The swingin’ sixties. That adjective-swingin-is what’s left of the glorious days of flower power and active protest. In the sixties, there were polka dots, the Beatles and 1967’s Summer of Love. Hippies lined the streets wearing shirts emblazoned with logos that read “Love, Not War” in a dizzying backdrop of colors. It was the modern renaissance, and everywhere, new ideologues and outspoken revolutionaries seemed to be springing up. The world was wrapped in a flurry of art, fashion and music. Crack and LSD were all the rage. It was in this moment of psychedelia that the material world would spawn some of the greatest names in musical history- a new breed of musicians who have left legacies in this world not only through their music, but through their personal brands of philosophies and ideologies. Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival saw the likes of giants like Janis Joplin and Otis Redding, but the greatest among them would arguably be Jimi Hendrix. The article Jimi Hendrix: An American Master gives a concise overview of Jimi’s life, but his death calls for an entirely different discussion.
The circumstances of his demise were shady, and it is only testament to his legendary legacy that even until this very day, conspiracy surrounds his death. And not all of these stories are groundless, made-for-tabloid fabrications. Jimi was an influential figure, and the 60’s set the stage for social reform and political controversy. And he wasn’t the only artist who died on the pedestal of a glittering career-the world also lost Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison of the Doors. More than artists, they were visionaries whose music stood as the voice of a disillusioned generation. Their wailing guitars screamed in protest, and their disenchanted ballads became the fiery anthems of the decade. How then, could this great generation of musicians have nearly died out? Drug overdose would almost always be the given answer. And it’s a very plausible answer. But it’s discomfiting with the knowledge that these were the legends who were worshipped by thousands upon thousands of adoring youth. These stars were vessels of ideologies that they spread out to every direction their music played-ideologies that sometimes went against the wishes of the political wheel. Was drug overdose really the cause of death? Did the government wage war against rock ‘n’ roll, and sacrifice its foremost heroes to take the reins back over the minds of the youth?
September 18, 1970-An unconscious Jimi Hendrix was rushed to the hospital. Several hours later, rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest child was pronounced dead. The cause? Inhalation of his own vomit from barbiturate intoxication. The world had yet again lost one shining musician-at the peak of an illustrious career-to drugs.
One of the flashiest showmen and electrifying musicians even in our time, Jimi Hendrix catapulted to fame with his wild stage antics and legendary guitar skills. After claiming his stakes in Europe with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 cemented Hendrix’s status in America as rock ‘n’ roll icon of the generation. It wasn’t as simple as that, though. Hendrix’s ethnicity was of African American descent with Native American roots. He was black, and the American establishment so rife with racial segregation at this time was clearly not happy that this black man could reach superstardom and play to white audiences. For all the adulation given him by the youth of his generation, Jimi Hendrix was a deviant who went against the system, and he was certainly not welcome
His autopsy showed he had taken nine Vesperax sleeping pills with barbiturates and amphetamines. The dose was not lethal, though, and this led the coroner to report the cause of death as “inhalation of vomit, barbiturate intoxication, insufficient evidence of circumstances, open verdict”.
“Insufficient evidence of circumstances and open verdict?” These phrases are tainted with a haunting uncertainty, as if the events surrounding the Jimi’s passing were hazy. He had spent the night at a hotel with his then girlfriend Monika Danneman. He went out to see some folks, before going back home again to the hotel. When Monika awoke at about 10:20, she noticed that Jimi was face down in his vomit, but that he was still breathing. By the time the ambulance came-this is where conflicting versions of her story arise-Jimi was still alive and breathing. Other reports claim he was already dead by then. What was certain was that by midday, he was declared dead.
Author Alex Constantine, in his book The Covert Ward Against Rock, reveals that the FBI kept a file on Hendix, who had been placed on the federal Security Index, a list of “subversives” that were to be arrested and held in detainment camps in case of a national emergency. Danneman attested to Jimi’s insecurity: “Jimi felt more and more unsafe in New York, the city where he used to feel so much at home. It had begun to serve as a prison to him, and a place where he had to watch his back all the time…In May 1969 Jimi was arrested at Toronto for possession of drugs. He later told me he believed Jeffrey had used a third person to plant the drugs on him-as a warning, to teach him a lesson.” That was Michael Jeffrey, Jimi’s manager, whom Constantine claims was, by his own admission, an intelligence agent. He had alleged connections to the CIA, the MI5 and the Mafia, and was suspected by Jimi for arranging his brief kidnapping some time before his death as a way of “scaring” him. Jeffrey arranged for Jimi’s release days later. It was this man who had embezzled sizeable portions of Jimi’s earnings and wrested control over Jimi’s career that he had severely mismanaged.
That aside, a rock star who was growing increasingly at odds with him would have been more useful dead. Jeffrey stood to make millions of dollars more from song royalties and posthumous releases, of which there are over a hundred. Constantine further asserts in his book that “The manager of the Experience constructed “a financial empire based on the posthumous releases of Hendrix’s previously unreleased recordings.” Crushing musical voices of dissent was proving to be an immensely profitable enterprise because a dead rocker leaves behind a fortune in publishing rights and royalties.” There was also talk of a one million dollar life insurance policy on Jimi with Jeffrey as the beneficiary. Did Jeffrey order Henrix’s death? If he did, was it out of self-interest? Or was he working under instructions from the CIA or the Mafia? Some speculate that Jimi’s purported links to the Black Panther movement of the late 1960s, an African American civil rights group, made him a venerable target of the CIA, which had ties to the Mafia’s drug cartel. Jeffrey was also believed to have had ties with the Mafia, as well as prominent underground figures, and was known to have drugged Jimi on several occasions, as attested by Buddy Miles.
Recent findings from renewed investigations of the events that transpired even suggest that he was unknowingly intoxicated with drugs and forcibly made to drink large quantities of red wine that eventually filled his lungs and drowned him. Reports from paramedics and the police that time attested that when they arrived at the scene, the door was disturbingly flung wide open, Jimi was fully clothed, apparently having been dead for hours, and Monika was nowhere to be seen. Hendrix biographer Bill Henderson wrote: “Those who followed his death….noticed many inconsistencies in the official inquest. It has been an open and shut affair that managed to hide its racist intent behind the public perceptual hoax of Hendrix as a substance abuser….As a result, millions of people all over the world thought that Hendrix had died that typical rock star’s death: drug OD amid fame, opulence, decadence. But it seems that Hendrix could very well have been the victim not of decadence, but of foul play.”
Was he an intentional target as some purport? After all, there was only one eyewitness to his death, girlfriend Monika Danneman, who would go on to narrate sometimes conflicting versions of the story. She died in 1995, in her fume-filled car, bringing to her grave those final fateful moments with Jimi. Fingered as another rock star who succumbed to drug overdose, his death would enhance the hedonistic, pleasure-driven, excessive lifestyle that most people have painted of Hendrix. Shot up to dazzling heights eclipsed by only a handful in a brief career spanning a mere three years, we often wonder what more Hendrix could have been. Sadly, that’s something the world will never get the chance to know.
…And More Whispers
Two other iconic deaths in the 60’s were that of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. Morrison was the legendary frontman of the American rock band The Doors, another star immortalized by death at 27 and snuffed out at the height of a glittering career to an excessive life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The official cause of death was ruled as heart attack and circumstances surrounding his death are even more surreal than the conspiracy theories that they bred. Joplin was one of the first prominent females in the rebellious rock-blues scene of San Francisco, also found dead of a drug overdose amid overwhelming fame and success at the age of 27.
Did these icons really die of their own doing, succumbing to the excesses of the hedonistic, rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle? Drugs were a major player of the artistic revolution of the 60s and surely, it’s played its part in the spate of tragic deaths. But more than just gold records and bohemian habits, these rock stars were icons of the past generation-great, principled people who stood for ideals that opposed the status quo at the time. These were very influential diplomats in their own ways, voicing out for peace and encouraging the youth to stand up and fight for a noble cause. Surely, with such an influential stance, these legends have made lots of powerful enemies along the way.
What’s for certain is that the legacies left by these superstars are alive and burning. While a good part of the controversies may never be resolved or don’t hold a drop of truth, the principles that these heroes stood for continue to blaze a trail of love, peace and great music.