It is wild to think someone gifted with such a maverick attitude like Jimi Hendrix would last a minute in the army, an arena which would have seen him ruled by an iron fist. Remarkably, even the mercurial Hendrix found himself succumbing to the authoritarian rule for some time before he cunningly planned a way to be relieved from his duties, cleverly playing peoples prejudices against them by pretending to have homosexual tendencies.
As a teenager, Hendrix found himself on the wrong side of the law on two occasions when authorities had caught him riding in stolen cars. Hendrix was not even yet 19-years-old and found himself met with the unwanted decision of choosing whether he wanted to visit prison or join the army. This left Hendrix with little to no choice about what he was going to do with his life but to join the army on May 31st, 1961, which is not how he envisaged spending his young formative adult years.
He then completed eight weeks of basic training at Fort Ord, California, and found himself assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. It was November 8th when he arrived in Kentucky and, judging by the letter he wrote to his father, Hendrix immediately knew it wasn’t the vocation for him. “There’s nothing but physical training and harassment here for two weeks,” he complained. “Then when you go to jump school, you get hell. They work you to death, fussing and fighting,” his letter continued.
One good thing did come out with his stint in the army, however, and that was that it saw him spend any spare time he had to hone his craft. Hendrix was completely obsessed and enamoured with his red Silvertone Danelectro which soon became a distraction which led to him being on the receiving end of not only taunts but also physical abuse from his so-called peers. Hendrix was always so headstrong that this was like water off a duck’s back and he wasn’t going to let this abuse prevent him from being himself.
Not everybody in the army was hostile to him, however, and fellow serviceman Billy Cox walked past an army club and heard Hendrix playing. He was exceedingly impressed by Hendrix’s godlike technique, which Cox later described as a combination of John Lee Hooker and Beethoven. Within weeks, they began performing at local clubs on the weekends with other local musicians under the name of The Casuals — this confirmed to Hendrix that this is what he was destined to do with his life and immediately tried to find a way to get out of the army so he could focus on his dream.
His superiors quickly became fed up with Hendrix as his attitude was clear for all to see that he had absolutely no interest in being there and enough was enough. On May 24th his platoon sergeant, James C. Spears, filed a report in which he stated, “He has no interest whatsoever in the army. It is my opinion that Private Hendrix will never come up to the standards required of a soldier. I feel that the military service will benefit if he is discharged as soon as possible.”
He wasn’t discharged immediately as Spears suggested, however. Taking things into his own hands, Hendrix took a gamble that somehow paid off and got him out of his living hell. According to Charles R. Cross’s book Room Full of Mirrors, Hendrix lied to the base psychiatrist and said that he had fallen in love with one of his army mates which he knew would play on the fear of his homophobic colleagues.
Hendrix also told the psychiatrist that he was addicted to pleasuring himself, he even got caught doing so which was almost definitely planned and a stroke of genius on his part. The book alleges that the doctor then discharged Hendrix because of his ‘homosexual tendencies’ although, the official line is that he broke his ankle on a parachute jump.
The year that Hendrix spent in the army was an experience that he hated almost every second of but it did confirm to him that the only thing he wanted to do with his life was play guitar and he was damn sure that nothing was going to stop him chasing his dreams, not even the US army.