Hendrix at Monterey
The year was 1967. The month was June. The Vietnam War was in full swing and about to reach its peak amid the backdrop of the Space Race – just two years before a man would first set foot on the Moon – and the wider Cold War. The Civil Rights movement was continually gaining momentum after the famous March on Washington and other acts of civil disobedience. Societies and cultures around the world were changing very rapidly. Amid all this great social and political change around the world, a movement would begin among the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco that would come to encompass the whole of the Western world, and even reach with its growing fingers past the Iron Curtain into areas of the communist world. The hippie movement began in June 1967, with an enormous music festival in Monterey, California, from June 16 to the 18th. It was at this festival that American culture – and American music – would forever be changed in one dazzling, spectacular performance by a man named Jimi Hendrix and his band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jimi Hendrix, born in Seattle and playing in the clubs of the New York City area in the mid-1960s after a brief one-year stint in the Army, was by spring 1967 a star in the United Kingdom. He had spent the first half of 1966 searching for a manager, who he found in Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who brought him to Britannia where he cultivated the young American's potential. He gained a reputation for his fierce playing and technical skill on guitar; one incident in September of that year involved Hendrix joining the fabled British blues rock band Cream on stage, where he one-upped Eric Clapton with his guitar skills. His first album, Are You Experienced?, peaked at number 2 in the UK after its release in late May, and he thereafter became one of the biggest performers in Europe. But he was still unknown in the United States.
This changed once Paul McCartney of the Beatles – having seen Hendrix perform a live version of “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” just days after the album was released – recommended the Experience, including bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell (with permed hair), to the organizers of the Monterey Pop Festival. Hendrix was now booked with some of the biggest names in both America and Britain: the Association, the Animals, Simon & Garfunkel, Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, Otis Redding, The Who, the Mamas & the Papas, and so many other famous performers of the ‘60s. This was his chance to shine – and shine he did.
The Experience was scheduled to play on June 18, the last day of the festival, and was introduced by Brian Jones, soon-to-be outcast member of the Rolling Stones, who he described as “the most exciting sound I've ever heard”. Hendrix then launched into a blistering guitar lead, a cover of Howlin' Wolf's “Killing Floor”, showing both technical skill and a utilization of feedback never before heard in popular music. Adding to his skills, which were enough to impress the whole audience of up to possibly 100,000 people, his flamboyant attire – complete with feather boa, vest, and ruffled shirt cuffs – helped to add to the crowd's amazement.
Hendrix went on to play his own songs “Purple Haze”, “The Wind Cries Mary”, “Foxey Lady”, and “Can You See Me,” along with covers of Bob Dylan's “Like a Rolling Stone”, BB King's “Rock Me Baby”, and his own interpretation of “Hey Joe”. Perhaps the most legendary and memorable song he performed that night, however, was the Experience's performance of “Wild Thing”. He told the audience, “I'm going to sacrifice something that I really love,” and, with feedback blaring from his amp, motioned to his ears for everyone to “listen”. What followed would create one of the most iconic images in rock music history.
With his whammy bar, he manipulated the sounds of feedback emanating from his amp for over a minute, jumping from whirring and screeching heights to rumbling growls, before launching into the four-chord song itself. After shouting the lyrics with what seemed to be simultaneous excitement and carelessness, he flew into a distorted, feedback-ridden solo, making rather obscene gestures with his guitar and his body (you can Google this if you care to see), and then, after several more minutes of playing, he laid the guitar on the stage, doused it in lighter fluid, kissed it, and lit it on fire. Egging the fire on and dancing to the flames, he picked it up, smashed the guitar into the stage, threw it into the audience, and walked offstage. The audience was completely stunned.
The legendary performance became one of the most iconic images of the culture of the ‘60s, and propelled Jimi Hendrix to stardom in the United States. It was this performance that would set him down the path to becoming known as one of the greatest guitarists ever.
The videos of the performance of “Killing Floor” and “Wild Thing” used to be on YouTube but have since been removed; you can probably find them on other sites if you search hard enough. It's definitely worth a try.
Image credit: www.strat-talk.com