Scott Ellis 9:46 p.m., April 22
The Day Jimi Hendrix Came To Town
Backstage and behind the scenes for a legendary local gig
May 1969: Two hundred years after Father Junípero Serra founded the first California mission on Presidio Hill, San Diego celebrated its bicentennial. The Ferry still shuttled passengers and cargo across the harbor, as it had for over eighty years, but the Coronado Bay Bridge was in the final phase of construction before its scheduled August 3rd opening.
Also nearing completion was the Fashion Valley Mall, a fifty million dollar shopping center covering seventy-eight acres of land that had previously been home to The Padres' Westgate Park . Students at San Diego State University responded to headlines about the war in Vietnam by making headlines of their own with campus anti-war rallies, while academic strikes were held in symbolic protest of U.S. bombing raids.
The sounds of the sixties were blowin' in what little wind there was in San Diego . The Flying Burrito Brothers played two nights, May 9th and 10th, at the newly opened United Fruit club at 4009 Central Avenue in North Park, while SDSU's Aztec Bowl (now the site of Cox Arena) hosted the Grateful Dead on May 11th, along with Tijuana native son Carlos Santana, blues belters Canned Heat and forgotten pop wizard Lee Michaels.
On Saturday the 24th, Bob Dylan turned 28 years old. The Beatles' "Get Back" hit #1 on Billboard Magazine's list of top selling singles, knocking "Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In" by the Fifth Dimension from the top slot. Local radio stations were spinning platters by Blood, Sweat And Tears ("You've Made Me So Very Happy"), the Zombies ("Time Of The Season") and the Doors ("Touch Me").
Guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who, with his band the Experience - bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell - had just played a hometown gig the previous day at the Seattle Center Coliseum, checked into his "deluxe" two-room suite at the Hilton Inn.
Hendrix and his band were nearing the end of a two month long concert tour and were due to play San Diego's International Sports Arena that evening. The Experience's spring tour of America had begun in Raleigh , North Carolina , during April 1969, sweeping through Philadelphia , Memphis , Houston , Dallas , Los Angeles , Oakland , Detroit and Toronto Canada .
Scheduled to open the San Diego show at 8:30 pm was Fat Mattress, a group Noel Redding had formed - ostensibly as a "side project" but really, he'd later admit, created as a way to hedge his bets in case rumors about Hendrix's plan to disband the Experience proved to be true (the rumors were correct).
"Fat Mattress was me getting back to me roots," Redding told me during an interview he did for Rock 'N' Roll Comics, before he died in 2003. "I never played bass before I auditioned [for The Experience], and I missed playing guitar and singing. Fat Mattress was done with two members from an old band I'd been in called the Loving Kind. We put together the new group to open for Experience shows, sure, but also to record and tour on our own.this was my outlet for songwriting, and Jimi seemed to think the idea was great. We all planned on having our separate side projects, to keep everybody happy, but to keep the Experience going as well."
Redding says part of the motivation behind forming Fat Mattress was statements Hendrix had given in press interviews about "taking a year off," as well as behind-the-scenes vibes he'd picked up from the mercurial guitarist. "Around the time we went down to San Diego .there was talk of the group being 'expanded.' I hadn't been asked about it. At that point, I was asking a lot of questions about the finances, about where all the money was. I think they brought in Billy Cox [who replaced Redding in the Experience several months after the San Diego concert] 'cause I was asking so many questions."
Redding recalls an argument with the Experience's road manager when the group arrived in San Diego . "I think that was the first time Mitch [Mitchell, Experience drummer] and I were put on a 'daily dole' - an allowance, I guess you'd call it, that we had to use to pay for anything besides the hotel and room service. Everything used to be taken care of and paid for, but all of a sudden it was up to me to buy me own guitar strings if I needed another set! He [the Experience road manager] fobbed off paying the bill for [Fat Mattress] too...I believe they had to stay in a different hotel from the rest of us, and a none too nice one at that."
Tickets for the Sports Arena show cost patrons from $2.75 to $5.50. The concert was sold out, and a few hundred fans were milling about in the Arena parking lot as Fat Mattress hit the stage, just before 9 o'clock. Several people had been caught trying to gain entrance with counterfeit tickets, apparently purchased from a parking lot scalper. The bogus tickets were confiscated and those bearing them weren't arrested but weren't granted admittance either.
Some of these agitated individuals loitered near the entrances well into the concert, alongside other ticketless youths determined to get an earful of the music being played on the other side of the Arena's glass doors. At one point, a few dozen of them decided to join forces and rush the gate by surging en mass past security guards. A scuffle and several short chases ensued and most of the gate crashers were turned away or arrested, prompting local headlines the next day to read "Police Arrest Gate Crashers At Arena Show" and "'Music Lovers' Mar Hendrix Concert in Arena."
After Fat Mattress' set, Hendrix sat in a small backstage dressing room, strumming an unplugged electric guitar while several others milled about. Present were his bandmates Redding and Mitchell, as well as an out-of-place looking man wearing a suit (possibly working for the promoter or a local radio station) who was roundly ignored as he tried to talk Hendrix into taping a radio interview with a DJ waiting outside the room.
In the arena, technical engineers were setting up a stereo tape deck intended to record the concert direct from the soundboard mix. The man in charge of recording the show was Wally Heider, owner of a Northern California recording facility frequented by the Jefferson Airplane and many others (Heider would also serve as sound engineer on the recording "Hendrix Live At Fillmore East").
Running the mix from the soundboard was Abe Jacob. Jacob had started as a sound engineer in San Francisco , mixing for The Mamas and the Papas and Peter Paul and Mary, as well as designing the sound system for the Monterey Pop Festival, where the Jimi Hendrix Experience first wowed America in 1967. Until Jacob gave the go-ahead that the equipment was primed and ready, Hendrix would remain in the dressing room, as it was important to the guitarist that this date be perfectly preserved on tape, both for his own personal archives and for a possible live album.
Backstage, Hendrix agreed to be interviewed by Jim Brodey, a writer for the San Diego Free Press. First, though, he instructed a roadie to clear the room of everyone but himself and Brodey, whom he gave permission to tape the interview. Even so, people kept walking in and out of the room during the chat, apparently causing Hendrix some distress.
As published in San Diego Free Press' June 13 1969 edition, Hendrix discussed his May 3rd arrest (for "illegal possession of narcotics") at the Toronto International Airport . Royal Canadian Mounted police had searched his luggage, claiming to find several ounces of heroin wrapped in small packages and tucked into a bottle, discovered in one of his travel bags.
"I can't tell you too much about that because my lawyer told me not to," the guitarist told Brodey. "Anyway, I'm innocent, completely innocent." Asked if he thought the bust was "a frame," Hendrix replied, somewhat incoherently, "It must have been or either it was just a very bad scene, because it ain't anything it was. But, anyway, I can't talk too much about it now."
Asked about the rumors of his upcoming year long "retirement," or whether he was looking to form a new band, Hendrix rambled without committing, possibly because he hadn't made up his mind up yet regarding his increasingly estranged bass player, Noel Redding. "Oh well, see this is what the negative folks are trying to tell you. That's what the establishment is telling you. They're trying to blow us all up and give us awards and all that so that they can just dust us away, but we're not here to collect awards, you know, we're here to turn people on to the right way because there is some really strange scenes coming up though..."
At that point, the constant flow of bodies going in and out of the small room distracted him and he told Brodey "Hey, I can't do this with other people in the room."
This wasn't the only break in the proceedings, according to Brodey. "At one point," he says, "the interview was interrupted by promoters and someone with a 'love' medallion. Top forty radio station KCBQ had sponsored a contest in which entrants who had made the 'grooviest love' medallion would win a free ticket to the concert and present their love beads to Hendrix in person. Jimi, who knew nothing of the contest, refused to save face for the bumbling KCBQ and wouldn't see the winners."
A few minutes before 10:00pm, the Jimi Hendrix Experience hit the stage. The 5/24/69 tapes would become the source of one of the most widely "bootlegged" recordings of all time. It's unclear how Jacob's master reels landed in the hands of pirates, but within weeks of the show, vinyl albums were circulating featuring performance excerpts or even the entire concert, marketed with titles like "Hendrix Burns," "Jimi West Coast Jam," "Sunshine Jam" and "Jimi's Red House."
As immortalized on those tapes, the Experience set list that night was comprised of "Fire," "Hey Joe," "Spanish Castle Magic" (with an interlude featuring jams to the tune of Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love" aka "Sunshine Jam," stretching the song out to nearly eleven minutes), "Red House," "I Don't Live Today," "Foxy Lady," "Purple Haze" and a ten minute-plus version of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)."
Jimi talked quite a bit to the audience between songs, including one extended rap where he told them "You people down here are witnessing some really beautiful times. Like, groovy times you'll be telling your children and their children's children about, man. This is, like, the epicenter of where it's happening, right here in California . I just wanted you to know that, even though I think you know it already. Does it ever rain here? Would you care if it did? I didn't think so."
The entire set lasted just over an hour, for which the band was reportedly paid $55,000.00. A few minutes after 11pm, the Jimi Hendrix Experience left the stage and all three bandmembers walked off in different directions, not saying a word to each other until it was time for an equipment check before loading up their instruments into a rented U-haul truck and leaving town the following morning.
Hendrix went back to the Hilton Inn and met up with Brodey again in the hotel cocktail lounge, where the guitarist "further discussed his philosophies of life," Brodey says, without the pressure of a running tape recorder present. The newspaper reporter got the impression that "The possibility of personnel changes isn't unlikely," which wasn't exactly news to Noel Redding, who tried unsuccessfully to find Hendrix at the Hilton Inn.
"I'd go down to [Hendrix's] hotel room," Redding says, "and he wouldn't be in there. There would be all these sorts of people getting room service and smoking all these reefers, etcetera, etcetera, and I could tell he was getting, you know, a bit bad. But what could I say?"
Just over a month after playing San Diego , on June 29 1969, at the Denver Pop Festival in Mile High Stadium, the Jimi Hendrix Experience featuring Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding played their last concert together.
"In 1970, we were going to get back together.for this major tour," Redding told me. "But by then I'd become, I don't know, too much trouble. They didn't want to deal with me any more than I wanted to deal with them.when we came back from the rehearsals, I heard through somebody else that they'd gotten [Billy] Cox in rehearsing. I was really upset because Hendrix didn't have the neck to tell me face-to-face."
Prior to San Diego, the band's April 26th set at the Forum in Los Angeles had been professionally recorded for the proposed live album (also by Abe Jacob, for Wally Heider Recording), as had some other dates on the tour. After the Sports Arena set, Hendix joined forces with engineer Eddie Kramer and began to mix the concert tapes at a studio in L.A. For reasons never stated officially, the live album project was abandoned and the recordings were stored in the Warner Bros. tape library.
The twelve minute long version of "Red House" performed in San Diego on May 24th later turned up on the official release "Hendrix In the West" (Polydor/WB Reprise, released January 1972) and it's considered the guitarist's best rendition of the song. Hendrix's solo runs nearly five minutes until Mitchell and Redding go back to work and pick up the tempo behind him - even then, Hendrix seems reluctant to stop riffing and sing the next refrain.
Other official and semi-official releases offer songs from the San Diego date, including the 1982 LP "Concerts" (which uses chopped up snippets of Hendrix's stage chatter in San Diego, spliced between live takes from several different concert performances) and the four CD set "Stages" (Polydor/WB Reprise 1991), which has nearly the whole 5/24/69 show, except "Foxy Lady," on disc three (the feedback heavy intro to "Foxy Lady" caused an uncomfortably fuzzy buzz on the unedited master tape reel).
Most notably, a recent box set collection "The Jimi Hendrix Experience" (2000, Universal/MCA) features the San Diego version of " Red House ," along with " Purple Haze " from the same show, further qualifying the night Jimi Hendrix came to town as the stuff of rock and roll legend.
Jimi Hendrix died in London, at the age of 27, on September 18, 1970, "When he died," Redding quietly said during one reflective moment, "I'd seen him a couple of weeks before he passed away. It was grand, we got on quite well. I'd like to think that things were on the up and up, that nothing was left unsettled and unresolved. That's what I'd like to think."