[Slowhand] When Jimi Got Shot - EC mention
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Sat Jan 26 03:36:52 EST 2008
The insider: the day I captured Jimi Hendrix's soul
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 27/01/2008
In 1966, Gered Mankowitz was snapping London's rock aristocracy. Then Jimi
Hendrix showed up.
They were all there that night in late 1966, packed into the Bag O' Nails
club in Soho: Clapton, Townshend, Beck and every guitar great of the time.
They had convened to check out a new black-American guitarist who was
causing something of a buzz in the music scene. That guy was Jimi Hendrix,
and that gig - his first in Britain - has gone down in music folklore. He
ripped through song after song in a way that had never been known before,
overwhelming the audience with a searing noise and musicianship. Here was a
guy playing the guitar upside down one minute and with his teeth the next.
The audience were just stunned: how the hell was he doing that? It was
magical, mystical and, according to the guitarists in the audience, nigh-on
impossible technically. As Eric Clapton said, Hendrix's performance rewrote
the manual for rock'n'roll guitar and every guitarist who was there was
forced back to the drawing-board.
The show was put on by his manager Chas Chandler - a Brit, and former bass
player in The Animals, who had discovered Hendrix in New York - as a
showcase to 'launch' Hendrix's career on the London scene. Chas had asked me
along with a view to sizing up the guy in action and ultimately to shooting
his photo. I was about 20 then, and spent most of my time working with The
Rolling Stones and other bands of the day, shooting their album covers and
I must admit, I didn't like Hendrix's music much. Not on the night of the
Bag O' Nails gig, nor even afterwards, when he shot to fame: it was always
too raucous and aggressive for me. It was a good 20 years before I really
appreciated his skills. But I must have been the only one and, besides, that
didn't matter. I didn't have to like my subjects' music. I just needed a
sense of how they expressed themselves, and Hendrix had a fantastic stage
charisma. He was also supremely good looking, with a wild Afro haircut,
beautiful long fingers and a wicked smile. (Soon after that first gig, Brian
Jones took him to I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet, the vintage clothing
boutique on Portabello Road, where he decked himself out for the first time
in what became his iconic military jackets.)
Chas introduced him to me after the show and Hendrix was very polite - he
even kept calling me 'Sir', though he was three years my senior. We agreed
that he and the Experience would come to my studio in Piccadilly a few weeks
later. Chas wanted a series of photos to put about the press.
My routine with rock stars was always the same: get them into my studio at
about midday, feed them with produce from the local deli, share a joint or
two and then slip into taking photos. This was designed to break the ice, to
allow me talk to my subjects and create some sort of connection and
understanding with them, in the hope that they would open up to me, if only
for a second here or there.
And that's exactly what happened that day in February 1967, when Hendrix and
the boys dropped by. He was a kind, gentle man, and we hit it off.
Conversation ranged from the funny - Hendrix recounted the time when, on
tour as a backing guitarist for Little Richard a couple of years earlier,
Richard had ordered him to cut his hair, dress conservatively and keep
firmly in the background; to the serious - he spoke with insight about the
harsh realities of segregation, and of growing up as a black man in America.
This bonding paid off in the photographs: he looked straight into the
camera, entirely naturally - so the viewer can look right into Hendrix's
eyes and, some would argue, his soul. For me, he exudes this natural cool,
sexiness and edginess - though each viewer will see something different.
I didn't want to have Hendrix pose in a certain way for me, as he would have
looked awkward. I simply tried to capture him spontaneously, in his most nat
ural state, as in the hands-on-hips shot that's possibly the classic image
from that shoot.
It was so much easier to shoot in such a relaxed way in those days, because
no roadies, make-up artists, hairdressers, managers, bodyguards, image
consultants or other hangers-on turned up with Hendrix, as they would do
nowadays. It was just Hendrix, me and (in some shots) his band.
He arrived at the studio in his military jacket and he appears in the photos
just as he was. He was relaxed and comfortable - so much so that I took
shots of him laughing and smiling. Not that we ever let those see the light
of day, as he preferred to give off a mean, moody, sexy image.
Nowadays, people talk about my photographs as iconic, but at the time no one
had any idea that Hendrix would become, and remain for decades, the
acknowledged genius of rock'n'roll guitar. Pop photos rarely had a lifespan
of 40 days, let alone 40 years, as musicians were constantly changing their
appearance, so photographers had to shoot almost constantly just to keep up.
In fact, I have no idea how Chas used those shots. I certainly haven't any
press cuttings with them in, though they've featured in many exhibitions
since and developed a kind of cult status among Hendrix fanatics (especially
after one of them appeared on the cover of the 1993 compilation album, The
I shot a second session in March and after that I never really saw Hendrix
again. Sure, we would bump into each other in clubs occasionally, and share
a drink or ogle girls together. But he would soon be superstar-famous, with
barely a second to himself, living the rock'n'roll existence that would see
him dead within three years.
But I still feel privileged to have shot even just those two sessions. Most
subjects dislike having their photo taken - they find it like going to the
dentist. Standing alone in front of the camera can make you feel vulnerable
and exposed. But not Hendrix. In every one of the photos, he exudes a
fantastic presence. He left you with no worries about the lighting or your
camera; you just shot. He was the photographer's dream.
Gered Mankowitz was talking to Alastair Smart. He is one of 18 photographers
contributing to 'A Life Through the Lens', an exhibition of Jimi Hendrix
photographs, opening at Blink Gallery, London W1 (020 7693 6999) on 8
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