Pete Townshend remembers the first time he saw Jimi Hendrix perform live
Pete Townshend is about as outspoken as you can get, his razor-sharp tongue has landed the creative mastermind behind The Who with more enemies than you could even imagine. One man that was one of the fortunate few who managed to escape his famous wrath was Jimi Hendrix, a creative who even by Townshend’s lofty standards was an otherworldly talent and one that blew him away from their very first interaction.
When Hendrix arrived in London during 1966, The Who were already stars and no longer involved in the capital’s thriving club scene to such an intense degree, it was a factor which meant that their paths rarely crossed during this period and they weren’t the closest of contemporaries. Although they didn’t spend a great amount of time together, that didn’t stop Townshend from admiring Hendrix. Perhaps, the most notable collision between the two came at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967 when Townshend and Hendrix took part in a legendary jam session backstage to see who performed first at the festival.
Even though Hendrix was American-born, he was lumped in with British acts who had been booked for Monterrey and the show was an opportunity to break the USA. Townshend couldn’t think of anything worse than following the visceral talent of Hendrix, who he had seen previously during a show in London and knew that the audience’s expectations would be sky-high after experiencing Jimi.
Townshend had tasked his band with a performance that would “leave a wound” in American music and Hendrix was not prepared to go do without a fight. The guitarist later recalled that iconic backstage encounter to Ultimate Classic Rock: “I’ve heard Roger talk about it as a jam session, but it wasn’t a jam session. It was just Jimi on a chair playing at me. Playing at me like ‘Don’t f—k with me, you little sh-t.’” Instead, they would have to settle things the old fashioned way: a coin flip.
The Who won the toss and would be given the first opportunity to deliver the most vicious side of rock music but Townshend was right to be worried about Hendrix as the American later stole the show. Witnessing Hendrix for the first time was an experience that stuck with The Who guitarist forever, the musician knew that if his band performed after him, Hendrix would still be on their mind whilst they tore through renditions of the likes of ‘My Generation’.
In 2019, Townshend reminisced to Rolling Stone about the first time he witnessed Hendrix’s greatness, a moment which is seemingly a clear memory that has become engrained in his mind. “Well, that was a cosmic experience,” he shared. “It was at Blazes, the nightclub in London. He was pretty amazing. Now I think you have to have seen Jimi Hendrix to understand what he was really about.
“He was a wonderful player,” Townshend uncharacteristically noted. “He wasn’t a great singer but he had a beautiful voice. A smokey voice, a really sexy voice… When you saw him in the live arena he was like a shaman. It’s the only word I can use. I don’t know if it’s the right term. Light seemed to come out of him. He would walk onstage and suddenly he would explode into light. He was very graceful.”
Receiving praise from Pete Townshend is something that puts you into a very exclusive camp of artists which also includes the likes of Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger and Neil Young. The Who guitarist reserves publically praising anyone unless they are bona fide legendary figures in music and Hendrix could well be the most iconic of them all.