I was a student at York University in 1967 when the Jimi Hendrix Experience came to play a gig in one of the college refectories. A clairvoyant student social secretary had booked them before they were famous, for a fee of well under £100. By the time of their York date they were a sensation. ‘Hey Joe’, recorded in London in October 1966 and released two months later, had been in the Top 10 for the past three weeks, following Hendrix’s club appearances in front of rock-giant guitarists like Clapton and Townshend in London, which had created a remarkable buzz around him. Nor had it hurt that he was so very photogenic.
In such a situation, suddenly able to command real money, most rising stars would have blown out a barely-paying student gig. Hendrix didn’t. He, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell arrived - albeit very late. Their van had broken down on the way north.
Shortly after midnight on the morning of February 19th - 45 years ago today - the three of them were in a “dressing room” (a seminar room and bathroom, if I remember it aright) getting ready to perform. I was a student journalist. I knocked on the door and was asked in. And there, from about 12.15am and for around 25 minutes, I was able to chat with Jimi Hendrix, who was already dressed for his performance in black jeans, black pointy boots and a yellow, very London-boutique satin shirt.
We stood side by side, leaning back against the side of a table, smoking cigarettes, and he spoke quietly and warmly, with what my diary of the time recorded as “typical New York buoyancy” (whatever that meant). He was about my own height but his high-heeled boots and big hair made him taller. It was kind of him to spend time with me just ahead of a performance - something I’m not sure I appreciated at the time - but I liked him at once and he put me very much at my ease.
Mostly we talked about Bob Dylan - a mutual enthusiasm. Hendrix said, almost shyly, how much he admired Dylan as an artist and as the embodiment of cool. This was long before either had recorded their very different versions of ‘All Along The Watchtower’, but it had been reported that Hendrix had been given copies of a Dylan single or two that had been withdrawn shortly after their release in the States. (This can only have meant ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’ ) I said I’d read this story and asked him about it, but he couldn’t recall the song titles. We were interrupted from time to time by Noel Redding rushing about self-importantly, primping his hair over and over in a nearby mirror. He did himself no favours alongside Hendrix, who had no self-importance whatever but was unassuming, straightforward and thoughful.
I took my leave of him a little before 12.45 and at 1 o’clock in the morning the gig began. It was the billed as the Jimi Hendrix Experience but the other musicians could have been anyone. My diary tells me I watched “his one-hour performance, which was, in the main, excellent - especially his full-length version of Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.” The quiet figure in the dressing room had become the electrifying, strutting star, the shaman showman, humping the stacks of amps one minute and theatrically quiet the next, but more often and more interestingly inducing his own trances by that always extraordinary guitarwork. I never saw him again.