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Bullets, bikers & burnout: Jimi Hendrix's last gig

Eyewitness accounts and unseen pictures of Jimi Hendrix's last gig – a festival marred by appalling weather, machine-gun fire and marauding Hell's Angels…

“If I’m free, it’s because I’m always running” – Jimi Hendrix interviewed in The Times, Sept. 5, 1970.

On September 5, 1970, the day before he played his last ever gig, UK music paper Melody Maker published an interview with Jimi Hendrix. “It’s all turned full circle,” Jimi told interviewer Roy Hollingworth, “I’m back right now to where I started. I’ve given this era of music everything. I still sound the same, my music’s still the same, and I can’t think of anything new to add to it in its present state… When the last American tour finished earlier this year, I just wanted to go away a while and forget everything. I wanted to just do recording, and see if I could write something. Then I started thinking. Thinking about the future. Thinking that this era of music – sparked off by The Beatles –  had come to an end…”

The interview had taken place some days earlier: on August 29, the day before Jimi played the Isle Of Wight Festival, an appearance that marked the first day of a week of intensive touring. Over the next seven days, Hendrix, bassist Billy Cox and drummer Mitch Mitchell would play six major gigs in three countries across Europe. They would have done more too, but the tour was cut short after concerns for the health of Cox: on September 1, someone had spiked his drink with LSD and he was still paranoid and exhausted over a week later. On September 9, the tour was cancelled and Cox returned to the States. Little did they realise at the time, but they’d already played their last gig together.

The ‘Love + Peace Festival’ on the Isle of Fehmarn, off the coast of northern Germany in the Baltic Sea, was intended to be the European answer to Woodstock. Instead, it turned into a mini-Altamont. Over-run by a German biker gang, battered by storms, plagued by cancellations from big-name acts like Emerson, Lake And Palmer, the festival was descending into chaos, violence and arson by the time Hendrix got there on September 6 for his last live performance.

From his position onstage, UK student-turned-stagehand David Butcher was relatively sheltered from the chaos. But he knew something was wrong. ”On the second day this English guy who was manager of one of the other bands decided to pull out,” remembers Butcher. “The Hell’s Angels were causing so much trouble – they were ransacking the office and giving free tickets to everybody. They weren’t in charge of security, but basically they kind of took over and there was a lot of trouble, including gunfire. Machine-gun fire. For a while afterwards I wondered if we’d imagined it. But it was real.”

David Butcher’s road to Fehmarn was a happy one filled with cheeky blags and happy coincidences. A student at Keele University (where he was social secretary of the student union and responsible for booking bands), he was also a Hendrix nut. “I’d been a huge fan, right from the first time I heard Hey Joe. When I was at university, Electric Ladyland came out and I just used to listen to it every day. I still think that Voodoo Child – the long version with Stevie Winwood and Jack Casady – is one of the most amazing pieces of rock music ever.”

In the summer of 1970, David and his friend Dave Philip travelled to Düsseldorf where Philip’s father was stationed in the army. With his parents away, the two made full use of the house and the times. ”We were just hanging out there, getting herbally enhanced, when we saw a poster for this festival in Fehmarn. We didn’t have any money so we sat down at this typewriter and we concocted this letter to the festival organisers saying that we were passionate about music – which was true – and that we were doing a thesis on music as a unifying force and visiting loads of festivals…”

They fell for it: a few days later, a couple of backstage passes arrived in the post. The two hitchhiked all the way up to Fehmarn. “We got there the night before, on the third of September. We were absolutely exhausted. It was really cold and wet, and we’d been hitchhiking for a day and half, and we just found a spot on the grass to lie down, got into our sleeping bags and crashed out. In the morning we woke up, and we were surrounded by cars! We’d crashed out in what was the middle of the car park area and during the night hundreds of cars had appeared around us…”

Jimi’s journey to Fehmarn hadn’t been filled with as much good fortune. Hendrix hadn’t wanted to come to Europe in the first place, but manager Michael Jeffrey had convinced him that his new Electric Lady studios needed an injection of cash –  the answer was a short tour that began at the Isle of Wight festival and continued in Denmark, Sweden and Germany. Jimi arrived in London on August 27, conducting a string of interviews, before heading to the organised chaos that was Isle of Wight and probably the largest single audience of his career. Around half a million people witnessed him struggling with technical problems (the amps picking up radio signals), the effects of a cold, exhaustion (the band didn’t actually appear onstage until 2am on Monday 31)  and whatever combination of drugs and alcohol he was juggling at the time.

Less than 24 hours later they were playing a gig at an amusement park in Stockholm, Sweden, with Jimi insulting an audience crying out for the hits (“Fuck you, fuck you – come up and play guitar”) and appearing weary with the whole process (“Ah, let me tune my guitar there again – oh, what the hell, you don’t want to know…”). The Swedish promoter had allegedly demanded that Hendrix play for no more than an hour so that the audience could use the nearby fun fair, claiming that he’d make more money from the fair than the gig. Justifiably offended –  and apparently leaving the stage at one point to argue with the promoter –  Jimi got his revenge by playing for 110 minutes.

“This song is dedicated to all the girls who get laid,” he said before the final track, Foxey Lady, evidently enjoying himself. “And, em, all the little girls back there with those little yellow, orange, pink and turquoise panties that they keep throwing on the stage. It’s close to Mother’s Day –  anybody that wanna be a mother, come backstage.”

The next day, the band – billed everywhere as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, something that Hendrix seemed to have given up fighting –  travelled to Gothenburg for an outdoor gig. During the day he gave an interview to a Swedish newspaper who asked him about a contribution he had made to ‘the Martin Luther King Memorial Fund’. “Would you rather I gave it to the Ku Klux Klan?” asked Jimi. “In the USA you have to decide which side you’re on. You’re either a rebel or like Frank Sinatra.” His idealism questioned by the straights, his commitment questioned by his audiences, he felt exhausted. “I’m tired of lying down and I feel mentally hollowed,” he told the interviewer.

If the gig that night was better than the previous one, it still wasn’t enough to impress a visiting Chas Chandler – the man who had managed Hendrix to stardom but parted ways with him the year before. “He was wrecked,” Chandler said. “He’d start a song, get into the solo section and then he wouldn’t even remember what song they were playing at the time. It was really awful to watch.” At a party after the gig, Billy Cox’s drink was spiked and the drug-free bass player experienced a nightmarish bad trip that, combined with the stress of a busy schedule, over the next few days put him close to a nervous breakdown.

The whole camp was at the end of its tether. “I’m not sure I’ll live to be 28 years old,” Jimi told an interviewer the next day. “I mean, at the moment I feel I have nothing more to give musically. I will not be around on this planet any more, unless I have a wife and children –  otherwise I’ve got nothing to live for.”

With Jimi in the grip of a feverish cold, that night the band played in Arhus, Denmark, cutting short his set after only three numbers (he had only ever stopped a gig once before: at the last Band Of Gypsys performance at Madison Square Garden in January that year). A girlfriend, Kirsten Nefer, recalled that when she met him earlier that day he was “staggering” and “acting in a funny way”, telling her, “I don’t want you to see me like this”. Nefer says that Jimi was unable to even tune his guitar before going onstage. Helped on to the stage by roadies, he was escorted off again minutes later, Mitch Mitchell covering his exit with a long drum solo.

Backstage, the venue’s manager, Otto Fewser, claimed that “Hendrix collapsed into my arms and we sat him upon a chair. He was cold – cold fever – then they asked for cocaine. ‘We have not cocaine,’ I say. Hendrix could not play more.”

The gig cancelled, Hendrix headed back to his hotel where he spoke once again to Anne Bjorndal, a journalist who had interviewed him earlier. ”I love reading fairy tales,” he told her. “Hans Christian Andersen and Winnie The Pooh. Fairy tales are full of fantasy and they appeal to your imagination.” Bjorndal claims that Jimi then started crawling around, ‘acting out’ Winnie The Pooh. “Winnie The Pooh is searching,” she quoted him as saying. “It’s winter and the tracks are easy to follow and, oh, now the seasons have changed. I’ve lost the track…”

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