The most electrifying three minutes in the history of live rock music, made all the more significant because it was Jimi returning to his homeland in triumph
Monterey was the first major coming together of rock's foremost talents, including Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas and Papas, Jefferson Airplane and The Who. Jimi must have been ecstatic to suddenly be in this rarefied atmosphere - the California sunshine, a groundbreaking festival gathering and, to judge by his performance, he revelled in this talented company: "Yeah, it's really out-of-sight here, it didn't even rain; no buttons to push...". And to top it off he was introduced by rock royalty; Brian Jones being the only one of the Stones or the Beatles who attended Monterey.
And for me, the adrenalin rush of their first song, Killing Floor - that had given Eric Clapton the shock of his life when Jimi first arrived in London - is perhaps the most exciting three minutes in the history of live rock. Jimi, Mitch and Noel, with their frilly shirts and feather boa, give it everything and leave mouths agape, like 'what did we just see?'
During the set, he pulled out all the stops, showing off his unique combination of rhythm and lead playing, cuffing the guitar, playing it behind is back, with his teeth, and then finally setting light to it, to the astonishment of the audience. Remember this is 50 years ago! The 1960s may have been swinging, but what Jimi did, in common with other revolutionaries of that era, was push out the boundaries beyond most people's imagining at that time.
The drugs helped in the mind-blowing, of course. Legend has it that Hendrix was tripping on Owsley LSD at Monterey. Hard to believe he could play and sing like that under the influence of mid-altering psychedelics, but records of the time suggest that may have been the case. At the earlier free festival at Mount Tamalpais, Owsley, the acid king immortalised in Steely Dan's Kid Charlemagne, was said to be dispensing acid to the performers as they were about to go onstage with the words, "do you want the sacrament?"
Robert Christgau noted in The Village Voice that Hendrix, after his famous row with Pete Townshend, (see the comments from John Phillips in the clip above) was stuck with topping the Who's guitar-smashing tour-de-force. "It's great sport to watch this outrageous scene-stealer wiggle his tongue, pick with his teeth, and set his axe on fire."
The performance, he said, heralded "the dawning of an instrumental technique so effortlessly fecund and febrile that rock has yet to equal it, though hundreds of metal bands have gotten rich trying. Nowhere else will you witness a Hendrix still uncertain of his divinity."
This was a legendary performance. The arrival of King Guitar.
Youtube is not your friend when it comes to clips of Jimi playing Monterey. Most of them have been taken down by the copyright owners. What I have presented here - my own archived copy of Killing Floor, Rock Me Baby and the Wild Thing finale, give a taste of the magical set Jimi played. But there's plenty more, including a great version of Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone.
Try to get hold of a copy of the original Jimi Plays Monterey movie. I have it as part of a boxed set that includes Otis Redding's set, the original Monterey Pop movie and a DVD of outtake performances. Well worth checking out if your budget permits.