“My next guest is one of the superstars of the pop music world,” says talk show host Dick Cavett.
On July 7, 1969, Jimi Hendrix would make his network television debut on The Dick Cavett Show. It was a rare opportunity for Middle America to see and hear Jimi Hendrix. As drummer Mitch Mitchell put it, these were people who “would not generally come to have heard our gigs”. Rather than use the opportunity to showcase Hendrix’s premier talent, Cavett chooses a clip that belittles Hendrix and the culture he represents.
The screen shows a young Hendrix kneeling over his guitar in red pants and a yellow frilled shirt, the pink flowers of his black velvet vest barely visible in the low stage light. His hair jets wildly from his black bandana, intensifying the savage look in his eyes as he sets fire to his guitar. Laughing, Hendrix rises and smashes the burning guitar into the ground, again, and again, until he is holding only the severed neck and strings. He tosses it into the crowd, untangles himself from the sound cords, and exits the stage with the sound of destruction ringing from the amplifiers.
“That isn’t all he does,” Cavett jokes to his bewildered audience.
To say Hendrix was misunderstood by society seems too much a statement of the obvious. Much of that misconception stems from the way Hendrix was presented to the public.
Misconstrued, yes, but it would be more accurate to say Hendrix wasincomprehensible to society, and for a large part remains so today. Few understand how unique and advanced he truly was. His Woodstock rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” is widely regarded as the quintessential moment of his tragically short career. Only hindsight reveals the significance, historically, culturally, and socially, of that moment in time.
“Your considered one of the best guitar players in the world,” Cavett starts.
“Oh, no, no, no,” a bashful Hendrix replies as he shakes his head and looks down. The slouching, mild mannered Hendrix seems the complete opposite of the maniac presented on screen just seconds before. “How about one of the best ones sitting in this chair.”
Jimi Hendrix was just one of the many well-known musicians to perform at Woodstock. The line-up also included The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Carlos Santana. The festival drew over 450,000 people to upstate New York that August, but an estimated 1.5 million were turned back due to the over-congested roads. Safety concerns were so great that Sullivan County declared a state of emergency for the weekend.
“In order to fully appreciate the socio-cultural significance of Woodstock, one needs to view it in the broader context of the late 1960s,” says Andy Bennet, editor of the book Remembering Woodstock. Original concert promoter Michael Lang could recall, “The Woodstock festival synergized a way of life which had been growing through the sixties: antiwar, antiestablishment, pro-drugs, non-competitive, and individualistic.”
Woodstock came at a time when the nation was experiencing massive social change. Sheila Whitely, author and professor at the University of Salford, observes, “In 1969 questions were raised; for example, Just who does the national flag refer to- who is included, who is excluded from the codes of nationalism, citizenship, and equality of opportunity?” Many questioned how broad those stripes really were.
In the 1960s America was a nation on the verge of turmoil. The civil rights movement caused much controversy and resistance often resulted in violence. The assassination of Dr. King Jr., just a year before the festival took place, came when the memory of Malcom X was still fresh in the minds of many. Race-related tensions were at a peak but signs of progress were noticeable.
As if that weren’t enough, America was in the midst of one of the most contentious military conflicts in history, the Vietnam War. Over 2 million Americans would serve in the war that many disputed, and 58,000 American soldiers never made it home. Black Americans, like Hendrix, felt particularly enraged over the fact that only 2% of American troops were African American, yet they were deployed in 28% of combat missions. America’s involvement left a sour taste at home, and the late 60s saw a rapid escalation of public dissent, particularly at universities. Peace-protests, which grew more radical by the day, were especially common in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, considered by many to be the epicenter of the counterculture movement.
Bennet calls Woodstock “the point at which the creative and political energies of the 1960s counter-cultural movements briefly united in a three-day spectacle of ‘peace, love, and music.” Many of these counterculture “hippies” were misfits and runaways- flower children with distorted and acid-induced visions of utopia. They opposed the natural social order and held a very strong belief that their way of life could become accepted and eventually espoused by society. Rather than discourage, their rejection from society instead provided a common base for these outcasts and magnified the significance of the festival.
If Woodstock were indeed the “defining” moment of the decade, then Hendrix’s rendition of the national anthem was truly the “swansong” of the movement that characterized the era. At Woodstock, Bennet continues, Jimi Hendrix displayed his “highest level of artistic maturity… and not surprisingly his work there was also his most politically deep and significant.”
But what made it so special?
It is cold, damp, and around 8:30 AM when, by the dawn’s early light, Jimi Hendrix takes the stage at Woodstock. The festival has run into Monday and Hendrix is 9 hours behind schedule. He has been up all night in anticipation but will not disappoint his exhausted, mud-drenched audience. “We only had about two rehearsals, so we’ll do nothing but primary rhythm things, but I mean, it’s a first ray of the new rising sun, anyways, so we might as well start from the Earth, which is rhythm, right? Can you dig that?”
After 74 minutes of his set Hendrix places a finger up in the air. “Wait” he motions to the crowd. For those in the back it is hard to see, but those that can hear proudly hail the first six notes of our country’s national anthem as they ring out from his guitar. Hendrix continues with only one hand on the guitar, the other flashing the peace sign. In his white beaded shirt he appears illuminated against his backdrop: the twilight’s last gleaming.
Hendrix curls his guitar towards his body and the next notes squeal, rising and falling over the ramparts and onto the crowd. Once dancing, clapping, and laughing, the crowd grows quiet. Reverent. These hippies did not need homes to consider themselves American. Even our society’s bastards still held allegiance to their country.
There is intense concentration in Jimi’s face; he knows what this moment means. It has been a perilous fight for his people, but progress cannot be denied. He stands as the living proof of that, a black man playing America’s song. A sea of white faces looks on, shocked not by the color of his skin but by the color of his music, more vibrant than any heard before.
He dwells for a moment, staring at the ground, but as the notes for “gallantly streaming” ring out, a change occurs in the guitarist. He shifts his glance nervously, anticipating the upcoming phrase and the ideas that accompany it.
At “the rocket’s red glare” he raises his guitar and bends his string to produce a piercing shriek. He launches into a solo, a distorted interpretation of the frightening sounds of war. His face, serious and introspected, turns apologetic as he slides his fingers up the neck to create the sounds of bombs falling, one after the other. The heavy feedback magnifies the explosion and resulting confusion. He produces the screech of bomb-sirens, the wail of ambulances, and the crying of children.
The melody resumes through the chaos, then vanishes behind the sound of bombs bursting in air. The crashing drum cymbals intensify the effect, and the sound fades in and out to resemble the aftermath of an explosion. His hands work furiously. He winces as the guitar cries in pain, his eyes remaining closed as if he was witnessing the whole scene behind his eyelids.
Finally he returns to the original melody and his expression mellows, soothed by the familiarity of the notes. Hendrix looks down at his guitar to begin the final phrase, using his whammy bar to echo the sound of the battered banner waving in the wind. The drum roll increases the tension towards the climatic ending. He holds the note, “free”, until it melts into white noise, then mutes the strings and all sounds cease. Except one.
Without moving his feet, he has gone into battle, he has survived the night, and through it all has realized our flag still flies high in the sky. High enough, one might say, to kiss the sky. The clear, undistorted final notes ring boldly through the morning air and Hendrix holds the final note, “brave”. And with that he transitions into “Purple Haze”, one of his biggest hits.
“This man was in the 101st Airborne,” Cavett says about the guitarist at his right, “so when you write your nasty letters in…”
“Nasty letters?” Hendrix interjects.
“Well yes,” Cavett responds, the condescension in his voice as subtle as his cream-colored suit. “When you mention the national anthem, and talk about playing it in any unorthodox way,” he lectures, “you immediately get a guaranteed percentage of hate mail.”
“That’s not unorthodox. No, no, no,” Hendrix corrects, a light blue medallion barely visible between the fringes of his teal kimono. “I thought it was beautiful.”
Given the circumstances, it is no surprise that many people, then and now, would miss the meaning of that moment in late August. In a later interview Cavett revealed he is often asked what it was like sitting next to Hendrix. His response: “I don’t know what they mean still.”
Author Alan Moore went as far as to call the performance a “mauling” of the anthem, likening it to ”an aural equivalent of burning the flag.”
However, those that did make the trip to Bethel, New York did not miss the message; they were all ears.
“That’s why we play so loud,” Hendrix once said in an interview, “because it doesn’t actually hit through the eardrums, like most groups nowadays. We plan for our sound to actually go inside the soul of the person, actually. To see if we can awaken some kind of thing in their minds. Because there (are) so many sleeping people.”
Only 40,000 remained to see it live, but many more would view the performance in the 1970 documentary, Woodstock. The film did a great job of capturing the sound and scenes from the site, but the intangible factors that imbue the moment with meaning are left open to interpretation.
Author Bob Hicks describes the performance as “an electronic musical monument” and a “compelling musical allegory of a nation tearing itself apart.”
“It was the most electrifying moment at Woodstock,” said Al Aronowitz, pop critic for the New York Post. “You finally heard what the song was about, that you can love your country, but hate the government.”
In just three-and-a-half minutes, Jimi Hendrix gave voice to an entire generation. He exorcised a decade of frustration, and gave a new version of an old song, for a new generation.
“It was chillingly contemporary work,” continues Hicks. “A vision of cultural crisis, of structural breakdown and chaos, screeching to an almost unbearable tension which must, somehow, burst.”
And burst it had, but not in a violent way. There were no murders at Woodstock. Half a million strong gathered in peace to celebrate art’s purest form: music. Those present at the festival were first to welcome this new hope, a hope that peace could prevail, and a feeling that for some time presided over the land of the free and the home of the brave.