development.

Hendrix moved to New York in early 1964 and won an Apollo Theatre amateur contest. In the spring in Atlanta, legendary performer Little Richard hired him as a part of his recording and backing band. He also spent a stint playing with Ike & Tina Turner during this time, and over the next couple of years his talent, flamboyant performing style, and his reputation all grew.

In 1966 he had his only daughter, named Tamika, with a teenage runaway with whom he briefly lived. Although he acknowledged the girl as his daughter in the shadow of a paternity suit, that paternity was never officially recognized in the courts.

That same year he was passed on to join The Rolling Stones band after being introduced to them by Keith Richard's girlfriend, Linda Keith, who may have turned him on to some of the drugs that would ultimately kill him. But through those same contacts he did meet Chas Chandler, former bassist for The Animals who was looking to get into management. Chandler helped guide Hendrix in setting up his band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and also introduced him to Eric Clapton, who would become a close friend.

The 'Experience' set about recording and touring, mostly in Europe, and in 1967 Hendrix had his only son, James Daniel Sundquist, with a woman he had met while touring in Sweden. He finally began to get American exposure when Paul McCartney recommended the Experience to appear in 1968 at the Monterey International Pop Festival. The band performed in front of numerous fans and, perhaps more importantly, music critics who took a liking to them, and things took off briefly.

1969 would prove to be a year of change, as the Experience fell apart. They played their final European gig together in February, and their final U.S. concert in late June, and by the end of the year Jimi had formed a new band which he called 'Gypsy Sun and the Rainbows'. He also turned into the headline performer at the Woodstock music festival that summer, performing a 2-hour set on Monday morning that was highlighted by his now-legendary guitar version of "The Star-Spangled Banner".

On September 6th, 1970, Hendrix gave what was to be his final concert performance in Germany. He then returned to London, where he performed in public for the final time by jamming on-stage with Burdon's new band 'War'. He died just days later. Hendrix musical career was marred by, and often fueled by, his constant drinking and drug use. He was a well-known user of LSD, marijuana, and amphetamines. Ultimately, his mixing of too much drinking and drugs would leave him, like Janis Joplin just weeks later, lying dead in a motel room. He was just 27-years old.

Did it have to be this way? Did the rock world, the American youth, have to lose these two legends to their demons of drink and drugs? Could they have risen to the heights that they attained without those substances? Is Jimi playing guitar while Janis sings the lead on a stage somewhere in a rock-n-roll Heaven? Hard to say. It's always hard to know exactly what were the extent of someones sins, and what atonement and peace they may have made before their death. One thing is certain, both Jimi and Janis left far too soon, and both did so because of their addictions.

NOTE: this article continues the "Rock and Roll Heaven" series, all entries for which can be enjoyed by clicking on that below 'label'

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