High Times Greats: Who Killed Jimi Hendrix?

Half a century after his mysterious death, many still wonder how rock’s greatest guitarist really died.
High Times Greats: Who Killed Jimi Hendrix?
High Times

Writer John Holmstrom looked into Jimi Hendrix’s death for the September, 1990 issue of High Times. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hendrix’s untimely demise on September 18, 1970, we’re republishing the story below.

A hundred high school students in Ridgefield, Connecticut signed a petition to whitewash a mural of Jimi Hendrix painted on the school’s walls. Calling the mural a symbol of the drug use in the school, the students argued that their school was not the proper place to memorialize a person whose life represented drug use. In a remarkable twist, Ridgefield High School principal Elaine Bessette rejected the petition, saying, “I hesitate to accept that Jimi Hendrix’s life and work can or should be condensed into ‘He is a symbol of drug abuse.’”

Although I agree with the school principal, the students certainly had a point. Jimi Hendrix represented drug use. He drew inspiration from illegal drugs, especially the “mind-expanding” drugs like marijuana and LSD, and his music reflected that. However, like Elvis Presley, his death came as a result of drugs that were, and still are, perfectly legal.

The Black Elvis

Jimi Hendrix, unlike today’s rock stars, never indulged in hypocrisy. He didn’t deny using drugs. Shortly before he died, an interviewer asked if his music had “LSD connotations.” Jimi answered: “Oh, you mean strictly LSD? You mean that type of consciousness? Oh, right. Oh, you have to give ’em a little bit to dream on so you can hear it over again. Dreams come from different moods, you know.”

Eric Barrett, Jimi’s road manager, said in Chris Welch’s Hendrix biography, “All the years I was with him I never saw a needle at any time. Sure he smoked pot, or he’d take an upper. But he wasn’t a junkie. I never saw him do anything serious. At times he was taking acid, but it wasn’t like a daily event.”

Chas Chandler, who “discovered” Jimi, disagreed. In the same book, Chas said of Jimi’s LSD use that “Halfway through Axis: Bold As Love he was dropping it every day. I told him he’d have to be straight some of the time.”

Jimi was arrested on May 12, 1968, for possession of heroin and hashish; he denied that the drugs were his.

Anyone who listens to his music, especially the early Jimi Hendrix Experience records, will hear drug references. But the same goes for every other rock group inspired by the Beatles. Paul McCartney (still on record as supporting the decriminalization of marijuana) and John Lennon (whose tragic assassination some people believe is linked to Jimi’s mysterious death), wrote dozens of songs either about drugs or inspired by drugs, from “Dr. Robert,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “Day Tripper,” to their acclaimed masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sgt. Pepper was one long drug reference, from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (LSD) to “A Day in the Life” to “I Get High with a Little Help from My Friends.”

Although the Beatles popularized drug use, they were merely reflecting what was already a trend set by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and countless other rock groups. In 1965, while Jimi was living in New York, the Velvet Underground formed, met Andy Warhol (who later produced them), and began performing songs like “Heroin” at local clubs and high schools. In the same year, the Sonics, one of the best American garage-rock groups, recorded “Strychnine,” about their drug of choice. Other groups, like the Count Five (their “Psychotic Reaction” was in the Top 10 for twelve weeks in the fall of 1966), the Electric Prunes (“I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” was in the Top 20 in January 1967), the Magic Mushrooms, the Seeds, and the Leaves, left no doubt that drugs were, for better or worse, a part of our social fabric. A cultural revolution was going on all over the world, which merely set the stage for Jimi Hendrix. But the revolution needed a leader.

Master of Metal

The gimmick used to hype the Jimi Hendrix Experience was the “power trio.” Rock promoters were convinced that “the kids would be hot for “power trios.” Other prominent power trios were Cream, formed in 1966 by Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker; Blue Cheer, whose biggest hit was in 1968 with “Summertime Blues”; and Mountain, featuring Leslie West, who scored with “Mississippi Queen.” Power trios were supposed to be “heavy.” Three men—a guitarist, bass player, and drummer—surrounded by walls of amplifiers and speakers, were able to create more noise than a symphony orchestra, a celebration of the technology that the new generation was inheriting that expressed the power of youth at the same time. “Heavy rock” later changed into “heavy metal” and Jimi’s “Purple Haze” has been recognized by Guitar Player magazine as the first major metal hit.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience first burst on the rock club scene in London in 1966. The English were told about a new “wild man of pop” who was very big in America. Then, when the Jimi Hendrix Experience took America by storm in 1967, everyone was talking about this new group from England. Hendrix’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, where so many new groups were exposed to the nation through the subsequent film of the event, electrified the country. Even the emerging San Francisco psychedelic bands didn’t know what to make of him. He did everything they were attempting to do in recreating and heightening LSD trips with music, but he was doing it by himself. He hadn’t come out of a local band scene, like San Francisco bands the Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Psychedelic Fish, or Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin. He just seemed to emerge from a different planet.

After Jimi’s historic Monterey concert, his co-manager, Mike Jeffrey, booked him on a disastrous national tour opening for the Monkees. Although he was eventually able to get out of that tour, there were many more grueling tours to follow.

Hear My Train Coming

As Jimi outgrew the power-trio image, and started playing with different backing musicians at gigs like the Woodstock festival, comanager Mike Jeffrey sought to keep him trapped in the “two whites and a black” image that had been created to widen his appeal to the America’s white majority. As comanager, Jeffrey received 15 percent of his earnings, in addition to percentages of his concerts and records. Apparently, this was the main reason Jeffrey was dead set against Jimi’s association with the Black Panthers, and forced Jimi to break up the all-black Band of Gypsys.

As the ’60s came to a close, Jimi Hendrix was the biggest attraction in rock music. On June 20, 1969, he received $125,000 for a single concert, the highest sum ever paid a rock act for a single concert at the time. He had grossed hundreds of thousands of dollars during his 1969 tour and was named “Performer of the Year” by Rolling Stone magazine. The only acts that could rival his popularity were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin were still semi-obscure names in the rock world.

Jimi’s political activism went beyond recording songs like “Machine Gun” and “Straight Ahead.” He funded a campaign with Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies to mail a joint to every U.S. Senator and Congressman so they could smoke what they were passing laws against. On January 28, 1970, the Band of Gypsys headlined a benefit for the Vietnam Moratorium Committee. In 1969, Jimi was quoted in Rolling Stone as being sympathetic to the cause of the Black Panthers. In fact, he gave them thousands of dollars, to the point that some say the Panthers were extorting money from him. After concerts in cities where their influence was strong, the Panthers would simply grab the gate receipts away from Hendrix.

On May 4, 1970, four students were shot to death at Kent State University. Fourteen others were shot and injured, part of a major crackdown on antiwar protests across the country. FBI provocateurs encouraged violent protests that gave the National Guard an excuse to use tear gas, billy clubs, guns, and even tanks. The May Day protests featured several thousand arrests. The U.S. government was cracking down on the youth revolution inspired and supported by artists like Jimi. The fact that Jimi Hendrix died a few months later, followed closely by Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin is said by many to be more than a mere coincidence.

Today, it’s a matter of public record that the Panthers were broken up by infiltrators, provocateurs, and police, as a special target of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), which was started in 1956. This program, coordinated by the FBI, was responsible for 2,340 actions against the New Left, including illegal phone taps, drug arrests, burglaries, bombings, and murder. Even before it became public knowledge, people knew that involvement with the Black Panthers, or any radical political group, was inviting trouble.

Shortly before Jimi died, Experience bass player Billy Cox was given punch spiked with LSD. Cox, who had never taken LSD before, flipped out, forcing Hendrix to cancel the remaining shows on the tour. Before he became a vegetable, Cox went totally manic, and had visions of people coming to kill himself and Jimi.

The Day the Music Died

When Jimi died on September 18, 1970, the press had a field day. “DRUGS KILL JIMI HENDRIX AT 24” screamed the London Evening News. (Wrong on two counts: he was 27.) “JIMI HENDRIX DIED IN DRUGS MYSTERY” read another. One news report even called him a “cocaine addict.” But the official death certificate, under “Cause of Death,” read:

Inhalation of vomit
Barbiturate intoxication (quinalbarbitone)
Insufficient evidence of circumstances
Open verdict

Monika Danneman, Jimi’s German girlfriend, who called the ambulance when he appeared ill while sleeping at her apartment, described what happened to Jimi the last day in the book Hendrix by Chris Welch:

“The men said he was okay and sat him in the ambulance. I found out later they should have laid him down flat to let him breathe. But they put him on a chair with his head back. He did not die from the sleeping tablets because he had not taken enough to be an overdose. It was not fatal. The reason he died was because he couldn’t get air.”

According to Monika, the night and morning before he died, he had also smoked some pot, eaten some fish sandwiches, and drunk a bit of wine—although the pathology report said he had a high level of alcohol in his system. His system, slowed by the mixture of prescription drugs and alcohol, failed when the ambulance arrived at the hospital. But there is no doubt that, with proper medical attention at the scene, Jimi Hendrix would not have died. The amount of sleeping pills he had taken was excessive, but Monika Danneman’s prescription was a much stronger dosage than Jimi would have been used to (her sleeping pills were supposed to be broken up into quarters, so if Jimi had taken three or four to help him sleep, it would have been a very heavy dosage).

Although few people doubt that Jimi’s death was merely a tragic accident, as opposed to an intentional drug overdose or an assassination plot, there is evidence to support several different conspiracy theories. As David Henderson’s biography ’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky states, “he was being hustled and bled dry.” His comanager, Mike Jeffrey, was accused by musicians who played with Jimi of having Mafia connections. The Mafia, according to Henderson’s book, opposed Jimi’s idea for building Electric Lady Studios on West 8th Street in NYC. Meanwhile, the FBI was investigating Jimi’s drug habits, and checking out the Electric Lady studios he was constructing, so Jimi was caught between the FBI and the Mob. A few months before he died, Jimi asked some friends to hire a hit man for him. All of Jimi’s publishing money went to the Bahamas, where Mike Jeffrey reportedly died in a mysterious plane crash a few years after Hendrix’s death.

War Heroes

Another […] book casts an interesting light on the death of Hendrix: Contract on America: The Mafia Murder of President John F. Kennedy. On November 8, 1965, Dorothy Kilgallen died at the age of 52 from ingestion of barbiturates and alcohol—the same cause of death as Jimi. Shortly before her death, Kilgallen told a friend that she was going to New Orleans in five days to break the case of who killed Kennedy wide open. Her death was just one of many mostly violent deaths that seemed to befall many witnesses and investigators involved in the Kennedy assassination—many complete with suicide notes. The same book cites evidence of Mafia involvement in the music business, noting that “of $600 million spent on tape recordings in America in 1972, $200 million went for pirated tapes.”

Before there was a ’60s counterculture revolution, John F. Kennedy smoked pot, experimented with LSD, and tried to end the war in Vietnam. According to Contract on America, one reason organized crime wanted JFK out of the way was his plan to pull American troops out of Vietnam. The CIA/Mafia connection wanted American troops stationed there to help transport tons of heroin from the Golden Triangle region. Contract on America and other books about the Kennedy assassination implicate the CIA and the FBI in the murder of both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, who was also dropping LSD, leading efforts to legalize it, and even turning on UN diplomats. At the same time, J. Edgar Hoover, as head of the FBI, and Harry Anslinger, head of the FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics, forerunner of today’s DEA) had been out to destroy “race music” since the ’30s. Anslinger ordered all of his agents to keep surveillance on many prominent jazz musicians: Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and Lionel Hampton, among others. There’s no doubt that the FBI had a large file on Jimi Hendrix.

According to What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been: A Hippy’s History of the Sixties and Beyond, John Lennon was a prime target of Hoover’s FBI, who had over 26 pounds of documents on him, many of which they have refused to release, and his shooting by Mark David Chapman was a deliberate assassination programmed by the FBI. Lennon was much more obvious than Hendrix in his political activism. After his activism in the late ’60s and early ’70s—his Bed-Ins for Peace, support of David Peel and his “I Like Marijuana” anthem, covert financial support of countless radical organizations and more—Lennon was forced to withdraw, and lie low. As soon as he reemerged a few years later, he was shot down.

I Don’t Live Today

There’s no disputing that the death of Jimi Hendrix resulted from complications due to a heavy dose of prescription sleeping pills and alcohol. But he didn’t die from a drug overdose. He was not an out-of-control dope fiend or a junkie. And anyone who would use his death as a warning to stay away from drugs should warn people against the other things that killed Jimi—the stresses of dealing with the music industry, the craziness of being on the road, and, especially, the dangers of involving oneself in radical, or even unpopular, political movements.

COINTELPRO was out to do more than prevent a Communist menace from taking over the United States, or keep the Black Power movement from burning down cities. COINTELPRO was out to obliterate and ruin the reputations of the people involved in the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and the rock revolution. Whenever Jimi Hendrix’s death is blamed on drugs, it accomplishes the goals of the FBI’s program. It not only slanders Jimi’s personal and professional reputation, but the entire rock revolution in the ’60s.

Thus, when those high school kids in Ridgefield set out to whitewash the Hendrix mural, they were unwittingly trying to accomplish the real goals of the war on drugs: to wipe out the ’60s and everything that the ’60s stood for.

1 comment
  1. He was killed. There is no doubt in my mind.
    I could see this long before a lot of this became public. Such a shame. It’s also a shame how they are brainwashing the children in our schools.

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