I’ve been thinking lately I should write a bit about what I’ve been reading. Not because you out there, at the other ends of the many Intertubes, are interested necessarily; more because I know that anything I don’t write down, I will forget. Sometimes I think of this blog less as something for people to read than as a searchable brain annex that’s far more reliable than my own increasingly leaky head-thing.
For instance, after a year or so of faithful bathroom reading I just finally finished Bill Graham Presents, a big book about the life of, duh, Bill Graham (born Wolfgang Grajonca). A damn fascinating life he had, including a childhood exodus across WWII-era Europe, the details of which are already long gone from my memory.
Later in life, of course, Graham achieved success and fame as a concert promoter, and in so doing helped to create live rock’n’roll as we know it today. The book is loaded with anecdotes about Graham’s interactions with artists like the Grateful Dead, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, etc. One of my favorites is this one about Jimi Hendrix:
The Voices of East Harlem were on that show along with Jimi and his Band of Gypsies. Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles playing drums. I had to be in San Francisco for New Year’s Eve itself because we had a big show at Winterland with the Airplane, Quicksilver, and the Sons of Champlin. I flew to New York to see Hendrix’s show on New Year’s night. They were recording that weekend, looking for a live album, and when I got there, they told me that the recording had gone so-so the night before.
I introduced the band and I walked to the side of the stage and watched a little bit from there. Then I went to the back of the house and I watched a little bit more and I was going to go into the office. But I said “Jesus, I can’t believe this is happening.” I decided to stay out there and watch the whole thing. Maybe I missed ten minutes of the hour that Jimi did. And he never really played.
He did every one of his moves. Side. Up. Under. Piercing. Throwing. Kissing. Fire. Fucking. Humping. He did it all. Picking with his teeth. Guitar behind his head. In one ear. Out the other. Thunder and lightning and motion. Every once in a while, he would give them a little real music. The kids went bananas. They went crazy. They thought he was the greatest. And he was. But not during that set.
The show ended and we got all the people out. Just before we opened for the second show, I was sitting with Kip Cohen in the back office when Jimi came in. He had never before left the dressing room and come into the back room where I had my desk. He said, “Hey Bill. How was it?” My answer to him was the neutral one. The face that says, “Whatever you want it to have been, that’s what it was.” If he would have said to me, “You know, I didn’t feel right out there tonight,” I would have said, “I felt you didn’t feel right out there tonight.” In other words, I wanted to leave it open. I was waiting for his lead. “You felt great? You looked great. You felt horrible? You were.
But he said, “No, Bill. I really want to know. I’m asking you a question, man.”
I asked Kip Cohen to leave the office. I shut the door. In so many words, I said, “You’re Jimi Hendrix. It just surprised me that you would do that.”
“Well, you’ve got to be aware by now of the fact that you’re so popular and your fans are so into your work that they will be happy for whatever you give them. But, Jimi. Aren’t you also aware of the fact that you’ve gotten to the point where you did everything out there tonight but remember to play?”
He said, “What did you say, man?”
I went into it again. I said, “Look at all the moves you made. Think about the songs you played. There were sounds coming out of your guitar. But that was really just physical dexterity, wasn’t it? Was it really playing? The improvisations in your music are always great because you never play things the same way twice. But I’ve got to believe that you know the difference between what they cheer and what comes from the heart.
He said, “Did you hear the ovation, man? They went fucking nuts.”
I said, “You could have brought out the guitar and pissed on that stage and for them, it would have been a thrill.”
He got angry and he started to leave the room. He said, “Jesus! Fuck!” But under his breath he was also mad at himself. He never yelled at me. I think it had finally clicked in with him that anything he did on stage was going to be great with the people. Especially in New York City. Because if he could get them by doing that in New York City, then it would work anywhere else.
Before he left, he just looked at me and said, “Okay.” He didn’t say he was sorry. Just “Okay.” Then he said, “You here for the second show?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Give me your word?”
“I’m here,” I told him.
“You gonna check it out?”
“I told you I’m going to be here. I’ll check it out.”
“You gonna introduce the second show?”
I told him I would. I did the introduction, and then I stepped into the wings. I never left. Aside from Otis Redding, there will never be anything like that show. The man took maybe three steps one way or the other during the whole set. He just played. And he just sang. He moved his body but it was always in time to the music. He was Fred Astaire. Not Harpo Marx. There was grace but no bullshit. He was a serpent and he was growling at them and the crowd was into it because it was the late show and only the hip crowd ever came to that one.
The beauty of the night was that he did maybe seventy-five minutes of just brilliant playing. The band saw what he was doing and they got into it. Billy Cox and Buddy Miles played on his level. Because they could see that Jimi was possessed. At the end of the set, he got the kind of applause that only a great bullfighter receives. Take the ears. Take the tail. He came over to the side of the stage with his guitar hanging limp by his side. He got a towel and he was wiping his face.
When he was through, he put his face about half an inch from mine and he said, “Good enough for you, Jack? Huh? You gonna leave me go now? You going to give me my space now, Bill? Huh?”
I said, “Jimi, you were great.”
Then he went out and did the entire first show in fifteen minutes. All the schtick. The Fire. Throwing. Kicking. Humping. Grinding. But what he had given them before, that was the real thing.
Showbiz isn’t what it used to be.