Jimi's First Experience

The 'white kid's' drug that made Jimi Hendrix feel like Marilyn Monroe and helped him 'see' his music.

Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux. It was particularly remarkable how every acoustic perception, such as the sound of a door handle or a passing automobile, became transformed into optical perceptions. . . . There was to my knowledge no other known substance that evoked such profound psychic effects in such extremely low doses, that caused such dramatic changes in human consciousness and our experience of the inner and outer world.

—Dr. Albert Hoffman, LSD: My Problem Child

A brown-eyed girl, a Minnesota-born folksinger, and a psychedelic drug came into Jimi Hendrix's life on a night late in May of 1966 and each would have an indelible effect on his career. This trio of forces would help open an inner world for Jimi that had been previously untapped and forever change what had seemed, up until then, his sideman fate. Once these changes took hold, his previous life—playing fetch-and-get-it for Little Richard, or dancing in a costume in an R&B revue—would be just distant, and unpleasant, memories. It would be the next phase of his frequent reinvention of himself, and this persona would prove to be a powerful and lasting one.

He met the girl first. She was 20-year-old Linda Keith, a strikingly beautiful model, who was everything Jimi was not: She was British, Jewish, well-off, highly educated, and an integral part of swinging London's in crowd. Perhaps most impressive to Jimi, her then boyfriend was Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Linda had begun dating Richards in 1963 and had witnessed the genesis of the Stones, which made her, by proxy, something akin to British music royalty. The Stones were due to arrive in the U.S. in a month for their highly anticipated 1966 tour; Linda had come over early to get a bigger taste of New York's club scene. As a music freak, she loved the blues and traveled with a case of her favorite 45s. Beautiful, smart, and music savvy, her presence was enough to make young men swoon.

They swooned when she walked into New York's Cheetah Club in late May, where Jimi was playing another woeful gig with Curtis Knight and the Squires. Throughout that spring, Jimi had sworn he was going to quit Knight's band for good, and he finally kept that promise—this particular stand would represent his last Squires booking. And no wonder he wanted to leave: The club was almost vacant.

The Cheetah was in a building that had once housed one of New York's grand turn-of-the-century ballrooms. It had reopened in April 1966 as a sophisticated nightspot with spotted fur wallpaper, but it had yet to catch on. A bar lined one side of the room, and the performers played on a 50-foot-wide stage. Linda recalled that there were fewer than 40 people in a room that could hold 2,000. She initially paid scant attention to the band, until she noticed the guitar player. "The way his hands moved up and down on the neck of the guitar was something to watch," she recalled. "He had these amazing hands. I found myself simply mesmerized by watching him play."

Linda was the girlfriend of a famous guitar player, not a talent scout, but she recognized in Jimi an extraordinary ability. Seeing him play to a tiny and unappreciative crowd also ignited her sense of justice. "He was just a brilliant player, and a brilliant blues guitar player," she remembered. "He was clearly a star, though he was such an odd-looking star, and it was such an odd place, it didn't seem right." When the set ended and Jimi was nursing a drink at the bar, Linda and her friends invited him to their table and lavished him with compliments. Attention from beautiful models was something Jimi knew little of; one can only imagine the look on his face when Linda told him she was Keith Richards' girlfriend and that Richards was due in town soon.

Linda and her friends remained for the last set. When it ended, the friends invited Jimi back to an apartment on 63rd Street. There they talked of music, politics, and, inevitably, of drugs. One friend was among the drug cognoscenti. Jimi was asked if he'd be interested in taking some acid. His answer showed both his naïveté and his complete inexperience with psychedelics. "No, I don't want any of that," he said, "but I'd love to try some of that LSD stuff." He said this straight-faced, not knowing that acid was the street name for LSD.

Prior to 1966, Jimi's drug experimentation had been limited, partially by economic circumstances, to marijuana, hashish, cheap speed, and, on some rare occasions, cocaine. "In Manhattan, the drugs of choice were cocaine and marijuana," [Hendrix friend and musician] Taharqa Aleem observed. "Nobody in Harlem was doing acid then." Some African Americans perceived LSD as a "white" drug. Later that summer, Jimi tried to talk his uptown friend Lonnie Youngblood into tripping with him. "Jimi was saying all that crap you have in your mind, the spider webs, this clears and focuses it," Youngblood recalled. Lonnie gave Jimi a lecture about the dangers of LSD and how the drug could make you think like a white person. "That was white kids' drugs," Youngblood said. "I didn't want hallucinations. I had a wife, a kid, a car, and an apartment."

Dr. Albert Hoffman had discovered lysergic acid diethylamide in 1938 while researching the ergot fungus. Hoffman had accidentally dosed himself and immediately noticed the hallucinogenic effect. He later described that first trip in his memoir, LSD: My Problem Child: "In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors." By the '40s, Sandoz Pharmaceutical was commercially marketing LSD, billing it as a cure for everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia. Official distribution of the drug stopped in August 1965 after it became controversial, and nonprescription use became widespread. The drug was legal when Hendrix first took it (it became illegal in the United States in 1967).

Dr. Timothy Leary, one of the first scientists to do extensive testing with LSD, much of it on himself, proclaimed that the "set" and "setting" of an LSD experience were as important as the dosage. The "set" was the mind-set of the user; the "setting" referred to the environment where the drug was used. For Jimi Hendrix, the set and setting for his first acid trip could not have been more ideal: He was being lavished with praise by a brainy British model who knew who Robert Johnson was; he was in a trendy apartment with the walls painted red with leopard spots; and he was listening to Keith's collection of blues singles—it would have been intoxicating without drugs. Needless to say, the trip went rather well.

Jimi later described to a friend that on his first acid trip he "looked into the mirror and thought I was Marilyn Monroe." After May 1966, he chose to look in that mirror often. Lysergic acid diethylamide became a lens that filtered much of the music he would create during the rest of his life. That is not to say that he created all of his work stoned; however, once he had entered the world of acid, psychedelic thinking informed what he played, the songs he wrote, and the lyrics he penned. Jimi insisted to close intimates that he played colors, not notes, and that he "saw" the music in his head as he played it. His description of his creative process has an eerie similarity to what Dr. Hoffman wrote about his own first acid trip: "Every acoustic perception . . . became transformed into optical perceptions."

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Excerpted from Room Full of Mirrors by Charles R. Cross. Copyright 2005 by Charles R. Cross. All Rights Reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. For more, see www.charlesrcross.com. Cross will read from the book at 8 p.m. Thurs., Aug. 18, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600.

 
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