August 18, 1969. Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, the supreme moment in the history of rock – if not of the cosmos. But something’s wrong here… It’s not exactly the ecstatic event you might have imagined. By the time Jimi comes on stage at 9 o’clock on Monday morning it’s a scene of utter devastation. Between us and Hendrix there’s a high stockade fence straight out of Fort Apache, the mud is up to your knees. Half the 400,000 people who came have gone, and left behind are the lost and abandoned – among them me and my acid bride.
My state of mind may have something to do with crashing from three days of doing acid. Bodies are strewn on the ground, people are freaking out, passed out, pale haunted faces, kids throwing up from eating raw corncobs from Max Yasgur’s fields, there are desperate little fires you see on battlefields, leering hustlers are selling glasses of water for a dollar, the shit in the Portosans is bubbling up like some alien life form, and to add to the general sense of doom there’s the continual thrum of helicopters delivering food or medivacing out the wounded or the mad ones – it’s becoming difficult to tell whether we’re in Bethel or Da Nang. And like some freaky mirror image from the other side of the world, grunts and bloods are blasting Purple Haze on boomboxes in the jungles of Vietnam. A line from the song comes to mind: ‘Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?’
But, time spirit, wait, I want to go back to two years earlier to June 18, 1967, at Monterey Pop, where gods upon the earth, one after another, appeared and blew our minds: Janis Joplin’s jaw-dropping Ball And Chain; Otis Redding, an R&B Roadrunner in a streak of neon; The Who re-enacting World War II as a Clockwork Orange cabaret act; and not forgetting Ravi Shankar. The intensity of this new mutant music fuses performer and audience into a single vibrating entity. We retune ourselves to its frequencies, the music and lyrics materialising the Utopian future we all believed in. We fervently feel that this music could actually bring it on – which is why festivals in the 60s became such symbolic events.
At Monterey, Hendrix’s fluid, mind-stunning guitar playing seems to flow out of him effortlessly. His guitar speaks a subliminal language. We’re mesmerised by his telepathic ability to put the audience in a trance. It’s supernatural. The many-armed Shiva of the Ganges beaming stinging, whining, notes, spilling out of some psilocybin infested cave, sputtering, soaring, speaking in tongues. Standing in the photographers’ pit not 10 feet away from that hand-painted Fiesta Red Strat decorated by Jimi himself, I’m stunned, as if some alien from a hyphenated galaxy had zapped me with a ray gun.
Hendrix treats his guitar like an unpredictable creature with a life of its own, some extraterrestrial force he was barely able to contain. It’s an alien voice stuttering with rage and ecstasy, an instrument of almost neurasthenic sensitivity that could scan interstellar and intercortical frequencies simultaneously, tuning into the zeitgeist, the cosmos, and the occult bible of the blues.
But then there’s show biz. The famous coin toss between Pete Townshend and Jimi about who’s gonna follow whom. As sheer rock spectacle, Pete Townshend’s guitar smashing episode took your breath away. How was Hendrix going to top that? With solid-body sex and a burnt offering to the Fender god, that’s how.
At the conclusion of his set he does Wild Thing (a song he might easily have written about his guitar). First he tries to fuck his Marshall amp, then he fellates his guitar, picks his teeth with its slinky strings, pours lighter fluid on his Strat and sets it on fire, making it into both a reverential sacrilege and sacrificial hardware – and causing the fire marshal standing in the wings to jump 10 feet in the air.
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