Wednesday, November 06, 2013

"American Masters, Jimi Hendrix" premiers on PBS last night

This was a program that was impossible to miss.  I heard some great music and even learned a few things that other major fans might have already known.

His music was first heard here in the summer of 1967 when a friend of mine bought his first album.  At first the music seemed so discordant to me that it was difficult to relate to.  That thought did not last long.  I first saw Hendrix in October of 1967 when a freshman in college in D.C.  He played at the Washington Sheraton on Massachusetts Avenue, at the time one of the nicest hotels in the middle of embassy row.

My friend Jimmy and I went which says something about what ticket prices were like in those days as neither of us had much extra money but still saw many great acts in Washington that first year there.  We entered the Sheraton and were sort of shocked to be ushered in to ballroom replete with round tables with white tablecloths and tuxedo suited waiters ready to answer anyone's calls for drinks or whatever.  At the time we thought, "what is this.  Do they think Jimi Hendrix is a lounge act?"

Maybe they really did.  While among some of my close cohorts at college and at home he was well known, that was not necessarily the case with the general public. As learned through the PBS program,  Hendrix had become famous by going to London to begin his career as a lead, as opposed to back-up, performer.  He had only returned to the U.S. in the summer of 1967 to participate in the Monterey Jazz Festival where his performance shocked and exhilarated the crowd, much of this shown on the PBS program.  Given the image he projected his recordings, scant that they were at the time, were not seen as Top 40 material or as soul music or blues station material.  He had no radio exposure apart from a few select West Coast stations.  He was also not seen as material for the Ed Sullivan show, the television launchpad for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other major groups.  His music was viewed too strange and his performance too lewd for Ed Sullivan or any other television program at the time so that was closed to him as well.  So word of mouth was the only means of communication and it obviously had not reached the Sheraton.

The Sheraton performance was stunning.  We were maybe two tables away from the stage.  The crowd basically became more and more wild as the show progressed, at times standing on chairs and tables.  The waiters went into hiding.  What a great experience, a life long fan made.  But Hendrix's life was not too long.  The circumstances of his death are not as clear cut as generally understood, and that was not at all touched on.  Conspiracy theories abound, but that would obviously have been too difficult to get involved with on this program.  The program was about his music.

Using copies of letters to his father that he wrote regularly, interviews with former band mates and close friends, managers and producers, and many comments that he made, they piece together a picture of his frantically busy life, his love of women, his polite and almost shy private life that certainly vanished once on stage, and his total devotion to his music.  Apparently he carried a guitar with him everywhere he went, sun up to sundown, from the age of six or seven, and could play anything by ear, not knowing how to read music.  It was fascinating to know that the Star Spangled banner rendition that was played at Woodstock was completely unrehearsed and not discussed with his flexible, obviously, band members. 

The program is well worth the two hours involved to those so inclined and will no doubt be shown many times again as well as being available on the PBS website.

IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT:  A friend from those D.C. days called after having read this blog and had a few corrections.  Rather than change my original attempt at memory and perhaps confuse readers, I'll leave the original post as is.Here are the notable corrections--- the concert was held at a Washington Hilton on Connecticut Ave., another large criss crossing avenue.  It was in March of 1968, a big difference from my time memory, but that does further highlight the time lag between Hendrix's broader fame and his early beginnings as a lead performer in the U.S.  Also the ticket price was $4, something that was not guessed at in the above other than to say it must not have been too expensive.   Thanks Allen for the information.


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