The life of Jimi Hendrix, the American guitar hero who lived in London during the Swinging Sixties, was brief. After failing to leave much of a mark in America, playing in sessions with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, he founded his own band, The Experience, in Britain and in three albums laid down and an indelible musical legacy, including his epic take on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”
In a new collection of Hendrix reminiscences, the guitarist looks back to the high days of the Sixties, when wearing military dress uniforms was the fashion and when the mere appearance of a colorfully draped tall Afro-haired American drew automatic attention from the British police.
People ask me whether I dress and do my hair like this just for effect, but it’s not true. This is me. I don’t like to be misunderstood by anything or anybody, so if I want to wear a red bandanna and turquoise slacks and if I want hair down to my ankles, well, that’s me.
All those photographs you might have seen of me in a tuxedo and a bow tie playing in Wilson Pickett’s backing group were me when I was shy, scared and afraid to be myself. I had my hair slicked back and my mind combed out. The jacket I’m wearing now is Royal Army Veterinary Corps, 1898 I believe. Very good year for uniforms.
The other night I was about half a block away from the Cromwellian Club, wearing this gear. Up comes this wagon with a blue light flashing, and about five or six policemen jump out at me. They look into my face real close and severe.
Then one of them points to my jacket and says, “That’s British, isn’t it?” So I said, “Yeah, I think it is.” And they frowned and all that bit, and they said, “You’re not supposed to be wearing that. Men fought and died in that uniform.”
The guy’s eyes were so bad he couldn’t read the little print on the badges. So I said, “What, in the Veterinary Corps? Anyway, I like uniforms. I wore one long enough in the United States Army.”
They said, “What? You trying to get smart with us? Show us your passport.” So we did all that bit too. I had to convince them that my accent was really American. Then they asked me what group I was with, and I said the Experience.
So they made fun of that as well and made cracks about roving minstrels. After they made a few more funnies and when they’d finally got their kicks, they said they didn’t want to see me with the gear on anymore, and they let me go.
Just as I was walking away one of them said, “Hey, you said you’re with the Experience. What are you experiencing?” I said, “Harassment” and took off as quick as I could.
(READ: The Day They Stopped and Frisked Jimi Hendrix)