Hendrix : Busting the Woodstock Myth

 

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Hendrix : Busting the 40-Year-Old Woodstock Myth 

 

It’s one of the most iconic images in the chequered history of rock: Jimi Hendrix jamming onstage at Woodstock, ripping out his epic anti-war statement “The Star Spangled Banner” before  a million stoned hippies. But like many cultural touchstones reduced to a single-line caption, much of the Hendrix at Woodstock tale is built on mythology, in this case largely forged by media hype at the time. Hendrix biographer Charles R. Cross unmasks the real history behind that moment in the sun at Woodstock forty years ago, arguably one of the most iconic moments in the history of rock.

 

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If you happen to be warming a barstool and the guy beside you decides to impress you with a story about how he was one of the million hippies who sat in a muddy field watching Jimi Hendrix making rock history at Woodstock 4 decades ago, the chances are he’s yanking your chain. Hendrix did perform at Woodstock, true. And thousands of flower children were fortunate enough to witness that landmark moment in the archives of music. But like the old joke says - “if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there”. Much of the popular mythology surrounding the Woodstock Music & Art Fair is, in fact, myth. And much about Hendrix’s Woodstock show, particular his motivations and his intent, is the stuff of exaggeration, distortion, and, in part, outright fallacy.

Size Doesn’t Matter

 Firstly, take the story of Hendrix playing in front of a “million-strong crowd.” Exact figures vary, but the best guess is that a million fans attempted to make to it to the festival. At least a third never made it through the ten-hour traffic jam, or the twelve-mile walk past the parked cars.
In advance of the show, the organizers had sold 186,000 tickets. But so many people came without tickets that promoters were eventually forced to declare it a “free festival.” The number of attendees at the site was in all likelihood just shy of half a million. That throng of hippies had just 600 Porta-loos. No doubt fertile turf today.

 The size of Hendrix’s audience was greatly affected by his showtime. He was originally scheduled to play on Sunday night at midnight, with the idea that the attendees would clear out afterwards in time to get back to work by Monday morning. But nothing about Woodstock ran as originally planned, and in reality, Hendrix didn’t actually go on-stage until 830am Monday morning… some eight hours late. The timing would at least prove fortuitous in one regard: by playing during daylight, the lighting for Jimi’s set would look fabulous in the eventual Woodstock film.

 By the time Hendrix hit the stage on the fourth day of the scheduled three-day festival, most of the crowd had voted with their feet and abandoned the site in what must have looked like an alarming exodus. They had been leaving en-mass almost from the first day, after the food had run out, the Port-a –loos had started overflowing, and torrential rain had turned the field into a muddy quagmire. By the time Jimi emerged onstage on Monday morning, the massive crowd had dwindled to a meager gathering of around 40,000 die-hard stoners, most of whom were too intoxicated to move. Even as Hendrix performed, the crowd continued to file out, which must have been disconcerting to anyone onstage.
And whilst it was Hendrix’s epic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that would be the festival’s seminal moment, anyone in the crowd that morning also heard Jimi complain about the exiting masses. “You can leave if you want to,” he said at one point. “We’re just jamming, that’s all. Okay? You can leave, or you can clap.” More people left than clapped.
 The single most amazing fact about Hendrix’s performance, a musical highlight that would go down as one of the most pivotal moments in rock history, is that somewhere around 450,000 people left Woodstock before Jimi Hendrix played a single note.

The Mother of All Hippie-Fests

The size of the crowd at Woodstock was only one of many myths surrounding the legendary festival, and Hendrix’s involvement from the start would be subject to distortion. Because the Festival would be so closely associated in the decades that followed with the idea of “peace and love”, many imagined that it was conceived as an historic moment from the start. But at least to Hendrix, Woodstock was simply another festival booking, one of several dozen outdoor rock festivals on his tour schedule. The next year he’d perform at the Isle of Wight Festival in Great Britain to a crowd of 600,000, his largest ever, and a gig, because it was on British soil, that meant more to him as it was in the U.K. where he first became a star.

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Summer Field Days

 The Woodstock Music & Art Fair, as the tickets read, was the concept of four young men who decided to throw what they billed as an “Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music.” Outdoor music festivals had been around for several years by that point, and Hendrix had played at the first, the Monterey Pop Festival in 1966. It was his Monterey appearance that had launched Jimi in the U.S. after his burning guitar routine gained him press attention.
 Woodstock was originally planned to occur just outside the small hamlet of Woodstock, which was an hour north of New York City. But planning problems shifted the festival site to Max Yasgur’s farm, which was in Bethel, New York, sixty miles away.
 Hendrix knew the region well, as during the summer of 1969 he rented a house in Shokan, just outside Woodstock. Jimi’s manager had set up the rental with the idea that Jimi might use the country retreat to craft a new album. That summer was a period of transition for Hendrix: the original trio of the Jimi Hendrix Experience had broken up when bassist Noel Redding left the group that year. Jimi decided to use the departure to form the kind of band he had wanted since his first days on the R&B circuit in the early sixties. Jimi’s original idea was to create a large-scale band, with a horn section, and though he never completely achieved that, Woodstock would still represent the biggest band he ever fronted.
 Using the Experience’s drummer Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix filled out the group with Billy Cox on bass, Larry Lee on guitar, and two percussion players, Jerry Velez and Juma Sultan. The horn section never materialized. Jimi would christen the formation, “Gypsy, Sun, and Rainbows,” later suggesting that it launched his idea of the Band of Gypies to be explored that fall. Drummer Mitchell had a different description for the group: It was “a shambles” he wrote in his memoir.
 While others in the band agreed that it was loose, some thought it worked well. “It was more improv,” Juma Sultan says. “I’d start out with, like, a jazz improv, with a drum, and [Jimi] would start with the guitar, just like it was more of an avant-garde feeling. It was an improv where you had an affinity with each other.”
 Hendrix had taken a trip to Morocco earlier that summer, and his African adventure had informed his new direction. “He was looking for a different sound,” Sultan recalls. “He was hearing on a lot of different stuff, all these things in combination. And also he was hearing a lot of acoustic influences. We did a series of recordings, where we recorded acoustic guitar and percussion that was phenomenal. It was a combination of Wes Montgomery and Segovia. Jimi had come in from Morocco, and he had that whole Moorish sound going on.”
 Hendrix was interested in expanding his music beyond the guitar-based rock that he was best known for. This direction, however, increasing put him at odds with his manager, his record label, and many in his fan base, all of whom wanted rock along the lines of “Purple Haze,” and “All Along the Watchtower.”

 When Hendrix’s manager signed his client up for the Woodstock Festival, he took the gig because of the $32,000 guarantee — very little cash was coming in that year, and a lot was going out. But for Hendrix, Woodstock represented something entirely different: it was Jimi’s chance to recreate himself onstage and break free of the chains that bound him to guitar-based rock. Jimi saw Woodstock as a vehicle towards having a new beginning.

Woodstock Gridlock

Hendrix’s Woodstock experience would begin with a few ominous omens. By Friday, the first day of the Festival, an oversized crowd had clogged freeways, knocked down fences, and made the event the lead story on the news. “Traffic Uptight at Hippie-fest” was the headline in the New York Daily News that Saturday. Food and emergency medical supplies had to be flown in, and over 400 people sought medical attention due to bad acid.
 Hendrix witnessed none of this because as late as Saturday, he was still at home watching the news on television. He and his band headed to a nearby airport the next morning with the idea that they would fly to Festival site. Bad weather grounded flights though, so Hendrix ended up driving in a truck that Neil Young later claimed to have stolen.

Young was quoted in 1979 on the “On the Record” radio show saying- “One of things I remember about Woodstock was trying to get there to play. As it turns out, the charter plane I was on with Jimi Hendrix flew into the wrong airport. We were supposed to be picked by a helicopter. The roads were jammed and there was nobody at the airport, so we had no way to get to the concert. So we're standing at the airport with Melvin Belli [an attorney] trying to figure out what to do. And Melvin Belli steals this pickup truck parked at the airport. So it's the three of us in this stolen pickup truck trying to get to Woodstock to play… Jimi, Melvin & me. That's what I really remember about Woodstock.”

 

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The Best-Laid Plans

 Jimi and his band eventually arrived well before their scheduled midnight slot, but they were told the show was running hours late. Jimi was offered his original midnight slot, which would have meant a large crowd still remaining for his piece, however, his manager turned the offer down, insisting that Hendrix close the festival. For the next eight hours through the night, Jimi and his band sat in a nearby cottage, freezing, they later reported, and smoking pot.
 When Jimi finally hit the stage at 8:30 a.m., the set did not begin auspiciously. As he introduced the band, an audience member yelled, “Jimi, are you high?” He was, of course, but he ignored the comment. He spent the next few minutes onstage tuning, but sound problems, and broken strings, would haunt the performance that morning. The show was halted several times while the obviously under-rehearsed band tried to get it back together. “We’ll just play very quietly and out of tune,” Jimi joked at one point.
 When the group did play, they displayed a looseness that rarely if ever was associated with Jimi Hendrix. They played sixteen songs, over two hours, and it would rank as one of the longest, and most rambling shows in Hendrix’s performance history. Parts were majestic, like the new band’s treatment of “Voodoo Child” and a cover of “Gypsy Woman,” but other sections lagged. “None of our numbers really gelled, they just turned into long jams,” Mitch Mitchell later reflected. One song in particular, called “Jammin’ at the House,” seemed ill thought-out. And when Hendrix turned the vocal mike over to guitarist Larry Lee, an unknown, there were a few scattered shouts of derision from the “peace and lovin’” audience.

The Star-Spangled Myth

 But the lack of focus during most of the set hardly mattered to the Woodstock crowd, and mattered even less when Jimi’s set was shortened for the eventual theatrical film of the event. Thirteen songs into his sixteen-song set, what had come before, and what would follow, faded into the background when Hendrix began to play an instrumental version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It wasn’t a stand-alone song, and actually appeared inside the middle of a thirty-minute medley, but it nonetheless was the watershed moment everyone would later recall. It wasn’t even the first time Hendrix had ever performed “The Star Spangled Banner” — Jimi had played it in concert twenty-eight times before. But because Woodstock was filmed, photographed, and memorialized, this one song became something more than just a feedback-laden guitar solo. “It was the single most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the sixties,” recalled New York Post critic Al Aronowitz. “You finally heard what the song was about, that you can love your country, but hate the government.”
 Long before Hendrix had even made it back to his Shokan house, his performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock was being touted as one of the greatest anti-war statements of the sixties.


Only it wasn’t. Hendrix always spoke in favor of peace and love, but when it came to being anti-Vietnam War, he was less of a dove. He’d been in the army himself, and would never have criticized the active military. Watching an anti-war rally with the Animal’s Eric Burdon the next year, he argued that the protesters didn’t understand the threat of the “Red Chinese.” A few weeks after Woodstock, when Dick Cavett asked Jimi if the song was meant as a protest, Hendrix explained that it wasn’t: “I am American, so I played it. It’s not unorthodox; I thought it was beautiful.” What all pundits had failed to note when labelling Star Spangled banner as an anti-war statement, was that earlier in Hendrix’s Woodstock set, he had dedicated “Izabella” to soldiers in the Army.
 But what Jimi thought, what Jimi meant, or even what Jimi said, hardly mattered when Woodstock was over, because his “Star Spangled Banner” now belonged to history, and nostalgia for the idyllic Woodstock that never was began almost before the event was officially over. Woodstock represented a time when music fans united in peace and love in a field, or so the story went- the mud, the traffic jams, the dwindling crowds and bad acid hardly mattered to most writers who needed a headline. “Jimi Hendrix’s Anti-war Million-hippie Anthem” became the headline, and it was a storyline that would stick for many decades.

Seeds of a Rock Legend

 Hendrix died just thirteen months later in London from a fatal cocktail of barbiturates and alcohol. Woodstock was already big news then, but it would only grow in legend over the years and take on a life of its own that would long outlive Jimi Hendrix. And no single part of the three-day Woodstock festival would grow in myth as much as a three-and-a-half minute guitar solo by Jimi Hendrix. To Jimi it was just music, but to so many other people, it would become everything, and anything, they wanted.

 

 

Seattle-area writer Charles R. Cross is the author of seven books including his 2005 best-selling biography of Hendrix, “Room Full of Mirrors.” Reach him at charlesrcross@aol.com or www.charlesrcross.com.

 

Images courtesy Sony Music

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