Jimi Hendrix was many things to many different people. To teenagers (even now) he’s an icon and a pioneer of music. To parents of that period he was another flamboyant rock star that they didn’t approve of. Many people consider themselves lucky to have visited his grave site, I consider myself one rung of fortune above that, as I saw him live on December 4th 1967.
I remember it being cold and wet that night. Newcastle and good weather had never been bedfellows so it was of little surprise. I took the 64 Bus into the city centre from my parents house in Washington near Sunderland. It should at this point be noted that this was not the first time I had tried to see Hendrix. In the March of that year he’d played a tiny gig in South Shields at ‘Club Agogo’, but I was unable to get tickets.
So when it was announced he would be part of a showcase gig along with Pink Floyd, The Move, and Amen Corner I was determined to be the recipient of a ticket. It was advertised in the back of the NME and cost me around 15 shillings, the currency reminding me of how long ago it was. I went alone as my friends at the time weren’t really into that kind of music, not that it bothered me.
People are often surprised when I mention who was on the bill that night as it’s quite an eclectic mix of groups. The reason behind this was sometimes artists might struggle to fund themselves for a large tour, so instead they’d group together with a few other acts (maybe on the same record label) and tour together.
Pink Floyd, as you might suspect were quirky and unique in their performance. You couldn’t see the band on stage instead a white sheet was draped from the ceiling with light shone upon it. Their shadows took up the sheet which gave quite a haunting effect. It also made it a bit more difficult to connect with the band. They were going through what would later be called the ‘Umma Gumma’ stage, and while I was a fan of progressive (or prog) rock bands like ‘Yes’ I struggled to get into them that night.
At the time I knew what to expect from them, but for someone unprepared I imagine it was quite an experience. Their songs were long and flowed from one to the next which was the polar opposite of someone like Amen Corner, who were more of a pop band really.
Just to digress slightly, I should give a mention to the other band I enjoyed that night “The Move”. They were a good band, who hold the esteemed honour of being the first record ever played on Radio 1. The song was called ‘Flowers in the rain’ just incase it ever comes up in a pub quiz.
I had no idea what I was going to get from Hendrix that evening, but I knew it would be special.
Eventually the main attraction made his way on stage. He was wearing an all red costume and I was positioned directly in line with him, a few rows back. He played a white Fender Telecaster which against the backdrop of his clothes really stood out. To say he was unique would be doing him a disservice. Nothing he did felt like a gimmick. Playing with his teeth or above his head, it didn’t feel cliché like it might now.
For me ‘Hey Joe’ was the standout song. It was unlike anything I was listening to at the time and in my head (even 40 odd years on) I can still vividly picture it. I had no idea what I was going to get from Hendrix that evening, but I knew it would be special.
Now having spoke to other people who attended and even reading some stories, it seemed he was frustrated that night at some equipment problems. I personally can’t attest to seeing anything, but it may go someway to explaining what he did next.
By this point Hendrix had changed guitars to a white Gibson flying V, which as you might expect takes its name from its shape. After finishing the song, Hendrix turned around and launched his guitar at the amplifier. It pierced the speaker and stuck inside it like an arrow shot from a bow. The City Hall erupted. People didn’t know what to think, the room was filled with a monotone humming sound coming from the speaker. In that moment I knew I’d witnessed something wholly unique. It was like all the emotion was trapped inside this amp and he just set it free.
Unfortunately Hendrix would die three years later in 1970. In the time between that night and his death I had amassed a fair number of his records. Still working at Marconi’s as a trainee engineer, I came home from work on a Friday night to hear the new of his passing. A few hours later I was due to DJ at a club in Sunderland called the ‘Locarno’. The nights never had themes but I decided to dedicate that evening to Hendrix.
As I got ready I put all my Hendrix music in a haversack and started up my bike, a red Birmingham Smallarms B40. Upon reflection I considered myself even more lucky to have seen the man in his pomp as I knew even back then his legendary status would permeate into future generations. I don’t think that legacy had anything to do with his death, it was down to the fact he was so individual.
You can’t really liken him to anyone. Without wanting to bash the modern generation, it seems like a lot of bands ‘sound a bit like such and such’. With him that wasn’t really the case. He played the guitar left handed, and operated in a way people hadn’t seen before.
It’s coming up to fifty years since I saw him, which might seem like an age, yet I remember it just as vividly as the day before last. So much so that every time I hear him on the music channels, I think back to that night with a wry smile and a tingle down my spine.
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