How the rock and roll sausage gets made
The sublime and the ridiculous, butting heads with one another.
Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary”
A Masterwork Conceived, Composed, and Recorded in Less Than 24 Hours
In late September 1966, Jimi Hendrix landed in London, leaving behind the hardscrabble life he’d led in New York City. Within a couple of days he began a relationship with Kathy Etchingham, who worked as hairdresser and part-time DJ. While still in the first blush of romance, Jimi and Kathy discovered that although they’d grown up an ocean apart, in some ways they shared similar backgrounds. They’d both had challenging childhoods with at least one alcoholic parent. Both of their mothers had abandoned the family. Kathy had spent her earliest years in Derby, living in a working-class house without an indoor bathroom. After her mother left, she and her brother were sent to stay with relatives in Ireland. During her teens she was placed in Dublin’s Holy Faith convent boarding school.
Jimi had mostly grown up with his father, James “Al” Hendrix, and, on occasion, his younger brother Leon. They lived in a variety of rented rooms, apartments, and small houses around Seattle. When times got hard for Al, he shuttled Jimi to stay with relatives and friends. “He’d had a very unhappy childhood,” Kathy wrote in Through Gypsy Eyes: My Life, the Sixties and Jimi Hendrix. “He did talk about how he had no food, no shoes, hadn’t got to have a change of clothes, had to go to other people’s houses to be fed, how his dad used to punch him in the face and shave his hair, and how he would run away but had to go back because, of course, he had nowhere else to go. He didn’t really consider that he had a family.”
Throughout Jimi’s initial nine-month stay in London, the couple shared lodgings with Jimi’s discoverer/producer, Chas Chandler, and his Swedish girlfriend, Lotta Null. In December 1966 Ringo Starr offered to sublet them his flat at 34 Montagu Square for £30 a month. They accepted the offer, and on December 6th Chas, Jimi, Kathy, and Lotta moved to Montagu Square. “We were lucky to get it,” Kathy wrote, “as Paul McCartney had just moved out of the flat before us. The neighbors weren’t too happy about having musicians in the flat. Paul had been using it as a [demo] recording studio and I’m sure it wasn’t very soundproof. The elderly lady who lived upstairs could be rather grumpy. She wouldn’t let us have the keys to the communal gardens when the photographer wanted to take some photos of Jimi in the gardens.”
Away from public view, Jimi and Kathy’s life together at 34 Montagu Square was not always peaceful. Chas and Lotta were sometimes taken aback by the volume of the arguments coming from the rooms downstairs. During one disagreement Kathy smashed her foot through the back of an acoustic guitar. Another one led to a broken sitting-room door. For Jimi and Kathy, though, heated arguments were nothing new. “Having rows never worried either of us much,” Kathy explained. “I guess we both had listened to them enough throughout our childhoods not to take them too seriously. We could be shouting and screaming one moment and forgetting about the whole thing the next…. Both of us operated on very short fuses, and neither of us was ever willing to climb down, so we could only end them by one or the other of us storming off – usually me.” At one point, Chas Chandler and Experience manager Michael Jeffery called Jimi into the office and urged him to break up with Kathy. Hendrix told them to mind their own business. In truth, he felt possessive of Kathy, and their most violent exchanges tended to occur when he felt jealous or suspicious of her.
An especially heated argument on January 10th inspired Jimi to write one of his most achingly beautiful songs. As Kathy described, “He was moaning about my cooking again and I felt I had put a lot of effort into whatever it was – mashed potatoes, probably. I didn’t take kindly to being told they were disgusting, so I picked up the plate and smashed it on the floor. ‘Hell – what are you doing?’ he screamed at me, so I picked up a few more plates and threw them around the room as well, yelling back at him. Eventually I turned on my heel and stalked out, crossing the street to find a cab. He followed, trying to persuade me to come back, but I refused to listen. I found a taxi and jumped in, and without letting Jimi hear I told the driver to take me to Angie and Eric [Burdon]’s place in Jermyn Street. When I returned the next day, having cooled down, I asked him what he had done while I was away. ‘I wrote a song,’ he said and handed me a piece of paper with ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ written on it. Mary is my middle name, and the one he would use when he wanted to annoy me. I took the song and read it through. It was about the row we had just had, but I didn’t feel the least bit appeased.”
Lots, lots more here, all of it completely spellbinding for any fan of the great James Marshall Hendrix. Which, of course, I am and always have been. Don’t doubt me on that, people; in fact, when I was a teenager I once took a huge piggy-bank stuffed full of a cpl hundred bucks’ worth of small change to purchase a grotesquely-abused old Fender Strat from a dealer who was a longtime friend of my uncle’s, Carroll Dill, owner and proprietor of Carroll’s Music.
The guitar was a total no-hoper which was so entirely rat-fucked it wouldn’t make a sound when I bought it; the fretboard was actually, literally rutted down its entire length, from nut to body-join. The poor old thing had a blue body with white stars painted on, with a red-and-white striped pickguard. It had been the property of the guitarist for the house band at a venerable old CLT tittybar, the Paper Doll Lounge, still extant after all these years. The Spontanes, they were called, and the American-flag Strat was trotted out for their nightly rock and roll set, in semi-mufti as Harley Hogg and the Rockers.
None of which backstory I gave a tinker’s damn about at the time, of course. Jimi Hendrix played a Strat, so by God I needed me one too. That added up to me trotting off to Carroll’s to trade all those pennies plus my insanely valuable, immaculate 1964 Jazzmaster (the exact same shade of blue as the soon-to-be-spraybombed Stratocaster, it so happens) for a Strat that was incapable of producing so much as an annoying buzz when plugged into an amp, to my uncle’s undying fury.
No shit, he actually rode over to Carroll’s Music to cuss his old friend out for rooking his nephew in such a bald-faced, egregious way after he’d found out what his stupid-ass nephew had gone and done. They’d been good friends for thirty-some-odd years, but Uncle Murray never spoke to Carroll again after he’d cussed him up one side and down the other. Never said word One to me about it; I found out years later, when my Dad told me the whole story with a rueful shake of his head at both his genuinely dangerous big brother and his damnable fool of a teenaged son.
Meanwhile, I proudly hustled my new acquisition home and proceeded forthwith to disassemble it completely, so as to A) investigate the obvious electrical fault that had rendered my poor baby voiceless, and B) spray-paint it bone-white like the one my idol Jimi played. I did just that, too: a rattlecan of Krylon obscured that obnoxious flag-pattern paint job quite nicely, thanks, although for the next several years of wielding that poor old raggedy-ass axe, I was left with a big smudge of white paint smeared all over my right forearm where it rested against the body every time I played it.
Didn’t matter a whit to me; I finally had myself a Jimi Hendrix guitar, dammit, and despite her crippling flaws I loved her all to pieces.
My dear friend and guitar-hero Steve Howard, a fellow Hendrix fan and an extraordinarily talented player in his own right, eventually ended up unwinding one of the Strat’s pickups right down to the magnets, walking around and around and around his house trailing an endless stream of copper single-coil-pickup-wire in a bootless effort to try and suss out what the hell was wrong with the damned thing. No joy, alas; I replaced all three pickups with brand-new DiMarzios, bought new pots and input jack, and rewired the whole damned thing myself, which I had no clue how to go about doing until I, y’know, did it.
NEVER try to stand between a young man’s Hendrix obsession and his quest to requite same, trust me.
Actually, “Mary” was never one of my favorite Hendrix tunes. This, on the other hand, was:
Another of my Hendrix faves, featuring Jimi mercilessly working over a…a…a Gibson SG Custom, of all unexpected, bizarre things? WOW.
I dunno, man; it’s kinda like seeing Stevie Ray flogging a Les Paul, or, say, Charlie Christian wailing away on a Telecaster, or something. It just…doesn’t…compute, somehow.
Be all that as it may, the above vids are a far cry indeed from Jimi’s days as Little Richard’s guitarist, wouldn’t you say? No lie, even after thirty-some years as a professional player myself—someone who’s spent all of those years studying this stuff minutely, with every ounce of passion, will, and energy he has in him—I couldn’t even begin to tell you what Jimi was doing there, or how he did it. It’s simply beyond belief, that’s what. There’s never been anyone quite like him, before or since.
(Via Ed Driscoll)