Experiencing Jimi Part II : John McDermott
In the first half of our “Experiencing Jimi” feature, we visited with Janie Hendrix, Jimi’s half-sister and president/CEO of Experience Hendrix, LLC. In part two, John McDermott, keeper of the Experience Hendrix vault, talks about his duties in general and some of the work that went into compiling the music for the newly-released 4 CD/1 DVD collection West Coast Seattle Boy.
You may not be surprised to learn that John McDermott really, really likes what he does for a living.
BR: John, when did you first discover Jimi’s music as a fan?
JM: I was a teenager when I first became aware of his music in a meaningful way. I would say that The Cry of Love, Hendrix In The West – the first of the posthumous records – really made an impact on me. And Smash Hits was certainly an entrance point into the legacy for me, as well.
I’m 47 now; I never had the chance to see Jimi perform live. But I recognized his music at the time as being something very unique.
BR: How would you describe your role with Experience Hendrix?
JM: I’ve been very fortunate to work with the Hendrix family as the manager of the Jimi Hendrix music catalog. I’ve been co-producer of the releases that have come out since 1996, along with Janie Hendrix and Eddie Kramer. Basically, my responsibilities encompass anything that relates to Jimi’s music.
BR: How did you connect with the Hendrix family?
JM: Prior to 1995, I worked on a number of Jimi Hendrix projects. I had written a book with Eddie Kramer called Jimi Hendrix: Setting The Record Straight. Eddie and I also worked on a tribute album called Stone Free that had Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, and others covering Jimi’s music. We used proceeds from that to create a scholarship fund, which is still in operation today. It was a very successful project – the record was a big hit – and I felt that when it ended, my Jimi Hendrix work was complete. I was happy with the book; I was happy with Stone Free. I figured that was it.
I then learned about the litigation that had begun between Al Hendrix and his former lawyer. I contacted the attorney who was representing Al and told him, “I’ve done a lot of research on this music – and it is owned by Al Hendrix. Please don’t sell this man out; he does own what he says he owns … he is the guy.”
And they were like, “Thank you very much – we’ll get back to you,” and so on. I didn’t hear from anyone for a couple of months – I didn’t know what had happened. But two or three months later, they called up and said, “We feel you’re on to something – we’d like to have you come out and meet with us and the family.”
I did; and I volunteered my services to them throughout the litigation process.
BR: Doing what kind of stuff?
JM: Mainly trying to piece together what had happened to Jimi’s tapes and his masters and developing a plan for Jimi’s catalog. In the end, the case was successful, of course. And when the litigation was over, they said, “You know, we’d like for you to stay on – would you be interested in working with us?” And of course, I was – it was a great opportunity.
BR: I suppose one could call it a dream job for a Hendrix fan.
JM: It really was; to be able to contribute was a wonderful thing.
BR: What kind of shape were the archives in when you came on board?
JM: It was a bit of a mess. There’d been a lot of problems and different issues over the years in terms of people who’d had access to some of the tapes and where they went. It was a bit of a mish-mosh and it took a lot of work, which is still happening today. You’d see notations that something was supposed to exist – but you’d go to the box and the master was cut out of the reel. There was a lot of that sort of stuff. We had to approach it from a detective’s point of view and go tape-to-tape to bring these things back to the archives.
People often ask, “Where is all this music coming from?” Well, Jimi created it. And in many instances, we’ve had to go out, find it, and bring it back. So that’s been a big part of the work we’ve done.
BR: I’m thinking of some of the great sound and recording people who worked with the Dead over the years – and how they began compiling their own in-house archives from early on. They always had a pretty good team. Is it fair to say that Jimi really didn’t have that?
JM: Well, when Jimi was alive, it was pretty organized. But when he passed and then his manager Michael Jeffery died suddenly in a plane crash a couple years later, that’s when it went a bit awry. Then you had estates that were kind of, “Well, what do we do? Where does it all go?” The continuity didn’t exist once some of those events took place.
I don’t know that the previous administration looked at the long term in a way that we’ve tried to. You’ve got to be just so careful and protective of this music; it’s all we have of Jimi. We don’t have anything else – this is it. This is what he’s left behind. Our mission is to organize it in such a way that fans can appreciate it, have access to what is the best of it, and contextually understand why something is available – what’s the point and purpose of each release. I think so far that fans have felt that we’ve brought the music to them in ways that they understand and appreciate.
What’s so unique about Jimi Hendrix is that unlike The Beatles or Bob Dylan or his contemporaries, he owned his own music. It wasn’t as if he was at a union-controlled studio and somebody was looking at his watch saying, “Okay, Jim – The Tremolos will be here in 15 minutes, so wrap it up.” Jimi didn’t have to do that; he had the freedom.
He didn’t put his money into some big grand mansion – he had a two-room apartment in the Village. When Jimi made some real money, he bought a recording studio. It was important to him; that kind of access to a creative facility was significant for him. That’s one of the reasons why there’s so much music over just a four-year period of time.
BR: Plus, he did a lot of informal recordings – hotel room jams and whatnot – on his own, right?
JM: Yes, indeed. Jimi loved to record and bring his tape machine around. He dug recording. I think when he finally made some money, he was able to do some things that he always wanted to do. Jimi didn’t read or write music, so recording was how he measured his advancing. If he was working on a song, he’d make a rough demo of it and keep doing it and doing it. He might go into the studio and cut a basic track and make a rough mix. Studying tape was Jimi’s method of refining his music towards a finished work.
BR: Again, I can’t help but think about the Dead and some of the really, really talented live sound people they had over the years. It amazes me that so many of Jimi’s live shows sound as good as they do.
JM: I don’t know – in some ways, the simplicity of what he was working with is what makes it so magical. It’s literally a piece of wood with six strings, a couple of foot pedals and some Marshall amps. You know, even the stage monitoring was very limited … it wasn’t until they started playing some larger venues that drummer Mitch Mitchell had some monitoring to hear the other guys.
It’s pretty remarkable, really – no light shows, no cues, no steps, no nothing … you’d walk on stage, you’d tune up, and you’d feel the audience. If Jimi thought that he needed to lift them up, he might play “Johnny B. Goode” or “Fire” – he’d go entirely by feel. And there’s something special to that spontaneity that’s often lacking today – where even a really well-done rock show is more like a Broadway performance than it is a traditional rock and roll concert.
I know Mitch Mitchell told me later on that they loved the stage as a place to try new material – to take a song that wasn’t on an album and gauge the reaction of the crowd: “Should we play it a little faster? A little slower?” They liked that; and particularly in the latter period – 1970 – they’d take a song like “Dolly Dagger” or “Ezy Rider” or “Roomful of Mirrors” and let the crowd get a sense of those songs. That’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t happen today. For the prices that acts are charging, it’s almost as if you have to play your hits, hits, hits and that’s it.