Jimi Hendrix and the war

In the final Red Banner (Issue 63, March 2016) Michelle Charlton looked at how a great musician faced the realities of war at home and abroad.

In the pantheon of 1960s counter-culture Jimi Hendrix’s slot is assured. It seems that few documentaries about the radical atmosphere of the period can do without some footage or other of him wielding his guitar, or a snippet of his music to soundtrack images of peace ’n’ love, protestors on the march, or whatever. But the association between Hendrix and that generation of change was a genuine one, albeit complex.

It wasn’t always thus, however. In February 1967, with the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut single ‘Hey Joe’ moving up the top ten on the back of a Top of the Pops performance, their frontman was asked by a Dutch interviewer what he thought of American military interference in Vietnam. His reply can still cause surprise:

Did you send the Americans away when they landed in Normandy? That was also purely interference… but that was concerning your own skin. The Americans are fighting in Vietnam for a completely free world. As soon as they move out, they will be at the mercy of the communists. For that matter, the yellow danger should not be underestimated. Of course, war is horrible, but at present it’s still the only guarantee of peace.

The “yellow danger” had also featured in an interview the previous month: “After China takes over the whole world, then the whole world will know why America’s trying so hard in Vietnam.”1

Hendrix had a military background himself. Facing a prison term in 1961 after being caught in a stolen car twice in succession, he got a suspended sentence when the judge heard he was signing up for the military. But there is no evidence that he resented the army, and certainly none that he opposed its role in society. “I’m in the 101st Airborne. That’s the sharpest outfit in the world”, he wrote to his aunt. “If any trouble starts anywhere, we will be one of the first to go.”2 He wore the badge of the ‘Screaming Eagles’ with pride. His terrible eyesight apparently didn’t stop him making the grade as a sharpshooter, and years later he recalled the pure thrill of his parachute jumps.

But a year in, he wanted out. He told the psychiatrist that feelings for another soldier were causing him to lose sleep and weight, wet the bed, and masturbate excessively. In the end his superiors agreed to discharge him for “homosexual tendencies”.3 The extensive tales of Hendrix’s heterosexual exploits lead us to conclude that he was definitely faking it, and he always maintained that he was invalided out with a broken ankle from a parachute jump, a claim accepted and repeated by his biographers until recently.

The years of peace after the Korean war may have seemed a favourable time to join up, but with tensions resurfacing on the Korean border, the Cuban missile crisis threatening wider conflict, and US involvement in Vietnam gradually escalating, the prospect of being sent away to fight could have seemed very real. His musical ambitions provide a more likely explanation for his escape, however. He had formed a band with fellow soldier Billy Cox and was gigging whenever their army schedules allowed, but this was what he wanted to do all the time, without waiting two more years for his discharge papers. But again, no sign of opposition, disgust, or even unease with the US war machine can be found.

Hendrix shared the view of many Americans that their military was a force for good in the world, defending democracy against the red menace. Many black Americans had been driven into the army by poverty and racism, and if Hendrix had been a white Seattle teenager, the chances of him having to sign up, or even being arrested in the first place, would have been a lot less. However, the very fact of extensive black involvement in the military often served to breed some kind of pride and loyalty towards it.

Storming Britain’s pop scene from September 1966 on, Hendrix would have found himself in a milieu where opposition to the Vietnam war was largely taken as read. It was easier to oppose the war in Britain, a country not directly involved or known for repressing dissent as violently as the US did. For Hendrix to maintain a pro-war viewpoint for at least six months, and especially to express it publicly, took some doing—and caused some hostility.4 As was already evident from his songwriting, he was an intensely reflective person, and this must have been an opinion he had thought through and held sincerely.

But this all changed, and quite quickly. “Maybe I’ll have more to say later when I get more political”, he replied in August 1967 when dodging a question about ghetto uprisings in the US.5 In November he played his one and only Irish gig, in Belfast, and was interviewed for the Queen’s University student paper, telling them shamelessly: “I have no views on Vietnam because it doesn’t affect me personally.”6 But he had at least shifted from openly supporting the war to sitting on the fence.7

It’s unlikely that socialist artist Franklin Rosemont read the interview. That same month in the underground magazine Chicago Seed he was writing that Hendrix “ruthlessly attacks not only imperial­ism but the entire foundation of oppressive Western civilisation… the music of revolt has found its poet”.8 Of Hendrix’s output up till then, only ‘I Don’t Live Today’ could have inspired such a judgement. Musically and lyrically, it evokes the plight of native Americans, and Hendrix routinely dedicated it to them in concert.

Although the claim is exaggerated, it illustrates the way the wind was blowing. Hendrix was being identified with the counter-culture perforce, adopted by opponents of the system as one of their own, regardless of his own political statements or lack of them. They knew something he didn’t, at least not yet: that his attempt to make music which honestly faced up to life as it was couldn’t help but bring him into some kind of conflict with the powers that be. Almost as much as his hero Bob Dylan, Hendrix infuriatingly refused to be drawn into clear political statements. His interviews abound with vague nods in the direction of radicalism, but just as many airy refusals to be tied down to any specific group or philosophy. Gradually, though, his name got associated with a benefit here, a cause there, and before long he was firmly established as a musician of the left—although this was not as uncomplicated a label as it might seem.

As with many others, 1968 forced the issue. The war in Vietnam intensified, putting an end to pious hopes of a peaceful compromise. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the uprisings across black America delivered an obituary for the non-violence he espoused. Student revolutionary movements spiralled, and the Black Panthers’ open call to physically resist and overthrow the racist power structure had a mass appeal. Hendrix’s response to it all was never un­ambiguous, though.

‘House Burning Down’, from that year, portrays him brushing aside indifference to violence and demanding to know “why did you burn your brother’s house down”. He is told: “We’re tired and disgusted so we paint red through the sky”, but replies: “the truth is straight ahead—so don’t burn yourselves instead—try to learn instead of burn”.9 This seems to be a straightforward pacifism in the King mould, but the lyrics are only half the song. Musically, it is incendiary, speaking a fascination with the creative potential of violence, with Hendrix going to great lengths in the studio to create a sound matching the inferno he is meant to be against. “We made the guitar sound like it was on fire”, he proclaimed.10

His guitar then took on the US national anthem. It had featured in Hendrix concerts from mid-1968 on, but was given its peak performance at the Woodstock festival of August 1969. What seems initially just a modernised version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ soon cuts away to a swirling tussle of extended notes moving abruptly from one end of the scale to the other, distortion recoiling into feedback. It represents “a compelling musical allegory of a nation bloodily tearing itself apart, in its own ghettos and campuses, and in a foreign land which had never done anything to harm its tormentors”.11 Or as Hendrix himself put it, “We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, isn’t it?”12

At the end of 1968 he told a magazine that he was writing a song dedicated to the Black Panthers, and that there was a limit to peaceful protest:

Do it about three or four times, and then if it doesn’t happen then get your Black Panthers and your little army groups, not to kill anybody, but to scare them.… I know it sounds like war but that’s what’s gonna have to happen, it has to be a war if nobody is going to do it peacefully. Like quite naturally you say make love not war and all these other things, but then you come back to reality and there are some evil folks around and they want you to be passive and weak and peaceful so that they can just overtake you like jelly on bread.… You have to fight fire with fire.
You have to do something—not frustrated like throwing little cocktail bottles, you know, here and there, breaking up a store window. That’s nothing, especially in your own neighborhood. You should have people like the Black Panthers, who are trained, commanders, only together…13

It looks here as if Hendrix’s objection is not to political violence itself, but to misdirected violence: don’t burn your brother’s house down but your enemy’s house, and on an organised mass scale instead of isolated outbreaks of frustration.

By May 1969, though, he was dismissing them: “we have some sheep fighting under the form of Black Panthers and some sheep under the Ku Klux Klan. They are all sheep”.14 Being guilt-tripped into supporting the cause seems to have annoyed him above all. The ambivalence, even confusion, of his attitude to the Panthers comes across in a March 1970 interview:

It isn’t that I don’t relate to them… I naturally feel part of what they’re doing. In certain respects. But everybody has their own way of doing things.… But not the aggression or violence or whatever you want to call it. I’m not for guerrilla warfare.15

“Jimi wasn’t politically active”, as the Experience’s bassist wrote,16 and his music was where he expressed himself properly. When it came to the war raging around him, he did that best on New Year’s Day 1970 in a perfomance justly characterised as “one of Hendrix’s most towering achievements”.17 The Experience had split up by then, and he was now playing with his old army friend Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums as the Band of Gypsys, resulting in a markedly different sound. This was their second day playing the Fillmore East in New York, with the gigs recorded for an album.

Hendrix and Miles shared lead vocals on the opening number, ‘Who Knows’, after which Hendrix spoke to the crowd while retuning:

Happy new year, first of all, and I hope you have about a million or two million more of ’em. If we can get over this summer, heh, heh, heh. We’d like to dedicate this one to—the sorta draggy scene that’s going on—all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago and Milwaukee and New York—oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. We’d like to do a thing called ‘Machine Gun’.18

The US had a lot to get over from that summer, as swelling numbers of protestors met with increasingly ferocious responses from the state. The reference to soldiers is probably to both sides of that struggle, and meant above all to emphasise that there was a war going on at home as well as the one 9,000 miles away. Hendrix locates the battlefields of that war specifically here, and it is worth enquiring what exactly he had in mind.

In Chicago eight activists were on trial for conspiracy for protesting against the Democratic Party convention. Hendrix “laid some bread on us for the trial”, as one of them later told in the counter-culture jargon of the day,19 and the FBI noted his proposed involvement in a benefit gig.20 The defendants wasted no time in reducing the trial to farce. Black Panther leader Bobby Seale was bound, gagged and tied to a chair in court before getting four years for contempt. Chicago police murdered leading Black Panther Fred Hampton in December.

The mention of Milwaukee is more puzzling, a city that wouldn’t headline a list of contemporary political hot spots. But its black community faced heavy pressure from the police, with one man shot dead in 1969 in suspicious circumstances. The city’s new branch of the Black Panthers faced systematic police violence and harassment, with the ‘Milwaukee Three’ beaten and framed for attempted murder of a policeman in September. The repression succeeded in closing down the Milwaukee Panthers.21

Hendrix could hardly be playing New York and not add it to his list, but the city had seen plenty of rebellion and repression in 1969. Twenty one Black Panthers were on trial there, having been rounded up in a dawn raid and charged with involvement in bombings. The common link between the three apparently random cities Hendrix mentions is state repression of the Black Panthers, clearly indicating that ‘Machine Gun’ was inspired by them, at least in part. At the second show that day, Hendrix introduced his classic ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ as “the Black Panthers’ national anthem”.22

It wasn’t his first time. At a concert on 4 August 1968 he had dedicated ‘I Don’t Live Today’ to “all the soldiers that are fighting in Detroit, and Seattle and Washington. Oh yeah, and the soldiers fighting in Vietnam too.”23 Detroit and Washington DC were among the many cities which had erupted that April in response to King’s assassination. Hendrix’s reference to his home town, however, seems to relate directly to the Black Panthers. After two Seattle Panthers were arrested days before on trumped-up charges, a demonstration a mile from his birthplace spiralled into a violent confrontation with police.24

Hendrix’s handwritten lyrics to ‘Machine Gun’ survive, on the notepaper of a hotel where he stayed in June 1969,25 so it was about six months old now. Hendrix and Cox had performed it, with the Experience’s Mitch Mitchell on drums and Juma Sultan on percussion, on television in September, but this was a fairly un­inspired run-through, with most of the lyrics omitted and little of its musical potential on display.26 This time it would be different.

Performing the opening chords unaccompanied, Hendrix draws five short bursts from his guitar in quick succession, like gunfire. The next time he does it, Miles’s drums join in. “Machine gun”, goes the first line, “tearing my body all apart.” Over more “Gatling-gun snare shots”,27 Hendrix sings of military orders annihilating common humanity:

Evil men make me kill you
Evil men make you kill me
Evil men make me kill you
Even though we’re only families apart

But later on, the violence loses its power, rebounding on the oppressor:

I ain’t afraid of your bullets no more, babe, ain’t afraid no more
After a while your cheap talk don’t even cause me pain
So let your bullets fly like rain
Knowing all the time you wrong, babe,
And that you’ll be going just the same—
Three times the pain, and your own self to blame

Then, extracting sounds from his guitar like nobody else could, Hendrix paints a soundscape of war “that sonically matches Picasso’s ‘Guernica’… tortuously yet beautifully evokes a chaotic welter of tribulations”.28 The sound bends and breaks, dives down before coming up for desperate gasps of air, “a vast and infinitely moving picture”.29 Spinning reverb conjures up images of helicopter gunships and fighter planes, “mutated into a deathly, screaming howl”30 punctuated by the call-and-response gunfire traded with the drums. Miles, in a plaintive falsetto, presents the dual case of the invading soldier on a tour of duty and the soldier who resists him:

Don’t you shoot him down
He’s ’bout to leave here
Don’t you shoot him down
He’s got to stay here

Convulsions and bursts of pain cry out as Hendrix uses “the uncanny onomatopoeic power of his guitar to evoke the sounds of urban riots and jungle fire-fights”,31 while the percussion gets overtly martial, before it all ends, not in a climactic explosion but a slow death. As the applause dies down, Hendrix tells the crowd: “That’s one we don’t want to hear any more, right?” “No bullets!” adds Miles.

At the end of that month the Band of Gypsys headlined the Winter Festival for Peace at Madison Square Garden, a benefit for the Vietnam Moratorium campaign. It was Hendrix’s most overt support for a political initiative, but a disastrous gig which proved the end for the band. Mitchell replaced Miles for the year’s subsequent concerts. The “anti-war requiem”32 that was ‘Machine Gun’ would often feature but, for whatever reason, never with the same bite as it had on New Year’s Day.

Politics crept into Hendrix’s music more and more through 1970. ‘Ezy Ryder’ includes the line “Gotta get the brothers together and the right to be free”, but just thrown in there, apropos of nothing. ‘Freedom’ demands liberation from a pernicious individual rather than any social or political oppression, but is given an unavoidable political colouring, largely by the backing vocals of Albert and Arthur Allen. Billed as the Ghetto Fighters, they round off the song by repeatedly chanting: “Keep on pushing! Straight ahead!” in step with a military percussion that can only suggest feet on the march. ‘Straight Ahead’ became the title of the most transparently political lyric in Hendrix’s work:

we got to stand up, side by side,
got to stand together and organise—
power to the people, freedom to the soul—
pass it on to the young and the old33

It doesn’t succeed as poetry, and only Hendrix’s extraordinary guitar lifts the track above the ordinary. One critic believes that “his heart isn’t quite in this farrago of tub-thumping, positivist soul slogans… as if he’s trying to talk himself into these platitudes”.34 Fair enough musically, this misses the point politically: there’s no reason to conclude that Hendrix didn’t mean what he sang here, just that he failed to find a way to adequately express it as a musician.

Days after soldiers killed four anti-war protestors at Kent State University in May, Hendrix dedicated ‘Machine Gun’ at the University of Oklahoma to “all the soldiers fighting in Chicago, Berkeley, Kent State, Oklahoma”.35 Berkeley, California was in a state not far off martial law after a year and more of running battles between radicals and the forces of Governor Ronald Reagan. Playing there the same month, Hendrix introduced the song with: “I’d like to dedicate this to all the soldiers fighting in Berkeley. You know what soldiers I’m talking about.” He dedicated ‘Voodoo Child’ to the local People’s Park—opened in the teeth of violent state opposition—and to the Black Panthers, whose heartland was only a few miles away in Oakland.36

‘Machine Gun’ featured at the Isle of Wight Festival that August, but Hendrix’s introduction replaced American cities with what just seem to be random English equivalents: “we’d like to dedicate this one to all the soldiers that are fighting in Birmingham, all the skinheads, all the…” Mention of skinheads appeared to puzzle the crowd, and some laughter followed: the skinhead subculture was still new enough, and tended to be associated with right-wing politics if anything. “Yeah, well, you know what I mean, you know, yeah right”, Hendrix continued. “All the soldiers fighting in Bournemouth, London.” The seaside town of Bournemouth—which Hendrix pro­nounced in stereotypical American fashion as Bourne Mouth—was hardly a hotbed of radical protest, but he added as an afterthought: “Oh yes, all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam, I almost forgot. So many wars on.”

The festival was shambolic, though, as security battled to keep out non-paying customers before organisers eventually gave way and let them in. Hendrix was late on stage, and his equipment kept going out of tune. Before he got to the song’s first line, the frequency of the guards’ walkie-talkies crossed with that of his amps, and a clipped English accent was clearly audible over his guitar: “Security personnel, security personnel, are you receiving? Over.”37 Hendrix may have misfired in his attempt at identifying British street fighters to dedicate the song to, but the audio intrusion added a definite flavour of British military interference to it.

Days later in Copenhagen Hendrix dedicated ‘Machine Gun’ to “all people fighting for their own cause and their own rights… fighting for freedom”.38 The apparently widespread belief “that Hendrix didn’t have a political bone in his body”39 is spread by people with little understanding of bones, let alone politics. Initially convinced of US imperialism’s beneficent role in the world, he had moved to question the oppressive realities of American power at home and abroad, and soon identified himself with those in revolt against them. This identification was always problematical, premised on a reluc­tance to sign up to anything or anyone he hadn’t thought through fully, and his radicalism was frequently diffuse and confused. His early death in September 1970—a stupidly tragic accident with nothing rock ’n’ roll about it40—closed off any further political development, along with the intriguing musical directions he was still exploring. What we have is impressive enough, though: a musician of genius willing to open his mind and music to the cause of liberation.

Notes

  1. Quoted in Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek, Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy (Heinemann 1990), p 387.
  2. Quoted in Charles R Cross, Room Full of Mirrors: A biography of Jimi Hendrix (Hodder & Stoughton 2005), p 91.
  3. Ibid, p 93-4.
  4. Shapiro and Glebbeek, p 387, quote a wry attack by Folksingers for Freedom in Vietnam on Hendrix’s attitude.
  5. Hendrix on Hendrix: Interviews and Encounters with Jimi Hendrix, edited by Steven Roby (Chicago Review 2012), p 53.
  6. Ibid, p 72.
  7. Cross, p 248-9, quotes Eric Burdon, a friend who recalled Hendrix sitting above his London flat getting angry at anti-war demonstrators passing by: “When the Reds come down from China and they take over North Vietnam, and South Vietnam, and then they go for Japan, and beyond, then are you going to understand why the U.S. is there fighting these guys?” This seems to fit: Hendrix’s flat at 23 Brook Street (now adorned by a blue commemorative plaque) was on or near the route of big anti-war demonstrations to the nearby US embassy in March and October 1968. However, Hendrix’s girlfriend didn’t start renting that flat until June, and Hendrix himself was in North America from February 1968 to the end of the year, bar one week in June: Tony Brown, Hendrix: The Visual Documentary (Omnibus 1992), p 80-97. If there is a kernel of truth in Burdon’s recollection, it must refer to 1966 or early 1967.
  8. Quoted in Peter Doggett, There’s a Riot Going On: revolutionaries, rock stars and the rise and fall of ’60s counter-culture (Canongate 2007), p 155.
  9. Jimi Hendrix, The Lyrics (Hal Leonard 2003), p 75.
  10. Quoted in Shapiro and Glebbeek, p 533.
  11. Charles Shaar Murray, Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and post-war pop (Faber and Faber 1989), p 195.
  12. Hendrix on Hendrix, p 217.
  13. Ibid, p 150.
  14. Ibid, p 188.
  15. Quoted in The Jimi Hendrix Companion: Three Decades of Commentary, edited by Chris Potash (Schirmer 1996), p 28.
  16. Noel Redding and Carol Appleby, Are You Experienced? The inside story of the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Picador 1990), p 129.
  17. Keith Shadwick, Jimi Hendrix: Musician (Backbeat 2012), p 286.
  18. Hendrix, Band of Gypsys (album, Capitol 1970).
  19. Quoted in Doggett, p 337.
  20. https://vault.fbi.gov/james-marshall-jimi-hendrix/james-marshall-jimi-hendrix/view#document/p2
  21. Andrew Witt, The Black Panthers in the Midwest: The Community Programs and Services of the Black Panther Party in Milwaukee, 1966-1977 (Routledge, 2007), p 46, 51-3.
  22. Hendrix, Live at the Fillmore East (album, MCA 1999). Six months earlier he had introduced it to his audience as “a black militant song”: Shadwick, p 250.
  23. Quoted in Shadwick, p 208.
  24. The Seattle Times, July 30 1968.
  25. Hendrix, The Lyrics, p 102-3. See Brown, p 103-5.
  26. Jimi Hendrix, The Dick Cavett Show (DVD, Experience Hendrix 2002).
  27. David Henderson, ’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix (Bantam 1983), p 302.
  28. David Stubbs, Jimi Hendrix: The stories behind every song (Carlton 2010), p 110.
  29. Shadwick, p 288.
  30. Peter Doggett, Jimi Hendrix: The Complete Guide to his Music (Omnibus 2004), p 29.
  31. Murray, p 23.
  32. Greg Tate, Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the black experience (Laurence Hill 2003), p 48.
  33. Hendrix, The Lyrics, p 154.
  34. Stubbs, p 131.
  35. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvTxfUmiBxY
  36. Cross, p 296.
  37. Jimi Hendrix, Live: Isle of Wight ’70 (album, Polydor 1991).
  38. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qc2gZmcCAEk
  39. John McDermott with Eddie Kramer, Hendrix: Setting the record straight (Warner 1992), p 169.
  40. See Tony Brown, The Final Days of Jimi Hendrix (Rogan House 1997).