“He’s just brilliant. He’s completely brilliant.”
Even after nearly four decades of performing Jim Hendrix tribute shows, Randy Hansen still struggles to accurately encapsulate his admiration of the legendary guitarist.
Hansen, one of the few guitarists in the world officially recognised by the Hendrix family, saw Hendrix play just once, at his final Seattle show in 1970. But that was enough for the teenager who, following Hendrix’s untimely death later that year, decided to “dedicate [his] life to salvaging Jimi’s music”.
In May, Hansen will embark on the first ever antipodean dates of his acclaimed Hendrix Revolution tour. We recently caught up with him to discuss the legacy of Hendrix, getting high with Francis Ford Coppola and what fans can expect from the show.
Starting back to the beginning of your relationship with Jimi Hendrix. What is your earliest Jimi Hendrix memory?
The first time I heard Are You Experienced [was] because a guy tipped me off at school that I should listen to him. I was already playing the guitar as I was all into The Ventures so I thought that this is as far as the guitar is going. Then I heard Are You Experienced and I just was amazed, immediately, just like everybody else that heard it, you know. And then it just became like, some kind of, how the hell did he do that? I really need to know this. And I had a friend whose mother owned a record store and I went up there one day and I said “Who else turns a guitar up loud like Jimi?” and stuff. And then I got turned on to all kinds of people — Deep Purple and Jeff Beck and stuff I didn’t even know about then that I learned all about it in like one day.
You mention you were already playing guitar, how did that start?
Yeah. My dad died when I was 10 in this head-on car crash. My dad was really big in my world, he was our baseball coach and as just being really active in the community and he was really well known. When he died, my neighbours dad decided that I should play the guitar and so when I went over to visit, knocked on the door and he grabbed me by my shirt and threw me in a chair and said “Stay right there” and brought me a guitar and started showing me how to play it and he never asked me. He just, it was almost like being kidnapped and being forced to play the guitar. It was really weird, and I was like “okay, this is this big adult and I’m only like 10 years old, I’m gonna do whatever he says.” And when he said “Sit down and stay right there” I thought okay I must’ve broken something in their house and I thought he was going to come out with a broken lamp or something. Instead he came out with a Gibson guitar. And that’s how I started playing.
At that stage, were you kind of into rock music as well or was this kind of the start of it?
Oh yeah, I wanted to be a drummer. I carried drumsticks around with me and everything. I think that was a clue to him that I was interested in music but [my neighbour] didn’t know nothing about the drums and he did know a lot about the guitar. He was actually a very good guitar player, even by today’s standards. I mean, he was really good at finger picking – mostly country western stuff but that really fast-picking stuff that is very difficult.
You saw Jimi Hendrix play before he died as well..?
Yeah, when he played here in Seattle. Last time he played here. I was there in the front row.
My mum dropped me and my brother and [the son of the neighbour]. It was the first time we got unleashed, into a concert situation, in our life. And so, it was really fun but we couldn’t help but think that if mum knew where she had just dropped us off she never would’ve let us in here. Because it’s the ’60s and it was just debauchery everywhere. Everywhere I looked it was like, there was naked people running around, there was people smoking weed. It was like, what the hell is going on at this place? I smoked my first cigarette there. I ended up getting mononucleosis from being at this show too. I ended up sick for months.
It was actually raining and it was really a miserable day in Seattle and Jimi wasn’t too pleased that day either. In fact, I [recently] went back on the Internet just to remind myself if he said what I thought he said and now there’s a video of it. It starts right in the middle of his sentence but he completes the sentence, which was “Please don’t throw anything up on the stage because I got kind of stoned on some scotch last night and I feel like jumping on some cat’s head anyway”.
And he said that and everybody in the crowd went silent. We didn’t know what kind of mood Jimi was in up until that point. Just as he said that, then we went, oh he’s not happy right now.
From there, what was your early experience as far as performing goes? You were originally doing your own kind of music that was obviously heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix’s guitar style…
The way that I ended up doing the Jimi Hendrix show was kind of an accident too. My mum threatened to kick me out of the house unless I paid rent so I joined this band Kid Chrysler and the Cruisers. They were a ’50s band that was doing a comedy show and they decided to add another comedy show to that show which was to make fun of rockstars. They asked me who I wanted to make fun of and I said “Well I definitely do not what to make fun of him, but I wanna do Jimi Hendrix and do it seriously” and they said “Okay, well we’ll make fun of everyone else, you can do that seriously” and that’s how that got born. That was in 1975 and, to my knowledge, I don’t know that there was any tribute bands around then.
“I panicked big time when Jimi died, it was like my father died all over again.”
So, I stayed put in Seattle doing this show for a while. Seattle’s hierarchy of musicians came to see me there and before I knew it I was on tour with the likes of Heart and The Beach Boys and The Kinks and Blue Oyster Cult and Reo Speedwagon and Sammy Hagar and all these people. I was an oddity at the time so I got passed around and everything. I was digging the fact that I went from playing a little club to playing in front of thousands of people. Then it led to a record deal which I put out one of my own records on Capital and then that led to a soundtrack in Apocalypse Now because Francis Ford [Coppola] was running out of money and he couldn’t afford to pay for real Jimi Hendrix music.
This is funny too, because I didn’t know who Francis Ford Coppola was when he asked me this and I just thought he was some puny, little movie producer, director guy or something that I was doing some really stupid, little movie. I didn’t have any idea, the importance of it and everything, so I just took it casually “Oh yeah, no problem, I can play Jimi Hendrix for days it’ll be no problem at all”. And he goes “Well it pays double scale, do you want it?” and I go “Yeah, sure.”
So, I got hired and then I lived with him for about a month. His family was wacky to live with too. I mean, it was, they went through a regiment everyday and it was really humorous. It was like a typical Italian family — his mother was busy in the kitchen cooking and baking all day and she’d make us breakfast and send us off to work. Which was to go to the recording show and record these parts and in the morning, when we got to the studio, the first thing Francis would do was roll two joints for me and we would both smoke it to be on the same plane. He [was] telling me stuff like “Musicians need marijuana for their imagination, to get their imaginations going” and stuff like that and I’m going “Okay, yeah, okay, whatever you say”. And he had this killer weed, it was just like the best weed I’ve ever smoked in my life. It was from the Philippines, and he said he had smuggled it back from the Philippines from the shoot for Apocalypse Now, he got it back in film canisters.
So, he was rolling me this killer weed and then he’d leave me a whole bunch of it, to smoke at me leisure while I was working on the movie. I could just smoke my brains out in the studio. He didn’t care and we ended up with all kinds of stuff. There was so much cutting room floor stuff that they never used and I was in there for 30 days recording over and over and over, just working on different scenes. The scene that I earned the most money off of, we weren’t even supposed to be working on. My bass and guitar part replaced a 90 voice choir and some hundred-and-some-person symphony orchestra that he had on there before. [Carmina Coppola, Francis’ father, the film’s composer] was all pissed about us working on it, but when he heard what we did he liked it, so he put that in the movie instead of [the orchestra].
As far as the endorsement from the Hendrix estate, obviously that’s a fairly big deal, how did that come about?
They came and saw me once. People have made statues of Jimi and everything, and Al [Hendrix, Jimi’s father] will go to look at them and he’ll go yay or nay and when he came to see me it was like we were selling out the Paramount here in Seattle two nights in a row. He came and sat next to my mum and the show went off really well. Then were riding in a elevator and the elevator got to the top floor and he goes “after you Jimi?” and I looked over and he had tears in his eyes. I was like ‘wow’ he was really affected by this. We ended up becoming very good friends, Al and I.
And now, do you still have much interaction with the family?
Yeah, he always knew where I was coming from. He knew that it was my, not only love of Jimi’s music and lyrics, but not just loving them, but believing it, you know? Also that, what a cool message the guy had and if you really explore Jimi’s whole catalogue of everything you’ll come out with a new appreciation of, how did a guy that old have so much smarts.
What do you see as that lasting legacy of Jim Hendrix? Do you still see that bands are drawing from Hendrix’s style?
Yeah, most of the fans that I’ve played for weren’t even born when Jimi Hendrix was playing, so I know that it transcended another generation and then now there’s even little kids [that] are drawn to it. When they hear it and the name itself even. I remember when I first heard his name I thought wow what a cool [name]: Hendrix. Never heard that name. Sounds cool. It’s intriguing, it sounds kind of like it’s got a voodoo spell on it or something.
Is that the aim of your show, to keep the spirit of Hendrix alive, for those younger generations who never got to experience his work directly?
I’m trying to come from the same place without copying what he did. Because, half the time I’m really improvising, but I’m improvising in things that I know will work.
There are certain things that I’ll even go as far as improvising things that I’ve learned on the guitar that Jimi didn’t know yet because it wasn’t really widespread, like it is now. And there’s all kinds of things to draw from. I always figure if he’d lived and saw what else came up after him he would’ve like, “Oh yeah, how’d he do that?” and he would incorporate it some way and for a while there, in the middle of my career I was even going as far as trying to update equipment, even play through things that I thought might sound better. But then I ended up working it back to what he played through and now that’s what I’m playing through. I went from the beginning just like him and then I worked all through this other stuff, did endorsements, got all kinds of weird equipment. Then I went and I said ‘hell with all that, I’m gonna go back to, to the beginning again. Forget about all this equipment and everything, how about just for playing and the technique and get that down — and improvisation!
That element of improvisation is obviously a huge part of the tour. How does that work? Do you work of a rough setlist?
The song has a framework. Everybody who tries to do Purple Haze kind of works within that framework and they end up doing something different to it. Every person that touches it, and myself included too. It’s just the way that I improvise, even when I hear it, it sounds like, it’s just another day for Jimi – that’s where I’m trying to come from.
I panicked big time when Jimi died, it was like my father died all over again. And it really was like that. It was so sad and I even got in a fight with the guy that told me because I told him he was fucking liar and I wanted to hit him. But then it was all over school and then I had to apologise to him and it was just all bad. It was all bad.
Jimi meant a lot to me and the thing that I panicked about was my first thought – that’s it. Every song he’s going to write has been written and that’s it. Just put a big old, gigantic, period on this big sentence, Jimi Hendrix. And it just scared the holy shit out of me. So, that’s when I really delved into the music and I decided, well, if a ship sinks do you try to salvage it? I [have] tried to dedicate my life to salvaging Jimi’s music and, not only that, but also represent some other things that I believe and that I was taught by my father. You know, work ethic and all kinds of things. It all helped me through life.
You were good friends with Stevie Ray Vaughan as well, what kind of influence did he have on your music?
Yeah, he used to open for me a lot and then we used to just see each other after he became famous. He was great guy, just a normal guy. He and I loved talking just guitar and everything, mostly Stratocaster. We both played Strat’s so we’d talk a lot about how to set them up. He liked these big, thick strings and I said “Oh man” I said, “You gotta really get grip, I don’t know have a grip like you so I’m not as strong so I have to use a lighter gauge than you”.
What should fans of Hendrix expect from your ‘Revolution’ set?
You know, we have a lot of songs we can draw from so you can expect a lot of all his hits. You can expect a lot of deep cuts too. It’s a long show and, as well as I do some crazy things in this show that I like to do…
As well as some of your own stuff?
Yeah, we’re gonna do a couple of our own songs, we’re also, at one point, is grab somebody – maybe two or three people out of the audience – and bring them up for the last song and put a guitar on them and let them air guitar their hearts content to the last song. And it’s been going over really good, people have really liked it. You know, it’s something that Jimi would never do but it’s something that [laughs]. Things like that, I can’t help but throw myself into this. This is my ideas, so some of them are kinda strange, but it makes people happy and that’s what I’m after.
‘The Jimi Hendrix Revolution Tour’ starts in Sydney on May 18th. Full dates and details available here.