The Jimi Hendrix Experience was already scheduled to perform a show in Honolulu the next day, but they did this free, two-set afternoon show for a record. Or a movie. Or something. Even Jimi himself wasn’t sure what the film crews were capturing and how it would eventually be used. But his participation in what was officially called “The Rainbow Bridge Vibratory Color/Sound Experiment” has long been a fascinating, if hazy part of his story.
“I felt like Rainbow Bridge had a negative impact on Jimi’s posthumous career, with all of the confusion around it.” McDermott — who also oversees Hendrix’s catalog and has worked on many related projects — says. “And fans have always wanted to see more footage from the shows. It’s so unique and beautiful. But there’s a lot of context behind it.”
In a nutshell, Hendrix’s manager, Mike Jeffery, wanted to become a mogul in the film business as well. He got involved with Chuck Wein, a budding director and filmmaker who had years before done some film work with Andy Warhol and (his then-girlfriend) Edie Sedgwick.
Inspired by the success of the counterculture movie Easy Rider, Wein had a loose concept for a film in Hawaii about surfing, drugs, Tai Chi, meditation, music, and yoga. Something of a hippie guru as well with interests beyond the earthly plane, Wein’s vision also included the concept of “space brothers” – aliens who lived and worked among humans – and the ultimate goal for humanity to cross the “Rainbow Bridge” from the lower self/unenlightened works to the higher self/enlightened world. Got all that? Don’t worry if you didn’t. But you can partially blame Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and the success of their recent biker movie.
“Easy Rider presented rock music in a movie in a way it hadn’t been done before. And that younger people have a way of making art to communicate to a young audience.” McDermott says. “Michael Jeffery got Warner Brothers to put up the money for the movie just on the promise that Jimi would do just an instrumental score. But you had to have a movie that people wanted to see!”
The plot ostensibly centered on a New York fashion model who goes to Hawaii to encounter hippies doing hippie things. The “cast” included actress Pat Hartley as the model, Wein, and a bunch of inexperienced locals.
There was no script, as everything was improvised. And it was an utter mess. Until Wein and Jeffery figured out his star client, on the way to Hawaii for an already-scheduled show in Honolulu, could save the project.
“When Jimi shows up on the island the [filmmakers] panicked and knew they had to involve him in some way. The band thought they were coming to Maui for a vacation and to do the [Honolulu] show and maybe meet some of the film people,” McDermott says. “You can’t imagine this madness happening to any other artist of Jimi’s stature. It’s unfathomable!”
In Wein’s mind and his introduction, Hendrix would play music, soak up the “positive vibratory frequency” of the audience, and lead them across this mystical bridge, paving the way for the rest of humanity. Wein even had the audience sit in astrological order by a flag with their Zodiac sign for better vibes.
In both new and archival interviews, McDermott has Wein, Cox, Mitchell, and a string of cast, crew, executives, and Hendrix associates give their take on the whole thing. Not surprisingly, their memories and feelings don't’ always jibe.
When filming was completed and the concert portion was sent for editing and mastering, Hendrix’s longtime engineer Eddie Kramer was horrified. Things were uneven, out of synch, and the 30-40 mph winds in Hawaii wreaked havoc with the microphones.
The road crew had to put foam padding out of the band’s instrument cases to cover the heads, clearly visible in the video. The equipment used was rudimentary, and had been powered by portable generators. Mitchell’s drums were unusable, and he had to re-record most of his parts for the 17 minutes of concert that actually appeared in the finished film (Live in Maui does feature some of his original drumming).
But there was another problem, and a big one: Six weeks after the concert, Jimi Hendrix was dead.
When Rainbow Bridge came out almost a full year later, it was marketed as a Jimi Hendrix project. That was clearly confusing to fans, like McDermott himself. “I was one of the poor souls who went to see that film originally,” he says. “And I had no idea what the hell it was!”
Perhaps no musician’s posthumous legacy has been both so ill-served and greatly served as that of Jimi Hendrix. In the two decades since his death, there have been a flood of official, semi-official, and bootleg releases. And of varying levels of quality, authenticity, and Hendrix’s participation. Even the “official” soundtrack for Rainbow Bridge is a hodge-podge of studio and live tracks, none taken from the film.
Experience Hendrix LLC was created in 1995 by Jimi’s father Al to try and sort out and bring under one roof the rights and distribution of his music, image, and product. In this century, under the aegis of Jimi’s half-sister Janie Hendrix, there’s been a steady stream of new records and box sets with extensive liner notes and graphics, many restored and remastered by Kramer. It’s been an amazing boon for Hendrix fans, and McDermott has spent the past 25 years curating and preparing much of it.
Live in Maui comes out at the same time as No Business: Curtis Knight and the Squires—The PPX Sessions Volume 2. It’s the second compilation of some loose studio jams and songs that Hendrix participated in 1967, even as he and PPX owner Ed Chalpin were embroiled in a lawsuit about a contract Hendrix had signed two years earlier (which itself makes for yet another fascinating part of the Hendrix story).
As for Live in Maui, it certainly rescues and amplifies Jimi Hendrix’s part in a film that McDermott says in the liner notes was nothing more than a “hippie-era curio.”
“The film was poorly received, and rightfully so. But Jimi wasn’t here to defend himself, and that’s the great tragedy in this,” McDermott sums up. “But the music is great. And in the film, you can see he [and Mitchell and Cox] were just having a great time, playing very loose, with no pressure. He’s having fun. Nothing articulates Hendrix’s music better than Hendrix. And Jimi does all the heavy lifting for you.”