Monday, November 12, 2018

Jimi After Dark

Jimi After Dark, by Stephen Mertz
November, 2018  Wolfpack Publishing

First published by Perfect Crime in 2017 (with an atrocious cover), now brought out in a new edition by Wolfpack Publishing (with a much better cover), Jimi After Dark is an action-filled yarn that combines Ennis Willie with Swinging London; Stephen Mertz even dedicates the novel to Willie, so the tone is unmistakable. The book also comes off like Don Pendleton at times – and let’s not forget Pendleton sent his own two-fisted hero to Swinging London, in Assault On Soho.

Regardless, this is a fun, inventive mixing of influences: psychedelic rock meets hardboiled action. And there certainly is more action here than you’d find in something by Hard Case Crime, evidence of Stephen’s history with Gold Eagle Books (not to mention his sort of apprenticeship with Pendleton himself). It seems as if our hero, the anonymous “Soldier,” is constantly either getting shot at, knocked out, beaten up, threatened, chased, or just in general mistreated. He does though manage to pick up one of those infamous English “birds,” though. Actually she’s a Houston transplant, so maybe she doesn’t count as an English bird after all.

The novel is an effective mystery thriller, and takes place in the very last days of Jimi Hendrix – I mean like the last three or so days before he died, on September 18, 1970. Stephen wisely keeps Jimi as a supporting character; only the prologue and a few other brief sequences, all of which are in third-person, feature him in the sole spotlight. Otherwise he is a supporting character, usually off-page, with Soldier carrying the brunt of the tale, and narrating it for us. As mentioned Soldier wishes to be anonymous; he tells no one his name, and Jimi, who knows what it is, doesn’t tell anyone, either. Eventually I pretended that Soldier was just Mark Stone…or maybe even John Cody.

All we do know is that Soldier’s the same age as Jimi, 27, and he sports a facial scar. (So if my Stone/Cody theory is valid, we’ll just have to discount that!) He’s just rotated out of ‘Nam and is on his way to Germany when we meet him. But first he’s making a brief stopover in London to help out his old pal, none other than Jimi Hendrix – the two were stationed together during Jimi’s ultra-brief Army career and became fast friends. We know from the outset that Soldier owes Jimi his life; later in flashback we see that Jimi prevented Soldier’s brains from getting blown out at a black bar, near their base.

But that was a few years ago; the Jimi of late 1970 is in some ways a different person. Withdrawn at times, worn out from years of incessant touring, a little bitter. He wants to be back in America, in the new studio he just opened in Manhattan: Electric Lady, but he’s stuck here in Europe on this tour his manager, Mike Jeffrey, insisted he do so as to pay all the mounting bills. Jimi’s also in hock to some underworld types for money he borrowed. But now there seems to be a new element to it all, and Jimi is paranoid that someone’s out to do him in. Soldier’s here because he received a note from Jimi – they’re penpals of sorts – asking Soldier to stop by when he flies into London, because Jimi needs some help.

Soldier for his part doesn’t tell us much about himself. He’s fresh out of the shit in ‘Nam and he’s old buddies with Jimi. Soldier not only doesn’t want to tell us his name, he also doesn’t want anyone he meets to know his name. Even when his ID is confiscated, his name is not mentioned. Of course, the heaviest Pendletonisms are courtesy Soldier’s narration; not just in how he periodically flashes back to stuff in Vietnam, usually when he’s knocked out (and folks Soldier gets knocked out a whole bunch), but in how he uses his jungle warfare background to frame his experiences in London. Just as Pendleton would introduce a concept or theme early in a volume of The Executioner and then reinforce it throughout the narrative (sometimes relentlessly), so too does Soldier compare and contrast his ‘Nam background with this current caper in London as he tries to figure out who means Jimi harm.

And so just who is trying to kill Jimi Hendrix?? Everyone, that’s who! Humorously, it appears that everyone’s out to get poor Jimi – in this book he’s not only abducted but also dangled from a rooftop, and just in general is threatened with bodily harm throughout. It appears that Stephen has personified Jimi’s various personal and business problems into real-life foes; even his manager, Mike Jeffrey (whose name has really been dragged through the mud since he died in ’73), is presented as a thug-employing crime kingpin. I almost expected Noel Redding to show up wielding a meat cleaver. Seriously though, Stephen doesn’t bother too much with the music side of Jimi’s life; the opening sequence takes place at Jimi’s last official concert, at the Isle of Fehmarn in Germany, and Jimi’s band members (Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell) aren’t even named.

Speaking of which, Stephen has whittled down the cast of characters who surrounded Jimi in his final days, removing some and adding others of his own creation. Of the missing ones, Devon Wilson would be first and foremost. Anyone who knows about Jimi’s life will know of Devon, the super-groupie who inspired the track “Dolly Dagger.” Her outrageously complex relationship with Jimi entailed everything from being his live-in girlfriend in New York to acting as a female pimp for him. She was in London these final days, in fact had a mysterious encounter with him the night of his death, but she’s not to be found in Jimi After Dark.

However, Jimi’s other girlfriend of the day, Monika Dannemann, is here, and Stephen successfully captures this needy, domineering woman who appears to have implanted herself like a parasite on Jimi in his final days. Soldier meets her early on and forms an instant dislike for her, and it’s hard not to blame him. Jimi for his part excuses the clingy German blonde, saying she’s a sweetheart or whatever. Meanwhile little does Jimi know that Monika has inadvertently brought even more problems upon him: Soldier soon takes on a group of German crooks who have come here to London to harm Jimi, so as to make themselves look good to Monika’s ultra-wealthy family, as none of them like the idea of Monika running around with a black man.

Upon his arrival at Heathrow, Soldier meets the first of the fictional characters Stephen has placed in Jimi’s life: her name is Syndney Blanchard, and she’s a pretty redheaded Londoner who comes from a wealthy family but likes to mingle with the rock stars of the day. She approaches Soldier seeming to know where Jimi is, but not giving him any info – later we’ll learn she’s trying to protect Jimi. And anyway we promptly learn why, as Stephen presents us with the first of many such action scenes that will ensue: Soldier, still in his uniform, is accosted by a couple punks and makes short work of them, seriously injuring one of them.

When Soldier tracks down Jimi, who is staying at a crash pad, it’s to Stephen’s credit that he doesn’t sap it up. Jimi comes here to hang out with Angel, an American expat hippie babe from Houston (she’s another of the fictional characters), and to get away from the heavy shit going on in his life. Stephen presents us with a haggard and stressed-out Jimi who is nothing like the ultra-mellow guy more familiar to those who love him so much. And by all accounts Jimi was seriously stressed in his final days; it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy and the miserable fate he suffered.

But Jimi at times doesn’t come off very well in the novel, not very bright on what’s going on, who is after him, or how in deep he is. Soldier also doesn’t like all the drugs Jimi takes – there’s a curious anti-drug stance in Jimi After Dark, given that it takes place in 1970 – and the drugs only serve to make Jimi seem even more addled and clueless. He also doesn’t play as much music as you’d expect, though again the novel only occurs over a few days. But as mentioned, Stephen wisely keeps Jimi off-page for most of the novel, only occasionally featuring him in his own scenes.

Soldier is the star of the show, and he’s very much in the Mack Bolan/Mark Stone mold. He storms his way through London trying to find out who is hassling Jimi, finding the time along the way to almost hook up with Syndey and ultimately to hook up with Angel. He’s also framed for the murder of a female character, and this proves to be the central mystery of Jimi After Dark, which makes sense; I mean the whole world knows that Jimi himself is dead, so there’s no mystery there. This frame makes Soldier a wanted man, so along with the other sundry characters he goes up against while protecting Jimi, there’s also a bulldog of a cop after him.

As for Jimi, at one point he’s abducted and strapped to a chair for a day or so; in the Afterword, Stephen says this was inspired by a comment the real Jimi once made, in 1969, about being briefly abducted. No one knows if he was being serious or not, but Stephen took this ball and ran with it, just changing up the dates a little. Jimi we learn has been captured by a group of thugs he borrowed money from, one of the thugs being Angel’s ex-husband. But then there’s the question of who hired these thugs to capture Jimi, and why they want him dead. Jimi actually takes his captivity pretty well, even attempting an escape at one point. That being said, he sort of gets over it a little too quickly in the finale, casually heading off to a nightclub for what will be his last gig.

Meanwhile Soldier busts heads and tracks leads as he tries to find Jimi; at one point he runs afoul of the German thugs, and later on he meets a dude who claims to be a former CIA agent who desperately needs to get in touch with Jimi, because the United States government is trying to kill him. Here it’s brought up that Jimi has been making positive comments about the Black Power movement and etc, and thus the uber-evil Nixon administration wants him dead. In reality Jimi Hendrix had ascended beyond race, just one of the bujillion things that were so cool about him. I’ve read my share of Jimi Hendrix interviews, and he rarely talks about being black. He literally cared nothing about race – “no matter what color the eyes or armpits might be,” as he once wonderfully put it. I’ve also seen a few interviews where he claimed the Black Panthers were going about things the wrong way, so I’d guess any such involvement with them would’ve ultimately proved short lived. 

Regardless, this conspiracy theory is a central thread of Jimi After Dark, at least in how it’s one of the main efforts to kill off Jimi. This meeting with the former agent leads to another running action scene, as Soldier and Angel are fired at by a hidden sniper. Ultimately we’ll learn the CIA is involved with Jimi’s abduction, and it’s up to Soldier and Angel to come to his rescue – that is, after a little kinkiness between the two. Stephen gets slightly risque as Angel treats Soldier to a little down-home hospitality; it’s more action than Bolan ever got on page, that’s for sure.

One can also tell that Stephen is more invested in this tale than he was in, say Saigon Slaughter or whatever; the tone is somewhat the same, but there’s more care and craft in the telling. Things are always entertaining, and the characters come off as three-dimensional. I do feel that the mystery angle got a little in the way of the action, particularly the long outing of the true killer in the climax, which is relayed via dialog. I only say this because it comes after the scene in which Soldier rescues Jimi, which features dudes getting their faces blown off. But then this mystery schtick is part of the hardboiled template.

I actually suspected I’d get a different story in Jimi After Dark. There are enough mysteries in Jimi’s death, let alone any CIA hit teams, German thugs, or shady managers. The chief mystery of them all would be what happened in Jimi’s final hours. This is because the last person with him, Monika, changed her story countless times over the years. According to her story (or one of her stories, at least), Jimi took some of her sleeping pills after drinking a lot of wine at a party, and when Monika woke up early in the morning, Jimi was sick, so she called the ambulance, and rode in it with Jimi to the hospital. Monika further claimed that the paramedics improperly strapped Jimi into a sitting position, and when he tried to vomit in his comatose state he was unable to move and thus choked to death on his own vomit, right there in the ambulance. This is the story most early Hendrix bios stick to, among them David Henderson’s phenomenal Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age (aka ’Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky in its paperback edition), which I intend to review shortly.

The only problem is, the story is bullshit. Many years later the paramedics who arrived on the scene were finally tracked down and interviewed. They each stated that no one was in the apartment when they arrived, and also the door was unlocked. Monika was not there, nor did she ride in the ambulance with them. They also stated that Jimi had clearly been dead for quite a while, given that the inside of his mouth was turning black. However they went through the fruitless motions of reviving him before putting him in the ambulance. The coroner later determined that Jimi had been dead for at least seven hours before the paramedics arrived, placing his death around 4AM. As for who called the ambulance, again, we only have Monika’s dubious word on that. Records of such things weren’t kept back then.

Long story short, it would appear that Jimi’s death is just what it’s seemed to be all along – an unfortunate, easily-avoided mistake. He took too many of Monika’s powerful sleeping pills and choked to death on his vomit, unable to move because of the barbiturates in his system. The question is, why wasn’t anyone there to help him? Or was Monika indeed there, but asleep at the time, and woke to find Jimi’s corpse and freaked out, running out of the apartment, her later stories just a way of repressing her memory of the truth? Part of this must be true, as apparently she called Eric Burdon of War and he and some others cleaned the place of drugs and guitars, steering clear of the corpse on the bed, before they called the ambulance.  (Priorities, people!)  Or was Jimi indeed murdered, waterboarded with wine by Mike Jeffrey and a few cronies as Tappy Wright claimed in his 2009 book Rock Roadie? (Overlooking the fact that Mike Jeffrey was in Spain, not London, on the night Jimi died…not to mention that Tappy later admitted he made it all up to drive book sales!)

But here’s another weird sidenote…on July 30th, 1970, Jimi was in Hawaii, doing a private concert for the film Rainbow Bridge, an occult, New Age-themed hippie movie financed by Mike Jeffrey. Jimi, asked by Jeffrey to appear as “himself” in the film, got drunk for his appearance so as to quell his nerves. I mean he literally stumbles onto the scene chugging from a bottle of wine. In this brief sequence shortly before the end of the film, Jimi engages in a nonsensical stoned rap with the lead female character and a “young guru” type in a goofy headband (none other than director Chuck Wein himself). Jimi describes an out of body experience in which he astrally voyages above the Sphinx and meets Cleopatra. He’s been drinking in the astral trip, too, and he relays that he suddenly feels the need to puke up the wine. But he holds it in because he wants to play it cool for Cleopatra: “The grape chokes me almost. But I can’t let the choke come out.” He then mimics choking on vomit. It’s all very creepy, because this is exactly how Jimi died less than two months later. Was he experiencing a premonition?

Check out this concise but thorough overview of Jimi’s last days, which gives all the pertinent info and also debunks the conspiracy theory that Jimi was waterboarded with wine.  The entire website is a treasure trove of Hendrix info and is highly recommended!

But anyway, none of this is actually in Jimi After Dark, so I apologize for the interminable detour.  And Stephen has written a novel, so he is not beholden to catering to facts or theories. In his book, Jimi’s death happens between chapters and is relayed in mournful backstory by Soldier, who sort of implies that Jimi died by his own hand. Or maybe it was another a backup CIA hit team. Either way, it’s a miserable loss, and Soldier – who as mentioned is telling us this tale years later – has already mourned him, thus doesn’t treat us to histrionics when he and Angel hear that Jimi’s dead on the car radio. Despite which, it is the ultimate in buzzkill to learn that Jimi’s died between chapters, given that the entire book was all about Soldier trying to save his life!

Soldier does tell us that many years later he met Angel again, this time in Texas, thus implying there is another tale to tell. I enjoyed the character and wouldn’t mind reading another story with him, but it won’t be the same without Jimi. Anyway, I definitely recommend Jimi After Dark, and I’m happy to see it’s available again…when I tried to track down the original Perfect Crime edition, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Luckily now it’s available from Wolfpack – and as mentioned with a much more fitting cover.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way…

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