by Gregory Tozian
Easter Sunday, 2011
I met Jimi Hendrix twice in 1968, in Tampa, Florida, backstage at the now defunct Curtis Hixon Hall. On the first occasion, I stole Jimi’s guitar strings and some other minor “religious” items (to me at the time). The second Hendrix meeting, at a gig several months later in my hometown, things were even weirder, but no less memorable.
Here’s how it all went down:
Hendrix Meeting #1: Your Strings R Mine
It’s mid-August, 1968, in sweltering Tampa, a medium-sized Florida town, whose name means “sticks of fire” (in the language of the God-forsaken natives who were pushed aside to make way for the settlers).
I’m a longhaired 17 year old, freshly minted from high school, and enjoying many a stick of fire of my own on a daily basis. My friends in the band Your Local Bear (Ronny Elliott, Doug Wingate, Spencer Hinkle, and Waz) alert me to the fact that they’re scheduled to be opening a long-concert event at downtown Curtis Hixon. On the bill are Eire Apparent, the Soft Machine, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The boys in YLB ask me if I’d like to tag along to hang out backstage with Jimi. You have to ask? I must preface my Hendrix experience by saying that Ronny, besides being a helluva musician, is a cool guy. He also took me a couple of times (that year and the year before) to the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory to see and meet B.B. King, who was opening for Jackie Wilson. The first time I didn’t even know who B.B. King was. It was just four of us white kids, and hundreds of partying black people. But that’s another blog.
For Hendrix, Ronny’s pal Dick Holler, who had written the hit songs “Snoopy vs. the Red Barron” (for the Tampa band, The Royal Guardsmen) and “Abraham, Martin, and John” (for Dion), had gotten YLB on the bill to open the Hendrix extravaganza.
Anyway, when Ronny said I could meet Hendrix, it may seem unbelievable, but my friends and I thought we were already “over” the guitar master. His sophomore album, Are You Experienced, had been released the year before, when I was 16 and still in school. My guitar-playing friends and I loved the album upon first-release and, literally, played the grooves off of it. But after a year, with such songs as “Purple Haze,” “Fire,” and “Foxy Lady” getting air play and becoming “hits,” we were jaded enough to think, “Screw Hendrix, man. He’s sold out.”
By Friday afternoon, August 18, when a long, gray Cadillac pulls into the backstage corridor of Curtis Hixon from a large loading door, my buddies and I are waiting backstage with our passes by the Green Room. We’ve been mumbling, “Hendrix thinks he’s cool, and he ain’t that cool.” As soon as the car stops in front of us, and Noel Redding (bass), Mitch Mitchell (drums) and Jimi get out, in an instant our sang froid evaporates. We’re just a small group of typical teen-aged Hendrix fanatics, yelling, “Jimi! Hey, man. Great to see you.”
I go up and thrust my hand out. Jimi sticks out his hand, and, to his credit, gives me the coldest handshake I’ve ever received. His right hand, with which he fingers that storied Stratocaster guitar neck, is stony. His eyes, covered by their sleepy frog lids, avoid my gaze. But we trail the Jimi Hendrix Experience to their Green Room and make complete pains in the ass of ourselves. Generously, the band does not have us tossed out. They are gentlemen, if we are not.
While my friends and I talk to Redding and Mitchell, Jimi sits in a plastic scoop chair, his feet on a table, playing his Strat unplugged: just practicing. He does this for an hour without stopping. Riffing.
Whenever I say something moronic, such as, “Jimi, are you really saying, ‘Scuse me, while I kiss this GUY?’ in ‘Purple Haze,’” Jimi responds with his stock, whisper, “Yeah,” or “Cool.” That’s all he says. (Of course, years later I’ll learn from a newspaper story, that the lyric is “Scuse me while I kiss the sky.”).
Your Local Bear has to take the stage, so I help them with random go-fer tasks. They play for the crowd of several thousand. Then the Northern Irish band Eire Apparent plays (Hendrix produced and played on their album). Then the prog-rockers the Soft Machine play. They I have heard of. I remember the bass player had a really cool Rickenbacker that Hendrix reportedly gave him.
While the Experience stand in the wings ready to go on, I race back to the Green Room, now uninhabited, and head straight for Jimi’s black Fender guitar case. I feel like I’m opening the lid on the Ark of the Covenant. Inside are some picks, and a couple packages of Fender Rock ‘n’ Roll light gauge strings. Light gauge?!!! I take a package anyway.
I steal Jimi Hendrix’s guitar strings. I also take a couple of picks. And for good measure, being completely misguided, I rip off the big sticker that’s on Jimi’s case. It says “Safe As Milk.” I know this is an advertisement for Captain Beefheart’s first album. (Well, I know that much. And I consider, in my 17-year-old naiveté, that I’m a sophisticate for being so informed.) These treasures go surreptitiously into my jeans and Army shirt pockets.
The rest of the night it’s all about Hendrix. Any doubts about him selling out are dispelled as I stand, stage right, watching and listening to him play. I even learn a couple of guitar tricks by observing Jimi up close and personal this evening, like fingering the 12th and 15th frets of the high E and B strings and striking them simultaneously (doing a double stop-bend). I think, in the days before YouTube, “Oh, that’s how you get that wailing sound. I’m gonna try that at home.”
During the show, Jimi does the behind-the-head thing, and plays with his teeth, and lights a guitar on fire. He performs about 10 songs, starting with “Are You Experienced,” and ending with “The Star’s Spangled Banner,” exactly one year to the day before he will do so for the movie cameras at the Woodstock Festival.
Tickets for the Tampa show ranged from a modest $3.50 to a whopping $5.50. I had gotten in for free. You might say it was a bargain.
I hear the next day, Sunday, Jimi showed up at the weekly stoner jam session at the Davis Island Garden Club. But I wasn’t there. I’m still trying to tune the strings Sunday afternoon that I had stolen from Jimi’s guitar case. I’ve got them lashed to my little, metallic-turquoise Epiphone SG. But I can’t even tune them, or coax from them any kind of decent sound. They seem possessed, as oddly dead as the man’s handshake I experienced the day before. These strings simply have too much juju on them. They belong to the world’s greatest living electric guitarist. I am one of the world’s least great. I am, as they will one day say in Wayne’s World, decidedly not worthy.
I throw the strings in the plastic garbage can under the kitchen sink, doing a silent, “Mea culpa,” to Jimi. I do, however, leave the “Safe As Milk” sticker on my bedroom dresser to remind me of Hendrix. My father rips the sticker off and throws it away a month later, after I move away from home to become a man.
Hendrix Meeting #2: Happy Birthday, Eff-You
Amazingly, Jimi Hendrix returns with the Experience just three months later. But the more astounding thing is, in that few months, the face of American music, and society in general, has shifted dramatically.
Just a week after Hendrix played his first gig in Tampa, the bloody 1968 Democratic National Convention vomited its fury, in four, generation-gap-widening, days. Cops beating and gassing war protesters, the media, anybody who gets in their way. All of a sudden, all adults, particularly the police, look at longhairs like me with greater disdain. And we youth adopt even more radical tones when talking amongst ourselves about “the Establishment,” and “straight people.”
When Hendrix appears backstage at Curtis Hixon Hall for his return concert, on November 23, 1968, the evening of my 18th birthday, everything seems benighted. We don’t get to shake the Big Man’s hand and hang out with his band. There are a lot more cops. More security people. More hippies among the audience of some 7,000 people. Though I wouldn’t think of doing it again, I don’t get the chance to go near the treasures in Hendrix’s guitar case.
Opening for the Experience is the straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, New York band, Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys, who used to play Café Wha? (where Jimi once played). As he had done for Eire Apparent, before them, Jimi produced Cat Mother’s first album.
When Jimi appears for the audience, I’m standing stage right again. But my birthday concert turns out differently than I hoped. Hendrix plays “Fire,” and next the bluesy “Red House,” to a storm of photoflashes. On the third song, “Purple Haze,” Hendrix stops playing and says something like, “You all paid a lot to take pictures. I hope it’s worth it.” Then he says something about the audience not being into “experimental” music. He bets they can’t appreciate jazz, either. And, quickly, in disgust, he raises a middle finger, says, “Fuck, you all.” He puts his guitar down and walks off stage. There is, literally, stunned silence, from the audience, and his two band mates.
A moment later, Mitchell gets up from his drum set. Redding unplugs his bass and says into his microphone, “Sorry.” And they walk off. The audience boos loudly. (At the time, I’m not aware that the year before, during his ill advised, seven-gig tour opening for the bubblegum, TV-rock-band the Monkees, Hendrix had pulled a similar, finger-eff-you walk off at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium.) Omar Khayyam said “The Moving Finger writes; and having writ, Moves on …” In Jimi’s case, the Middle Finger is raised, and having been raised, he moves on.
After the brief performance, my friends and I move on to somebody’s psychedelic-poster-bedecked crash pad in a daze. We don’t feel much like celebrating my birthday. We just sit around in stoned silence, completely bummed out. Well, not completely. We are completely bummed out when, less than two years later, we hear that Hendrix is dead.
So, today I recall: I did meet Jimi Hendrix. I did even purloin his guitar strings. He mumbled some vague non-sequiturs in response to my teen-aged, adulatory blather, and I was a devotee for life. Because even though Jimi never really spoke to me those times I met him, thankfully, his guitar did. It still does.
Leave a Comment