On September 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix died. At just 27, he died without a will. He only released three albums in his lifetime, but he left a lifetime’s worth of legal issues, evolving narratives, and interesting back stories.
At the time of his death, his estate was managed by California attorney Leo Branton and producer Alan Douglas. In 1995, Jimi’s father, Al sued for the rights to Jimi’s music, and won. Al then created “Experience Hendrix, LLC” as a corporation based in Seattle. This company was created to administer Jimi’s image, control his music, and release new music and memorabilia.
When Al died in 2002, the Hendrix estate was worth an estimated $80 million, which Al left entirely to his adopted daughter, Janie. That’s when things got messy. Jimi had a brother, named Leon, and he contested the will, claiming that Janie had manipulated Al into leaving everything to her. Allegations about fraud and drug abuse were lobbied back and forth, and in the end, a Washington judge ruled that Janie was the sole heir.
Shortly before his death, a fortune teller had told Jimi that he wouldn’t live much longer. He believed her, and told close friends about this “vision”. Although he had grown up in poverty, at his height, he was earning millions. Surrounding him were, naturally, bottom-feeders. Jimi had to wrangle with his corrupt manager, deal with the Black Panthers trying to shake him down, faced heroin possession charges in Canada, and fought a paternity suit in New York.
Ultimately, Hendrix is remembered for his mastery of the guitar, not necessarily for his money management skills. And since his family gained control of his estate, they have been on a mission to “sterilize” him as an icon without a troubled life. A recent documentary about Jimi on PBS, I Hear My Train A Comin’, was seemingly “scrubbed clean” of Hendrix’s legendary appetite for women and drugs. A memoir just released, Starting At Zero, supposedly authored by Jimi (a curation of his diary entries, letters and interviews), was published without the cooperation of his family and clashes with the image the family is now portraying. Even the minutiae of his life is being sanitized. For example, Jimi enlisted in the 101st Airborne Division because he had been given a two-year jail sentence for “riding in a stolen car”. That’s where he met Billy Cox, a bassist who he ended up playing with. He was in the military for less than a year. According to I Hear My Train A Comin’, he was honorably discharged due to an ankle injury he suffered while jumping out of a helicopter. The truth is he pretended to be gay in order to get himself thrown out.
The first biography of Jimi written after his death in 1978, ’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky still remains the definitive biography of his life. But the Hendrix machine is alive and well, sterile or not in 2014. A new biopic entitled All Is By My Side is forthcoming, and is produced by John Ridley. Although fondly remembered as a peace-loving hippie, according to Starting At Zero, Hendrix was quite conservative, distrustful of “Black Power” and was not supportive of the antiwar protests of the time.
When he died, he had an ulcer in his stomach, was increasingly dependent on cocaine and amphetamines to get through all his tour commitments, was frustrated by the cost overruns in the building of his state-of-the-art studio, Electric Ladyland, and he was completing an album “First Rays of the New Rising Sun”. To escape some of the overload, he ended up in London with a former lover. Unable to fall asleep, he took nine Vesparax tablets (18 times the recommended dosage) and went to bed. He choked on his own vomit that night and was found dead in the morning by his lover. Although the family is trying to sanitize his life and legacy, what really matters the most is the magic he left behind for us in the music he created. Music historians will have to wade through the morass of all the “propaganda” to try and keep the real story alive, but the casual fan will always just let the music speak for itself.