An Interview With Michael Fairchild

Michael Fairchild has been called ‘the consummate editorial consultant and researcher’ and ‘a veritable walking archive of Hendrix lore.’ Whilst accurate, such descriptions barely do him justice. That’s because Michael not only knows more about Hendrix than anyone else, he’s also an exceptional author. His liner notes for official Jimi Hendrix albums released between 1990–95 are among the most essential writings on the late guitarist ever published. They’re inspired, and yield rare insights into Jimi’s life, work and mindset that can only result from years of detailed study and analysis.

It was Michael who sourced the majority of quotes for Jimi’s autobiography, and also those used in the narrative of Peter Neal’s film. This was a decades’ long task that in his own words, ‘required monk-like sacrifice.’ He spent years researching and collecting interviews and press clippings from all over America and Europe, and then faithfully transcribed every last word when Hendrix’s hand-written letters, notes and poems surfaced at auction. Michael isn’t just interested in records or memorabilia — he’s embraced Jimi’s story and made it his own path of self-discovery. He’s a light-bringer — one who not only asks the questions ‘where, how and when?’ but also ‘why?’ He is also the only recognised Hendrix authority who can actually play Jimi’s music — convincingly — and has regularly performed it in concert.

Within two minutes of our conversation — and in reference to Hendrix’s Irish bloodline — Michael launched into a vivid account of Oliver Cromwell’s bid to purge Ireland of pagans during the 1600s, and gave examples of how Celtic sorcery had inspired American blues mythology. He talks like he writes, with passion and precision. In-between delighting us with minutiae he’ll muse on some fascinating cultural tangent, in much the same way Griel Marcus might. Michael Fairchild however, is a specialist. His main focus has always been Jimi Hendrix, ever since the guitarist swept into his hometown of Rochester, New York on Thursday March 21st 1968 and played at the War Memorial.

Michael remembers seeing reviews of the show in local newspapers, and hearing kids at school talking about it. Shortly after that someone gave him a copy of Hey Joe and there was no turning back. Twenty years later and he completed his first book, A Touch Of Hendrix, which contained a wealth of previously unpublished facts and ideas.

“It was still a manuscript but that’s what I sent to Alan and he liked it, so he hired me,” Michael explains. “I also sent it to Leon, Jimi’s brother who liked it too. He wrote me letters and we had conversations about it.”

He says that he felt drawn to Hendrix because Jimi’s “senses and perceptions stood outside of ordinary limits. “Growing up I used to read interviews by my favourite musicians like John Lennon or Jim Morrison but I was always left feeling disappointed. Their music and conversation didn’t match but with Hendrix it was so integrated. His thoughts were as bizarre as his music. They were outside of the normal paradigm. He would speak in riddles and his music had that same quality. It seemed coded. It wasn’t straightforward and he used poetic symbols. There was this huge mystery because what was he referring to? And what did it signify?

“We (meaning a handful of collectors like himself) had amassed an enormous database but people were getting too tied down in the details. They had this emotional need to collect and find more but no one was analysing what we found. Nobody was looking at it and saying, ‘what does this mean? And what is the big picture behind all of this?’”

In October 1989, Alan Douglas, creative director of Are You Experienced Ltd asked him to compile and catalogue all known Hendrix quotes from all sources: audio, video and print. This was in support of Peter Neal, who was working on a dual book and film project called Room Full Of Mirrors, or Starting At Zero as it’s now known. Around the same time Michael wrote track annotations for the Polygram compilation Cornerstones 1967–1970. They contained a treasure trove of detail — not only regarding personnel and dates, but happenstance. For example, did you know that Jimi used one of his rings when playing slide on Room Full Of Mirrors, and wrote Angel whilst awaiting trial for damaging a hotel in Sweden?

Fairchild is a sleuth born from obsession, but a highly intelligent and persistent one. After Jimi’s former girlfriend Kathy Etchingham uncovered fresh information about Jimi’s death she submitted her files to the Attorney General’s office in London. Scotland Yard duly reopened their investigation during November 1993. The previous September, Straight Ahead had published Michael’s article, The Etchingham And Mitchell Files. Two months later he wrote Why Take Five Hours To Call An Ambulance, followed by Christians In Rome. These articles contained the first-ever interviews with the ambulance staff who answered that fateful 999 call and found Jimi’s body. Hendrix is often presented as a rock casualty. The inference is that he brought death upon himself through drug abuse so Michael knew that a revised and more positive verdict would affect how future generations saw him.

“You see him associated with hallucinogenic drugs again and again,” says Michael. “He became a kind of poster boy for altered consciousness and he still is to a large extent.”

He and Kathy produced a 60-page document about the investigation called The Hendrix-Etchingham Story. Michael will also make a short film based on his theories about Jimi’s death in due course. By late 1993 he’d completed a novel called Really A Strange Town and written the introduction for Cherokee Mist: Jimi Hendrix, The Lost Writings — a book dedicated “to all the people who can actually feel and think for themselves, and feel free for themselves.”

The majority of this book was taken up with examples of Jimi’s own writings, poems and drawings accumulated during the last four years of his life. Michael was among a team of experts charged with sifting through all this material and determining a chronology — no easy task given that much of it was undated and scrawled on scraps of paper or hotel stationery, which Jimi might keep in his bags for weeks at a time. He ends his introduction to Cherokee Mist with a piece of writing, “compiled from dozens of different interviews” and narrated by Jimi himself, who comments on his thoughts and attitudes towards songwriting. Inspired by Peter Neal’s work along similar lines, these few pages offered the first shreds of evidence that a Hendrix autobiography was gathering momentum.

Within a year of MCA buying the rights to Jimi’s catalogue for a staggering $75 million, Alan Douglas commissioned reissues of Are You Experienced,Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland — the three studio albums Hendrix released in his lifetime. Each title was superbly re-presented, with bonus tracks, revised artwork and extensive liner notes. This was the point where Michael Fairchild came into his own, after Alan Douglas allowed him free rein and approved lavish, 24-page booklets. The latter was rewarded by a torrent of Hendrix lore that kept the reader spellbound as Michael told the story of each album in unprecedented depth and detail. His research, as always, was infallible. A number of books had appeared on Hendrix by then but Fairchild’s writing left them all standing. His work was brilliant, imaginative and exhaustive, yet it was anchored in truth since he could substantiate everything he’d written.

In 1994 Polydor issued an abbreviated version of Jimi’s Woodstock appearance which one reviewer called “a masterpiece of compression.” Every track is essential, unlike those on the full-length recording. In Douglas’ hands an experimental foray, illuminated by flashes of genius, is transformed into a concert of momentous, unforgettable power. Michael Fairchild’s original liner notes are now referred to as “the Hurricane Story” after his references to Hurricane Camille, which tore through the American South even as Jimi played at Woodstock. As Hendrix reinvented The Star Spangled Banner for a generation faced with the draft, 240 mph winds and a 40-foot wall of watery destruction pummelled everything in their path, flattening large swathes of the Mississippi Delta. The observation that Jimi had first performed America’s national anthem in Maryland on the anniversary of Robert Johnson’s death is classic Fairchild, since it combines little-known fact with the irresistible lure of mythology. We also learn of the background to the festival, details of the deal he’d signed, where he stayed and rehearsed and why he ended up playing to reduced crowds early on the Monday morning. We’re even told what brand of cigarette Hendrix had in his mouth as he played! This was Michael Fairchild at his best or so we thought, because his piece de resistance was yet to come.

Alan Douglas wanted to showcase Jimi’s blues heritage and knew which tracks would achieve this. MCA duly released Jimi Hendrix: Blues in 1994, shortly before the Hendrix family won control of Jimi’s estate. Not for the first time, Michael Fairchild’s liner notes proved worthy of a Grammy award.

“Son House was celebrating his 66th birthday in Rochester on the day Jimi Hendrix came to play in ’68,” they began. “House had moved here the year Jimi was born. Of the trip into town Jimi wrote in his diary, ‘stopped at a highway diner. I mean a real one, like in the movies.’ ”

“Son House actually lived in Rochester,” says Michael. “I knew him as a kid, but I used to feel like running out of the house when he played sometimes. He played with such intensity, I almost felt guilty. As a kid you don’t know where that intensity’s coming from but he was the teacher for Robert Johnson, who was the template for rock and roll. That’s where the legend of the devil at the crossroads started, because Son House introduced it to the world in interviews after he was rediscovered in the sixties.”

Michael claims that Jimi was also “supernaturally transformed” and writes of him visiting Georgia as a teenager, where he’s alleged to have participated in Macon initiation rites as described in Voodoo Chile: ‘Well the night I was born, the moon turned a fire red. My poor mother cried out the gypsy was right and I seen her fall down right dead.’

“A shaman is born,” commented Fairchild, who reveals that Hendrix asked Fayne Pridgeon if she knew of an exorcist who could drive out his demons, even as he worked through her mother’s blues collection. There is no finer exploration of Hendrix’s grounding in the blues than what appears in these liner notes. The range and depth of his writing is superb and it’s decorated with quotes from an impressive roll call of blues legends, including Albert King, B. B King, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, Dick Waterman and Son House as well as lesser names such as Eddie Kirkland, Earl King and Ed Komara, librarian for the Mississippi Blues Archives.

We’re left with visions of Sam Chatmon recalling how Charlie Patton would play guitar behind his head and between his legs (sound familiar?), and Jimi’s pilgrimage to Chess Records in Chicago. In a couple of years’ time, he’ll send a postcard to his father from England, announcing that he now “plays the blues like you NEVER heard.” This veritable feast of blues lore then ends with a contribution from Jimi’s part-Cherokee grandmother, who lived to be a hundred and is quoted as saying, “I’ve seen slavery and I’ve seen Jimi Hendrix perform. That about covers it.”

Fairchild’s swansong for Alan Douglas’ administration arrived in 1995, with the release of Voodoo Soup and an examination of the Band Of Gypsys’ era. It was a time of transition for Jimi, who had four bands during this period and served up an intoxicating and hugely influential brew of rock, funk and rhythm and blues, whilst still writing the kind of songs that made him one of rock’s most eloquent lyricists. Michael doesn’t just tell us about the music or events in Jimi’s life, but again delves into his thought processes. We discover that in-between laying tracks like Stepping Stone,Freedom,In From The Storm,Ezy Rider and Peace In Mississippi (which Fairchild describes as “a warpath around the bonfire, dance of the shaman instrumental”), Jimi’s been writing a screenplay, and also devising comic book characters such as Captain Coconut and Astro Man.

Elsewhere we’re treated to deconstructions of recordings he likens to “fragments from a deep-sea wreck” and told how Jimi hoped to augment the Band Of Gypsys with Stevie Winwood and Chris Wood from Traffic. What a prospect! But that’s what Fairchild’s writing does to you; he feeds us these snippets of information and then lets our imaginations do the rest.

It’s life-giving stuff but then came regime change — Alan Douglas’ releases were all deleted and Michael’s original liner notes replaced with less creative accounts of Jimi’s achievements.

“They’ve made Alan Douglas completely invisible and all credit has been shifted onto Eddie Kramer, who’s been made the supervisor of all known Hendrix recordings,” he reflects. “They took out everything relating to Alan and vilified him, but he was very unique in that he was in his forties when he met Jimi and knew him as an adult; he was looking at the whole scene from a much different perspective to any of those other people who were Jimi’s age or controlling his business. Alan had a more intellectual, personal view of what was happening than anybody else. He saw the hassles and the exploitation that Jimi was going through and that’s why I think he was more of a friend to Hendrix than most people realise.”

Michael also worked on the travelling Hendrix exhibition devised by Alan, who’d aimed it primarily at younger fans. Entitled On The Road Again, it had embarked on a nationwide college tour in February 1994 but was then decommissioned after the Hendrix family took control of the Estate in December 1995. Their latest releases include the albums Valleys Of Neptune and People, Hell & Angels — collections of outtakes which Fairchild fears may lead people to assume that Hendrix is overrated.

“That kind of release completely goes over the head of people who love Hendrix’s music. It only appeals to a tiny minority of collectors, whereas Hendrix always aimed to reach as wide an audience as possible. The music they’re putting out can best be described as loose sketches and it diminishes interest in Hendrix so that the mass audience falls asleep on him. His potential audience has been surgically dumbed down as a result because whenever I visit Hendrix forums to see what people are saying about him, there’s no intelligent debate. It’s all of these slacker, greaser types talking about guitar shredding… There’s no audience anymore for considered analysis where Hendrix is concerned, and the two things automatically burned into people’s brains are drugs and death…”

Since the publication of his book Rock Prophecy in 1999, Michael Fairchild has devoted much of his time to expanding on controversial theories concerning Hendrix’s links with asteroid attacks on Earth and the possibility that he was a viewer — an evolved being who expressed largely unheralded cosmic truths in his music.

“Jimi was such an emotional lure,” he admits. “There were mysteries surrounding him that I was drawn to. I was fascinated by the stories behind it. It became a black hole and once you begin to tumble into that, everything changes…”

Interview by John Masouri, July 2013

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