Every time you look at it, the timeline seems impossible. When Jimi Hendrix played the Monterey Pop Festival, he had already left his hometown of Seattle; trained as a paratrooper and been discharged from the military; moved to Nashville to hustle on the local R&B circuit; backed up giants like Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett and Jackie Wilson; toured as part of the Isley Brothers’ band and Little Richard’s backing group; moved to New York City, where he won Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater and put his first band together; been spotted by Chas Chandler of the Animals, who moved him to London and put him together with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience; blown the minds of British rock royalty including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton; and recorded his debut album, “Are You Experienced,” which reached No. 2 on the U.K. charts. He was now coming back to make his U.S. debut with his new group — and yet, when he took the Monterey stage on June 18, 1967, Hendrix was still only 24 years old.
But all of this, um, experience meant that he was ready when for the moment that changed not just the trajectory of his career but the very direction of music, as chronicled in the documentary “American Landing: The Jimi Hendrix Experience Live at Monterey.” And it was the perfect setting to make history — everything went right at the first rock festival of this scale, most notably the camaraderie and enthusiasm the artists all seem to have felt. “It was so well-organized and controlled,” says press liaison Derek Taylor in the film. “No mud, no trouble with lavatories or bad drugs or being ripped off.”
It’s almost inconceivable for those of us who know what’s coming to imagine how an unprepared audience would react to the 42 minutes that followed.
Since “Are You Experienced” hadn’t been released in the U.S. yet, Hendrix was at best a rumor to the vast majority of festivalgoers. What buzz there was came from endorsements by the Beatles and Stones — Paul McCartney was actually the person who recommended his booking for the event, and Brian Jones introduced Hendrix onstage, calling him “the most exciting performer I’ve ever heard.” Still, it’s almost inconceivable for those of us who know what’s coming to imagine how an unprepared audience would react to the 42 minutes that followed.
Watching “American Landing,” several things stand out above and beyond the staggering virtuosity of Hendrix’s music and the magnificent splendor of his style, dazzling in orange ruffles and a feather boa. First is his absolute confidence, bordering on nonchalance, at such a high-stakes gig. Though he breaks out his full arsenal of Chitlin’ Circuit showmanship — playing his guitar with his teeth, between his legs and behind his back — it feels utterly effortless, natural, completely in control. There’s also the audacity of his sexuality as he grinds his hips, licks his lips and humps the speakers. More than 50 years later, it still feels daring and bold, especially from an unfamiliar Black man playing in front of an overwhelmingly white crowd.
But mostly, there’s the sheer ambition of Hendrix’s artistic choices. In a short set (nine of the ten songs the Experience performed are included in the documentary; only the footage of “Can You See Me” seems to be lost to history), he covers an astonishing range of musical territory: blues (blazing versions of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby”), leading-edge folk rock (“Hey Joe,” first recorded by Tim Rose, and a loving rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”) and primal garage rock (the Troggs’ immortal “Wild Thing”).
And you can almost hear the audience thinking, ‘Is he playing that guitar left-handed? And upside-down?’
The original material he chose revealed both his most libidinous side (“Foxey Lady”) and Hendrix at his dreamiest and loveliest (“The Wind Cries Mary”). All of this, of course, was refracted through his otherworldly command of his instrument, as avant-garde as modern jazz and as fundamental as gospel shouts. (And you can almost hear the audience thinking, “Is he playing that guitar left-handed? And upside-down?”)
The Monterey set culminates, of course, in one of rock’s most iconic moments, when Hendrix burns and destroys his guitar in a lascivious, dramatic ritual. “I’m going to sacrifice something here that I really love,” he says before stomping into “Wild Thing.” As Pete Townshend explains in “American Landing,” The Who and Hendrix had a good-natured argument about who would go onstage first. When Townshend decreed that the Experience follow the notoriously explosive Who, Hendrix replied that if that was the situation, he was going to have to “pull out all the stops.”
No matter how many times you’ve watched it, the sight of Hendrix mock-ejaculating lighter fluid on his instrument, kneeling over it and conjuring the flames, swinging it around his head and then smashing it to bits still feels sinister and celebratory, a maelstrom of sex and destruction and sacrament — and as we learned from Phoebe Bridgers on “Saturday Night Live,” smashing a guitar still riles up strong emotions in 2021.
The documentary is called “American Landing,” but as Chas Chandler puts it, “Monterey was the launching pad for Jimi Hendrix in America.” “Are You Experienced” was released stateside two months later and secured his status as a superstar. From there, the incomprehensible velocity of his career didn’t cease — Hendrix released three more albums in his lifetime, all of which were Top 5 hits; got bigger and bigger as a live draw and festival headliner; recorded hundreds of hours of material, some of which continues to surface to this day; and influenced virtually every person who picked up a guitar (and most other musicians, too).
And then he was gone, at age 27, leaving more than mere mortals would achieve in multiple lifetimes. But Monterey remained the central pivot point in the story of Jimi Hendrix — the moment, as the “Los Angeles Times” wrote, that he “graduated from rumor to legend.”