Tuesday, December 8, 2009

This Day in Rock History (Hendrix Testifies in Canada on Drug Charges)

December 8, 1969—“Purple Haze” might have been one of his signature songs, but 27-year-old Jimi Hendrix—well on his way to guitar legend status—testified that he hadn’t planned to be in a haze of any kind when he was stopped passing through Canadian Customs with hashish and heroin in his possession.

As the 12 jurors in the Toronto court house scrutinized him—with perhaps at least a few wondering about his credibility—the musician readily admitted that yes, he had used drugs before. But that was in the past. He’d “outgrown” them now, he claimed.

Hendrix was part of a recent trend that saw rock ‘n’ rollers running afoul of the law. Several of these high-profile arrests involved drugs, including some instances (e.g., John and Yoko Ono) where the musicians claimed the evidence was planted by police. Even in those cases where police illegality didn’t occur, the cops were undoubtedly glad to have these high-profile scalps.

According to Hendrix biographer Charles R. Cross, the guitarist’s experience with drugs had been limited to pot, hashish, cheap speed, and occasionally cocaine until one night in 1966, when his life changed in a major way.

On the plus side, he was noticed by Linda Keith, a 20-year-old British model then dating the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. Infuriated that the talented Hendrix was playing as a backup musician in a near-empty club, she brought him along with her group of friends that night. Several weeks later, she would bring him to the U.K., where she introduced him to several music industry people and his career finally took off.

But the night they met, someone in Keith’s circle also introduced Hendrix to LSD. The drug would soon form a part of his creative process (he could see “colors” in playing guitar, he told people), and his undoing.

But the end of the line, though visible, hadn’t quite yet arrived for the musician yet. Rebuttal witnesses backed up his story that someone else must have packed the drugs by mistake in his bag when he was stopped by Customs the prior May, with UPI entertainment reporter-turned-friend Sharon Lawrence and Hendrix’s former producer and manager Chas Chandler lending particularly credible support.

Two days after Hendrix walked into the court house, the case went to the jury, who deliberated for eight hours before announcing that he was not guilty on all charges. The relieved Hendrix told reporters that he was “happy as a newborn baby,” and expressed particular gratitude toward his fans: “Some of them were there for 12 hours….It was like a love relation.”

(Hendrix knew a fair amount about “love relations.” In addition to Keith, he also had a son and daughter out of wedlock, and slept with Danne Hughes, the wife of art critic Robert Hughes.

“She did not tell me about this,” Robert Hughes recalled in his memoir, Things I Didn’t Know. “Some girlfriend of hers did. I think it was Hendrix who gave her a sentimental souvenir of their encounter in the back of a limo: the clap. She did not tell me about that, either, before passing it on to me.”)

Hendrix’s mixture of alcohol, drugs and women turned lethal on September 18, 1970. He was stoned in the bedroom of former girlfriend Monika Dannemann when, by mistake, he swallowed too many sleeping pills, then choked on his own vomit. His death came only 13 months after his electrifying performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock.

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