Jimi Hen­drix’s best Christ­mas present ever

Af­ter get­ting ar­rested at Pear­son for drug pos­ses­sion, trial was like a ‘night­mare’ for leg­endary star

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - VALERIE HAUCH

In 1969, leg­endary rock mu­si­cian Jimi Hen­drix de­clared Canada had given him “the best Christ­mas present” when a Toronto jury ac­quit­ted him of drug pos­ses­sion charges.

He had been ar­rested when he ar­rived at Toronto air­port for a per­for­mance seven months ear­lier. Sadly for lo­cal Hen­drix fans, it would be his last visit to this coun­try and in­deed, his last Christ­mas. The “Pur­ple Haze” song­writer died 10 months later.

“Canada has given me the best Christ­mas present I ever had,” the re­lieved 27-year-old rock star de­clared on leav­ing a Toronto court­room in early De­cem­ber 1969. His com­ments fol­lowed a three-day trial on charges of il­le­gal pos­ses­sion of nar­cotics, specif­i­cally heroin and hashish residue.

The Jimi Hen­drix Ex­pe­ri­ence was sched­uled to give an evening per­for­mance at Maple Leaf Gar­dens on Saturday, May 3. That morn­ing, the band mem­bers flew into Toronto (now Pear­son) In­ter­na­tional Air­port. Mo­ments af­ter Hen­drix stepped off the plane, a bot­tle con­tain­ing three pack­ets of heroin and a tube with hashish residue was found in his flight bag.

Po­lice de­tained Hen­drix for four hours, while a po­lice lab con­firmed the sus­pi­cious sub­stances were il­le­gal drugs. Hen­drix was ar­rested, charged, pho­tographed and re­leased on $10,000 bail and then given a po­lice es­cort to Maple Leaf Gar­dens, where 10,000 fans were wait­ing for the 8 p.m. con­cert to be­gin.

He didn’t talk about his ar­rest on stage that night, al­though he im­pro­vised the song “Red House,’’ adding the line “as soon as I get out of jail, I wanna see her.” News of his ar­rest was slow to sur­face. It didn’t ap­pear in the Star un­til the Monday pa­per two days later, when mu­sic critic Jack Bat­ten made a pass­ing ref­er­ence to the fact that Hen­drix was “in­ci­den­tally out on bail” in his rave re­view of the Saturday con­cert. Bat­ten called the show “ut­terly, can­didly erotic.” Hen­drix, dressed in “tight crim­son pants, pur­ple shirt slit to his navel” was the “em­bod­i­ment of 1969 sex.”

The same day the re­view was pub­lished, Hen­drix ap­peared in an Old City Hall court­room filled with young fans. The three-minute ar­raign­ment in front of Judge Fred Hayes was mostly note­wor­thy for his colour­ful at­tire — he wore a pink shirt open to the waist, a mul­ti­coloured scarf around his neck, and an Apach­estyle head­band. June 19 was set for his pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing. When Hen­drix ap­peared, he was dressed in a suit. Judge Robert Tay­lor set a trial date of Dec. 8.

It went on for three days. Then an all-male jury de­lib­er­ated for eight hours be­fore ac­quit­ting James Mar­shall Hen­drix on both charges — avoid­ing a max­i­mum seven-year-prison term on each count.

He’d cel­e­brated his 27th birth­day shortly be­fore trial — on Nov. 27. He would not see his next one.

The mu­si­cian de­scribed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as “ar­guably the great­est in­stru­men­tal­ist in the his­tory of rock mu­sic” died at a Lon­don, Eng­land, ho­tel on Sept. 18, 1970, of as­phyxia, from vomit in­hala­tion fol­low­ing a bar­bi­tu­rate over­dose. Spec­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to­day as to whether the over­dose was an ac­ci­dent, de­lib­er­ate or foul play.

But when Hen­drix won his court case Dec. 10, 1969, and emerged around 9 p.m. from York County Court­house into a wet Toronto snow­fall, he ap­peared to be on top of the world — grin­ning, flash­ing a peace sign and es­corted by two beam­ing fe­male ad­mir­ers.

In an in­ter­view af­ter his ac­quit­tal, with the Star’s Mar­i­lyn Dun­lop out­side the court­house, Hen­drix ex­plained why he had used drugs in the past.

“Some­times peo­ple are too sen­si­tive, as I was,” he told Dun­lop. “So they find some­thing, maybe drugs, to make them feel bet­ter, brighter and bol­stered.” He said as he be­came more suc­cess­ful and met more peo­ple, “I saw a lot of good things and a lot of bad things. Some of the bad things hap­pened be­cause of drugs . . . Look what hap­pened to me, even when I don’t use them any­more.”

Dur­ing his trial be­fore a jury and County Court Judge Joseph Kelly, Hen­drix ad­mit­ted hav­ing smoked mar­i­juana, hashish and taken LSD and co­caine, but never heroin. He tes­ti­fied that his cannabis use had de­clined over the pre­vi­ous year. Con­ser­va­tively clad in a blue blazer and as­cot tie, Hen­drix told the court: “I feel I have out­grown it.”

The bot­tle con­tain­ing heroin pack­ets and a tube with hashish residue, found in his flight bag, was not his, Hen­drix tes­ti­fied.

He told the court that peo­ple were con­stantly giv­ing him gifts and he of­ten didn’t look at them closely. He tes­ti­fied that there’d been a party in his Los An­ge­les ho­tel room. He’d com­plained of an up­set stom­ach and a girl had handed him a bot­tle with what he thought was the antacid Bromo-Seltzer. He threw it in his bag. He said he didn’t know how the tube with hashish residue got in his bag.

To make the pos­ses­sion charges stick, the Crown had to prove Hen­drix knew drugs were in his bag.

There was some tes­ti­mony to back up Hen­drix’s claims. His lawyer, John O’Driscoll, called United Press In­ter­na­tional reporter Sharon Lawrence to the stand.

She told the court that while she was try­ing to in­ter­view Hen­drix she had seen a girl hand him a bot­tle af­ter he had men­tioned a stom­ach ache and he had put it in his bag, Lawrence said.

The court also heard that Hen­drix ex­pressed “sur­prise” to Toronto cus­toms of­fi­cial Mervin Wil­son, who found the pack­ets of white pow­der (later de­ter­mined to be heroin) when he pulled them out of the mu­si­cian’s bag. The Star’s story quoted Wil­son as say­ing that Hen­drix told him “oh no, I re­ally don’t know what it is,” when he showed him the pack­ets.

The court was also told that Hen­drix was ex­am­ined by po­lice and had no nee­dle tracks on his arms, nor was any heroin para­pher­na­lia found.

The de­fence im­plied some­one had put drugs in Hen­drix’s lug­gage as part of a setup. In­deed, a story in Rolling Stone mag­a­zine shortly af­ter his ar­rest spec­u­lated just that, im­ply­ing that who­ever was in­volved had later called the air­port. The May 31, 1969, ar­ti­cle by rock jour­nal­ists Ritchie Yorke and Ben Fong-Tor­res ques­tioned why RCMP were there when the drugs were found: “For one thing the Moun­ties . . . cus­tom­ar­ily do not wait at the air­port to make dope busts . . .” They also spec­u­lated that it was an ex­am­ple of con­ser­va­tive “Toronto au­thor­i­ties” mak­ing an ex­am­ple of a “freaky, frizzy-haired psy­che­delic” per­son to “scare the freaks out of Yorkville,” then a hang­out for hip­pies.

At the ver­dict an­nounce­ment of “not guilty,” the young fans pack­ing the court­room cheered.

When Hen­drix stepped out­side into the cold Toronto air, it was the end of what Hen­drix bi­og­ra­phers Harry Shapiro and Cae­sar Glebbeek ( Jimi Hen­drix: Elec­tric Gypsy) called a “night­mare” that stressed out the mu­si­cian for the seven months the charges hung over his head.

JEFF GOODE/TORONTO STAR FILE PHO­TOS

Jimi Hen­drix’s trial went on for three days. An all-male jury de­lib­er­ated for eight hours be­fore ac­quit­ting him on both charges.

Jimi Hen­drix tes­ti­fied that the hashish and heroin found in his flight bag was not his, dur­ing a trial in a Toronto court­room packed with his fans in De­cem­ber 1969.

Jimi Hen­drix’s book­ing mug shots with then-Met­ro­pol­i­tan Toronto po­lice from his May 3, 1969, ar­rest.

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