The first book about Jimi Hendrix I read was written by my Melody Maker colleague Chris Welch and published in 1972, long before rock books became a spin-off industry to records and concerts. It was the first ever Hendrix book and something of a coup for Chris. I remember him bringing it into the office where we passed it around, admiring not just the book but Chris’ initiative in writing it and getting it published. It was a fairly slim volume, illustrated throughout, and benefitted from Chris having interviewed and seen Jimi perform many times. Most subsequent biographers – and there have been many – had no such personal connections.
The most recent is Wild Thing by Philip Norman but I don’t hold this against him for many of the best rock books have been written by authors without social or professional connections to their subject. Norman has been writing about music for most of his life and is eminently qualified to write about Hendrix or anyone else for that matter. Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Hendrix’s death, Wild Thing this week became the eleventh Hendrix book I‘ve read, and that includes five I commissioned as editor at Omnibus Press, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky by David Henderson, whose UK rights I bought for Omnibus from its US publishers, and Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic, a virtuoso study of Jimi’s music that goes easy on a private life that long ago became public.
Wild Thing observes no such scruples. Indeed, Jimi’s boundless promiscuity is a running theme as mind-blowing as the music he made, a Satyricon-like odyssey of endless shagging that puts even Led Zeppelin to shame. There can be no question that women adored Jimi Hendrix – and he them. In the end, of course, he was brought down by one who showed extreme disregard for his welfare, or so the evidence indicates.
All of which makes it a breezy read, skipping lightly but entertainingly through Hendrix's childhood and lean years until our hero reaches London in the autumn of 1966 and his life explodes. The next four years are covered meticulously to say the least, with plenty of pages given over to the mystery surrounding Jimi’s death in a downmarket private lodge in London’s Notting Hill on September 18, 1970. That conundrum will forever remain largely unresolved but this book investigates it forensically, determinedly putting to the sword conspiracy theories suggesting Jimi was murdered by persons who might have had reason to benefit from his passing.
The leading contender in the list of suspects is the nefarious Mike Jeffrey, Jimi’s co-manager whose Club A-Go-Go in Newcastle was the launch-pad for The Animals whom he managed prior to Hendrix, a joint partnership with their industrious and far more upright bass player Chas Chandler. Jeffrey’s resemblance to characters in the great Tyneside-based gangster movie Get Carter is not lost on Norman but while his stewardship of Hendrix was certainly unprincipled, his only accuser is a roadie who made the allegation when he had a book to sell. Another contender, believe it or not, is a branch of the American secret service.
A more likely culprit, albeit a far more benign one, is the infamous Monika Danneman who shared Hendrix’s bed on the night before he died. Interviewed many times in the years between 1970 and her death by suicide in 1996, she changed her story over and over again but whatever version you care to believe there seems little doubt that it was her negligence on that fateful morning that robbed Hendrix of his life.
The hours leading up to the calamity, the death itself and its immediate and longer-term aftermath occupy three carefully researched chapters at the end of Wild Thing, and though some of the information was previously published in Tony Brown’s book The Final Days Of Jimi Hendrix*, Norman has gone a step or two further in talking to those involved, which makes this the definitive account of what must, in the end, be regarded simply as a tragic accident, albeit one waiting to happen.
One person at the scene who wouldn’t talk about it was Eric Burdon who, reports Norman, is ‘working on his own Jimi Hendrix story’. I’ll believe that when I see it, but at least Eric is alive, unlike almost all the dramatis personae in this tale – Hendrix himself, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell from the Experience and co-managers Chandler and Jeffrey – which severely limits Norman’s research sources but at the same time enables him to write without fear of contention.
Fortunately, Hendrix’s ne’er-do-well younger brother Leon is still around to be interviewed as are many of the women who came within Jimi’s orbit. These include his principal London-based partner Cathy Etchingham, now a grandmother living in Australia, Jeffrey’s long-suffering PA Trixi Sullivan and model Linda Keith, girlfriend of Keith Richards in 1966, who introduced Hendrix to Chandler and remained his friend throughout his life. All have talked at length to Norman with Etchingham, the most down-to-earth witness, offering convincing evidence of Jimi’s domesticity, warmth and carefree personality. Sullivan, on the other hand, tells us far more about her boss’ shady business affairs than I’ve read elsewhere.
In this regard, it’s almost heartbreaking to read how unsympathetic Jeffrey was to his client’s needs. Like ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker with Elvis, he seemed utterly oblivious to Hendrix’s art, viewing him solely as a cash-cow to be kept on a treadmill of gigs that enriched him considerably. Jeffrey’s death in a plane crash in 1973 further muddied the waters with regard to what happened to all that money, another bone of contention in the aftermath of the events of September 1970. In fact, the estate, now estimated to be worth $80 million, is in the hands of Janie Hendrix, the step-daughter of Jimi’s father Al who died in 2002. Jimi didn’t see much of it when he was alive, though like many a musician who lived only to create he didn’t much care so long as he had somewhere to sleep, food on his plate and enough to spend in boutiques that sold the flamboyant clothes, often tailored for girls, that he liked to wear.
Few interviewees have a bad word to say about Hendrix. He liked the recreational drugs that were prevalent among the circles in which he mixed but was terrified of needles, which meant heroin wasn’t on the menu. He turned nasty only when he drank whisky and this occasionally affected his ability to play well. He had a hippie outlook on life, often speaking ambiguously in airy-fairy ways, loved science fiction and the mothers of his friends invariably recognised a waif that needed mothering. He was shy in company, eternally unsure about his singing voice and virtually ego free.
Wild Thing didn’t tell me a great deal I didn’t already know about the life and death of Jimi Hendrix but a few small details fascinated me. I didn’t know he liked to watch Coronation Street and could ice skate, nor that he had a fling with Bridget Bardot, and I’m kicking myself that I wasn’t at the Troutbeck Hotel in Ilkley on March 12, 1967 – less than 10 miles from Skipton where I lived at the time – when an Experience gig was brought to a premature conclusion by Police Sergeant Thomas Chapman on account of overcrowding. I’m dubious about Jimi earning ‘$14,000 a minute’ for a gig at the Garden in New York – which would surely make the cost of tickets prohibitive – and Chas Chandler certainly wasn’t ‘riding high with his new discovery Slade’ in the summer of 1970, which was 12 months before their first hit.
More importantly, Norman is rightly effusive about the guitar skills that brought Eric Clapton and other top-flight British players to their knees in awe, so much so that for the past 48 hours I’ve listened to nothing but Hendrix, irrefutable testimony to the book’s merits. Furthermore, Norman traces the climactic gathering storm surrounding Jimi in a way that is genuinely page-turning. OK, we know what’s going to happen and there’s much about the sequence of events in this telling that makes the tragedy almost inevitable but at the same time there are so many ‘if onlys’ that, even now, 50 years later, you can’t help but shake your head in dismay at the downright agony of it all.
Finally, the cover of the hardback edition that I read is simply beautiful, an understated design featuring a photograph of Jimi’s face by David Magnus that is tinted orange and green with minimal titling. What a change from book covers that scream too loud but offer too little. Wild Thing doesn’t scream at all but offers a lot.
* Published by Omnibus Press in 1997, I commissioned and edited this book.