July/August 2001 By Sean Daly
His life didn’t end on Sept. 18, 1970. In the London apartment of then-girlfriend Monika Dannemann, he didn’t choke on his own vomit in his sleep—the way Tommy Dorsey’s life ended—the classic rock ’n’ roll result of mixing so much booze and so many pills in the most lethal of sweet-dreams cocktails.
No, he didn’t die at age 27. But he came close. Real close. In fact, only a voodoo child like Jimi Hendrix could escape such a nasty meet-and-greet with the Grim Reaper and come out humbled but flashing that classic smile all the same.
Which is not to say that he wasn’t a changed man. But that’s the joke right there: Near-death didn’t make Jimi’s playing safer; it made his prodigious talent that much more brilliantly dangerous. The southpaw still played his right-handed six-string upside-down but, as we all know, the psychedelic songs did not remain the same.
He decided then and there on the morning of Sept. 19 to play what really burned his midnight lamp. And what forever mattered most to him were his father Al’s myriad blues and jazz albums that Jimi would routinely sneak into his childhood hideaway in Seattle—and the follow-up, top-secret bebop lessons in the mid-’60s from his idols, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and John Coltrane.
So Jimi went jazz—which was not so great a stretch; after all, he was already messing with fusion by the time he almost left us—and changed the way we listened to music. Even if Miles Davis, who was jealous about the rebirth of jazz cool that Hendrix brought to the table, will never admit as much. (Davis, working on a new album with Wyclef Jean, was not available for comment.)
At 58, Hendrix doesn’t say much anymore. His salt-and-pepper hair still looks like it’s recently been attacked by rabid squirrels, and that smile can still light up the darkest of rooms. But his words are few. He has absolutely no interest in discussing Monterey or Woodstock or the Isle of Wight. He calls his Band of Gypsys “my brothers, god bless ’em” and leaves it at that. And he really doesn’t want to discuss jazz, and his part in making that music just as popular with the kids today as the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.
“Jazz, huh? Jazz doesn’t interest me. Rock doesn’t interest me. I just play music, you know. Music is music. Cool as that.”
In fact, on this perfect summer day in Baltimore, the most inventive and influential guitarist of this or any time doesn’t want to talk about music at all. He wants to discuss...crab cakes.
“Have you ever had a Faidley’s Big Lump cake?” asks the electric legend as he leans on a bar in the middle of Charm City’s bustling working-class Lexington Market. “It’s gonna change your life, man.”
Hendrix is in Baltimore today to watch his son, the star shortstop for the hometown Orioles and a wizard with both bat and glove (naturally), play the basement-dwelling New York Yankees. Jimi doesn’t really care who wins, he just wants to see his son—the other “Junior” in this town—jolt the ballyard.
“He’s a good kid. My wife Monika and I are real proud of him. He doesn’t care much for music—thinks ‘Purple Haze’ is just a ‘whole lotta noise,’ and can’t understand why I did that album of swing tunes with Lavay Smith—but I don’t mind. He’s a good baseball player, and that’s what makes him happy.”
I take a few bites of the crab cake—”What’d I tell you!” Jimi laughs, running a still strong playing hand (supernaturally devoid of wrinkles, no less) through his tangle of hair—and then try a different interview route.
“Why did you decide to do your own double-disc Ellington tribute, Sophisticated Foxy Lady?” I ask.
With finger on chin, Hendrix thinks about this for a silent minute. “Cause the Duke was tops, you know?” he says finally, dropping his voice to a slow, smoky growl. “Plus I listened to all 500 of those Ellington tributes released last year, and I knew I could do something different. I’m not afraid of anybody. Never have been, never will be.”
And “different” is right: On Sophisticated Foxy Lady he just about derails the “A” train by driving the standard to speeds Hendrix hasn’t reached since “Fire”—his backing big band gives up halfway through and just watches as Hendrix lets his guitar scream with devilish feedback—and “Moon Mist” and “Moonglow” are blended into a burner called “Moonshot,” which just might kill a few people on the dance floor. (“Played most of that one with my teeth,” Hendrix chuckles. “Just to give the guys a good laugh.”)
“I’m thinking of doing a Tommy Dorsey album next,” Jimi says, trying to pull an Orioles cap onto his head but giving up when his thick locks just won’t cooperate. “Seeing as how we both struggled with the scene, you know. Feel it might be appropriate.”
As I take my last bite of lunch—Hendrix is right; the crab cake is life-affirming—Jimi starts making for the exit. “Gotta get down to the game,” he says. “Promised to sign a ball for Ripken.”
I ask one more question as we walk into the otherworldly sunshine: “You ever wonder about how close you really came to dying?”
He stops and turns to me. He’s not angry, just determined. “Can’t get much done when you’re dead, can you?” he says, and begins the short walk to see his son.
When I say goodbye by saying that the world is a much better place with him in it, he just nods and smiles up into the sky. Jimi does that a lot these days.
Originally published in July/August 2001