It took me a minute to realize what the ringing sound was. In 1970, 10:00 AM in the morning was too early for me to be alert. I crawled out of bed and answered the phone. Through my hangover, I could just make out a familiar and frantic female voice.
“Do you know where Jimi is?”
“Jimi who?” There was an impatient snort at the other end.
“Don’t be funny Charlie, it’s Sarah at the management office, Jimi Hendrix has gone missing again.”
‘What’s happened now?” I was starting to wake up.
“They found his car, that Corvette, wrapped around a tree on the edge of the Long Island Express Way.”
“No sign of Jimi?”
“No, nothing. No blood anywhere so he wasn’t hurt. We think he might have hitched a ride.” I was almost sober again.
“Hasn’t he called in?”
“You know he never does.”
“O.K. Sarah, I’ll call back if I hear anything.” A sleepy voice from my bed asked,
“Who are you talking to?’ All I could see of Sherri was her blond mop of hair that was peering over the pillows. She drew the blankets up closer to her pale body against the winter chill. At five foot eight inches and a hundred and ten pounds, she tended to lose body heat quickly. We had met at an artist’s loft party the previous fall. Sherri didn’t have a place to stay that night, so she informed me she was going home with me, and then, she just never left.
The other guys in my Rock band worried about our relationship. The case of Loving vs. Virginia had only been settled in 1967. New York and California were safe, but the “crime” of miscegenation, sex between people of two different races, was still on the books in 18 states. In any one of them I could have been arrested and convicted of having carnal relations with a White woman named Sherri Featheringill, the sentence would be five years in the slammer.
I walked over and slowly pulled the blanket off the bed. Sherri moaned “Why are you so mean?” and rolled into a fetal position. She was cute when she was half awake. I gave a gentle spank on her bare buttocks.
“Come on, get up. We’ll take a shower and then get French Toast at Ratner’s.” She blinked against the light coming in from the window.
“What time is it?’
“Almost noon.“ She yawned and sat up.
‘Give me a cigarette.” I scowled, there was no time, so I lied.
“We’re out.” She peered around with half open eyes,
“Maybe there’s a butt in the ashtray?” I shook my head.
“Come on Sugar Lips, let’s move. I’m going to rehearsal after we eat.” When stepped into the shower together, she rinsed down and then passed me the soap over her shoulder. I used it to lather her down from head to foot and gently scrubbed her whole body with a loofah. She always liked that.
Personally, I always felt sorry for Sarah, the secretary at our management office. She tried to keep some sense of order when she handled the bands, but it was like trying to swim with big rocks in your pockets. Outside the office, Jimi Hendrix was a major music star, but inside the office people knew that he was cripplingly nearsighted yet refused to wear glasses. He was so nearsighted; I don’t think he ever actually got a driver’s license.
Most people thought of him as a Rock and Roll God, but there were times when he was vulnerable and unsure of himself. We had a conversation once and he asked in confidence,
“Charlie, you get around, tell me the truth. Do the other guys think I’m a clown?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, the way I dress and stuff.” I assured the man, then considered the greatest guitarist of his age, that he was respected as a musician.
Jimi was so famous by 1970 with his rainbow-colored shirts and Afro haircut, just standing on the sidewalk, people would recognize him and give him a ride to where he wanted. The downside was that people would also give him free drugs all the time, they wanted to get high with the guy that authored “Purple Haze.” And yet another constant hassle were the women who dropped LSD, listened to Jimi’s albums, and then believed they were having his baby, even though they weren’t pregnant. There were several.
Me, I had other problems. Most people who saw our band, Cat Mother and the All-Night News Boys, were amazed that there was a Chinese guy was in an American rock band. It was the late Sixties, the Viet Nam War was still going on, and anything or anybody “Oriental” was suspect. Most Americans thought that Communism was a racial description, maybe they still do. Some people assumed I was of Spanish extraction, or maybe from Honolulu. In fact, I was Chinese from Queens, and I spoke more Yiddish than Cantonese.
I had been banging a five-string banjo during the Folk music scene in Greenwich Village when the Monterey Festival Pop happened in 1967. Then everybody made a musical right turn, plugged in to an amplifier, and got back into Rock and Roll again.
That year, Roy “Bones” Michaels and Bob Smith started a band in New York and asked me to join them. Folk gigs were drying up and the Rock revival looked like the next wave, so I said yes. We started out with several different members and a hat full of names. We worked as “Sparky Savage and His All Stars,” for a while and then “Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys.” None of us were happy with the name, but we went over big in a club one night and the name stuck.
The crowds seemed to like us, and we had a following. A big-time manager named Michael Jeffery came to see our show one night in upstate New York and asked if we’d like to sign with him. He was already handling Eric Burdon and the Animals, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. But Larry the lead guitarist had been talking about moving on, and Mike the drummer had a serious drug problem, so we were getting ready to break up, but signing with a major office was an opportunity too good to let pass. We had a meeting and voted to stay together at least another year. We all trusted each other and when it was over, we planned to do the books, pay out the “Expenses” and split the “Net” and go our different ways.
It was like jumping on to a fast-moving train. The band was booked to do about over 20 stadium shows, major venues with 30 to 50 thousand seats as an opening act for Jimi Hendrix. Other big-time gigs came with it. We opened the East Coast Fillmore, we were the house band for the Electric Circus, shared dressing rooms with bands that had been our heroes only a year before. We were booked on TV shows like American Bandstand and Teen Beat. There was always a party going on. We shook hands with legends like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. I did shots of tequila with Janis Joplin. I began to secretly wonder if there was room at the top of the Rock scene for an American Chinese guy from New York City. We stayed at the best of the five-star hotels and ate at the best restaurants. We were giddy with fame.
But I was spending too much time on the road, and it cost me. When I came back home to New York after a long trip, Sherri informed me she had met a cod fisherman from Mystic, Connecticut and she was moving there. I would miss those bony hips, but I wasn’t heart broken.
In the meantime, the band was just a bunch of inexperienced kids. It never occurred to us to ask where the money was coming from that paid for all the limos, hotels, and parties. We were too busy having fun to sit down to check the books. Of course, the money was coming from us, and it was being spent faster than we could make it.
It didn’t take long for the shine to wear off. The months on the road had its effect. Your sense of reality starts to fade, and bizarre things become normal. One night in Los Angeles, we got in late from the airport. We signed in at the front desk at one of the biggest hotels in LA and waited for the elevator to come down. As we waited, we joked and turned to enter as the doors slid aside. We all froze. Inside the elevator was a young woman about twenty-one, completely naked and tied to a chair. I was too shocked to say anything. Bob the piano player broke the silence with the question,
“Are you O.K?” The girl nodded and smiled. We got on and rode up to the 11th floor. As we got off, Mike the drummer offered,
“You sure you’re, O.K.?” The girl calmly commented,
“Yeah, I’m good. They’ll untie me in a minute.” We kept our thoughts to ourselves and went to our rooms. Later I learned that the famous Rock band on the floor above us, had dared her to be tied naked to a chair and ride the elevator for an hour. They made her surrender her dignity and self-respect for their amusement, just because they could do it. She was such a groupie she agreed. For days afterwards I kept thinking, “I’m contributing to this kind of thing. Do I want to keep doing this?”
The answer was no.
I dropped out of the band and got a bartending gig. I filled in the weekend nights, as a side man in Greenwich Village jazz clubs. The guys in Cat Mother weren’t crazy about my decision but they were planning to follow the Rock scene to California anyway. They let me know they intended to cash in with the main office, I planned to use my share from the band to start a small 40 seat restaurant.
About a month later, Bob the piano player came to me with some business papers. Seems that Michael Jeffery, the manager, forged our signatures and used our money to build a new recording studio. There was nothing left. All the other guys were angry. I didn’t care, I was happy to get out with my life.
On September 19th, 1970, I was eating breakfast when the radio announced that the previous day Jimi Hendrix had died in London, England. Believe me, nobody was surprised. But then the gossip started; the office was sitting on a gold mine. They had hours of tapes of Jimi jamming while he was high, but musically, most of it was useless. But once Jimi was dead, anything he had touched became valuable. A little too convenient.
On Oct. 14th, 1970, about a month later, it was announced that Janis Joplin had died of an overdose in Los Angeles. It was at that precise moment everybody knew the scene was over. The Monterey Pop festival had only been three years before, a generation taken up the motto, “Live fast and die young.” So predictably, in the end, neither Jimi nor Janis lived to see thirty.
The whole thing was a wakeup call for me to get my life in order. I was broke, drinking way too much, and was sleeping with people I didn’t particularly like. During one of my dayshifts at the bar, a college kid posted a flyer about an Asian American conference the next weekend. It crossed my mind to check it out.
Charlie Chin performing on Henry St., New York Chinatown. Photo courtesy of Bob Hsiang.
“Dicky Smooth,” the night bartender came on shift and said there was a note for me in the office. After I turned in my cashbox, and punched the clock, I found the note and read it. It was brief, “Hate cod fish. I’m back in town, forewarned is forearmed. Sherri Featheringill.”
Author’s Bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).
What a great story. That was what I wanted to do except I can’t sing nor play the guitar.