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Flashback: Jimi Hendrix, “I Don’t Want to Be a Clown Anymore”

Rolling Stone US’ 1969 interview with the legendary guitarist.

Rolling Stone US' 1969 interview with the legendary guitarist.

Records, film, press and gossip are collectively ambitious in creating the image of a rock superstar. With Jimi Hendrix – as with Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison – mythology is particularly lavish. Unfortunately, it is also often irreversible – even when it’s ill-founded or after the performer himself has gone through changes.

Several weeks ago, Life magazine described Jimi as “a rock demigod” and devoted several colour pages to kaleidoscopic projection of his face. Well, why not? The fisheye lens shot on his first album cover shows him in arrogant distortion: on the second album, he becomes Buddha. Lest anyone forget, Leacock-Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop has immortalised his pyromaniacal affair with the guitar. Rock-media bedroom talk makes him King Stud of the groupies. Stories circulate that he is rude to audiences, stands up writers, hangs up photographers, that he doesn’t talk.

What Jimi’s really all about – and where his music is going – is an altogether different thing.

For most of the summer and early fall, Jimi rented a big Georgian-style home in Liberty, New York – one of Woodstock’s verdant “suburbs” – for the purpose of housing an eclectic family of musicians: Black Memphis blues guitarists; “new music” and jazz avant-gardists; “Experience” member Mitch Mitchell; and – closest to Jimi and most influential – Juma Lewis, a multi-talented ex-progressive jazzman who is now the leader of Woodstock’s Aboriginal Music Society.

The hilltop compound – replete with wooded acreage and two horses – was intended for a peaceful, productive musical growth period. But hassles did come, sometimes sending Jimi off on sanity-preserving vacations in Algeria and Morocco: local police were anxious to nab “big-time hippies” on anything from dope to speeding; the house was often hectic with hangers-on; pressure mounted from Jimi’s commercial reps to stay within the well-hyped image and not go too far afield experimentally.

But with it all, growth, exchange and – finally – unity was achieved among Jimi and the musicians, whose work-in-progress was evidenced in occasional public appearances in the New York area (at the Woodstock/Bethel Festival, Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Greenwich Village’s Salvation discotheque, and ABC’s Dick Cavett show) and has been recorded for Reprise on an LP which will be released in January. The name of the album, Gypsies, Suns and Rainbows, epitomises the new Hendrix feeling.

With close friends of Jimi, I drove up to Liberty on a quiet September weekend. The melange of musicians and girls had departed. In a few weeks, Jimi himself was to give up the house, woods and horses for less idyllic prospects: a Manhattan loft and a November hearing on the narcotics-possession charge he was slapped with in Toronto, May 3rd.

Photographs have a funny way of betraying his essentially fragile face and body. He is lean. Almost slight. Eating chocolate chip cookies on the living room couch in this big house – furnished straight and comfortable – he seems boyish and vulnerable.

He offers questions with an unjustified fear of his own articulateness that is charming – but occasionally painful. “Do you, uh – where do you live in the city?” “What kind of music do you li— would you care to listen to?” He is self-effacing almost to a fault: “Do you ever go to the Fillmore? No? – that was a silly question, sorry.” “I’m sorry, am I mumbling? Tell me when I’m mumbling. Damn … I always mumble.”

It becomes uncomfortable, so one says: “Jimi, don’t keep putting yourself down. There’s everybody else to do that for you.” He attaches to that statement, repeats it slowly, whips out the embossed Moroccan notebook in which he jots lyrics at all hours of day and night, and scribbles something down.

Fingering through his record collection (extensive and catholic; e.g., Marlene Dietrich, David Peel and the Lower East Side, Schoenberg, Wes Montgomery), he pulls out Blind Faith; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and John Wesley Harding. The Dylan plays first. Jimi’s face lights: “I love Dylan. I only met him once, about three years ago, back at the Kettle of Fish [a folk-rock era hangout] on MacDougal Street. That was before I went to England. I think both of us were pretty drunk at the time, so he probably doesn’t remember it.”

“I want to write songs about tranquility, about beautiful things”

In the middle of a track, Jimi gets up, plugs in his guitar, and – with eyes closed and his supple body curved gently over the instrument – pick up on “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” riding the rest of the song home with a near-religious intensity.

He talks intently to Juma and his girl. He cherishes real friends and will do anything for them. They, in turn, feel protective toward him. “Poor Jimi,” one says. “Everyone’s trying to hold him up for something. Those busts … Even the highway patrol exploits him. They know his car: they stop him on the road between New York and Woodstock and harass him. Then they have something to gloat about for the rest of the day. Once a cop stopped me on the highway and started bragging: ‘Hey, I just stopped Jimi Hendrix for the second time today.'”

On the bookcase is a photograph of a Fifties Coasters-type R&B group: processed hair, metallic-threaded silk-lapel suits, shiny shoes. The thin kid on the far left in a high-conked pompadour, grinning over an electric guitar: is it – ? “That’s okay,” Jimi smiles at the impending laughter. “I don’t try to cover up the past; I’m not ashamed of it.” But he is genuinely humble about the present. For example, he’d been wanting for some time to jam with jazz and “new music” avantgardists, but worried that such musicians didn’t take him seriously enough to ever consider playing with him. “Tell me, honestly,” he asked a friend, “what do those guys think of me? Do they think I’m jiving?”

We are listening now to the tape of such a session, the previous night’s jam: Jimi on electric guitar, avant garde pianist Michael Ephron on clavichord, Juma on congas and flute. A beautiful fusion of disparate elements, disjunct and unified at alternating seconds. Now chaotic, now coming together. “Cosmic music,” they call it. Ego-free music. Not the sort of stuff the waxlords make many bucks off. Not the kind of sound guaranteed to extend the popularity of a rock superstar.

“I don’t want to be a clown anymore. I don’t want to be a ‘rock and roll star,'” Jimi says, emphatically. The forces of contention are never addressed but their pervasiveness has taken its toll on Jimi’s stamina and peace of mind. Trying to remain a growing artist when a business empire has nuzzled you to its bosom takes a toughness, a shrewdness. For those who have a hardness of conviction but not of temperament it isn’t a question of selling out but of dying, artistically and spiritually. Refusing to die yet ill-equipped to fight dirty, many sensitive but commercially-lionised artists withdrew. I watch Jimi quietly digging the pictures of faraway people and places in a book, The Epic of Man (“South America … wow, that’s a whole different world. Have you ever been there?”) and I wonder just where he will be and what he will be doing five years from now.

We crowd into Jimi’s metal-fleck silver Stingray (“I want to paint it over – maybe black”) for a sunrise drive to the waterfalls. (“I wish I could bring my guitar – and plug it in down there.”) The talk is of puppies, daybreak, other innocentia. We climb down the rocks to the icy brook, then suddenly discover the car keys are missing. Everyone shuffles through shoulder pouches and wallets. “Hey, don’t worry,” Jimi says. “They’ll turn up. No use being hassled about it now.” Jimi’s taking pictures and writing poetry. “I want to write songs about tranquility, about beautiful things,” he says.

Back at the house, he pads around, emptying ashtrays, putting things in order. “I’m like a clucking old grandmother,” he smiles. “I’ve just gotta straighten things out a little.” It’s 7 a.m. and he has to be at the recording studio in Manhattan at 4 in the afternoon. Everyone’s exhausted.

After a few hours of sleep, Jimi floats into the kitchen looking like a fuzzy lamb unmercifully awakened and underfed. He passes up the spread of eggs, pork chops, crescent rolls and tea; breakfast, instead, is a Theragran and a swig of tequila in milk. “Jimi, you never eat …” Juma’s girl worries aloud.

We pile into the car for the two-hour drive into Manhattan. Passing two Afro-haired guys in an Aston-Martin, Jimi turns and flashes a broad grin, extending his fingers in a peace salute. We turn up the radio on Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”; groove on Neil Diamond, Jackie deShannon, the Turtles. Everything is everything: We’re playing with a puppy, grateful for clear skies, clear road, clear AM station. What more could a carload of travellers in an inconspicuous blue Avis ask?

We pull into a roadside stop. No giggly bell-bottomed young girls in sight, Jimi gets out and brings back chocolate milk and ice cream for everyone. Truckers pay no attention. Middle-aged couples glare disdainfully.

The talk is of the session. They’ll record at a studio on West 44th Street, then go somewhere else to mix it – maybe Bell Sound of A&R – because Jimi says the recording studio they’re going to “has bad equipment … likes to take advantage of so-called longhair musicians.”

Downtown traffic on the West Side highway is light at rush hour. The fortresses of upper Riverside Drive are handsome in the sun, but the air has lost its freshness. Getting off the highway at 45th Street, it’s 4:45. The session, costing $200 an hour, was booked to begin at 4:00. But delay couldn’t be helped; no hassle. A carful of teenagers alongside us has the radio turned up loud on “If Six Was Nine” – the cut being used as part of advertisement for Easy Rider. I ask Jimi if he’s seen the film; he doesn’t answer.

Turning around, I find him stretched out on the back seat, legs curled up embryonically, hands clasped under his cheek. Sleeping soundly.

This story is from the November 15th, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone US.

The Jimi Hendrix Revolution tour heads to Australia this May, tickets and more info available via HendrixRevolutionTour.com.