For those of us of a certain age, it seems that every day there’s a 40th anniversary of a landmark event: Woodstock, the Moon landing... Now, it’s the turn of Jimi Hendrix, who died and went to the Great Gig in the Sky 40 years ago on September 18, 1970.
I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Ranchi in early October, having lunch with my Dad, who was visiting me in boarding school, when I read the news of Jimi’s death. There was just one magazine in India at the time that catered to us teenagers: JS (earlier known by its full name, ‘Junior Statesman’). Because the magazine was a weekly, Jimi’s death and that of Janis Joplin, who died 16 days after Jimi, were mentioned together.
I was nearly 13 in September 1970. None of Jimi’s music had been released in India yet. But I knew Jimi. We all knew Jimi. My mother had sneaked me into a show of the A-rated Woodstock: The Movie at our club in Durgapur. The censors had cut out all the scenes of nude hippies. Fortunately, my mother didn’t worry about all that. So after she sold the club secretary a dummy and sent him scurrying off in search of something she had absolutely no need of, I walked in and watched the movie with my kid brother after the lights dimmed. Sitting next to Mum I explained to her how Mike Shrieve of Santana was probably the most exciting young drummer around and there was that maniac Keith Moon of The Who, and “Just look at Roger Daltrey’s jacket!”
And there, right at the end, almost like an elegy, was Hendrix playing his searing, screeching, iconoclastic version of The Star Spangled Banner, the American national anthem channelled through the sound of the turmoil of the Vietnam War. Jimi blew my 12-year-old mind that day. As many of the adults filtered out of the hall bewildered by this strange movie, I knew I had seen something very special.
So special, that 35 years later I took my sons to pay tribute to Jimi at his graves in Renton, Washington, United States. We had driven to Seattle from Portland, Oregon. My wife and I took several wrong turns, and ended up in the parking lot of a mall. We were thrilled when we saw a police car swing behind us. Surely the cops would point us in the right direction. My eldest jumped out of our car and went across to speak to them. “Could you tell us where we could find the Greenwood Memorial Park?” he asked.
A woman police office stepped out of the vehicle, as if in a Coen Brothers’ movie, pushed her Aviator sunglasses up her nose, hitched up her pants by her gun belt, and turned to him and said, “Lookin’ for Jimi?”
Half an hour later we were by his side, standing by this mausoleum that was strangely incongruous in this otherwise quiet and un-noteworthy cemetery. Someone had left a half- drunk bottle of vodka; there were countless guitar picks, scribblings in chalk. We stood around, my sons and I. I told them the same story I just told you, of how Grandma had sneaked me in to the Woodstock movie, and how I had read the news to Grandpa of Jimi’s passing. They wanted to know more. I told them it was a long story. Just like the cop said: we’re all still lookin’ for Jimi.
Jawahar Ezekiel was a DJ with the Yuva Vani radio channel in Calcutta in the 1970s The views expressed by the author are personal