Day 956: ‘Scuse Me While I Bust This Guy

originally published August 13, 2014

“Show them as scurrilous and depraved. Call attention to their habits and living conditions; explore every possible embarrassment. Send in women and sex; break up marriages. Have them arrested on marijuana charges. Investigate personal conflicts or animosities between them. Send articles to newspapers showing their depravity. Use narcotics and free sex to entrap.”

So said a leaked memo written by the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, with the aim of fracturing the influence of those hippy-weirdo rock stars in the late 1960’s. Perhaps they were taking a cue from London Drug Squad detective Norman Pilcher, who had arrested Donovan in mid-1966, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1967, John Lennon and Yoko Ono in late 1968 and George Harrison in March of 1969 – all for drug possession. Of course, Pilcher would later be disgraced for perjury, and was strongly suspected of having planted the evidence. I believe it was Harrison who remarked that there had been drugs in his home, but not the ones that Pilcher found.

It was in the misguided fog of this backwards policy that Jimi Hendrix was busted at Toronto International Airport after a small quantity of hashish and heroin was found in his bag. A conspiracy to undermine his influence? Perhaps – but that so-called conspiracy threatened to steal twenty years of Hendrix’s future.

After a May 2, 1969 concert at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, the band was warned of a possible drug bust the next day. Tour managers Gerry Stickells and Tony Ruffino took this seriously; not only was a gruesome amount of money at stake, but this was a time when no one was really sure if a serious drug bust might ruin a musician’s career (as opposed to now, when we all know it can only help).

Drummer Mitch Mitchell knew that fans often tried to pass illegal drugs to rock stars, a form of curious gratitude that rarely occurs in my day-job as a provincial government drone. Mitch purposely put on a suit with no pockets and even wore no underwear. Hendrix and promoter Ron Terry paused in the plane’s bathroom after they’d touched down in Toronto and attempted to dispose of anything that could even be mistaken for drugs.

The customs agents uncovered a “small amount” of what they suspected was hash and heroin in Jimi’s bag. I have yet to find what that small amount might be, but when it was confirmed, Jimi was arrested for narcotics possession and carted to the station to get booked and processed. This was a very conservative time in Toronto politics – though the city has always leaned a little further to the right than most North American cities of comparable size. Then-mayor William Dennison was openly anti-hippie, and supported the use of the War Measures Act to harass them.

Also, the presence of the RCMP at the airport for the arrest was unusual; it was almost as though they’d anticipated some sort of public spectacle in the customs area of the airport. Both Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding felt that the entire operation had been a set-up, and that the drugs were planted by someone. Mitchell even pointed out that heroin was not Jimi’s drug of choice; he’d tried it once or twice but hated needles too much to make it a habit.

The volume of the day had been cranked up to ‘PANIC’. P.R. manager Michael Goldstein bribed a member of the Associated Press with a case of booze to keep him quiet; he didn’t want to see a rash of cancellations kick the legs out from under the tour’s profits. Tour manager Gerry Stickells pleaded with police to release Jimi in time for his show that evening at Maple Leaf Gardens. Fortunately, the detective in charge of booking had kids who were planning to attend the show, and he didn’t want to face their wrath by forcing its cancellation. Jimi was released on $10,000 bail.

After the police had escorted him to the show, Jimi put on yet another Jimi-level performance. He even adopted a jovial attitude and tweaked the lyrics of his song “Red House” to mention his arrest. Word of the bust escaped locally, but without the AP running the story, Jimi’s friends back home in Southern California had no idea.        For now, the story could be controlled.

For Jimi, this was not a nightmare he could easily shrug off. The authorities had been considering adding intent-to-traffic charges, but even with the two counts of possession Jimi was facing a possible twenty years behind bars. Jimi’s bravado and inimitable swagger was limited to the moments when he was armed with a guitar, concocting rhythms and sounds previously unconceived by humankind. Otherwise, he was legendarily shy and unapologetically human. This drug charge was as frightening to Jimi as it would have been to any of us; celebrities weren’t slip-sliding their way through the justice system as easily as the bucket-pissing, egg-throwing jackasses of today’s music scene seem to do.

On December 7, 1969, Jimi returned to Toronto for the start of his trial the next day. He had purchased a custom tailored suit – the first time he’d dared to put an actual suit on his body since his rise to fame. His lawyer, Bob Levine, advised him that he’d better not have anything incriminating in his bag going through customs this time. Jimi assured him there was nothing to worry about.

A few minutes later, he was under arrest once again, on his way to jail.

It was a pill. A legal, prescription-type pill that for anyone else would have necessitated an eight-second explanation to customs. But this was Jimi Hendrix, and the pill needed to be tested (for traces of LSD, amphetamine, weapons of mass destruction, etc.) before they’d let him go. Jimi spent the night in jail.

The trial immediately revealed the rice-paper case the Crown was desperately trying to make stick to the rock star. The defense entered with a simple strategy: yes, those drugs were in Jimi’s bag, but he had gifts thrust into his hands by squealing fans all the time; he simply didn’t know that this particular gift was an illegal substance. When the prosecutor held up the aluminum vial in which the hash was found, asking Jimi what he thought it was, Hendrix replied, “A pea shooter.” The trial took three days, and the jury spent eight hours deliberating before returning a not-guilty verdict.

This would not be the final chapter in the conservative witch-hunt for politically vocal musicians. The FBI opened a file on Jimi, just as they’d do in their persecution of John Lennon a few years later. The government was spending an untold fortune trying to undermine the cult of celebrity and expose rock stars as bottom-feeding deviants. But hasn’t history really exposed these cretins of law enforcement for the paranoid, dishonest schmucks they really were?

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