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Is This Tomorrow or the End of Time?

By Robert O’Connor.

In the early hours of September 16th 1970 Eric Burdon and War were jamming in Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. They were joined by Burdon’s friend Jimi Hendrix as they played ‘Tobacco Run’ and ‘Mother Earth’ from their recent debut album. The previous week Hendrix had an interview with Keith Altham for NME about his recent appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival, and how visitors there had seen a quieter, mature Jimi Hendrix than the one who set his guitar on fire at Monterey and fire-bombed the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock.

Audio of Jimi Hendrix jamming with Eric Burdon and War at Ronnie Scott’s, September 16, 1970
Mother Earth Tobacco Road

Jimi’s girlfriend, ice-skater Monika Dannemann, took him to her place at 22 Lansdowne Crescent in Notting Hill after a party. After being found unresponsive by Dannemann he was taken to St. Mary Abbott Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The cause of death was having choked on his own vomit and having overdosed on sleeping pills but that there was insufficient evidence for them and the final conclusion was an “open verdict.”

Jimi was pronounced dead on September 18, 1970. Forty years ago last week.

The Samarkand Hotel in Lansdowne Crescent, where Jimi died, is normally very quiet. It’s a private hotel – the office doesn’t answer the doorbell and there’s no website for the place. A group of Turkish bankers was staying there when I visited. Someone had earlier put a pair of roses in the fence with a picture of Jimi inside. Looking inside the apartment where he died, it looked like it’d been unused for years. One of the bankers named Ali stepped outside and was fascinated by the group of people that had gathered out on the sidewalk for the occasion. Two of those visitors, Fabio and Rita, were stopping by before going back to Portugal. Fabio was dressed for the occasion with an orange and brown t-shirt with Jimi’s likeness on the front.

hendrixsuite
Jimi Hendrix suite. Photo: Hotel Cumberland

The Cumberland Hotel near Hyde Park is where Jimi lived for a time in suite 507, and it’s the address listed on his death certificate. Earlier this month the hotel redesigned room 5001 as a psychedelic suite. Complete with a purple carpet, zebra blankets and a rainbow stripe across the wall and ceiling. The centerpiece is a mural of Jimi over the headboard designed by Andie Airfix. It also has framed covers of NME that featured the Jimi Hendrix Experience. There’s also a DVD with Jimi’s last interview with Keith Altham who had a hand in the redesign. The suite became a regular hotel room on Sept. 20 and is going for £359 per night.

One of Jimi’s previous residences was at 23 Brook Street, just next to where another musical genius, George Frederich Handel, lived. The Handel museum there had built its offices in the rooms that were Jimi Hendrix’s place and they open them every so often during open days. “One woman who saw the rooms kissed the wall at the end of the tour,” said Martin Wyatt, the director of the museum. “When I stand in the room where Handel composed ‘The Messiah’ I get chills.”

WHY?

“Death is a part of life. Generally it’s the shortest part of life, usually occurring near the end. However, this is not necessarily true for rock stars; sometimes rock stars don’t start living until they die.” That sentence begins Chuck Klosterman’s 2003 essay in Spin “6,557 Miles to Nowhere.” It was eventually turned into his book Killing Yourself to Live in which he tours places where rock stars — or famous people connected to rock — met their end. Ultimately in both the essay and the book he never comes to answer the question he asks at the beginning, which is why the lives of rock stars begin with their death. But his setting out on the journey became a reason to write penetrating essays about pop-culture that he’s known for.

Listen to Jimi Hendrix’s final interview with Keith Altham of NME. Sept. 11, 1970
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

But I want to take a look at that fascination. Why is it that people are so fascinated by rock stars decades after their death? Especially if it’s an early or unusual death? Rock stars don’t normally die peacefully, they go out with a bang just as loud as the music itself.

Gabriele Klein of the University of Hamburg in her essay ‘Image, Body and Performativity: The Constitution of Subcultural Practice in the Globalized World of Pop’ (published in The Post-subcultures reader) has this to say about death:

Pop, as a way of living, makes its difference to popular culture especially explicit: pop as a way of living means a way of thinking and feeling, of living and also of dying — it is for this reason that the mystification of an early death is an important element of pop culture, from James Dean to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain.

Rock stars are wrapped in legend. Robert Johnson probably didn’t sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads, but that story has echoed down through the ages even though it’s not even a century old. Jim Morrison spoke about faking his own death and coming back to life, and to this day there are people who believe that he really is alive and in hiding somewhere.

Robert Johnson, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix are also members of another group of fascinating dead rock stars — the 27 club. Others include Janis Joplin, Kurt Kobain and Brian Jones. Eric Segalstad created a book that told the story of Rock through 34 musicians who all died at that age.

Another possibility for this fascination is the lost potential. These stars died so early and who knows what they would’ve done had they lived longer. Buddy Holly died at the age of 22, and his career only lasted two years and yet his legacy is so vast that he was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. James Dean was in only three films — two of them coming out after his death. And he’s the only person to have been nominated for an Academy Award twice posthumously. When Rolling Stone compiled its list of the 100 greatest guitarists, the top two — Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman — died young. Robert Johnson was #5. “When someone dies so young, we only have good memories,” Martin Wyatt, director of the Handel House, told me. “They’re preserved in amber.”

Many rock stars are preserved in amber, and conspiracy theories surrounding their deaths preserve them too. Jim Morrison being alive. Elvis being alive and kidnapped by aliens. Mark David Chapman being hired by the FBI to kill John Lennon. Courtney Love driving Kurt Cobain to the breaking point. Jimi Hendrix’s death being an “open verdict” has inspired plenty of conspiracy fodder as well. The initial explanation was that Jimi Hendrix died by choking on his own vomit after a drug overdose. Later it was that he choked on a tuna fish sandwich and later that was changed to red wine.

This past year, James ‘Tappy’ Wright, a roadie with The Animals published a book claiming Hendrix had been murdered by his manager Mike Jeffery because Jimi wanted to end his contract with him. Conspiracists have also implicated Monika Dannemann in Jimi’s death. Dannemann committed suicide in 1996 after losing a libel case brought against her by Kathy Etchingham, a former girlfriend of Hendrix’s.

Visiting these places is also part of a wider phenomenon known as ‘dark tourism’ – visiting places know for their morbid history. The most often cited example is Auschwitz, but New Orleans post-Katrina and the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository in Dallas are other common examples. Discussion of the term took off after a book by the same name examined this phenomenon ten years ago.

Unfortunately, the academic literature has focused on these examples and doesn’t have much on dead entertainers. Greil Marcus’s book on Elvis after his death — fandom, his image in culture and why 600,000 people visit Graceland every year — is one of the few that have. Marcus wrote the obituary for Elvis in Rolling Stone and as he was writing it, he realized he was writing not about the man Elvis, but the man he heard through his music:

I didn’t write about ‘a real person’; I wrote about the persona I heard speaking in Elvis’s music. I wrote about the personalization of an idea, lots of ideas — freedom, limits, risk, authority, sex, repression, youth, age, tradition, novelty, guilt and the escape from guilt — because they all were there to hear. Reading my responses back onto their source, I understood Elvis not as a human being (his divorce was interesting to me musically), but as a force, as a kind of necessity: that is, the necessity existing in every culture that leads it to produce a perfect all-inclusive metaphor for itself.”

A perfect all-inclusive metaphor for itself. That’s what the persona Elvis had in his music. In real life, he was just as flawed as anyone else. Kurt Cobain’s persona captured the rebellious and apathetic attitudes of Generation X – and his suicide is interpreted by true believers as a final act of rebellion against the pressures of celebrity that Cobain encountered.

CONCLUSION

In ancient Greece, Heroes were worshiped as demigods. Hero cults revered them while the epics retold their glorious deeds, with storytellers adding stories and deeds as time went on. Some, like Orion, Corona (crown of Theseus) and Argo (ship of Jason and the Argonauts) were placed in the sky as constellations.

Jimi Hendrix was a science fiction fan. Brad Schreiber took a look at Jimi’s bookshelf in his new book Becoming Jimi Hendrix and argues that the Philip Jose Farmer novel Night of Light inspired the lyrics to ‘Purple Haze.’ Carl Sagan said in his majestic miniseries Cosmos: “If the constellations had been named in the 20th Century, I suppose we’d put there refrigerators and bicycles, rock stars, maybe even mushroom clouds. A new set of human hopes and fears placed among the stars.”

The continuing fascination on Jimi Hendrix could be a variation on the fascination with Marilyn Monroe which also continues to this day (they also both died of an overdose of sleeping pills). As a variation on Bernie Taupin’s lyrics on her, Jimi’s candle exploded upon the world and then blinked out immediately after. Maybe that’s why.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things.  His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places.  He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and recently copy edited 3:AM‘s forthcoming book on Punk.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, September 26th, 2010.