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Sunday, May 29, 2022

A life outside of rock & roll – 3

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How someone met a drummer some time back

by colin talbot

 

Dateline: New York City, a while back

Nine years and a bit ago, Mitch Mitchell, drummer in the three-piece Jimi Hendrix Experience, died in Portland, Oregon. They said it was ‘natural causes’ with the quote around the phrase, so maybe they mean alcohol and/or drugs. Mitch, aged 62, was found in his hotel room, It’s one of the seminal images of late-sixties rock & roll – Mitch Mitchell drumming in frenzy in front of a stack of Marshall amplifiers that are pumping out the most celebrated electric guitar work in history, courtesy of Jimi Hendrix.

Mitch was a teenage TV star in England, appearing in Jennings and Derbyshire, a series based on the fabulous ‘Jennings’ novels which were about a couple of schoolboys and the dopey things they got up to. I loved the Jennings series when I used to haunt the tiny public library above the Picture Theatre at my little home town in the mid-north of South Australia. I’ve never seen Mitch’s work as Jennings, jeez that would be a treat! And then working in a music shop as a schoolboy, he got into the drums. Mitch wasn’t just a drummer, he was noted by the famous Other Drummers as introducing the fusion of jazz technique into hard rock drumming that allowed other tasteful but driving drummers to enter a new world of drumming that was jazz-nuanced. (Now ‘nuanced’, wow, there’s a word that’s getting a thrashing these days as every film critic discovers a movie that is ‘nuanced’ and not just a crock.)

Mark Griffith wrote of the Hendrix drummer: ‘Mitch Mitchell was not alone in blending jazz and rock drumming styles, but he may have pushed the combo further than anyone who came before him…the art form of drumming would never be the same.’ And from the greatest of jazz drummers, Elvin Jones, who played with Miles and Mingus and finally Coltrane, Mitch took a style he could use in rock&roll – so much that Jimi called Mitch ‘my little Elvin Jones’. Too bad Jimi’s management didn’t think a bit more of Mitch because the contract that the drummer and bassist were tied to was wage only, so when Jimi kissed the sky, Mitch and Noel Redding didn’t make it to the clouds of money.

Last year Rolling Stone Magazine nominated him the eighth greatest drummer in the known universe. Some of the drummers listed not as good but good were Buddy Rich, Tony Williams (Miles Davis). Stewart Copeland, (The Police) Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones) and Ringo Starr (The Beatles).

Among those of the seven drummers listed above Mitch were Gene Krupa (my first drummer hero when I was a kid) Ginger Baker (Cream) Keith Moon (The Who) and John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham (Led Zeppelin). Moon and Bonham don’t live here anymore. And Bonzo proved to be a problem, when at a kind of press party in the old Southern Cross Hotel, Bourke St Melbourne (during Led Zeppelin’s Australian tour, back in early 1972) John Paul Jones the bass player quietly explained to me that I had somehow crossed Bonzo and that Bonzo wanted me punished. Why was I at the party? I was working for a rock magazine back then, and I wrote the ‘pop’ column in The Australian. John Paul Jones called Jimmy Page over who was mumbling about being ‘celibate’ for the Oz tour (most of us back then didn’t have the have the non-celibate option as a day-to-day way. No, we were just in the hope to get lucky category, so I did think that was a little overboard, casting his pearl necklaces, so to speak, before the local swine like me) and Page told Jones that he’d go quieten Bonzo down. As the guitarist headed over to hush the apparently enraged Bonham, the bass player said it would be a sensible idea if I made myself scarce as Bonzo could hold a grudge. So I nicked off. That was the last I saw of Bonzo. Ands though Bonzo was undeniably a great rock&roll drummer, it was Mitch Mitchell who first blew my mind, not Moon, Not Ringo, not Charlie Watts (but, well, okay, Gene Krupa I’d loved since I was seven.) Mitch in front of the massive stack of Marshall amps while Jimi played his upside-down left-handed guitar in a way that blew the minds of not just yokels like me, but astonished pro guitarists like Clapton, Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend. I just loved the way that Hendrix was going troppo out front with more tricks than anyone even knew existed, and Mitch was just doing his thing. His rock&roll tinged with modern jazz sensibilities, and it just was so right. As the attack from the Marshall stack near blew him off his drum stool. Just the best. Then Hendrix went and died. Out of his face, left to fend off death in his drugged-out sleep and not able to.

Jimi Hendrix was a member of the infamous ‘27’ club. Way back in 1938 Robert Johnson, considered the greatest electric bluesman who’d ever lived, who was rumoured in that fate-filled and destined way to have sold his soul to The Devil, down at The Crossroads, one windswept night, for how else could he have re-appeared in Chicago or wherever he turned up, with some of the greatest rock&roll delta blues songs ever written (like ‘Crossroads’, like ‘Love in Vain’ , ‘Come on in my Kitchen’) and playing that guitar with licks straight outa…wherever.

Robert Johnson was 27 when he died and that death kicked off the ‘dead at 27’ club like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Whinehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Brian Jones –an incredible list of the greatest. So we get out our numerology books and we reduce 27 to the number nine and wonder wtf it all means. Meanwhile, I was thinking…

Back to Mitch Mitchell. It was sometime in 1975 in a bar in New York City, a bar on the Upper East Side called PJ’s where a bloke who was talking to me about being my agent if I wanted to write ‘knock-off’ books about Bowie and Janis and Jim Morrison etc. That means just compiling an unauthorised biography from press clippings, and whatever other material you could find. But I thought I was destined for greater things. And you know what thought thought, doncha? Not much at all. My agent friend said ‘James and Carly’ were being expected at this bar and as I didn’t want to watch two singers in love (at the time) drinking while a whole bar watched on while they made out they weren’t watching, so I hooked up with the Limousine Service out front, that was destined for another bar up on 3rd Avenue around about 14th Street…or maybe 2nd Avenue around about 16th Street – somewhere round the uptown end of the East Village.

This new venue was a little less sedate that the Upper East Side joint. I’d been

standing at the bar trying to order yet another overpriced tequila mockingbird, with my flattened vowels that constitute the Aussie accent (not yet made famous by Paul Hogan’s ‘This is a knife’ from Crocodile Dundee ) rising as I tried to emerge above the hubbub that the rest of the 50 or 60 or 70 or so patrons were generating as they anxiously waved money at the staff.

I didn’t know anyone in the room and they didn’t know me.

Then someone yelled in my direction, ‘Hey Bruce!’ in a welcome British accent. Welcome, because I’d been surrounded by American voices of one style or another for a couple of weeks. I ignored the comment, assuming it was being directed elsewhere.

‘Hey Bruce old mate!’ he called again. A couple of times. It began to sink in. Perhaps I was that ‘Bruce’. It was spot the Aussie time maybe. This time I turned to look and a fair-headed bloke was smiling in my direction. Nobody else was paying attention, and I guessed it was the combination of my Australian accent, and the Barry Humphries creation, Bazza Mackenzie. that prompted the ‘Bruce’ call. (There were a couple of Bazza movies about, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie’ and ‘Bazza Pulls It Off’, full of scenes of big-jawed Aussies drinking Fosters and calling each other Bruce. Probably there was a Bruce or two also in Monty Python too, I can’t be sure but the cooler New Yorkers had been turned onto Monty Python on cable, I think)

The bloke at the bar was definitely talking to me, so I pushed in to stand next to him. It didn’t really have to be articulated. Aussies and the British share a sense of humor that used to evade (and probably still does) your standard American. Yanks didn’t ‘get’ the humor of Monty Python and The Goons. That surrealist/absurdist/lunatic stuff was our secret code. He gave me a big smile, and we had a laugh about me being Bruce. A good, friendly, British chap.

‘What’s you name?’ I asked.

‘Mitchell,’ He said, smiling.

‘That your first or last name,’ I asked him.

‘Both,’ he said.

That stopped me. I thought things. Mitchell Mitchell. I looked at him. I got a picture in my head: that image of the drummer and the stack of Marshalls.

‘Are you a drummer?’ I asked. And he was. So I had a new friend, or he had one. Or both.

It is an acknowledged truth that after a few weeks in the USA, Australians really need the sense of humor of another Aussie. An English person needs the company of another Englander to share a joke that Yanks would never get. The irony the subtlety, the daft innuendo. Or failing that, an English person could use an Aussie And an Aussie likewise could use a Brit. You mightn’t think we think alike until you’re in a room full of North Americans. Otherwise nobody is going to get your jokes. So it was Mitch Mitchell, drummer of Jimi Hendrix Experience, and not only that, he was a friend of the guy who’d ‘given’ me the ‘pop’ column in The Australian. My old friend, Mitch’s old friend, the Australian writer Craig McGregor. One of the original pop culture writers in Australia, possible the original. (history: Craig had commissioned me to write a pop culture chapter in some government-issue book about Australia. When the project failed, or perhaps when my chapter proved to be horrendous and sh*thouse, he paid me off, and offered as compensation, the column he had in The Australian. The ‘pop’ column. Wow!!

‘Why would you want to give up your column, Craig? It’s great.’

‘Sooner or later it just happens, Colin. You have to move on. It’s time.’

of course I accepted and Craig organised it and I began my column. So Mitch and I had a mutual friend and off we went.

Incidentally, I gave the column up a few years later for exactly the reason Craig had offered. It was just time. But back to Mitch.

So for a few weeks until I went back out to the West Coast or he went back to The Bahamas, where he was domiciled, we did a considerable amount of drinking and looking for parties. Mitch had become famous with Jimi but he’d played with jazz vocalist Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames (‘Yeah Yeah’), and even had a stint before Jimi, playing relief drummer for The Pretty Things (‘Midnight to Six Man’. ‘Rosalyn’) and others. He was a jazz-influenced rock drummer star.

I wouldn’t have mentioned any of this party-going biz were it not for a peculiar tradition that I picked up from the New York rock&roll scene. A kind of taxi etiquette.

I learned the first part the hard way. We’d arrive in a taxi at the next destination, and as I found out from drab experience, the last person out of the cab paid the fare. After a few trips I began to realise that you couldn’t be caught being seated in the middle of the back seat with rock stars on either side of you, or you’d be the last person out. A diminishing wallet brought out a certain alertness and I took the widow seat whenever I could. Mitch said, ‘You’re learning! You got the hang of it.’

There was a refinement of that technique: it involved someone else looking for a taxi.

Mitch spied Johnny Thunders, standing outside of what proved to be a dreadfully boring party down in the West Village. Johnny (of the New York Dolls) was leaving this same party we were arriving at and Mitch generously offered the taxi we were vacating, not mentioning that we’d neglected to pay the fare. This technique also worked on strangers who needed a taxi.

‘Colin, you note how I did not alert Johnny to the money owed in this taxi?’

‘Yes Mitch, I noted this. Will he not be unhappy when he learns of the bill?’

‘Of course! That’s our joy! That’s pretty much my favourite strategy.’

‘Got it.’

‘You’ve learned well.’

‘Jesus Mitch, I had too. It was driving me broke.’

Mitchell laughed. So did James, the one-eyed black eye-patched musician we were with (I think he was New Orleans piano man James Booker, who aint alive to say I’m wrong) and I had learned that anyone travelling with Mitch was a pretty cool dude (well, not counting present company of course) So that’s how I came to know Mitch. I think on the first night we spoke, I asked after Jimi, who’d been dead some five years. Mitch said he was worth knowing. And I’d say the same about Mitch too. His problem at the time, as I saw it, was his great love of alcohol. A true Midnight to Six Man, he would always want to go all night, parties, bars, parties. One night I found myself at some private club that Mitchell got us into by being famous and staring out at Fifth Avenue, and the sun was coming up, and then it was up, and people were going to work. This was a long while before, say, Commercial Road and Chapel Street in South Yarra and Windsor, when it became normal for patrons to struggle out from somewhere upstairs, into the hateful daylight. For me, a mini-revelation happened. I didn’t want to be still holding a drink in my hand and staring at people down on the street going to work – in this case, the street was pretty much my favourite one in that city. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and all that jazz. I decided to cut down the all-night vigils at the fountain of whatever it was.

Mitch Mitchell was a great drummer, had to be I guess, to keep time for Jimi Hendrix, the greatest guitar player ever. He drummed on the three albums, The debut 1967 record, Are You Experienced, Electric Ladyland and Axis: Bold as Love. And Mitch was there at Woodstock with the world’s greatest guitarist. Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, bassist Noel Redding in 2003 and with Mitch gone in 2008, the Jimi Hendrix Experience is finally disbanded. Vale the greatest trio ever.

 

ends