Hearing the news Wednesday about the death of Mitch Mitchell, I immediately remembered how ashen and frail he looked last Thursday at the Experience Hendrix Tour concert in Seattle.
But then I was flooded with memories of him as a young man, 40 years ago, when I first met him, backstage at the Seattle Center Arena, at the first Jimi Hendrix Experience concert here, on Feb. 22, 1968. I was a music writer at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and had already talked with Hendrix, at the airport when he arrived earlier that day, at his father’s home that afternoon, and then at the Arena. He was polite, soft-spoken and kind.
When I got around to talking to Mitchell, who was the drummer, and Noel Redding, the bassist, I asked them “Is he really that shy?”
“Oh, yeah, he is,” Mitchell replied, in his thick English accent, explaining that Hendrix saved his wild side for his recordings and performances. I think it was Mitchell who said that Jimi was never without his guitar - he even slept with it! They told me that he recorded constantly, making new tapes almost daily.
We were about the same age, so it was easy to “rap” - as we used to say - with them, although Mitchell was more friendly than Redding, who said little and seemed suspicious of me and some friends I had brought along, including a photographer. Mitchell was more forthcoming, smiling and joking. He had a drumstick in each hand, ready to go onstage.
I saw Mitchell perform here with the Experience several more times, but didn’t speak to him again until Hendrix’s funeral here on Oct. 1, 1970. After being reintroduced to him by famed rock photographer Jim Marshall (an acquaintance, he had offered a ride in his limo from the church to the cemetery), we spoke briefly at the gravesite at Greenwood Memorial Cemetery in Renton, recalling those shows here at the Seattle Center Coliseum (now KeyArena) and Sick’s Stadium (now gone). As we walked away from the grave, Mitchell said something about how weird the day had been.
But it got even weirder at the private wake that followed at the Food Circus at Seattle Center, an odd place for such a solemn event. Mitchell and Redding jammed with Buddy Miles, Johnny Winter and others, the best thing that happened that day. But it got tense when some people drank too much and got rowdy, and fans surrounded the place, even climbing up on the roof, trying to get in. Mitchell left early.
“It was really gauche,” Mitchell said about the wake, in his 1989 book “Jimi Hendrix: Inside the Experience.”
Mitchell visited Seattle several times after that, most notably playing with Hendrix imitator Randy Hansen in the ‘80s, and appearing at another Experience Hendrix Tour, in 2004.