Jimi Hendrix is an icon like no other. Forever remembered amid a rosy yet kaleidoscopic tint, Hendrix’s talent with the guitar is and will always be the first thing anyone thinks of when reminiscing about the young star. Sadly, that’s what he will always remain to us too — a young star. Tragically taken from his future at the tender age of 27, the wild man of rock died following a drug overdose before he ever truly reached his awe-inspiring potential.
Similarly to Hendrix, many rock stars have been caught with the tightening grip of drink and drugs and not survived to tell the tale, the idea of narcotics and the abuse of them was so neatly woven into the very ideal of being a rock star that it almost became par for the course — live fast, die young. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll was the name of the game, and everybody knew it, but that didn’t mean everybody liked it.
As with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, Hendrix’s open nature towards chemical experimentation was unnerving for many corners of society. Having burst on to London’s swinging scene amid the acid revolution in 1966, a year before Paul McCartney – arguably the most famous man in the world at the time – took to the TV airwaves to share his own mind-altering experience with LSD. When you couple that with the rest of the music industry’s flagrant use of narcotics, you have the kind of prey that conservative predators love to swallow up.
It was a positive party of red-top tabloid shaming and pearl-grabbing haughtiness as the “golden generation” came head to head with the boomers. Amid cries of “something simply has to be done” and “won’t somebody please think of the children,” there was an increasing amount of pressure on police forces around the world to crack down on these pop stars who now not only had more money and fame than them but arguably had the backing of the vast majority of the public — actively or passively. While it would be churlish to say that the police shouldn’t be doing their job of enacting the law and cracking down on drug-taking as a whole, to focus on this handful of men and women while the very producers, distributors, and criminal overlords attached to the crime were walking free, seemed a misplacement of means, at very best.
In truth, it was more likely that the police forces around the world saw cashing on rock star narcotics possession provided a perfect photo opportunity. Squeezing said stars and finding an ounce of marijuana here or a few grams of heroin there would always gain more column inches and political favour in the public consciousness than persecuting the unknown criminals on the street. It has led to plenty of accusations that police would plant drugs on the bands to gain some press and bag themselves a star in cuffs, maybe even an autograph.
The Rolling Stones are one band that suffered the most at the hands of the cops. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were so well known for their hard-partying ways that busting them seemed like an easy win for any police officer. That said, the band also claimed they had been set up on several occasions, but the ‘Raid on Redlands’ will go down in history as the most obvious. There had been increased pressure on the band’s recreational drug use after the News of the World ran a three-part feature entitled “Pop Stars and Drugs: Facts That Will Shock You”, the tabloid paper had also been attacking Jagger and his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, for which Jagger had begun a libel suit. The raid seemed entirely orchestrated, and facts soon emerged that the paper had collaborated with the police to ensure it got the scoop on the story.
Richards remembered in his memoir Life, “When we got busted at Redlands, it suddenly made us realize that this was a whole different ball game, and that was when the fun stopped. Up until then, it had been as though London existed in a beautiful space where you could do anything you wanted”. It was true, London had provided a refuge of sorts for the creative mind, meaning that when stars went abroad, they encountered an unexpected level of interrogation. It’s something that Jimi Hendrix found out to his detriment when he landed in Toronto on May 3rd, 1969.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police dutifully busted him at Toronto International airport for allegedly “illegally possessing narcotics”. Hendrix, alongside his Experience bandmates Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, were collared as they came through customs with the claim they found six small packages inside a glass bottle at the top of Hendrix’s bag — not a great hiding spot.
In the middle of a huge North American tour, having finally found some industry footing within his homeland, Hendrix was naturally hounded by the press following his arrest. As everybody clamoured for comment, some even making their own up suggesting he was carrying heroin, Hendrix stood firm amid the barrage of questions, simply replied: “No comment. I’m innocent and my lawyers will prove it.”
Sources at the time claimed that the Mounties were waiting for Hendrix’s plane from Detroit to land and were, at first, unable to make a clear identification of the substances. They held Hendrix and his band until a mobile laboratory could be deployed to the scene. A delay of four hours eventually ended as Hendrix was taken to police headquarters, later being released on a $10,000 bail. The next night, admittedly dazed by proceedings, Hendrix told the crowd at Lake Ontario: “I want you to forget what happened yesterday and tomorrow and today. Tonight we’re going to create a whole new world.”
The entire experience clearly perturbed Hendrix, and at his hearing, it was even clearer he felt he had been set up. Arriving in his usual attire of headband and kaleidoscope garments, Hendrix only spoke a few words but cast a look toward the bench that pierced the soul of all who was entrapped within it. Hendrix’s lawyers made the case that the drugs were planted.
It was something that was backed up by more anecdotal evidence too. Louis Goldblatt, who was acting as Hendrix’s chauffeur in Toronto, spoke to Rolling Stone at the time and claimed the singer was completely shocked by the entire experience, seemingly suggesting that he was the victim of a sting operation. He described how Hendrix was left speechless and was “genuinely dumbfounded by the whole affair”. Goldblatt also noted that the Mounties behaved strangely throughout the ordeal, including the fact the Mounties were waiting for him at all, which was far from typical. It was also odd that the search was conducted in the open, at the gates, something that usually took place away from public view, while Hendrix was made to wait for hours in the full view of hundreds of onlookers.
For the chauffeur, it all seemed a little too convenient: “You should see some of the things that have been left behind in my car for pop people,” Goldblatt says. “It’s really incredible.” There’s some semblance of reasonability to Golblatt’s suggestion. There have doubtless been thousands of moments when fans have tried to confirm friendship with their rock star idol by sharing their stash, and there was more than ample opportunity for this to be done. The more sinister viewpoint is that either a close ally or the police were the ones behind laying a bottle of narcotics on the top of his suitcase. One thing is for sure; the Mounties knew they had a fish on the line and were waiting at Toronto’s airport with a giant net.
Many believe that they chose to pick on Hendrix, the unanointed royalty of the free peace and love hippie movement that was now beginning to engulf Canada’s metropolitan areas, to become the sacrificial lamb, a patsy, a statement of their unwillingness to abide by narcotics anymore. The idea was that if you can collar someone like Hendrix, you can send a message to the hippies of Toronto’s Yorkville and perhaps scare them straight.
The trial eventually ended with Hendrix being acquitted, but there is a genuine suggestion that this bust pushed Hendrix over the edge. There’s no doubt that the guitarist was taking recreational drugs at the time, and his mood had begun to take a serious downturn amid the newfound fame and increasing pressure. While one comment was that Hendrix looked as if he had witnessed a “plane crash” after the incident, it was backed up by Redding, who tragically claimed: “The bust knocked any positive feelings Jimi was holding onto out of him.”
Both Redding and Mitchell noted in their autobiographies that the band was well-warned about the increased focus on rock stars in Canada and convinced that it certainly wasn’t any member of the band behind the substances. MC5 guitarist, Wayne Kramer, seemed certain it was all part of a large scale plan: “I don’t have any doubt in my mind that the right-wing government forces were behind all of that,” he said. “There was an effort, a movement, to stop this threat that rock and roll represented.”
While it is unclear who put the drugs in Hendrix’s bag, there’s a very good chance that it was not him. Whether it was a fan looking to make friends or a police force looking to cash in on a big name, the likelihood is we will never know for certain. But Hendrix seemed to point the finger at the growing mood of the conservative elite: “All of that is the establishment fighting back … Eventually, they will swallow themselves up, but I don’t want them to swallow up too many kids as they go along.”