Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary”
A Masterwork Conceived, Composed, and Recorded in Less Than 24 Hours
In late September 1966, Jimi Hendrix landed in London, leaving behind the hardscrabble life he’d led in New York City. Within a couple of days he began a relationship with Kathy Etchingham, who worked as hairdresser and part-time DJ. While still in the first blush of romance, Jimi and Kathy discovered that although they’d grown up an ocean apart, in some ways they shared similar backgrounds. They’d both had challenging childhoods with at least one alcoholic parent. Both of their mothers had abandoned the family. Kathy had spent her earliest years in Derby, living in a working-class house without an indoor bathroom. After her mother left, she and her brother were sent to stay with relatives in Ireland. During her teens she was placed in Dublin’s Holy Faith convent boarding school.
Jimi had mostly grown up with his father, James “Al” Hendrix, and, on occasion, his younger brother Leon. They lived in a variety of rented rooms, apartments, and small houses around Seattle. When times got hard for Al, he shuttled Jimi to stay with relatives and friends. “He’d had a very unhappy childhood,” Kathy wrote in Through Gypsy Eyes: My Life, the Sixties and Jimi Hendrix. “He did talk about how he had no food, no shoes, hadn’t got to have a change of clothes, had to go to other people’s houses to be fed, how his dad used to punch him in the face and shave his hair, and how he would run away but had to go back because, of course, he had nowhere else to go. He didn’t really consider that he had a family.”
Throughout Jimi’s initial nine-month stay in London, the couple shared lodgings with Jimi’s discoverer/producer, Chas Chandler, and his Swedish girlfriend, Lotta Null. In December 1966 Ringo Starr offered to sublet them his flat at 34 Montagu Square for £30 a month. They accepted the offer, and on December 6th Chas, Jimi, Kathy, and Lotta moved to Montagu Square. “We were lucky to get it,” Kathy wrote, “as Paul McCartney had just moved out of the flat before us. The neighbors weren’t too happy about having musicians in the flat. Paul had been using it as a [demo] recording studio and I’m sure it wasn’t very soundproof. The elderly lady who lived upstairs could be rather grumpy. She wouldn’t let us have the keys to the communal gardens when the photographer wanted to take some photos of Jimi in the gardens.”
Away from public view, Jimi and Kathy’s life together at 34 Montagu Square was not always peaceful. Chas and Lotta were sometimes taken aback by the volume of the arguments coming from the rooms downstairs. During one disagreement Kathy smashed her foot through the back of an acoustic guitar. Another one led to a broken sitting-room door. For Jimi and Kathy, though, heated arguments were nothing new. “Having rows never worried either of us much,” Kathy explained. “I guess we both had listened to them enough throughout our childhoods not to take them too seriously. We could be shouting and screaming one moment and forgetting about the whole thing the next.... Both of us operated on very short fuses, and neither of us was ever willing to climb down, so we could only end them by one or the other of us storming off – usually me.” At one point, Chas Chandler and Experience manager Michael Jeffery called Jimi into the office and urged him to break up with Kathy. Hendrix told them to mind their own business. In truth, he felt possessive of Kathy, and their most violent exchanges tended to occur when he felt jealous or suspicious of her.
An especially heated argument on January 10th inspired Jimi to write one of his most achingly beautiful songs. As Kathy described, “He was moaning about my cooking again and I felt I had put a lot of effort into whatever it was – mashed potatoes, probably. I didn’t take kindly to being told they were disgusting, so I picked up the plate and smashed it on the floor. ‘Hell – what are you doing?’ he screamed at me, so I picked up a few more plates and threw them around the room as well, yelling back at him. Eventually I turned on my heel and stalked out, crossing the street to find a cab. He followed, trying to persuade me to come back, but I refused to listen. I found a taxi and jumped in, and without letting Jimi hear I told the driver to take me to Angie and Eric [Burdon]’s place in Jermyn Street. When I returned the next day, having cooled down, I asked him what he had done while I was away. ‘I wrote a song,’ he said and handed me a piece of paper with ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ written on it. Mary is my middle name, and the one he would use when he wanted to annoy me. I took the song and read it through. It was about the row we had just had, but I didn’t feel the least bit appeased.”
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