The Night I Met Jimi Hendrix

Jimi HendrixMy friend Debi lived in Goleta, just a mile from the UCSB student village, Isla Vista. Despite the block-after-block layout of mid-century apartment buildings, the hippies hanging out at Peoples Park,the political activism, and the strip of coffeehouses, mod boutiques and head shops had earned I.V. the unofficial title of "Haight-Ashbury south". It was a place that was cool enough that Edie Sedgwick spent the end of her young life there. Today it is best known for the riots of 1970 during which the Bank of America was burned to the ground. But before that happened, Isla Vista was a great place to hang out, promenade in your hippie finery, enjoy live folk music in one of the several coffeehouses, and crash a party. I often spent weekends at Debi's house, and we'd spend most of our time at I.V.

On this particular weekend we'd gotten tickets to the Jimi Hendrix concert in the UCSB gym. Debi was on a strict schedule of phenobarbital. I just Googled it and learned that she must have had epilepsy, but she never spoke of it back then. I remember that her mother came into the bedroom every night and woke her up to give her a pill, which I thought was kind of weird. That week she'd foolishly saved a couple of them up for the concert and, as soon as we were dropped off at the gym, we hit a water fountain. I'd never taken anything like that before and it knocked me into a hypnotic stupor that made everything around me move slowly. At that point in my life I'd only smoked a little pot; this was entirely different.

In those days no one sat in chairs at concerts. Everyone just sat on the floor, stood near the stage, or danced. Being a musician, I was the standing sort, and we found a great spot to the right of the stage, directly in front of one of the speaker stacks. We were close enough to bassist Noel Redding that we could see the smudges on his boots. The concert was fantastic and, despite the drug, I have a vivid memory of Jimi's performance. Just as The Experience launched into their encore, a guy came up to us and told us to come with him. Being on drugs for the first time, I immediately became paranoid, afraid that "they'd" figured out we were high (yeah, right... two kids in a gym full of Hendrix fans...), and were going to give us to the police. Funny, now that I'm older.

We looked at each other, scared, and followed him. Mostly, I was pissed because I was missing Jimi's performance of "Foxey Lady". The guy led us into a large back room in which a long table was set up as a buffet. I didn't understand what was going on, but in a few moments the doors opened again and my friends, Ernie & the Emperors walked in. They were the most popular band in the tri-counties area and were well-respected by the Lovin' Spoonful, Strawberry Alarm Clock, and most of the really great bands of the Sixties, so seeing them enter the room wasn't too surprising for me. We spoke a little bit and I noticed that drummer Mitch Mitchell had drawn Debi away and was chatting her up. What was happening began to dawn on me: Mitchell had seen her in the audience and told one of the roadies to bring us backstage.

Jimi HendrixThere was a stir at the door and in walked Jimi. He was a small man--probably no taller than 5' 4" and slight of build. Actually, all three of them were short, but Jimi possessed enormous presence. He looked around the room, said a word or two to a couple of people, then walked right over to the buffet table where I was standing (had he been interested in meeting me, I wonder). He was quiet--almost shy -- and began talking to me. He asked me if I was a "Santa Barbara bunny" and I replied that I couldn't even swim, much less surf. I remember that he laughed. I told him I was a singer/songwriter and he was immediately interested, asking me questions about my style, my influences and my goals.

After a while he asked me if my girlfriend and I would like to go and party with him and the band and, like the naive 16 year-old that I was, I explained that my friend's dad was picking us up at ten. Jimi was very sweet and very respectful as he steered the conversation back to music. Ernie met Jimi as well and had a friendly talk in the dressing room that led from the room I was in. Ernie clearly recalls Jimi's down-to-earth and magically humble qualities as the Rock legend leaned against his dressing room mirror conversing with him.

When I learned of his death at the age of 27, I was sad for a long time. Despite his wild reputation, Jimi Hendrix was a gentleman in the purest sense of the word who will always own a warm corner of my heart.

Steph Waller is an author and composer. Her Rock trilogy, Beyond The Bridge, which takes places in 60s-80s London, is set to be published in 2010-11. Read more at Beyond The Bridge.

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