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”!’ ”
“I just laid down a good, strong rhythm, and that worked.”
Steve Barker, who was 18 and helped out in the theater, saw all of Hendrix’s shows but remembers this one in particular. Hendrix played some blues.
“I have always felt privileged to have been there that time,” he says. “There were little children but also elderly people. Everybody seemed into it. He wasn’t doing the rock star Hendrix theatrics. It was really special.”
“Jazz, Hippies Happen Together,” The Washington Post reported the next day. The story estimated that 500 children as young as 5 heard the music and danced and skipped under the lights. Spencer Davis, 16 — no relation to the band the Spencer Davis Group — told the paper: “I think it’s dynamite. They ought to give the hippies more of a chance to do this sort of thing. They’re all right.”
Between sets of the night shows, Hendrix and his band mingled with the audience like slightly cooler older brothers, or went across the street with new Washington friends for a beer at the Showboat Lounge. Redding and Mitchell were gregarious and outgoing, while Hendrix — in contrast to his stage persona — was quiet and diffident.
One time Hendrix took a seat in the Ambassador’s snack area near Debbie Clark and Jeanne Keskinen, two 15-year-olds from Prince George’s County.
“He seemed like a nice guy,” Keskinen says. “All his feathers and looks were a lot to take in at that time.”
But Charles Smith, co-founder of the Natty Bumpo, was unsettled by his brush with a talent about to go supernova.
“I remember walking into the lobby, and there he was standing like he was in outer space,” Smith says. “He was just staring. He never saw me. I knew he was really stoned. I thought, ‘Boy, that doesn’t look good.’ ”
The band stayed at the Shoreham Hotel (now the Omni Shoreham) on Calvert Street NW. Redding and Mitchell sometimes hung out at the pool, while Hendrix stayed in his room. He wrote a draft of “Bold as Love” on Shoreham stationery, with cross-outs and additions. The song would appear soon on the band’s second album, “Axis: Bold as Love.”
My yellow in this case is not
In fact I’m trying to say
it’s frightened, like me
Tickets rose to $2.50 for the weekend.
The relative few who attended “were seeing history in the making,” says Washington music historian Mark Opsasnick, author of “Capitol Rock,” who is documenting a century of local pop music performances. He ranks the Ambassador gigs among the three most influential D.C. debuts ever — with Bill Haley and His Comets at the Blue Mirror on 14th Street NW in June 1953 and the Beatles at the Washington Coliseum in February 1964. “It changed the course of music in the city.”
The set list from night to night was a roster of soon-to-be greatest hits and FM radio staples: “Purple Haze,” “Foxey Lady,” “Hey Joe,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Red House,” “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles.
“This is truly the ground floor of his taking root in the United States, a fabulous time to see the band,” says Hendrix biographer John McDermott.
“The average young person might have heard of Jimi Hendrix if they read an underground newspaper, but there was literally nothing going on in terms of buzz. This guy laid it all on the line, desperately determined to make it in the U.S.”
The party in a Georgetown rowhouse happened after the Saturday show, as near as some folks can remember.
“It was just so low-key,” Mike Paper, who helped out at the theater, says of the party. “People were smoking dope, drinking beer and wine. I remember distinctly Jimi sitting on the couch strumming an acoustic guitar. It was just different times back in those days. Nobody said, ‘Oh, my God, we’re hanging out with Jimi Hendrix.’ We knew it was special, but at the same time, we were 18-year-old kids.”
Another night, folks converged on Bumpo drummer Havu’s place in the 1800 block of Corcoran Street NW.
“We had promised dinner; we were also broke,” Havu says, so they “liberated” a big pot of spicy rice that their Korean neighbors had stowed in the common refrigerator.
Hendrix sat on the floor in a corner and “ate this really hot, bad rice we cooked up. ... He was just sort of watching the scene. He had recently come over from England, and I think he was trying to absorb what was going on with the hippie movement, quote-unquote.”
Hendrix explored Georgetown, and while there drew police attention. Michael Casady, younger brother of Jack Casady of the Jefferson Airplane, ran into Hendrix on the street. They were crossing against a red light when, “next thing I know, cops pull up to us,” Casady says. The pair was taken to a precinct station for jaywalking. Casady, who was still in high school, had to call his mother to come get him; Hendrix called a band associate.
“If you had the long hair, the cops didn’t like you, but Hendrix was beyond that,” Casady says. “His hair wasn’t even that long, but his clothing was so far out. He was dressed to the hilt, with the scarves and the whole bit, you know, and they kind of didn’t know what to think of that.”
As word spread of Hendrix’s stage magic, attendance grew night by night, until about 800 showed up for the Sunday finale, says Mike Schreibman, who handled publicity for the Ambassador. Even so, the theater was still half-empty. The Who was opening for Herman’s Hermits at DAR Constitution Hall that night. Some fans planned to catch the Who, skip the Hermits and make it to the Ambassador for Hendrix’s second set.
Before the gig, Shep Tullier, then 19, met the band at the Shoreham. Tullier, who now plays in Blue Suede Bop and solo projects, brought a stack of British music journals he subscribed to, which the musicians were eager to peruse after two months in the United States.
“We had never seen anyone have sex with a Stratocaster, and that’s essentially what he was doing.” Phil Wood
Walking into their rooms, Tullier heard a voice on Hendrix’s portable record player. He assumed it was some avant-garde spoken-word piece until Hendrix told him it was “Winnie-the-Pooh.”
The band caught a cab to the theater. In the dressing room, Hendrix called Schreibman over. “He whispered, ‘Can you get me some lighter fluid?’ ” recalls Schreibman, who became a founding member of the Washington Area Music Association.
“I said in a real loud voice, ‘Oh, are you going to set your guitar on fire?’ He was really upset that I had broken the secret.”
Hendrix had pulled the pyro stunt only twice before, in London in March, then at Monterey in June, according to Hendrix chronologists. Before the Monterey film popularized the evidence, it would still be a surprise to most fans.
Schreibman crossed the street and bought the fluid at Peoples Drug.
After seeing the Who’s Pete Townshend smash, but not burn, his guitar at Constitution Hall, 16-year-old guitar player Phil Wood and a buddy hurried to the Ambassador. Wood had seen Hendrix’s Thursday show, so he knew to sit on the floor just in front of stage-right, where Hendrix would stand.
He felt someone take a seat to his left, so close in the crowd that their legs touched. It was Townshend. Standing against the wall was the Who’s bass player, John Entwistle.
“Hendrix walks out with his Stratocaster,” Wood recalls. “He looks at Townshend. He plugs in his Strat, and without even tuning up, he starts playing ‘I Can’t Explain’ ” — the Who hit. “Noel Redding hasn’t seen them, doesn’t get it. Like, ‘What key is this!?’ Pete laughs, Entwistle laughs. Hendrix stops and does his set.”
“We had never seen anyone have sex with a Stratocaster, and that’s essentially what he was doing,” says Wood, who became a radio broadcaster and hosts Washington Nationals postgame shows.
Nils Lofgren, then a teenage guitar player whose band Crystal Mesh opened for the Hollies at the Ambassador, was among those who dashed uptown from the Who show.
“It was seeing Jimi Hendrix there that kind of struck a chord in me that maybe this was something that would be a calling or a profession,” says Lofgren, who now plays in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
“Hendrix came out and said he was going to dedicate the first song to Pete Townshend, and he was going to do a rendition of ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ ” Lofgren says. “Being naive, and huge Beatles lovers, a lot of us thought, ‘Well, you’re only a three-piece band, how can you play “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”? There’s all these other guitars and strings and violins.’ We just didn’t have a clue what Hendrix was really about.
“He counted off the song, and I remember he kind of disappeared. He just did one of those things where he fell to the floor, almost sitting on the floor rocking with the guitar between his legs, doing kind of a ‘Purple Haze’-‘Sgt. Pepper’ riff.
“Everyone just jumped up to try to see him, and from that moment on, everyone was standing and mesmerized by obviously the greatest guitar player that ever lived, certainly in rock-and-roll.”
After a blistering set, some fans noticed that Hendrix switched guitars amid the pounding chords to the last song, “Wild Thing.” He knelt and made his burnt offering, then smashed the instrument on the stage.
The violent act exhilarated, but also shocked, those who were present.
“He wasn’t just playing music; he was invoking dark spirits, I believe,” says Charles Smith, the Bumpo co-founder, who continues to make music with Soundwater.
“People in the audience went crazy, but I thought it was kind of contrived,” says Johnson, the former community activist. “The theatrics overshadowed the fact that this guy could really play.”
Backstage after the show, Hendrix said he needed a ride to the hotel with his “little dolly bird,” as he referred to the pretty young thing he was with, according to Connie Wright, who saw the show with two friends from Baltimore. They provided the ride and briefly visited his room.
“He was affable and sweet and unassuming,” Wright says. Among the topics of conversation was Winnie-the-Pooh.
After a six-month frolic, the Ambassador closed in January 1968, driven out of business by unforeseen logistical hassles and management burnout. It was demolished and replaced by a bank plaza.
By the fall of 1970, three years after his Ambassador shows, Hendrix was dead, at 27, from choking on his own vomit in a drugged stupor.
The Sunday performance at the Ambassador is believed by some aficionados to be the last time he ever burned a guitar onstage. The sacrificial instrument split into pieces. Someone in the crowd grabbed the neck, while the body of the black Strat went on display in the lobby. Hendrix signed the white pick guard: “Good luck, be cool, Jimi Hendrix, 8/13/67,” according to Mike Paper.
After the theater closed, Paper took custody of the guitar body and displayed it wherever he lived. It was stolen from his house in Kensington around 1980, he says.
At the moment of combustion and destruction that last night in the Ambassador, a string popped off the instrument. Wood scooped it up. He keeps it coiled in a clear plastic guitar string case on a shelf in his office.
“For so many friends of mine who play, it’s like this relic,” Wood says.
“If they hold their hands over it, something mystical will happen.”
It’s the high E string, the most fragile, the one for scaling sonic peaks. It bears a bit of char.
David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. Jeff Krulik is a documentary filmmaker whose latest project, “Led Zeppelin Played Here,” will be completed this summer. Staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@ washpost.com.
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