If you’ve ever listened to late night radio – and this insomniac, practically nocturnal writer has listened to a lot of late night radio – you will have heard at least one of his songs. Tucked away in the play lists of niche rock DJs worldwide is where you’ll find him, songs that are at once strangely familiar, and yet almost impossible to pin down. You know you’ve heard them before, but where?
Said DJs will talk about him with such veneration that you, the casual listener, might wonder why his is not a household name. Sure, your folks will know him, but unless they are still fans – and there are still diehard fans – when was the last time they said his name out loud?
Born in Seattle in 1942, James Marshall Hendrix – known to friends and fans as Jimi – was once a legendary figure in rock. Though his career proper kicked off in London, his performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival sealed his global reputation. Songs such as ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Foxy Lady’, and ‘Voodoo Chile’ became anthems for the late ‘60s counterculture, the soundtrack to an era of civil rights and Vietnam. With his shock of Afro hair, his eclectic wardrobe, his unconventional sex appeal, and his laid-back demeanour, Hendrix became the poster boy of psychedelic rock. His bands, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and, later, Band of Gypsies, were symbolic, multiracial melting pots of musical talent.
So… Where did it all go wrong?
“Where did it all go wrong?” Hendrix (who turns 70 this month) muses. He takes the question in good enough humour, though his expression is a little distant and melancholy. “That’s an interesting question,” he says. “I mean, did it all go wrong?”
We’ve met at a café in Camden, North London, where the guitarist has lived for the past twenty-five years. He comes here every day, he tells me, and has done since he retired from teaching four years ago.
“If the weather’s good I’ll sit outside,” he says. “If it’s raining I’ll sit near the window. Either way, I just like watching the world go by. People watching, I call it. You know, like bird watching?”
Though now a pensioner, Hendrix still cuts a dapper, if world-worn figure. He wears a grey suit that hangs a little loosely on his tall, still skinny frame. The Afro has gone – his hair is now short, and receding – though he has kept his trademark moustache and soul patch – and the hair on both his head and face is now a silvery grey.
I decide to rephrase my – admittedly unsubtle – question. Does he have any regrets?
“Regrets?” He asks. Hendrix does this often during our conversation, repeating the tail end of my question back at me, not to challenge the question’s validity but, I think, to give himself time to prepare an answer. “No, no regrets,” he says. “I mean, I could have regrets, if I wanted them. There are plenty of things I never achieved, things I’d have liked to have done, but no… If I regretted them, and kept regretting them, well… What kind of a life would that be?”
Okay. So if he can’t regret the things he’s done, what about the things he didn’t do?
“Oh, sure, “he says, laughing. When he laughs his eyes twinkle with a feline kind of mischief, like he’s toying with you. “I know Miles and I talked about a second collaboration, but that never materialised, and I think that would have been interesting. But I think both of us had some trouble in our lives, so the time was never right.”
He is talking about Miles Davis, and their album ‘Johannesburg’ (1974). A firm favourite of jazz critics and Davis’s supporters, the album – a double disc, tour-de-force epic – remains an obscure footnote to Hendrix’s fans, who thought it pretentious and overlong. On balance, it is now perhaps the last great flowering of Hendrix’s talents, before he began a long, downward spiral into drug dependency and alcoholism.
His appearance as the Preacher in Ken Russell’s 1975 film ‘Tommy’ was a baffling moment in a movie full of baffling moments. His belated, and ultimately misguided attempt to cash in on the ’70s funk scene (‘Catch My Breath’ – 1977) met with harsh reviews and poor sales. (Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs called the album “mind-bendingly bad. Like James Brown popped some Quaaludes, staggered into his recording studio at 4am, and tried playing every instrument himself at the same time.”)
Hendrix believes the decline in his career began with the death of his friend, and fellow guitarist Eric Clapton, in 1973. Clapton was one of the key figures who promoted Hendrix early on, and the “progressive blues” pioneered by them both would become the sound of an era, but Clapton’s slide into heroin addiction and his eventual overdose all but destroyed his one-time protégé.
“I fell apart,” says Hendrix, staring off into the middle distance, his eyes a little tearful at the memory of it. “Eric was so many things to me. A friend. A rival. If he did something, I had to do it better, and vice versa. That was how we worked. I still miss him.”
If Clapton’s premature death was a blow, the 1980 assassination of John Lennon was, Hendrix says, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Having battled with – and overcome – heroin addiction in the late 1970s, the guitarist now turned to drink. His three-year marriage to the actress Britt Ekland collapsed in acrimony, and things came to a head on the night of April 1st 1982.
“April Fools Day!” Hendrix laughs. He laughs a lot, even when talking about the worst of times. “And I was one hell of a fool.”
After performing at a nightclub in Brighton (remember, this is a man who once played before tens of thousands) Hendrix drove back to London. Heavily drunk, and under the influence of tranquillisers, his car left the road and span several times before landing in a ditch. Hendrix was in a coma for two weeks, and suffered a fractured skull, broken pelvis, and severe damage to his left hand. Doctors initially told him he might never play guitar again.
“That was the worst,” he says. He isn’t laughing now. “I mean, if they’d have told me I couldn’t walk again, couldn’t drive again… hell, if they’d told me I’d go blind, I’d have learned to live with it. But never play guitar again? Man… that was like the end of the world.”
There followed a year of painful recovery and physiotherapy, but Hendrix was determined to prove his doctors wrong. His greatest struggle remained the battle with booze.
“Yeah,” he says. “Heroin, that was easier to quit, I think. I was nearly forty, and I kept thinking to myself, you know, the idea of this old man, this middle aged man, chasing the dragon? Shooting up? And this was around the time of AIDS, you know, so that kind of scared me into quitting all that. But drink? That was hard.”
By 1984 Hendrix was well enough to sing – but not play – on Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, though by now many of its target audience, fed on a diet of MTV, were more familiar with Simon Le Bon and Boy George than they were this obscure, American rocker. Still, fans believed this appearance might signal the beginning of a revival in his career, and anticipation mounted in the months before the Live Aid concerts of 1985.
“What can I say?” Says Hendrix, with a self-effacing shake of the head. “I thought I could do it, I really did.”
In the event, his appearance, shortly before Queen’s now-legendary performance, was a disappointment. Still struggling with his left hand, and badly out of practice, Hendrix was a shadow of his former self. His ‘Miami Vice’ style grey suit and espadrilles were almost comically inappropriate, as if he was trying far too hard to appeal to a younger generation. He looked tired, as if his heart wasn’t in it, something he denies to this day.
“My heart was in it,” he says. “But what use is your heart when you just can’t play like you used to? It was too soon. I know that now. It was just too damned soon.”
I ask him if he would like to rethink his earlier answer, that he regrets nothing he has done in his life.
“No,” he says. “I still stick by that. You see, Live Aid was the end of an era for me. I kind of gave up trying to be whatever it was people wanted me to be. If they wanted a… a… rock star… They weren’t gonna get it. I was tired of trying, so I retired.”
And it was through retiring that he met his second wife, Helen Salisbury. Ten years his junior, Helen worked as a waitress in a restaurant near Hendrix’s house in Camden. When they met, she had no idea who he was.
“Well, I think she was exaggerating a little,” says Hendrix. “But we had different tastes in music. She preferred Elton John, Gilbert O’Sullivan, that kind of thing. But you know what they say, about opposites attract and all.”
He and Helen married in 1987, and had two sons, James Jr. and Marshall. James Jr. is now an acclaimed musician in his own right, performing as a violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, while Marshall is a music video director who has worked with acts including Plan B and Tiny Tempah.
“I’m so proud of them both,” says Hendrix. “James could play violin practically before he could walk, and Marshall, well… he gets these ideas, so creative. His mind’s so active.”
When Helen died of breast cancer in 1995, Hendrix was left to raise their sons single-handedly. As sales of his music continued to decline (while many of his peers enjoyed revivals and comebacks), he was faced with a choice: Survive on dwindling past glories, or find himself a job. He completed a teacher training course in 1996 and began teaching music at a North London comprehensive school the following year.
“After seeing my sons mature and flourish, that’s perhaps my proudest achievement,” he says, beaming. “Some of the kids I taught, they never thought they had any talent. Never realised they had it in them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I inspired them, I’m not that vain, but I like to think I gave them hope.”
Many of Hendrix’s students were too young to know their teacher had once been a rock star, though he admits there were occasions when parents asked for autographs.
“Ha,” he laughs. “That was kind of funny. It would be a parents evening, or something, and I’d be trying to tell them how their son or daughter must try harder and all that, and they’d be sitting there smiling at me the whole time. And when it was time for them to go they’d go looking in their pockets for a piece of paper and a pen. That was funny.”
Did he ever play his own music to his students?
“No! Never. They wouldn’t have liked it, I don’t think. By then the kids had their own music, their own bands. Why’d they want to listen to an old man like me? Besides, I was there to teach, not to get all nostalgic.”
If there is a recurring theme to our conversation, this is it. Hendrix refuses to “get all nostalgic”, to live in the past. In 1967 his music sounded like, and in a way was the future (the term “Heavy Metal” was first used to describe his crunching, feedback-laden riffs). Why should he live in the past?
And yet the reason for our meeting this afternoon is that in two nights Jimi Hendrix will play his first live gig in over a quarter of a century. Performing at London’s Brixton Academy with Experience bassist Noel Redding, he will treat an audience half his age and younger to sounds that once blew the minds of their parents and – in some cases – grandparents. Is this a comeback?
“Oh, I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I spoke to Noel, and we just felt the time was right. And we won’t get many more opportunities. We’re old men, you know? We just want to have some fun with it.”
And should we expect any new albums?
“Ha… We’ll see,” says Hendrix. “Does the world want a new Jimi Hendrix album? Does it need one? I don’t know. Maybe we should be looking for something new.”
When our bill arrives I reach for it out of instinct, and he puts his hand over mine to stop me. He knows it’s the norm for the writer to pick up the tab, but he also knows how many fading stars come to rely on these regular free dinners. He doesn’t say as much, but he doesn’t want me to think he’s penniless and freeloading.
He pays the bill, and gets to his feet. Hendrix walks with the aid of a stick these days, and has done so for some time. As we part I ask him if he’ll use it to get out on stage in two nights’ time.
“Oh no,” he laughs. “I’ll manage somehow. After all, when was the last time you saw a rock star with a walking stick?”