by Cherokee Billie
My first time seeing Jimi Hendrix live in person!
In the fall of 1968 when I was seventeen years old a friend of mine, Bob, was visiting Los Angeles and he asked me, “Would you drive me to a rock concert at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California? I’ll pay for the gas and buy you a ticket to the concert if you’ll take me.”
“Sure”, I replied, “Who’s playing?”
“It’s a really far out guy named Jimi Hendrix. He’s the most bitchin dude I’ve ever heard. His group is called The Jimi Hendrix Experience.”
“I’ve never heard of him, but that’s okay I always like to see the latest rock-and-roll. I’ll need to get a map to figure out how to drive there. That’s a really long drive and will probably take about two hours. ”
Bob was ecstatic; “Far out, I will score the tickets right away. Later.”
That week I spoke to a friend of mine named Clay and told him, “I’m going to be taking my friend Bob to a concert out in San Bernardino to see some guy named Jimi Hendrix.”
Clay exploded with, “You’ve got to take me with you. I just love Jimi Hendrix’s righteous music. I’ll buy a ticket and help pay for the gas if you will take me?”
“Solid,” I replied, “I always like going to a concert with a lot of people. So get your ticket and meet at my house this Saturday. I’m sure Bob will have no problems about your jamming with us.”
“I’m stoked. Catch you on Saturday,” Clay said.
The three of us gathered at my house early that Saturday afternoon, Bob had brought his 35 mm camera to record the event. We set out for our rock concert journey in my 1967 lime green Ford Mustang. Bob kept stating over and over, “Hendrix has just got to play my favorite song “Purple Haze” it’s the grooviest song I’ve ever heard. I can’t wait for you to be able to hear that song.”
Many hippies with their long hair, beads, feathers, leather and non-conformist attitude of peace and love, were gathered outside the Swing Auditorium, which looked like a high school gymnasium building. The three of us were far from being hippies; we were middle class not willing to live the free lifestyle, usually drug laden, that so many flower children were involved in. It was a typical rock concert to me except it was taking place in a very out of the way location; I was use to concerts taking place in Hollywood. My main concern at that moment was remembering where the car was parked so we could find it quickly after the concert.
The three of us entered the auditorium and were disheartened to see that it was open seating. There were no assigned seats so it was a free-for-all on where you sat. I really hated this type of concert seating because if you got up to go to the bathroom you would lose your seat or your place in the crowd. The auditorium had space for about 1000 people. Bob said, “I want to get as close to the stage as possible. Let’s make a beeline to the front of the stage.” I looked up and noticed a poster hanging next to the stage. It was a picture of a young black man with crazy hair, looking very arrogant and sexy. I only liked rock-and-roll music so I was beginning to think that I was going to hear black soul music.
There were folding chairs surrounding the outer perimeter of the stage. Toward the front of the stage there was no chairs, it was just an open floor for people to stand on. Bob led the two of us to the very front of the stage, pushing and shoving whoever was in his path. I was glad that there were two young men with me so that I would not be beat up or hassled by the fans. I knew that mild hippies could go berserk without too much provocation from my previous experience of being attacked, trampled by fans, and beaten up by police at previous concerts. It was impossible for us to talk because of the loud noise of the crowd. We staked out our positions at the front of the stage.
The fire marshal came out and made an announcement, “This concert is going to be canceled due to the fire hazard of so many people unruly in this auditorium. If you don’t sit down immediately we will close down this concert.”
Suddenly this black man came on to the darkened stage and yelled into the microphone, “Shut the f**k up, I want to play.” The entire auditorium went silent and everyone sat down immediately. “Who was that?” I couldn’t see who it was because of the darkness on the stage; I had never heard anything like this being said to an audience before.
The fire marshal came back and said to the crowd,” OK because you’re all cooperating we will let this concert continue.”
The lights came on the stage; there were already musical instruments set up just waiting for the performers to bring them to life. The crowd started going crazy with excitement. The three of us were being pushed very hard into the wall of the stage. The stage was approximately five feet high and I felt like a tomato being squished against the stage, I couldn’t get any closer unless I was on the stage. I was slightly separated by a few feet from Bob and Clay, but they were still within eye contact, it reassured me to see their faces as any moment I could be pushed down or trampled by the body’s pushing me into the stage.
From offstage came these two white men with crazy Afro’s looking like tendrils reaching into the universe, one sat at the drums, the other picked up a bass guitar to play. The anxiety of the crowd increased when out came the same black man I had seen on the poster. “So this is Jimi Hendrix,” I thought to myself. He was wearing maroon colored velvet pants with an embroidered jacket, beautifully spaced out hair and carrying a white guitar. He was smiling and spoke to the crowd, “Good evening everybody, it’s really cool that you all shut up so I could play. I just want to groove with you this evening. So let me just, ah, get you experienced.” I recognized the voice as the one who had said earlier “Shut the f**k up I want to play”.
The moment Jimi strummed the first note of the guitar the audience went crazy with excitement and I realized I was not going to see a Motown soul artist. I maintained my place next to the stage as the audience was so entranced by the music they were no longer pushing and shoving. Jimi started playing a song called, “Fire”. The sounds emanating from his guitar were like a foreign language to me, mysterious, beautiful, different and dangerous. Jimi contorted his face with each chord movement; it was like seeing the chords even if you didn’t know them. The music was so loud it physically penetrated my body. It was as though I had become the instrument that he was playing. I was moving to each sound he made without any control of my body.
The next song he played changed my life forever; it was called “Purple Haze”, just like Bob had promised it was one of the greatest songs I had ever heard. During this number the time came for his solo, Jimi started playing the guitar with his teeth! Jimi didn’t miss a single chord, the music was perfect. Never had I seen anybody play the guitar with his teeth. I was mesmerized by this performance. Next he flung his guitar behind his back and continued to play, never missing a note, his face was ecstatic. I did not know any of his music so each song was a revelation to me. To my left I saw Bob clicking away on his camera-taking photograph after photograph.
Just when I thought I had seen everything Jimi surprised me further, during the song “Are You Experienced?” Jimi started his solo and went down on his knees with his guitar between his legs, moving it back and forth along his crotch, simulating masturbation. I had never seen anything like this in my life. I couldn’t believe what he was doing in front of the crowd of people. It was as though his own music sexually stimulated him. When Jimi had finished the masturbation simulation he stood up and went over to the large speakers with his guitar in front of him. Jimi started slamming his body and the guitar up against the speakers as though he was having sex with them, never missing a chord of music. The more intense the music became the faster and harder he slammed into the speakers, it was as though the music was both ecstasy and agony for Jimi.
My body continued to vibrate as Jimi played on for the next 45 minutes. I could not consciously think as the music played, every fiber of my brain was filled with music the likes of which it had never experienced before or since. There were moments in the music where I felt like I was falling backwards in time, and then Jimi would propel me forward into outer space. It became evident why the group was called “The Jimi Hendrix Experience”; there was no way you could listen to the music without experiencing your life differently from that point on.
When the concert was over Jimi said to the crowd, “It was really groovy tonight, I’m glad I was able to share my music. I wish you all peace and love.” When he exited the stage the entire auditorium went ballistic begging him to come back, which he did. His encore was the climax of the evening for me, as he played “The Star Spangled Banner” unlike any version I had ever heard before. I could just feel the bombs bursting in air and the bullets flying by, as the sounds emanated from his guitar. How this one man captured the sound of war in his guitar was amazing, the mark of a true genius.
Jimi blew kisses to the audience as he and his band exited for the last time. He left like he entered, smiling. This man seemed to truly love what he was doing at that moment. I was still feeling stunned by this experience when Bob and Clay joined me. They were just delirious about the music. As we were exiting the building there were vendors selling two different albums by Jimi Hendrix. I had to purchase the albums right then and there; I did not want to go home without being able to take a part of that experience with me.
My ears were still ringing from the vibrations of the music. The three of us were very quiet on the drive back home. We were just letting what had happened to us absorb into our beings; we each knew that we had been changed by this experience. We would never view the world and our surroundings the same after this. You cannot go back to being a regular high school kid when your whole body just went through an alignment that none of your peers had ever witnessed or felt. Jimi Hendrix said it best when he stated that once you heard his music “You’ll never hear surf music again”. Meaning that you cannot go back to the easy California lifestyle when new sounds and vibrations have expanded your mind as well as your body.
This point was brought home to me the next day. I took my two prized Jimi Hendrix albums to my girlfriend Donna’s house so she could hear the incredible masterful music I had just been enlightened by the night before. “You’re really going to like this musician. He is like nothing you have ever heard before. I can’t get over this concert,” I told her while placing the album on the record player.
She sat quietly through the first two songs before she exclaimed, “Turn that music off. It sounds like Martian music.” She wanted her music to be simple and uncomplicated. I now resonated to a different vibration. I knew I was not the same young girl I had been before. My change was mirrored to me by my girlfriend’s reaction. My consciousness had been altered forever by the magic of Jimi Hendrix’s music.