As a young boy, Jimi Hendrix had a recurring dream. Always in dazzling colours, it included a mysterious, repeated set of numbers: a one, a nine and two sixes. This combination, he said, gave him ‘strange feelings that I was here for something and I was going to get a chance to be heard’.
Later, aged 23 and struggling to get his lucky break into music, he had the dream again. This time, its message, he believed, was clear: 1966 would be the year everything began to go right for him. And so it proved. In May of that year, he met a 20-year-old British fashion model named Linda Keith. His life was never to be the same again.
The girlfriend of Rolling Stone Keith Richards and daughter of the BBC radio host Alan Keith, Linda was in New York while her boyfriend’s band toured middle America.
The night she met Jimi she and two friends had decided to visit a recently opened nightspot called the Cheetah Club.
It turned out to be an unpromising venue, with 40 people present to hear the house band, Curtis Knight And The Squires. But its lead guitarist Jimmy James – the latest of Jimi’s several aliases – had left Linda mesmerised. ‘His clothes were terrible,’ she recalls. ‘He had a frilly Cuban shirt, bell-bottom trousers that were too short, cheap boots, hair that was obviously curled with rollers. But his playing was sensational. I couldn’t understand what he was doing with a band like that.’
Linda and Jimi later spent the night together, although they did not have sex. Instead, they played records and talked till dawn. ‘I realised how naive he was when I asked him if he’d like some acid,’ Linda recalls more than 50 years on. ‘He said, “No thanks, but I’d like to try some of that LSD stuff.” ’
She later admitted that she would have liked to take things further but was put off by the sheer numbers of women with whom Jimi seemed to be involved. ‘There were busloads of them,’ she recalls. ‘Six or seven just at his hotel.’
ONE of his girlfriends from that period, Fayne Prigdon – immortalised in his hit Foxy Lady – later recalled him as ‘relentless in the sack. There would be encore after encore after encore,’ she said.
Jimi’s epic promiscuity may seem unendearing in the early 21st Century, when ancient rockers are branded as sex offenders for backstage bacchanalia five decades ago with female followers whose ages they seldom bothered to check. But in the ‘permissive’ Sixties it was considered quite normal – one of the more envied perks of the job.
Jimi’s celebrity conquests would later include Brigitte Bardot, with whom he had a two-day fling after a chance meeting at a French airport, Janis Joplin and, it was rumoured, the blonde photographer who would later become Linda McCartney.
His friendship with Linda Keith was, however, to remain platonic, although she did not forget a promise she had made on that first chaste night together: that she would use her connections with the Stones and other music industry figures to help him. When he had his guitar stolen at the end of a gig, she lent him one belonging to Keith Richards: a valuable white Fender Stratocaster of the kind that would afterwards become synonymous with Jimi’s spellbinding performances. And when Chas Chandler, the bassist of the British band The Animals, also on tour in the US, told her on a night out in New York that he was thinking of becoming a manager, she had a ready answer.
‘Chas was saying he wanted to move into management if he could find someone to manage,’ she recalls. ‘So I piped up, “I’ve got just the person for you.” ’
Linda arranged for Chas to attend one of Jimi’s gigs after which a contract was swiftly offered. But Jimi would have to move to England, where all Chandler’s contacts were. His journey to global stardom had begun.
Jimi arrived in Britain on Saturday, September 24, 1966, on an overnight Pan Am flight from New York, carrying only a small overnight bag and 40 dollars.
Awaiting him at the Hyde Park Towers hotel was Linda Keith, who by now had broken up with Richards, and had booked herself a room in the hope of starting a sexual relationship at last. Things were not to work out as she had planned.
Some Hendrix stories have it that Jimi took to the stage on his first night in London, but it did not in fact happen for another three days. This was mainly because the white guitar belonging to Keith Richards had mysteriously gone missing – whether lost, stolen or lying unredeemed in some Manhattan pawnshop would never be known.
A musician friend of Chandler’s, Zoot Money, was drafted in to lend a replacement, and Jimi was driven to his house in West Kensington to collect it.
Among Money’s tenants was a young DJ whose name would be linked to Jimi’s for the rest of his short life: Kathy Etchingham.
Their first meeting took place later at the Scotch of St James club near Piccadilly, where Jimi made his London debut. His contemporary Paul McCartney would later claim to have been there incognito in the audience.
Linda Keith, too, was there with Chandler’s party, which included Kathy. ‘After Jimi came offstage, I found myself being gradually edged out,’ Linda recalls. ‘Then he put his arm around Kathy and smiled across at me on my stool outside the charmed circle.
‘I just said, “F*** off, Jimi,” and it started a huge fight,’ she says.
‘This woman who was with Kathy attacked me, punching me and pulling my hair, even getting a broken bottle from the bar and holding it against my throat.’
The next morning, Linda returned to the Hyde Park Towers hotel in a pale-blue Jaguar Keith Richards had bought himself despite being unable to drive.
Letting herself into the room she had booked for that hoped-for night of passion with Jimi, she found him in bed with Kathy Etchingham.
Kathy’s later account would depict the two of them cowering under the bedclothes while a mini-skirted tornado went through the room gathering up her things. The door slammed thunderously and shortly afterwards came the roar of a departing Jaguar. Jimi was free to begin the longest cohabiting relationship with a woman he’d ever have.
What had begun as a one-night stand would continue for the next two and a half years.
JIMI turned 24 that November, with Kathy now permanently sharing his life.
Most of their time was spent in clubs where Jimi played and Kathy DJ’d, or in bed, where he had instantly eclipsed her two previous rock-star lovers, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Keith Moon of The Who.
But, poignantly, Kathy also recalls more innocent activities on their bed, such as playing Monopoly and Scrabble, or with the Scalextric racing car layout Jimi bought himself in compensation for all the toys he’d never had as a child.
Kathy tells how she was addicted to Coronation Street, then – and now – Britain’s most-watched TV soap. The programme’s northern idiom was at first too impenetrable for Jimi, but he soon became involved with its characters, especially the street’s arch-gossips, Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst.
Later, when he went on tour in the north of England, he was intrigued to discover the real-life rows of back-to-back terraced houses for himself. There he experienced the delights of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and grew familiar with such northern delicacies as black pudding, mushy peas and pork scratchings, which reminded him of the offal chitterlings of the Deep South.
Despite Jimi’s fixation with Kathy, Linda Keith had by no means vanished from his life. It was Linda who took him to Chelsea’s coolest new boutiques.
Jimi told her they were ‘blood brothers’ and once insisted they formalise it by cutting their wrists and mingling their blood. ‘I remember how nervous he was while we were doing it in case Kathy suddenly walked in,’ remembers Linda. The two would eventually become intermittent lovers.
In December 1966, Jimi and Kathy moved into a flat owned by Ringo Starr on the fringes of the West End with Chandler and his Swedish girlfriend Lotte. The two couples could not have been more different. While Chas and Lotte seldom disagreed, Jimi and Kathy very often did.
When they were having one of their explosive rows, Kathy would tear open the wardrobe and fling his clothes at him, ruffled shirts and brocade jackets flying in all directions. She would even commit the ultimate transgression of attacking his guitars and regularly stormed out of the flat with Jimi in hot pursuit.
During one struggle on the pavement, he grabbed her by her pink wraparound skirt, which promptly unwrapped, leaving her in only her underwear and stockings.
A major cause of conflict between the two was food. Like every male of that era, Jimi expected ‘his woman’ to cook for him. But when they first got together, Kathy could hardly boil an egg.
For a time, they lived on fish and chips and sandwiches provided by the clubs where he played. But when he complained his diet was making him lose weight, she felt obliged to venture into Ringo’s pristine kitchen.
One evening, after he had criticised a particularly unappetising offering, Kathy picked up both their plates and smashed them on to the floor. Jimi retaliated by locking her in the bathroom, from which she escaped only because Lotte was at home. She then flounced out while Jimi swept up the smashed china.
When Kathy returned the next day, in lieu of an apology Jimi handed her a piece of paper with the lyrics of a song entitled The Wind Cries Mary. Mary was her middle name; there was even a line about ‘sweeping up the pieces of yesterday’s life’, which had come to him while he wielded the broom.
Despite her firm-mindedness in some matters, Kathy had resigned herself to Jimi being what her autobiography would somewhat downplayingly call ‘a terrible flirt’.
For a while she tried to keep an eye on him by accompanying him to gigs. But she soon realised the impossibility of the task.
At a gig in Manchester, she was renewing her make-up in the ladies’ when she heard loud noises coming from a nearby cubicle. Wrenching open the door, she found Jimi with a woman he’d managed to seduce under her very nose. His story was that they were ‘just talking’ after the woman had ‘asked for an autograph’. Jimi even had the audacity to flirt openly with Marianne Faithfull, the ex-convent girl singer with whom Mick Jagger had just begun cohabiting.
Forgetting his good manners for once, Jimi asked her within earshot of Jagger what she was doing with ‘that asshole’. She did not succumb, but ever afterwards called it one of her ‘great regrets’.
Jimi and Kathy’s final address together was the top floor of 23 Brook Street in London’s Mayfair, now a museum where Hendrix fans can get a glimpse of how he lived. The adjoining number 25 had once been home to George Frideric Handel, the German-born composer.
‘It was a real retreat,’ Kathy would recall, sitting in their old bedroom 50 years later. ‘We could get away from everyone and all the madness. It was a proper home where you got up in the morning and had a cup of tea.’
Brook Street brought out all Jimi’s love of domesticity and orderliness. He enjoyed helping Kathy choose cushions and fabrics and, unusually for a man in that era, did an equal share of the housework. ‘He was very good about tidying up and making the bed,’ Kathy recalls, ‘and he was always going round with the Hoover.’
It fascinated him that Handel had lived next door and he bought albums of the composer’s Water Music and Messiah, which he played often. He was even convinced he once saw Handel’s ghost, describing how ‘an old guy in a nightshirt and a grey pigtail just walked through the wall while I was standing there’.
JIMI’S relationship with Kathy lasted as long as it did mainly because of her remarkable tolerance of the sexual Olympiad which he conducted on the road in America and Europe.
Most of the women remained unknown to Kathy, but there was one she found it difficult not to notice. This was Devon Wilson, a ravishing African American woman whom Jimi had met on tour in Los Angeles in 1967. From mere groupie, Devon rapidly progressed to being his drug scorer, including obtaining heroin for him, then to being a crucial member of his entourage whenever he returned to the US.
Often, she and Jimi seemed more like brother and sister: they would tell each other of their sexual adventures, Devon’s as likely to have been with women as with men. Despite her own deadly drug habit, she was bright and funny, and found numerous ways of making herself useful, including arranging, as well as participating in, the threesomes he enjoyed.
Another Californian friend was the American entertainment journalist Sharon Lawrence. Their relationship would be very different from his others – platonic, confiding and enduring. For Jimi, Sharon was a link with the normality he felt he was missing as the world’s highest-paid rock star.
He loved hearing about her job with the news agency United Press International and the speed with which wire services sent breaking stories around the world.
‘I arranged for him to have a tour of the office, see the teleprinters and meet the guys who operated them. He was fascinated,’ she recalls.
‘Jimi was an unformed character, but highly intelligent – and about so much more than music and sex and going to a party. If I said I was going home to read a magazine, he’d say, “Can I read it after you?” ’
Jimi’s ensuing friendship with Sharon’s mother Margaret would answer the yearning for domesticity that even his roost with Kathy Etchingham had not satisfied.
‘My mom was always one of the first people he went to see in LA,’ Sharon recalls. ‘She was a brilliant cook and always made sure to fix his favourite dessert: strawberry shortcake. Jimi loved to watch her cook – and he always washed the dishes afterwards.’
IN 1969, Jimi was due to start a ten-week American tour. Kathy, as usual, had no wish to go but agreed to join him in New York for a few days beforehand.
She found him ensconced in his hotel room – which up to that point he’d been sharing with Devon Wilson – surrounded by what she would later describe as ‘the loudest, nastiest bunch I had ever come across. Many of the women were obviously whores and the men all appeared to be pimps and drug dealers.’
Every attempt on her part to rid their suite of hangers-on was coldly rebuffed. ‘These people are my friends,’ Jimi told her.
She put up with it until the day a man arrived carrying a sports bag which he accidentally dropped. It gaped open to reveal packets of white powder with a handgun lying on top of them.
For Kathy, it was the last straw. She caught the first flight back to Britain, vowing that the relationship was finally over.
Their paths crossed again just days before Jimi’s death in September 1970. She received an agitated early-morning phone call from Angie Burdon, ex-wife of The Animals’ Eric Burdon. She was phoning from a London hotel where, she said, Jimi had ‘gone mad’.
Kathy arrived to find the sitting room of his hotel suite wrecked and Angie and another young woman sitting in only their underwear, clearly traumatised.
Angie explained that they’d met Jimi at a club the night before and agreed to accompany him back to the hotel for a threesome.
But when they awoke that morning, he had ‘gone berserk’, banged their heads together and was now holed up in the bedroom, refusing to let them have their clothes.
In the bedroom, Kathy found every window shut, a heater going at full blast and Jimi lying on the bed, shivering uncontrollably. She would later recall how ‘thin and grey’ he looked, ‘like he was suffering some kind of withdrawal symptoms’ and how utterly different from ‘the Jimi I had met and fallen in love with four years before.
‘All the sweetness and gentleness had disappeared: the drugs and the stress had changed him beyond recognition,’ she says.
He greeted Kathy quite normally, agreed to let her give the two women back their clothes and asked her to get rid of them. She sponged his forehead with a damp cloth and left him sleeping, relieved that she had escaped that lifestyle.
A week before his death, Jimi gave what would be his last interview. Appropriately, it was with Keith Altham, a music journalist who had shared many offstage moments with Jimi that would have astonished fans of rock’s ‘wild man’.
‘Like go-karting with him. And playing football on the beach in Majorca with him and Georgie Best,’ recalled Altham. ‘He was terrible at football, so we put him in goal because he had long arms.’
Jimi appeared in buoyant mood as he discussed his plans. And while mentioning no particular woman, he described the dream home he meant to have one day. ‘I want to wake up in the morning and just roll over in my bed into an indoor swimming pool and then swim to the breakfast table… come up for air and get a drink of orange juice… then just flop over from the chair into the pool and swim into the bathroom…’
It was not to be. For the man who loved Scrabble, Monopoly, fish and chips, strawberry shortcake and Coronation Street, a life of simple pleasures was not to be his.
His sexual encounters ran into the hundreds, perhaps even thousands. Yet the domestic happiness he so craved eluded him until the last.
Abridged extract from Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life Of Jimi Hendrix, by Philip Norman, which is published by W&N on August 20.