Shortly after 11am on Friday September 18 1970, paramedics were called to the Samarkand Hotel on Lansdowne Crescent in London’s Notting Hill. There, in a basement apartment rented by German figure skater and artist Monika Dannemann, they found the unresponsive body of Jimi Hendrix. The American guitarist was taken to the nearby St Mary Abbot’s hospital in Kensington but was pronounced dead just over an hour later. He was 27.
A post-mortem conducted days later found that Hendrix had died of asphyxiation on his own vomit while intoxicated on barbiturates, a “downer” pill commonly taken recreationally to induce relaxation. Although Coroner Gavin Thurston had established the physiological cause of Hendrix’s death, he found “insufficient evidence of the circumstances” to conclude precisely how the death came about.
Thurston declared an open verdict on the case. The musician’s body was flown to his hometown of Seattle and interred in the same cemetery as his mother Lucille. The star’s funeral was attended by 200 friends and family, many of whom arrived in a fleet of 24 limousines.
Fifty years on from his death, the circumstances of Hendrix’s demise remain bound up in mystery and mythology. An element of folklore is to be expected. After all, here was a counter-cultural figurehead who, just over two weeks before he died, had played to 700,000 people at the Isle of Wight festival. And the timing of his death made the Purple Haze singer a member of fabled The 27 Club, a morbid but deified members’ club for musicians who die at that ill-fated age (such as The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones and Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson before him and Janis Joplin just two weeks later).
But the open verdict on the case sent the rumour mill into overdrive. Almost as soon as he passed away, suggestions of accidental death or suicide gave way to conspiracy theories that the Mafia, the FBI or even members of Newcastle’s gangland underworld had murdered Hendrix. Far from choking on his own vomit, some claimed that he drowned after having a vast quantity of red wine forcibly poured down his throat.
We will, of course, never know what really happened in the early hours of that Friday morning half a century ago. Dannemann, the only other person who was there, died in 1996. Tantalisingly, it turns out that all of those wild rumours have a kernel of plausibility about them. However, producer and filmmaker Joe Boyd, who made the feature-length documentary Jimi Hendrix about the musician in 1973, tells me that the probable cause of death was more mundane – if no less tragic – than the conspiracy theorists suggest: it was a terrible accident spurred by the musician’s desire to anaesthetise himself again a series of encroaching personal crises.
Although Boyd claims he’s no authority on Hendrix’s death, he has spoken to people close to the situation and is satisfied that there “isn’t any basis in fact” to the more outlandish speculation. It seems that the death of Jimi Hendrix will remain one of music’s greatest riddles.
By 1970, the African American former paratrooper had released three acclaimed albums with his trio The Jimi Hendrix Experience. He wowed fans with his virtuosic guitar playing which blended blues, rock and jazz and could switch from achingly soulful to ear-shreddingly heavy in an instant.
On stage, Hendrix – whose bohemian threads made him as electrifying to look at as he was to listen to – deployed a box of tricks that included manipulating feedback, playing his guitar with his teeth, setting the instrument on fire, humping his amp and smashing his equipment.
Eric Clapton, then widely regarded as the world’s greatest guitar player, called him “incredible”. Mick Jagger said Hendrix “blew mi’ head off completely”. Hendrix was a genius and a showman. But his life behind the scenes was a tangled mess.
The year before his death Hendrix had disbanded the Experience and was keen to move in a new musical direction and ditch the tricks. He formed a more experimental group called Band of Gypsys, with his former army buddy Billy Cox on bass. By 1970 his record label and his manager, a controlling former Newcastle nightclub owner with alleged mob ties called Mike Jeffery, were pressuring him for new music. But they preferred his tried and tested Experience set-up to the Gypsys.
Hendrix was also facing financial issues. He’d signed a terrible recording contract, giving him a fraction of the money he was due. And Electric Lady Studios, his newly opened state-of-the-art recording studio in New York, had cost double what Hendrix expected. On top of this, his love life was busy and complicated (ex-girlfriend Fayne Pridgon memorably described him as “a cutie-pie with a guitar”), hangers-on were everywhere, and his penchant for drug taking left him with a decidedly relaxed grip on his personal affairs.
Friends of Hendrix describe him as shy, naïve and – after years of constant touring – exhausted. His main problem was that he couldn’t say no. As his former publicist Keith Altham told a 2004 documentary, “He wasn’t strong enough. When you’re a frontman with a band, whether you be Mick Jagger or Roger Daltry or Rod Stewart of Van Morrison, you have got to be a bit of a bastard. And Jimi wasn’t. He was a softie.” Clapton was more forthright, calling Hendrix “gullible” in Boyd’s documentary.
Fame led to something of an identity crisis in Hendrix. He was acutely aware of being caught between two worlds; he was torn between the struggles of being an African American at a time of huge social unrest in his home country and his status as superstar in the overwhelmingly white, entitled world of beatnik London. This dilemma caused a general sense of insecurity in Hendrix, which fed into his desire to not upset anyone. All these issues form the foundations on which the death theories were built.
Theory one involves the Black Panther civil rights and black power movement. Back in America Hendrix was wooed by Panthers, who wanted him to use his profile to promote their cause. Hendrix wasn’t a political animal but he didn’t want to disappoint them. So he made some off-the-cuff comments to a teen magazine about the Panthers invading Washington.
His comments immediately drew the attention of the FBI and its counter-intelligence programme, COINTELPRO. Life magazine called Hendrix “a sick demigod”. He was reportedly placed on a US Government index of people to round up and place in detention camps in the case of national emergency. This led to the belief among some when Hendrix died that American intelligence sources had murdered him to silence his subversive views and prevent them from spreading to his fans.
The second theory is linked to this, and it relates to his manager Jeffery. The documentary Jimi Hendrix: The Last 24 Hours suggests that the Russian-speaking Jeffery himself had connections with the intelligence community, possibly as a former CIA or M15 agent, and was spying on the guitarist on their behalf. Jeffery was also said to have links with the underworld, both in New York (Jeffery was close to the band Vanilla Fudge who were managed by Lucchese crime family member Philip Basile) and in Newcastle (where he ran clubs).
According to The Last 24 Hours, Jeffery took out a $2m life insurance policy on Hendrix so that he could cash in if he died. Some Hendrix watchers therefore believed that Jeffery was behind his murder.
The third theory, again linked, is that the Mafia in downtown New York were unhappy that Hendrix was bringing drugs into the area via his Electric Lady Studios, which was just north of Little Italy. So they bumped him off.
Could any of these have happened? Well, yes. All of them. Dannemann’s official account of events at the time had it that she and Hendrix arrived back to the Samarkand Hotel in the early house of September 18. They drank some white wine, she made Hendrix a tuna sandwich and they went to bed. It was only the following morning when she returned from buying cigarettes that she noticed that nine of her Vesparax sleeping tablets (a type of barbiturate) were missing, the conclusion being that Hendrix took them.
But a later private investigation in the 1990s by Kathy Etchingham, a former girlfriend, and Dee Mitchell, wife of Experience drummer Mitch, found a more sinister set of circumstances.
Etchingham and Mitchell re-interviewed the paramedics who attended the scene. They said they found Hendrix dead and claimed that Dannemann wasn’t there. Hendrix’s fully-clothed body was matted with “a hell of a lot” of dark vomit – red wine – which had filled his lungs and windpipe. Hendrix’s tongue was back in his throat. The guitarist had drowned. All of which puts a totally different complexion on things.
Friends said Hendrix didn’t drink even red wine. And it transpires that shoving pills down someone’s throat and then funnelling a bottle of red wine down that person’s gullet was an established method of murder by Newcastle gang members. Dr John Bannister, who dealt with Hendrix’s body that morning, has since said it was plausible that he died this way. A 2009 book by former Hendrix roadie James ‘Tappy’ Wright claimed that Jeffery drunkenly confessed to having Hendrix murdered in order to get the insurance pay-out (Jeffrey himself was killed in a plane crash in 1973).
To add to the mix of theories, Etchingham told a Sky Arts documentary at the weekend that she believes it was Dannemann who gave Hendrix the tablets. She was an obsessed stalker who was afraid that the guitarist would leave her, Etchingham claims. While she may not have intended to kill him, she certainly didn’t want him to leave.
But, then again, all these theories could be hokum. Joe Boyd has his own theory. He stresses that it’s an observation of the facts as he understands them rather than a definitive version of events. But, given what we know about the guitarist, it makes perfect sense.
It relates back to Hendrix’s inability to say no to people. Boyd echoes what others have said. “Jimi had this problem of telling people what they wanted to hear. A lot of people have that. It’s why rock stars have nasty managers: so they can be nice to people and the manager can be mean on their behalf.”
In the week that Hendrix died, three specific conflicts came to a head, Boyd says. The first involved his management. Hendrix had told record producer Alan Douglas that he was going to appoint him as his manager instead of Jeffery. Douglas was scheduled to fly to London that month to seal the deal with Hendrix.
The second conflict involved his band. Hendrix had promised both Noel Redding, his British bass player from the Experience, and Billy Cox, his US army mate and Band of Gypsys bassist, that they could play bass on his next tour. The third conflict involved his girlfriends. Hendrix had told ex-flame Devon Wilson that he was going to end things with Dannemann to be with her.
However, according to Boyd, Hendrix hadn’t had the nerve to confront Jeffery, he’d backtracked to Dannemann after she confronted him about his intentions with Wilson, and he hadn’t resolved his two-bassists issue. He therefore “had three collisions” happening at once, Boyd says. “You can imagine him feeling, like, ‘S___, I just want to go to sleep for a couple of days and maybe when I wake up it will be over’. It’s the psychological thing of ‘I don’t want to face tomorrow’.”
This would explain why Hendrix felt so overwhelmed with life and took a bunch of downers. When added to the pre-existing pressures on the guitarist, it is easy to see why he decided to zone out. But he took too many pills and accidentally overdosed.
This theory will disappoint many excitable rock fans, who want to believe the more outlandish stories of thuggery and a gruesome death. After all, such tales add to the Hendrix myth. But however the guitar legend died – by sad accident or by more sinister means – the world was robbed of music’s most burning talent on that September night 50 years ago. And Hendrix’s wasted potential remains the greatest tragedy of all.