Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Night I Met Jimi Hendrix, by S.K. Waller

My friend Debi lived just a mile from the UCSB (University of California at Santa Barbara) student village, Isla Vista. Despite the block-after-block layout of mid-century apartment buildings, the hippies hanging out at People's Park, the political activism and the strip of coffeehouses, mod boutiques and head shops had earned "I.V." the unofficial title of "Haight-Ashbury South". It was a place that was cool enough that Edie Sedgwick spent the end of her young life there. Today it is best known for the riots of 1970 during which the Bank of America was burned to the ground, but before that happened, Isla Vista was a great place to hang out, promenade in your hippie finery, enjoy live folk music in one of the several coffeehouses, and crash a party.

Debi was a model with the La Belle Agency and through her I sometimes modeled petite fashions for affluent mothers who lunched in El Paseo in Santa Barbara. We also modeled together for students at the Brooks Institute of Photography, but while I was gamine-like and fit in with the Mod look of Swinging London, she was the quintessential California Girl: blond, tan and sexy. And she knew how to use it.

On this particular weekend we'd gotten tickets to the Jimi Hendrix concert in UCSB's Robertson Gym. Debi was on a strict schedule of phenobarbital; she must have had epilepsy, but she never spoke of it. I remember that her mother came into the bedroom every night and woke her up to give her a pill, which I thought was kind of weird. That week she'd foolishly saved a couple of them up for the concert, and as soon as we were dropped off at the gym, we hit a water fountain. I'd never taken anything like that before and it knocked me into a hypnotic stupor that made everything around me move in slow-mo. At that point in my life I'd only smoked pot--this was entirely different, and I liked it.

In those days no one sat in chairs at concerts. Everyone just sat on the floor, stood near the stage, or danced. Being a musician, I was the standing sort, and we found a great spot to the right of the stage, directly in front of one of the speaker stacks. We were close enough to bassist Noel Redding that we could see the scuffs on his boots.

The concert was fantastic, and despite the drug, I have a vivid memory of Jimi's performance. Just as The Experience launched into their encore, a guy came up to us and told us to come with him. Being on real drugs for the first time, I immediately became paranoid, afraid that "they'd" figured out we were high (yeah, right... two teens in a gym full of Hendrix fans...), and were going to give us to the police. Funny, now that I'm older. We looked at each other, scared, and followed him. Mostly, I was pissed because I was missing Jimi's performance of "Foxey Lady".

The guy led us into a large back room in which a long table was set up as a buffet. I didn't understand what was going on, but in a few moments the doors opened again and my friends, Ernie & the Emperors walked in. They were the most popular band in the tri-counties area and were well-respected by the Lovin' Spoonful, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Deep Purple, and most of the really great bands of that time. I first met them at the Dolphin Club in Solvang, a facility that held teen dances with live bands on Saturday nights. Because I was a musician and my brother was a drummer in another band (and sometimes sat in with them), the Orosco brothers and I became friends. We'd also met up backstage at a Lovin' Spoonful concert at Earl Warren Showgrounds, so seeing them enter the room wasn't at all surprising. We spoke a little bit and I noticed that drummer Mitch Mitchell had drawn Debi away and was chatting her up. What was happening began to dawn on me: Mitchell had seen her in the audience and told one of the roadies to bring us backstage.

There was a stir at the door and in walked Jimi. He was a small man--probably no taller than 5' 4" and slight of build. Actually, all three of them were short, but Jimi possessed enormous presence.

He looked around the room, said a word or two to a couple of people, then walked right over to the buffet table where I was standing. Had he been interested in meeting me? I wonder. He was quiet--almost shy--and began talking to me. He asked me if I was a "Santa Barbara bunny", which in my mental state struck me as kind of an odd question, and I replied that I couldn't even swim, much less surf. I remember that he laughed, his face breaking into that beautiful smile of his.

I told him I was a singer/songwriter and he was immediately interested, asking me questions about my style, my influences and my goals. After a while he asked me if my girlfriend and I would like to go and party with him and the band, and like the naive 16 year-old that I was, I explained that Debi's dad was picking us up at ten. Sussing out that I wasn't a groupie, Jimi very sweetly and respectfully steered the conversation back to music.

Later, Jimi and Ernie had a friendly talk in the dressing room that led from the room I was in. Ernie clearly recalls Jimi's down-to-earth and magically humble qualities as the Rock legend leaned against his dressing room mirror conversing with him.

I don't remember leaving, but I've always regretted being high that night. I wish I'd had my wits about me--I'd remember a whole lot more about what Jimi and I talked about. We must have stood talking for ten minutes or more.

When I learned of his death, I was sad for a long time. Despite his wild reputation, Jimi Hendrix was a gentleman in the purest sense of the word who will always own a warm corner of my heart.

Written by S.K. Waller, Guest Groovy Reflections Blogger


SK Waller said...

Thanks for posting this!

Gerry said...

Happy to have you here!