Excerpt: Starting At Zero
In a book culled from his interviews, diary notes and scribbles on napkins, Jimi Hendrix speaks about ‘singing sloppy’ to make money, getting stoned with Bob Dylan, and getting his big break
LETTER HOME FROM NEW YORK, AUGUST 1965:
I just want to let you know I’m still here, trying to make it. Although I don’t eat every day, everything’s going alright for me. I still have my guitar and amp, and as long as I have that, no fool can keep me from living.
There’s a few record companies I visited that I probably can record for. I think I’ll start working toward that line because when you’re playing behind other people you’re still not making a big name for yourself, as you would if you were working for yourself. But I went on the road with other people to get exposed to the public and see how business is taken care of, and mainly just to see what’s what. After I put a record out, there’ll be a few people who know me already and who can help with the sale of the record. Nowadays people don’t want you to sing good. They want you to sing sloppy and have a good beat to your songs. That’s what angle I’m going to shoot for. That’s where the money is. So just in case about three or four months from now you might hear a record by me which sounds terrible, don’t feel ashamed, just wait until the money rolls in, because every day people are singing worse and worse on purpose and the public buys more and more records.
It could be worse than this, but I’m going to keep hustling and scuffling until I get things to happening like they’re supposed to for me. Tell everyone I said hello. Leon, Grandma, Ben, Ernie, Frank, Mary, Barbara and so forth. Please write soon. It’s pretty lonely out here by myself. Best luck and happiness in the future.
Love, your son Jimmy
I just got tired, man. I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I can’t tell you the number of times it hurt me to play the same notes, the same beat. I was just a kind of shadowy figure up there, out of sight of the real meaning. I wanted my own scene, making my own music. I always wanted a lot, you know? I really, really did. I was starting to see that you could create a whole new world with an electric guitar, because there isn’t a sound like it in the whole world!
I had these ideas and sounds in my brain, but I needed people to do it with and they were hard to find. I had friends with me in Harlem, and I’d say, “C’mon down to the Village so we can get something together.”
But they were lazy, they were scared, plus they didn’t think they were going to get paid. I said, “Quite naturally you won’t get paid on the audition, because it’s us going down there and being aggressive, it’s us filtering down to them. So there’s a few things you have to give up in the beginning.” They didn’t want to do that, so I just went down to the Village and started playing like I wanted.
In Greenwich Village people were more friendly than in Harlem, where it’s all cold and mean. I couldn’t stand it there because they talk about you worse than anyplace else!
When I was staying in Harlem my hair was really long, and sometimes I might tie it up or do something with it. I’d be walking down the street, and all of a sudden the cats, or girls, old ladies—anybody!—would be just peekin’ out, sayin’, “Ough, what’s this supposed to be? Black Jesus?” or “What is this, the circus or something?” God! Even in your own section. Your own people hurt you more.
The Village was groovy. I’d just lay around and play for about two dollars a night and then try to find a place to stay. You had to chat someone up real quick before you had a place to stay. I got a break playing guitar for John Hammond Jr. at the Cafe Au Go Go. That was great because the ceiling was really low and dusty. I’d stick the guitar right up into the ceiling. It was like war. You didn’t even need a smoke bomb!
When I was down in the Village Bob Dylan was also starving down there. I saw him one time, but both of us were stoned out of our minds thanks to demon ale. It was at this place called the Kettle of Fish. I remember it vaguely. We were both stoned and just hung around laughing.
Yeah, we just laughed.
When I first heard Dylan I thought, you must admire the guy for having that much nerve to sing so out of key. But then I started listening to the words. That sold me.
I used to get bored so quickly by anybody and everything. That’s why I went towards Dylan, because he offered me something completely new. He used to have a pad with him all the time to put down what he saw around him. He doesn’t have to be stoned when he writes, although he probably is. A cat like that just doesn’t have to be. I could never write the kind of words he does, but he’s helped me out in trying to write because I’ve got a thousand songs that will never be finished. I just lie around and write about two or three words, but now I have a little more confidence in trying to finish one.
POSTCARD TO AL HENDRIX, 1966:
Well ... I’m just dropping in a few words to let you know everything’s so-so in this big raggedy city of New York. Everything’s happening bad here. I hope everyone at home is alright. Tell Leon I said hello. I’ll write you a letter real soon and will try to send you a decent picture. So until then I hope you’re doing alright. Tell Ben and Ernie I play the blues like they NEVER heard.
Love always, Jimmy.
The first real group I got together on my own was with Randy California. That would be around the beginning of 1966, I guess. I changed my name to Jimmy James and called the group the Blue Flames. Not exactly original, was it?
Almost immediately we got offers from Epic and CBS, but I didn’t feel we were completely ready then. Record companies had started to show a little interest in me when I was playing at the Cafe Au Go Go, and a year before Mick Jagger had tried to get me on a tour. But my big slice of luck came when a little English friend persuaded Chas Chandler, the bass player of the Animals, to come down where we were gigging and give an ear.
The Animals were doing their last gig as a group in Central Park, you know,“mouth the words.” Chas came down and heard me and asked would I like to come over to England and start a group there. He seemed like a pretty sincere guy, and I’d never been to England before.
I said, “I might as well go,” because that’s the way I live my life. I’d never been to Memphis, so I’d starve my way down there. I didn’t have any roots in the States that would hang me up, and it doesn’t matter which bit of the world I’m in as long as I’m living and putting things down. Plus, I thought I could play louder over there, I could really get myself together over there. There wouldn’t be so many hang-ups as there were in America, you know, mental hang-ups and things like that. I was getting all uptight with the American scene. The country wasn’t opening up the way England was.
I only hope that the guys I left behind are all right. We were making something near three dollars a night, and we were starving. The way I left was kinda wrong. They all thought they were going, but it was easier for me to go alone. I felt kind of rotten about leaving just like that because we weren’t living too much, you dig?
I always had a feeling that, if my mind was right, I’d get a break someday. It took a long time, knocking around and playing a lot of dates that didn’t pay very well, but I figure it was worth it. Oh, man! I don’t think I could have stood another year of playing behind people.
I’m glad Chas rescued me.
Excerpted from Starting At Zero: His Own Story (204 pages, Rs.299), with permission from Bloomsbury.
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