When Jimi Hendrix came to Washington and blew its mind
Jimi Hendrix was the new darling of rock royalty in London, the acid guitar hero poised to conquer America that idyllic, impossible Summer of Love. After a few seminal gigs, clever promoters decided the way to launch Hendrix in the States was to put him on tour opening for one of the hottest sensations: the Monkees, those wacky lads who were “too busy singing to put anybody down,” as the song said. (Hey, hey!) Hendrix, who represented the doom of everything the Monkees stood for, played dauntingly loud but still couldn’t drown the hormonal frenzy of thousands of desperate teeny-boppers. From Jacksonville, Fla., to Forest Hills, N.Y., they squealed like a maniacal one-note solo for Michael, Micky, Peter and Davy, until finally Jimi could take no more.
Managers of the Experience — which included Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums — extricated the band from the nightmare. Suddenly, Hendrix had unbooked dates at a critical time. The Seattle-born 24-year-old had just completed his first album, “Are You Experienced?” Reports of his paradigm-shattering U.S. debut with the Experience, in June, at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival — where he summoned the shrieking gods of electronic feedback and set his guitar ablaze — were trickling East. But until D.A. Pennebaker’sdocumentary of the festival would be released the following year, you had to have been there.
So one midsummer day in 1967, the phone rang in the cluttered upstairs office of the Ambassador Theater, a run-down former movie palace at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, in Adams Morgan. Joel Mednick, a 22-year-old hippie impresario, answered.
Have you ever heard of Jimi Hendrix? asked the agent on the line.
Of course, said Mednick.
How’d you like to have him?
Mednick considered the logistics. That was short notice to send out press releases and to design promotional posters.
I’m already booked. I can’t afford him.
If you give each one [of the musicians] $100 a night, we’ll let you have them for five nights.
They made a deal. The dates would be Wednesday, Aug. 9, through Sunday, Aug. 13.
Blue-on-magenta posters were rushed out with characteristically trippy and hard-to-decipher lettering. They advertised the “Jimi Hendricks Experience!”
Johnny Castle was then 17, “an aspiring hippie” who played bass. He was headed for his freshman year at the University of Oklahoma on Thursday, so on Wednesday evening, his buddies took him out to the Ambassador. They went to see the Natty Bumpo, an admired local band. Bumpo was opening all week for “some other band that was playing. We had no idea of the headlining act,” Castle recalls.
Tickets were $1.50. Fewer than 50 people attended, in Castle’s recollection. (Others estimate attendance at maybe 200.)
“The Natty Bumpo came out and played, and that was a cool groove,” Castle says. “There was a brief delay, and then here comes the Jimi Hendrix Experience. We didn’t know who was who. They had psychedelic clothes, their hair was all curly and poofed out. They immediately started playing. I was, like, my eyes bulged out. I had never seen or heard anything like that in my life.”
Hendrix “was playing behind his head, between his legs, with his teeth. He was just effortlessly slinging the guitar about. I remember when he did ‘The Wind Cries Mary,’ he did the solo with his teeth. He was playing the living crap out of the guitar.
“He totally eviscerated my psyche.
I was never so blown away in my life, nor have I been since.”
The morning after seeing Hendrix at the Ambassador, Castle awoke with a new conviction that the sky was the limit for him and his generation, and anything was possible.
“That feeling was already in the air,” he says, “and Jimi Hendrix just confirmed it.”
That feeling — a stirring sense of possibility and power — was the strongest drug being passed around the Ambassador during its brief, bright streak across Washington’s night sky.
Mednick’s partners were Court Rodgers and the late Tony Finestra, also in their early 20s. They rented the place for about $2,300 a month. The seats were torn out of the old theater. The floor sloped down to the stage.
Dubbing their operation the Psychedelic Power and Light Co., they fashioned the Ambassador into Washington’s answer to the Fillmore West and the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. They had in mind a “total involvement” space, with surreal light shows projected from the balcony onto vast screens.
“That was the first time I had heard ‘dude.’ I was like, Why did he call me ‘dude’? ‘Dude’ like in dude ranch?” Joel Mednik
Mednick asked Hendrix what he thought of the light show. As he recalls, Hendrix said, “It was really groovy, dude.”
Mednick was stoned and had a paranoid reaction: “That was the first time I had heard ‘dude.’ I was like, Why did he call me ‘dude’? ‘Dude’ like in dude ranch? Like I’m inexperienced? I was really concerned about it.”
The most radical thing about the Ambassador was the simple fact that the three partners were of the same generation and wavelength as the artists and the audience. Grown-up culture and capital were cut out almost completely.
“Your worst nightmare: hippies making money,” Mednick says.
The Ambassador opened in late July with the Los Angeles band the Peanut Butter Conspiracy. In the coming months, the Hollies, Moby Grape, Vanilla Fudge, Canned Heat, Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Fugs, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and others would pass through. Norman Mailer would rant drunkenly from the stage of the “scruffy Ambassador” on the eve of a big anti-Vietnam War mobilization, as memorialized in Mailer’s own “The Armies of the Night.” The theater lent sound equipment to the protesters bent on levitating the Pentagon.
The Ambassador stood as a pure expression of that sweet, naive side of the 1960s that was about to go up in flames and down in self-destruction. For many, Hendrix’s five-night stand was the essence of the essence, before he — and they — lost it, too.
The theater operators were still trying to ingratiate themselves to the community. Adams Morgan was an economically struggling neighborhood, then. Community activists such as Brooks Johnson, who went on to become a top U.S. Olympic track coach, wanted to provide arts and activities for young people.
And so was conceived one of the most improbable gigs ever staged in Washington: the free matinee that the Jimi Hendrix Experience and several jazz acts performed for hundreds of neighborhood children at the Ambassador.
Mitch Mitchell was sick, apparently, so Hendrix asked Natty Bumpo drummer Bill Havu to sit in.
Hendrix “told the audience, ‘We have the drummer from the Natty Bumpo; it will be okay,’ and then hit the first chord,” recalls Havu, who now owns an art gallery in Denver. “I went, ‘Oh, my God, “FoxeyLady”!’ ”