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.
When I was in high school in central New Jersey there was a band in the area called The Myddle Class who were a cut above the other bands that played at the local dance clubs. Tighter, more professional, with better gear and hopes of making it in the business. They covered a Lovin’ Spoonful tune, “Younger Girl” I think it was, that was getting airplay and moving up the charts on regional radio. Regional radio was NY so things were looking good for the group. In recognition of their new status as local celebrities a local high school booked them to a semi-concert gig rather than the organized dances and club dates they usually played. They show was set up in the high school auditorium with a warm up band and no dancefloor. My girfriend and I always had a good time dancing when we heard them in a club so we went to the gig.
The audience was almost all high school couples. The hip thing for guys at the time was white chino pants and Indian madras shirts. I remember looking around the audience before the gig started and thinking it looked like some kind of weird robot collection mass produced in a factory in Calcutta. The lights dimmed and an announcer who had dreams of becoming the next Dick Clark announced the warmup band. ” . . . . from Greenwich Village!” I didn’t catch the name, it was one of those spacey ones like Iron Butterfly, Ultimate Spinach or Strawberry Alarmclock that were just becoming popular but “from Greenwich Village” was enough because for this audience the Village equaled Cool. I’m guessing the organizers hired the band unheard for this very reason.
The Dick Clark wannabe split and out shuffled four guys . . . guys? hard to tell about at least one of them . . . ragged, sloppy, blinking in the stage lights and looking completly wasted. One played guitar, another drums, and two guys switched between bass and guitar in one case and bass and what I thought was an electric violin but later found out was an electric viola in the other. They mumbled something, fumbled around with their gear, and started to play. It was loud. It was very, very loud. Driving, clanging, violent guitars. Thundering drums. The lyrics were indecipherable for the most part but the snippets you could pick up sounded like they came from nightmare. And the electric viola! Holy Shit! The guy played screetching drones broken by frantic scrabbling like something insane and fucked up was trying to get out. It made your teeth stand up and put the hairs on the back of your neck on edge. It was intense and almost painful. I was astonished.
After a few minutes of this my girfriend poked me in the ribs and said “Let’s go.” “Let’s go? Are you out of your mind? I’ve never heard anything like this in my life. It’s amazing! And you want to go?” I looked around. The madras boys and their dates were hurrying up the aisles and out of the auditorium. First a trickle, then a flood. My girfriend stayed with me . . . for about five more minutes. Then she said “I can’t take this anymore. I’m leaving whether you’re coming or not.”
Not. After maybe fifteen minutes everyone in the audience had left except me. I remember thinking “Oh. shit. They’ll quit now.” But they didn’t. They may have been too wasted to know I was the only one there or too wasted to care if they they did know. Whatever, they played out their whole set just for me. I forgot about the Myddle Class, forgot about high school peer pressure, forgot about my girlfriend, forgot about everything, really, and just listened. I had been into music for as long as I could remember but this opened up worlds of musical possibility I had never even imagined. So, I listened.
When they were finished I didn’t know what to do. The music hadn’t let go of me yet. I stood, dumbfounded, and clapped. They looked at me standing alone applauding in the empty auditorium. The moment stretched – they looked, I clapped, nobody seemed to know what to do next. After a bit the guitar player flicked his pick in my general direction. “uhh . . . we’re the Velvet Underground. Thanks for comin’, man”, and they split.