Fallen stars – Mahir Ali


THERE was at least one fellow star performer at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 who was not in the least amused by the literally incendiary conclusion of Jimi Hendrix’s scintillating performance.

The Monterey Pop film famously concludes with a pyrotechnic display of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar’s skills on the final afternoon of the festival, but it wasn’t the last performance. It was followed that evening by a set that included The Who, the Grateful Dead and The Mamas and the Papas. It also featured Big Brother and the Holding Company, a breakthrough moment for its lead singer, Janis Joplin.

It included The Jimi Hendrix Experience, a band that had been invited on the insistence of Paul McCartney. Hendrix had acquired a cult following in London despite being relatively unknown in his American homeland. His prodigious ability to coax previously unheard sounds out of an electric guitar duly impressed some of his best-known British contemporaries.

The left-handed Hendrix played a right-handed guitar upside down. He could play it behind his back. He could play it with his teeth. At Monterey, he also poured lighter fuel on his instrument and set it alight, before smashing it and throwing the remains to the audience. The audience might have been thrilled by his antics, but Ravi Shankar was incensed. In his world, instruments were an object of veneration. His star pupil, George Harrison, notwithstanding his status as a Beatle, had been thwacked on the leg for carelessly stepping over a sitar. Setting it on fire was beyond the pale.

In a different culture, though, Hendrix’s performance and its overheated conclusion brought him the attention he had hitherto lacked in his homeland. Two years later, he had star billing at the Woodstock festival, which he brought to a conclusion with an unprecedented rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, peppering the US national anthem with sound effects that echoed the American bombs and machine guns that were then wreaking havoc in Vietnam.

A year after that, in late August 1970, he appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival in the English Channel. Less than three weeks later, he lay dead in a London hotel room, apparently asphyxiated by his own vomit after a night of gross overindulgence, albeit in circumstances that leave many questions unanswered.

Another two weeks down the line, Janis Joplin apparently succumbed to a heroin overdose. They were both 27. Drugs were unfortunately very much a part of the 1960s’ pop cultural phenomenon, the trajectory from recreational use to addiction was all too common, and occasionally they took their toll. The 27-year-old casualties included Rolling Stones co-founder Brian Jones in 1969 and The Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison in 1971. Decades later, the so-called 27 Club extended its morbid membership to Nirvana’s leading light, Kurt Cobain (1994), and the formidably talented Amy Winehouse (2011), whose unfulfilled potential matched that of Joplin.

History cannot neatly be encapsulated in timelines. Years, decades and even centuries flow into one another without interruption. It’s common to ascribe sociopolitical and cultural characteristics to decades, and they are invariably disputable. But perhaps a partial exception can be made in the case of the 1960s.

Sure, much of the political turmoil and cultural innovation of those years flowed into the years that followed. In some ways, though, the tide also turned in the 1970s. One of its markers was the profoundly deplorable economist Milton Friedman’s essay in The New York Times in defence of the profit motive to the exclusion of all else, effectively announcing that greed is good.

In the sphere of Western popular culture, it’s not hard to see how the Altamont festival in December 1969, followed by the break-up of The Beatles and the premature deaths of Hendrix and Joplin could have indicated that the 1960s as such were well and truly over.

Hard rock is not a favoured genre in my playbook. The Who, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple? I might appreciate the occasional song, while continuing to disregard the oeuvre. Yet whenever I tune in to Jimi Hendrix — whether it’s out of curiosity on YouTube or part of an assignment — it’s impossible not to be mesmerised. And it’s easy to accept the contention that in the 50 years since his demise, he hasn’t been surpassed as a guitarist.

There can equally be little doubt that Janis Joplin stood out as an exceptionally powerful blues practitioner. Her distinctive voice and peerless style have inspired numerous singers in the interim, but none of them — with the possible exception of Amy Winehouse — were able to simultaneously plumb those depths and scale those heights.

Both Hendrix and Joplin deserved more than a three-year run as pop-cultural phenomena. One can only speculate about the lost potential, but half a century after their abbreviated heyday, there’s greater cause to celebrate their excellence rather than mourn what might have been.