Jimi Hendrix: Ill-Fated Emissary

Maxim W. Furek, MA, CADC, ICADC

picture of jimi hendrix

The psychedelic trinity of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison embodied the volatility, excitement, and substance abuse of the 1960’s. Demonstrating an unprecedented musical ability, these overachievers rose to the head of the class, sharing in the notion of Andy Warhol’s “15-minutes of fame.”

Unfortunately, none accepted the responsibility of celebrity, but embraced instead the madness of self-destruction. Tragically, all of these ill-fated emissaries died by their own hand, dominated by dark forces seemingly beyond their control. All three became associated with the so-called “Curse of 27 Club,” a cluster of famous artists who died at the same age.

Hendrix’s drug use became a focal point when he testified before the Toronto Supreme Court in December, 1969. Hendrix was charged with the possession of heroin and hashish found in his flight bag during a routine Customs examination at Toronto Airport.
Hendrix claimed that the drugs had been planted on him. The musician admitted that he “smoked grass four times, hash three times, dropped acid five times, and sniffed coke twice, but had ‘outgrown’ drugs.” He claimed that he never touched heroin. After three days of testimony and a jury deliberation of eight hours Hendrix was found not guilty.

As members of the “Silent Generation,” born (1925–1945) Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison were reared within the strict parameters of conservatism and sexual repression. Later, they became mentors to the younger, larger masses of Baby Boomers (1946-1964) who
were spoon fed every morsel of their creativity and philosophy.

Jimi Hendrix was light-years ahead of the others and boldly went where no man had gone before. A technological innovator, Hendrix invented novel ways of playing the guitar. He forged new musical frontiers, blending his amazing stage presence with the blues and psychedelia. As one of the most influential architects of modern rock, Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) carved out a special dimension all his own. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll extravagantly noted that:

Hendrix pioneered the use of the (guitar) as an electronic sound source. Rockers before him had experimented with feedback and distortion, but he turned those effects and others into a controlled, fluid vocabulary every bit as personal as the blues he began with. Hendrix’s studio craft and his virtuosity with both conventional and unconventional guitar sounds have been widely imitated, and his image — as the psychedelic voodoo child conjuring uncontrollable forces — is a rock archetype.

On June 18, 1967, during the Summer of Love, The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding – walked onto the Monterey Pop Festival stage and assured their place in rock mythology. The planets were in alignment. Hendrix parted the curtains of his cosmic opera house, smiled, and single handedly crafted the Aquarian Age soundtrack. Hendrix attained certified superstar status after he appeared at the First Annual Monterey International Pop Festival. That event, along with the Woodstock festival, would solidify his placement in rock history.

But the applause from his screaming fans abruptly stopped. Thirteen months later, the death of Jimi Hendrix broke in London newspapers. The star had reportedly overdosed on barbiturates, after mixing sleeping pills with wine. He died at the London apartment of his girlfriend, Monika Dannemann. Although his death was declared accidental, several researchers suspected foul play and called it a murder. Even in death, Jimi remained the macabre trendsetter. He died on September 18, 1970, before his friends Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison. The exact cause of his death varied dramatically from one account to another, with drug abuse always one of the possibilities.

In his book Hippie, author Barry Miles, provided significant insight into the cause of death. Miles wrote:

The reason that he was up so late talking, the post-mortem showed, was that he had taken a load of speed sometime that evening. Speed, sleeping pills and wine are a fatal mixture. When she counted the pills the next day, Monika found he had taken nine – a handful.

Later explanations contradicted one another. Dannemann admitted that Hendrix had taken nine of her prescribed Vesparax sleeping tablets, 18 times the recommended dosage. She also said that Hendrix was still alive when she discovered his body. But ambulance personnel reported that he was already dead when they arrived. There was a great deal of dried vomit, mostly red wine, and EMT personnel observed, “his airway was completely blocked and his tongue had fallen back. Jimi had drowned in his own gastric contents.” His gag reflex had been compromised by the deadly combination of drugs and alcohol and that led to his death they concluded.

The official report noted that Hendrix died in a pool of red wine — much of it had not been absorbed into his blood stream. It appeared that he had drowned from large amounts of wine being forced down his throat. If this is true, Hendrix died from waterboarding by wine, not as an interrogation technique but as an instrument of death. The autopsy, performed by Dr. John Bannister, a Surgical Registrar and the attending physician, detailed:

His mucous membranes in the larynx and pharynx were completely cyanosed and prior to suction there was red wine and gastric contents exuding from his mouth. I recall vividly the very large amounts of red wine that oozed from his stomach and his lungs, and in my opinion there was no question that Jimi Hendrix had drowned, if not at home then certainly on the way to the hospital.

It is curious that despite the copious amounts of red wine that Jimi had in his body, his blood alcohol level was low. It is also curious that Jimi was covered in so much red wine.

The post-mortem examination concluded that Hendrix aspirated his own vomit and died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates. At the inquest, the coroner, finding no evidence of suicide and “lacking sufficient evidence of the circumstances,” recorded an open verdict. Numerous longtime associates immediately disputed the coroner’s report. Some pointed to the confusing mass of circumstances surrounding his death and believed that Hendrix was a victim of a gangland style murder, more in line with a John Grisham thriller.

His life ended too soon. His death robbed the world of an exquisite visionary and creative giant. Electric Lady Studios was his personal playground but the 1969 Woodstock festival would be his legacy, frozen in time. Hendrix was Woodstock’s final act. He wanted to close the show because, “the headliner always closes the show.” At 8:30 a.m., on a stilled Monday morning, he walked on the stage. Many of the cold and exhausted attendees had already left, but those who remained experienced his version of the “Star Spangled Banner,” his gift to America.

Hendrix’s death left us with the promise of what could have been. Hendrix was pioneer, explorer and teacher. His innovative guitar playing created a musical paradigm shift. It opened a new school of thought and possibility. If Hendrix had lived, he would have expanded his musical scope and produced upcoming artists in varied genres. His four original albums were but a small part of his vision. Had he lived, there would have been so much more. Twentytwo years after his death, Jimi Hendrix was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by fellow rock legend, Neil Young.

The trio of ill-fated emissaries, Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, were among the most charismatic and visionary performers of all time. Sadly, those exciting stage personas were at odds with their pathetic realities. These masters of trickery took to the stage, convinced us of their greatness, and then threw it all away with systematic bouts of self-destruction. It was a display of excess, decadence and lack of control, but ultimately, it was about lack of love of self and lack of love for those who loved them the most – their adoring fans.

Maxim W. Furek has a rich background that includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health and music journalism. His book Sheppton: The Myth, Miracle & Music blends facets of the miraculous and supernatural into a psychological profile of survival. Learn more at shepptonmyth.com