Hendrix died choking on his own vomit a week into the autumn term. We had witnessed his last public performance. In fact, we had left the festival at Freshwater on a green Vectis Bristol Lodekka bus just after his set because we had no interest in hearing Joan Baez play. She topped the bill. We barely knew who she was, except that she had short, dark hair and sang protest songs.
Anyway, who cared about Joan Baez, after hearing Hendrix wrestling with the electric gods and sending 'Red House', 'Voodoo Chile' and 'Star Spangled Banner' screaming, in an ectoplasm of Fender-driven feedback, high into tangerine skies? And who could ever care again about finding x, about Gauls who threw away their arms (armis abiectis), or about whether Gladstone or Disraeli was the greater reformer?
I was a newly fledged teenager with a brown-leather bomber jacket from Kensington Market, 'genuine' Belgian sailor's black flares (from the small ads in Melody Maker), a crew-necked jumper from Take Six, fake Ray-Ban Aviators, white plimmies, pounds 10 to spend and plans to attend the biggest pop festival ever.
The surreal cocktail of O-level studies meant less than zero to us just then. Less than x or y, too. We had spent the summer term growing our hair: not so long that the scholastic goon squad would try to jackboot us towards a barber, but long enough for acceptable fest cred. I consumed The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, One-Dimensional Man, IT, Oz and NME; went to Hyde Park to see Pink Floyd play 'Atom Heart Mother'; and swapped copies of Electric Ladyland, Air Conditioning, Hot Rats, In the Court of the Crimson King, and albums by Soft Machine, Colosseum, the Keef Hartley Band and Neil 'Only love can break your heart' Young. And I dug the blues, from scratchy recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson to the school of John Mayall.
I went to the ICA to be wowed by zany exhibitions and ploughed through The Roads to Freedom and Daniel James's new book on Che Guevara ( pounds 3, a birthday present). I took on any work, delivering leaflets door-to-doberman, sweeping factory yards, waiting at wedding receptions, to earn money for the big event. The days leading up to the Isle of Wight were underscored by 'All Right Now', 'Lola', 'Let It Be' and 'In the Summertime'.
The big day came. Under a hot, late-morning sun at Surbiton, we left for Portsmouth Harbour, trying hard to look cool, but probably just looking exceedingly young. We had my tent, three sleeping bags, canvas army bags, a change of underwear, novels and little else.
At Portsmouth, we sailed on the last British Rail paddle-steamer to Ryde, tapping along to the soft- shoe shuffle of its languid exhaust. We walked the timbers of Ryde Pier, boarded a Vectis double- decker packed to the gunwales with hair and jeans. The bus howled away, carrying .0001 per cent of the festival crowd. It was hard to see where we were going with so many floppy velvet hats, Afro hairstyles and guitar cases. And, slowly, the sweet smell of dope rose as fat, unkempt roll-ups were lit with Swan Vestas.
The site chosen for the festival by Ron and Ray Foulk, the fraternal organisers, was rather beautiful. How did they ever manage to persuade farmers to give over their precious land to an army of would- be beautiful people? We smothered the green hills in a huddle of tents, an instant, magic mushroom of a city - just add long hair and dope to equal parts of canvas. It developed its own rhythm, gossip, rumours and myths within hours of being raised into miasmic life.
We were hardly aware of the discomforts: foul trench lavatories hidden behind corrugated-iron sheeting where toilet-paper was restricted to three sheets per person; dismal food; lack of running water. We survived on a diet of alcohol, dope and hot-dogs, and we washed in the gents of the nearest pub. Our water supply, so rumour said, had been spiked with acid by a gang of Algerian students. I have no idea whether the water was hallucinogenic, but I do remember dropping acid for the first and only time and seeing angels singing in a polychrome sky. It was hardly the opening of the Doors of Perception promised by Aldous Huxley. While he touched the face of God, I felt a little poorly.
We were surrounded by Peace (lethargy) and Love (a lot of humping in tents from which we Catholic boys were excluded, though not for want of lusting). What about the music? Casting an ear back 24 years, I can hear little of the kaleidoscopic blur pumped from those huge amps and speakers. I remember nothing of Ten Years After or Cat Mother, and little of the Voices of East Harlem (there were lots of them) or Richie Havens (a mumbling of 'Freedom, freedom . . .' and a chronically overworked plectrum). I cannot hear, much less see, Melanie, Taste or Jethro Tull. Even The Who and The Doors have vanished in a puff of dry ice. There was too much noise, too many distractions, in that corrugated arena.
Sheer volume had never been a recipe for success, whatever Deep Purple or The Who wanted us to believe. John Sebastian, the tie- dyed, silver-tongued vocalist from Lovin' Spoonful, was one of the hits of the show, singing softly and unaccompanied for much of a sunny afternoon. Chicago (big, brassy, orchestral) stole one of the long, hot nights. Free strutted their horny stuff; Emerson, Lake and Palmer launched fireworks with a Hammond-driven version of Mussorgsky's Pictures from an Exhibition; Miles Davis was electric cool in the heat of the night; and Jimi Hendrix was simply the man we had come to see.
If Hendrix had played 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree' or 'Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West', we would not have felt cheated. But I would have to ask someone older to judge whether Hendrix or, in fact, anyone who played during those three lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, was up to scratch.
The festival brochure wrote about Hendrix in the past tense, which seemed significant at a time when rock stars were dying at an alarming rate. And a few weeks later, Hendrix's death certainly meant more to me than Kennedy's had done. In November 1963, I had been painting yellow spots on a red clay dinosaur in the art room at primary school. If Kennedy's death had mattered, it was because he was a Catholic and ipso facto a good thing. Hendrix was a hero we chose for ourselves as teenagers testing our wings in 1970.
On the last day of that year, Paul McCartney filed a writ in the High Court against Beatles and Co. It was the beginning of the acrimonious split of a partnership that had mapped out the long and winding road leading Nick, Rod and me to Freshwater and, in our different ways, independence that summer.