Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Jimi Hendrix

 We called ourselves freaks.  “Hippies” was a term coined by the media that some didn’t like and none used.  In February 1968 a relatively new band from the UK called The Jimi Hendrix Experience was starting a 60 day tour of the states.  At the time very few people had heard about Hendrix but the freaks had and when he hit Madison, Wisconsin, the freaks came out.

In the mid to late 1960s Madison was home to a vibrant mix of college-age people who fell very roughly into two groups:  those primarily focused on the counterculture amalgam of drugs/music/mind-expansion (the freaks), and those whose main concern was political change/Vietnam/protest, (the radicals).  The two groups intertwined, consistently interacted and were largely indistinguishable to the outside world but we pretty much knew who was who.  It was a great place to be but it didn’t last.  In 1969 there was a nationwide marijuana shortage which greatly increased the use of more dangerous drugs in the freak community and, more importantly, brought large-scale dealers in those drugs to Madison from Chicago.  Drugs now came from career criminals rather than friends and the freak community was never the same.  At 3:42 a.m on the morning of August 24, 1970 the Army Math Research Center on the University of Wisconsin campus was bombed and a graduate student working late was killed.  It took the heart out of the political movement.  A ladyfriend lived in a 3rd floor apartment in an older house with a terrific wooden outdoor stairway leading down to the back yard.  That night we were out on the landing cooling down afterwards when we heard the boom and saw the horizon light up.  We wondered about it and went back inside for another go not knowing that the golden time in Madison was over.

But that was later.  The night Hendrix came to town we still believed the world was going to change any minute now.  He played in a place called The Factory which was just that, an abandoned factory.  Not a club that had once been a factory but an abandoned building that sat empty when someone wasn’t putting on a show.  There was no themed decor, there was no decor at all.  The stage was made of risers cobbled together out of plywood and two-by-fours.  The “bar” was usually set up in a doorless room off the main music space.  It featured canned soda in ice-packed, hand carried coolers and munchies laid out on a couple of boards laying across old sawhorses.  Someone had knocked together a raised platform facing the stage where a couple of guys who had some money and were into it goofed around with mysterious equipment that projected rudimentary light shows on sheets hung up behind the stage.  Sometimes we were treated to a kaleidescope of shifting colors, sometimes if they were really zonked and partiularly fascinated by one of the patterns that turned up, nothing changed for a long time.  People looked out for each other and saw to it that everyone was okay whether they could take care of themselves that evening or not. 

Hendrix was doing two shows and we got there in plenty of time to catch the first one.  Or so we thought.  Like I said, the freaks came out for Hendrix and the place was so crowded we couldn’t get in.  Ok, we’ll wait.  Nice idea but the gig was in late February.  In Wisconsin.  Where it gets cold.  Very cold.  All the people who couldn’t get in, and there were a lot, gathered in a wide alley that ran next to The Factory to wait.  At first the atmosphere was festive, bubbles filled with dope smoke popping in your face, greeting friends, shared excitement and anticipation.  But Wisconsin in the winter worked it’s magic and soon we were huddled together for warmth in a large tight mass.  I was so cold I was shivering uncontrollably at times.  The thought of leaving never crossed my mind.  About two hours later the doors opened and the crowd from the first crowd came out.  Eyes focused on unseeable things, stunned, minds blown.  “How was it?”   “Far fucking out, man.  Far –  fucking – out.”

The next day someone came up with a car and four or five of us drove to Milwaukee to see Hendrix again.  This time the gig was two shows at a proper club and we got there hours early to make sure we got in for the first set.  We didn’t take into account that in 1968 almost all the freaks in Wisconsin were our friends in Madison.  The place was less than half full.  Jimi Hendrix in a club and the place was less than half full.  Not only that, most of the people were there because this is where they hung out.  They had never heard of Hendrix and couldn’t care less once they figured out that the hippy chicks weren’t going to put out for them.  The first show was flat and uninspired.  We were bummed and thought about leaving.  Decided not to.  There were maybe 15 or 20 people at the second show.  The band came onstage and looked at the sparse crowd.  And proceeded to tear the place up just as they had in the show we’d seen the night before in front of a packed house of enraptured freaks.

At this point in his carreer Hendrix was pretty much doing the show that was recorded on film from the famous Monterey Pop festival of the previous June.  Along with Monterey Pop I’ve seen lots of film of Hendrix from throughout his short career.  None of them come close, come even remotely close, to what we experienced on those two February nights.  When he let it out like he did in the Madison shows and the second show in Milwaukee he obliterated conceptions of what a guitar could do, of what music could be.  After Hendrix every kid with an electric guitar learns the instrument playing his riffs but in 1968 no one had heard a guitar sound like that.  It was something new in the world.  But Hendrix’s technical mastery and radically innovative technique were just part of the story.  When he played, musician, instrument and music melded into a perfectly blended and unique entity that transcended all of its’ parts.  His guitar had a cutout in the back with what looked like two to four heavy strings wired into pickups so that every time he moved the instrument responded.  And he moved like the very essence of carnal sensuality.  It wasn’t that Hendrix was sexy, it was that the Hendrix/guitar/music amalgam was the raw soul of sex itself.  It was obscene, magnificent,  glorious.  On those two nights Hendrix was the living proof of a belief that was a fundamental part of the freak counterculture, the belief that the world could be experienced in profoundly new, radical and exhilarating ways.  The boundaries set up by society, culture and authority on outlook, behavior, and even fundamental perception were soft constraints not hard limits.  You could open doors of perception you hadn’t known were there.  You could tune in to a different reality, turn on to experiencing and understanding the world based on a different set of assumptions, drop out of the constraints the straight world imposed.  I’m not talking about chemically induced modification of sensory perception here, I’m talking about thinking about the world in new ways.  Experiencing that Hendrix/guitar/music thing was experiencing that all this is not some airy-fairy talk.  This shit is real.  You experience that and you either run away and pretend to yourself it didn’t happen or your world irrevocably changes.  Some freaks who turned out for Hendrix took the first path and sooner or later returned to the straight world, some embraced the second and still haven’t come back.

Are you experienced?/Have you ever been experienced?  Indeed.

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02/20/2007 - Posted by | live gigs, music |

5 Comments »

  1. It was at the Factory that night forty years ago (February 27, 1968) for the first show, and you have captured the night and the times wonderfully. My aging hippie mind remembers there were about 5 rows on 10 chairs set up in front of the stage, with a couple of guys on a platform behind the chairs that projected lights shone through a colored oil/water mixture onto a white sheet hung behind the band. Behind the light show guys there was an open area where people danced. I’m guessing about 100 people could fit into the Factory and when I tell people I saw Hendrix in such a small venue, they must think it was the drugs…but it wasn’t, he just played it like that.

    Thanks for the memories!

    Comment by Ron Reuter | 07/07/2008 | Reply

  2. […] who called himself Jimmy James before he reverted to his given name and became world famous as Jimi Hendrix.  For quality, consistency and longevity, the Isleys are hard to […]

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  3. […] since I had the great good fortune to see Jimi Hendrix and the original Experience live in what were almost perfect circumstances I’ve been at least quietly disappointed by his […]

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  4. LOL. i WAS THERE. TOOK SOME COOL PHOTOS, BUT THEY ARE REGRETTABLY LOST. MEMORY STILL REMAINS.

    Comment by WEB SMITH | 08/17/2012 | Reply

  5. I was at The Factory…first and second set, standing right in front of that banged together (no chairs…) platform…even talked to Jimi before the show–he dedicated Foxy Lady to me….just talking to my daughter about it tonight – she’s the age he was that night at the Factory…wild…

    Comment by dovie814 | 01/16/2016 | Reply


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