James Marshall Hendrix, hailed as “the greatest guitarist who ever lived,” died September 18, 1970. On the thirty-ninth anniversary of his passing, the tragedy remains a mystery.
Or does it?
Like many short-lived rock icons — John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain — Jimi heard his train coming early on. "I’m not sure I will live to be twenty-eight years old,” he’d told friends. “He kept repeating that he was going to die before he was thirty,” recalled his lover, Colette Mimram.
The guitarist’s last days were ominous. He left the states for a European tour in August, 1970, saying, “New York is killing me at the moment.” Indeed, he was caught in a crossfire between his mafia-connected manager and his Black Panther bodyguards.
A year before, just after headlining Woodstock, he had been kidnapped at gunpoint and held captive for three days.
Matters went from bad to worse for what was to be his last performance, the Love and Peace Festival on the German Isle of Fehmarn.
It was raining torrentially, the fans were in a foul mood, and the Hell’s Angels securitymen — two-fisting booze, leapers and creepers a la Altamont — were not feeling the love either.
During a break in the storm, Jimi did a quick set, kicking it off with Killin’ Floor, then managed a getaway in a taxi before the Angels torched the stage, shot one of his roadies, and shanked his tour manager with a nail-studded plank.
Bassist Billy Cox freaked, convinced that they would return home in body bags.
“We’re gonna die!” he kept sobbing hysterically on the plane from Hamburg.
“Nobody’s gonna die,” Jimi kept telling his old army buddy.
But, on arriving in England where he had launched his career three years before, he told another friend, “I’m circled by wolves.”
Who were these wolves? Stalking lovers, lawyers on his tail for paternity suits, music producers trying to extort him. The real predator, however, was his very own manager whom he was about to fire for mismanagement and the embezzlement of millions.
Mike Jeffery was the Machiavellian Al Capone of rock managers. He’d cut his teeth as a demolition expert and assassin for the British MI6. Retiring to civilian life, he became the understudy of Don Arden himself, the self-described “English Godfather of Rock” (and father of Sharon Osbourne, Ozzie’s future wife).
Arden, who later managed Black Sabbath, the Small Faces, and ELO, negotiated and protected contracts with brass knuckles, Lugers and German shepherds.
Proving himself a precocious student, Jeffery went independent after stealing “Mr. Big’s” golden goose, the Animals, and living to boast about it.
He then bought up rock clubs, torched them for the insurance, built bigger clubs, bankrupted the Animals and opened numbered accounts in Majorca and the Caymans. Finally, he usurped Hendrix’s management from the Animals’ bass player, Chas Chandler.
After relentlessly touring and bleeding the Hendrix Experience for two years, the former spy became a multi-millionaire. By contrast, Jimi was too drugged out to realize he remained a pauper except for Stratocasters, totaled Corvettes, and mountains of coke and acid.
When, just before his death, he staggered into a London club, his friend Eric Burdon was “devastated” by what he saw. “Jimi was a mess — dirty, out of control like I’d never seen him,” recalled the Animals’ singer who had forewarned him about Jeffery.
“He had a head full of something – heroin, ludes, or German sleeping pills.”
As Hendrix left the club that night, he mumbled, “I’m almost gone.”
Two days later, the body of the guitarist lay on a stainless steel gurney at St. Mary’s Hospital. His clothes and hair were soaked with red wine which he had never drunk.
The surgeon on duty, Dr. Bannister, suctioned inexhaustible quantities from his stomach and lungs. “Someone apparently poured red wine down Jimi’s throat to intentionally cause asphyxiation,” he stated years later.
Though Bannister concluded that Hendrix had been “drowned,” the coroner’s report dismissed the case as “death by misadventure.”
A former Jeffery associate, James Wright, asserts in his 2009 title, Rock Roadie, that the manager confessed to the murder in 1971. “That son of a bitch was going to leave me,” Jeffery said. “If I lost him, I’d lose everything.”
Jeffery collected on the star’s $2 million life insurance policy. He was reportedly killed in an unexplained 1973 airline crash over France.
His remains, however, were never found. Eric Burdon, Experience bassist Noel Redding, among others, have speculated that the former MI6 demolition expert checked baggage but never boarded the flight.
“If it is possible to maintain consciousness after death,” wrote Noel Redding in his memoir, ”then Jimi must be in agony.”
But, in spite of it all, surely not. Jimi once said, “My goal is to be one with the music. I just dedicate my whole life to this art.”
Few doubt that he achieved this grand ambition. During his all too brief life, he taught us that “with the power of soul” anything is indeed possible.