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Electric Litigationland

Michael E. Ross

The lucrative marketing of Jimi Hendrix's image has spawned a series of lawsuits and possibly a reality show.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Are You Experienced?, the groundbreaking record by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, a sonic tentpole of the '60s. It's one of those even-numbered anniversary years that is a marketer’s dream.

Hendrix, the legendary rock guitarist whose inventive style and personal flamboyance transformed both rock music and its culture, died young, helping define the tragic arc of that era's icons. In the decades since Hendrix's death in September 1970, his image has become one of the most marketable and memorable in advertising, by some estimates trailing only fellow supernovas Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean as emblems of American culture. For the Hendrix estate and its myriad family connections, Jimi Hendrix's enduring oeuvre points to the ways a family's history can be intertwined with a culture’s history. It also reveals the ways death can be an astute career move, especially for the family members who survive the dear departed.

The move to capitalize on the Hendrix persona has its detractors. "To see his image and the beautiful feelings it has created during my lifetime cheapened by base advertising ... is very disappointing to me," Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea told the Associated Press in January. But the managers of the Hendrix estate aren’t necessarily any more motivated by the bottom line than the estates of other high-profile celebrities -- or the finances of working acts like the Chili Peppers, who also sell caps, T-shirts and other merchandise, for the betterment of their bank accounts. But where other estates have focused on capitalizing on the creative art that the dear departed excelled in, the Hendrix family enterprise is startling in its merchandising breadth. Badges, buttons, stickers and T-shirts are just the beginning.

A Jimi Hendrix pin from the official website

Experience Hendrix L.L.C., a company based in western Washington State, monitors the use of Hendrix's name and likeness, and offers an online catalog of a range of products whose spiritual or even cultural connection to Hendrix is tenuous at best. The trademark Hendrix image, the guitarist’s face framed in that legendary Afro-nimbus of hair, has been licensed for more than 700 products available on the Authentic Hendrix website -- products from guitar straps and effects pedals to baby clothing, air fresheners, posters, lava lamps, Christmas ornaments, incense, water bottles and limited edition figurines.

Further down the West Coast, Beverage Concepts, a soft drink company based in Calabasas, California, is set for an April launch (apparently with the family’s blessing) of Liquid Experience, a line of non-alcoholic drinks. Josh Glass, the company's CEO, told the AP his company would honor Hendrix's memory by donating some of Liquid Experience's profits to an unidentified music education foundation.

The experience gets wider than that. Electric Hendrix vodka is one of the boldest enterprises tied to the Hendrix name. The product was launched to capitalize on the growing market for premium vodka in the United States. In an April 2006 forecast of global vodka sales, the UK-based industry resource, reported the United States was “the epicenter of global premium and superpremium vodka consumption.”

Entrepreneur Craig Dieffenbach was instrumental in launching the brand. In 1997, well before the Internet boom went bust, Dieffenbach sold SeattleOnline, a Web city guide he’d started the year before and in a gambit that symbolized his love of '60s culture, Dieffenbach formed Electric Hendrix L.L.C. and paid Distilled Resources, based in Rigby, Idaho, to produce the spirits. Distilled, already producing 19 other brands of vodka, took a chance on one more. Southern Wine & Spirits of America, the nation’s largest liquor-distributor, agreed to distribute the product nationally.

In 2006, Dieffenbach orchestrated a lavish rollout of Electric Hendrix, with parties in Aspen attended by high wattage stars as supermodel Heidi Klum, her husband, the singer Seal, and singer-actress Mariah Carey. Since the product debuted, at least 5,000 cases of Electric Hendrix have been sold. Despite the thousands of bottles in existence, some have worked to make the Hendrix vodka a collectible, offering the purple-tinged bottle for sale on eBay.

Perhaps those eBay bidders suspect the product won't be around long. The Electric Hendrix vodka venture has most recently found an unlikely detractor -- the Hendrix family itself. Their objection to the project may be the start of a new round of adventures in litigation.

The Hendrix fame has been an untidy thing; it has spilled into the public record more than once since Jimi died. The vodka squabble is the latest in a farrago of suits and countersuits over the sizable Hendrix fortune, tens of millions for the music alone, that have roiled the family for years.

Experience Hendrix has not been shy about defending its interests. In May 2000, for example, the company fought for and ultimately won a battle to secure the domain name from a domain name speculator, one who had previously attempted to sell the domain for $1 million.

Experience Hendrix and Authentic Hendrix, both directed by Janie Hendrix, the guitarist’s adopted stepsister, have now sued Electric Hendrix, Dieffenbach’s venture, to stop the marketing and sale of Electric Hendrix vodka. The lawsuit filed in early March by the Experience and Authentic entities allege in part that the Electric Hendrix company is using the name and likeness of Jimi Hendrix illegally.

In a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, Janie Hendrix also called the Electric vodka venture a “sick joke,” since Jimi Hendrix’s death had a connection to alcohol consumption. Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebeeck’s Jimi Hendrix Electric Gypsy attributes Hendrix’s death to barbiturate intoxication -- an excessive dose of the German sleeping aid Vesparax. But Hendrix apparently also had been drinking, if only a little. Shapiro and Glebeeck reported that Hendrix had “only the equivalent of about four pints of beer” in his system at the time he died, but that alcohol combined with an excess of Vesparax “would potentiate the effects of the drugs enormously.”

Janie Hendrix told the Seattle newspaper that for such reasons of respectful propriety, and "as a matter of strict policy, we have never promoted an alcoholic beverage.”

The suit by the Experience and Authentic companies was followed within days by a countersuit by Electric Hendrix. In a March 7 statement, the company said that the company directors -- Dieffenbach and Leon Hendrix, the biological brother of Jimi Hendrix -- “have announced their intention not only to fight the suit, but to assert counterclaims for damages.” The Electric countersuit is based in large part on an April 2005 ruling in US District Court, and a 2003 ruling in the same court, that found that the Experience and Authentic entities did not have exclusive rights to Jimi Hendrix’s name and likeness.

Electric Hendrix went on the offensive the day before, in a Seattle news broadcast. A company spokesman said, “I think this is exactly what Jimi Hendrix would have done if Jimi was still alive.”

In the March 7 statement, responding to Janie Hendrix’s “sick joke” comment, Dieffenbach replied that “the only sick joke in all of this is Janie’s belief that she can remake Jimi into something he wasn’t and that she can continue to mislead the public.”

Among those products bearing Hendrix's image, apparently, is one that Janie Hendrix may have overlooked. Earlier, according to one family member, the family licensed Jimi Hendrix Red Wine, a product not available, at least currently, on the Authentic Hendrix catalog site.

While the late guitarist made indelible music, the squabbles of his heirs, lawyers and advisers may also have the potential for good drama. Cable network VH1 is in talks with Leon Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix’s brother, about a reality show, likely borrowing the format of the MTV series The Osbournes. “Essentially, you might say it’s along the lines of The Osbournes, except it has got so many more layers to it,” said Dave Craddock, Leon Hendrix's manager. “Leon’s life is quite interesting; his whole universe is filled with interesting characters, not the least of which is Leon himself.”

The proposed show would offer days in the life of Leon Hendrix “entering into and negotiating business deals, tracking his transformation musically,” as well as a view of his personal life. “There’s his kids and ex-wife to deal with, his girlfriend who’s also his therapist, dealing with his past drug problems and his current fight with alcohol.” Craddock said the pilot for the prospective show was finished in early February and as of mid-March, negotiations with the network were still continuing.

Regardless of whether the reality show gets a green light, Leon Hendrix the musician apparently won’t be content to languish in his brother’s shadow. Hendrix the younger has a new album of rock music to be released soon in Brazil, where Leon will mount a tour, Craddock said.

“It’s rock and roll, and I think people will be quite surprised,” Craddock said, adding that Greg Hampton had been retained as producer. Hampton, a multi-instrumentalist, has worked with the Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood, the Tubes and Ivan Neville, among many other acts.

Andy Warhol’s dictum of the contagion of celebrity obtains: Everybody gets to be famous for 15 minutes. But the resurgence of Jimi Hendrix as a brand and a musical icon proves that for him and for the '60s -- itself as much a trademark as an era -- some minutes are, culturally-speaking, litigiously longer than others.

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