Pot, Skinny-Dipping, and Freedom Rock

Woodstock and the Year of the Outdoor Music Festival (Part 2)

by Rob Kirkpatrick

4 August 2009


Jimi Hendrix

By the time Jimi Hendrix, the final performer and the festival’s true headline act, took the stage Monday morning, all but roughly 50,000 of the festival crowd had departed, driven away by filth, hunger, and exhaustion. “Having waited up all night, the audience understandably seemed as groggy as we were, and it was horrible to see people packing up and leaving as we came on,” Mitch Mitchell said. “Monday morning was back to the grind for a lot of people who’d come, and it couldn’t be helped.” 

Hendrix almost hadn’t made it. He and his band had arrived on the festival grounds around 8:00 the night before. While they waited in a farm shack, said one witness, Hendrix was “ill, dosed . . . by drinking the water backstage. He seemed really sick, or really high, and was sweating bullets. I was feeding him vitamin C, fruit, and having him suck on lemon slices. As we sat there, he seemed nervous and didn’t think he could pull it off.” Hendrix had gone into the medical tent and crashed on a stretcher. “We didn’t know who he was. Just a black man laying on the stretcher,” a nurse remembered. “Then everybody started saying, ‘Hey, isn’t that Jimi Hendrix?’ There was a big stir about it. He lay on the stretcher for about thirty minutes before roadies hauled him out.” 

Monck incorrectly introduced the group—with Mitchell on drums but Billy Cox on bass, Larry Lee on backing guitar, Jumma Sultan and Jerry Velez adding percussion—under the old name of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hendrix came out dressed in his fringed Native American tribal shirt and jeans and moccasins and red bandana. “I see that we meet again, hmmm . . . ,” he said to the crowd, and reintroduced his new group as Gypsy, Sun and Rainbow.

They glided into a set beginning with “Message to Love” followed by “Get My Heart Back Together” (later, “Hear My Train A-Comin’ ”), “Spanish Castle Magic,” “Red House,” “Mastermind” (a Lee original, with the drummer on vocals), “Here Comes Your Lover Man,” and “Foxy Lady.” With the new lineup, sleepy crowd, and hangers-on surrounding them onstage, Hendrix’s gypsy band struggled through some numbers. They played out of tune at times, and Sultan and Velez were almost inaudible. Sound engineer Eddie Kramer describes, “After the band bludgeoned their way through ‘Foxey Lady,’ [sic] Hendrix sensed his audience’s confusion. ‘I know it’s not together,’ he remarked from the stage, continuing in a mocking tone, ‘You’re tuning up between every song! This isn’t together! That isn’t together!’ Well, you all ain’t in uniform!” 

After “Jam Back at the House (Beginning),” “Izabella,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman” (Lee on vocals again), and “Fire,” they launched into an epic, thirteen-minute version of the demonic blues number, “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” which Hendrix introduced as his “new American anthem until we get another one.”  His fingers sliding up and down the bridge of his cream-colored, left-handed Fender Stratocaster, he played the song’s last few demonic wah-wahs, and then the band touched off a sonic avalanche leading into an electric version of the country’s “old” anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Woodstock set showed how Hendrix had moved away from his Monterey psychedelic theatrics toward a serious exploration of electric rock and blues.

For his instrumental interpretation of Francis Scott Key’s patriotic tune, Hendrix pulled out all the stops, bending and torturing the tune’s melody to create an anthem for the land of free love and the home of a brave new world. In his pyrotechnic sound effects, one heard machine guns and falling bombs, the sounds of chaos straight out of the Southeast Asian jungles. David Fricke writes: “If the Experience tried to play power-jazz at the speed of light, Hendrix at Woodstock was a rough prototype for a new black-rock futurism, the missing link between Sly Stone’s taut, rainbow-party R&B and George Clinton’s blown-mind, ghetto-army funk: ‘Dance to the Music’ plus ‘Message to Love’ equals ‘Cosmic Slop.’ ”  “It was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the sixties,” wrote Al Aronowitz of the New York Post. You finally heard what that song was about, that you can love your country, but hate the government.” 

Hendrix would later reflect:

They made me sing it in school, so it was a flashback. We’re all Americans, aren’t we? When it was written then, it was played in what they call a very, very beautiful state, nice and inspiring, your heart throbs and you say, ‘Great, I’m American!’ But nowadays when we play it, we don’t play to take away all this greatness that America’s supposed to have. We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, isn’t it? You know what I mean?

The last notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” led right into the early Hendrix hit, “Purple Haze,” then a four-minute jam followed by “Villanova Junction,” and then “Hey Joe” to close the two-hour set. He said “Thank you” and unplugged, bringing an official end to Woodstock.

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