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Hendrix, Me And Summer 1968 — Rock Comes Of Age In Connecticut

The summer of 1968 was challenging for Hartford — and for the reporters who covered the news. As in many cities nationwide 50 years ago, some residents, particularly those from the inner city, took to the streets to protest poverty, racism and terrible living conditions. City police occasionally fired tear gas to disperse rock- and bottle-throwing crowds. It was neither a happy nor an easy time.

As a summer intern at The Courant, I joined the reporters and photographers, each with a company issued gas mask, as we headed out to cover the unrest. But I was eager to cover another beat, which I thought the newspaper was missing — rock music.

So, one August Saturday, I stepped into the “green room” at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and there, squeezed onto one sofa, were guitar whiz Jimi Hendrix, his two bandmates and two young women. About half an hour later, the Jimi Hendrix Experience performed a dazzling set to an adoring audience — with me watching, and taking notes, from backstage.

Seeing Hendrix perform close-up, and getting to chat with him, were highlights of my first few months as a reporter. And my getting this assignment was largely my own doing.

In 1968, The Courant didn’t cover pop and rock music shows, except as police stories.

When the Rolling Stones came to Hartford in 1966, for example, the story quoted the police chief and said, “no injuries of consequence were reported … There were no arrests made.” There was no apparent thought of reviewing the performance (although Marji Murtha, a columnist for what was then the newspaper’s Women’s Department, interviewed the group).

The lack of serious pop music coverage was an opportunity, so I approached then city editor Irving Kravsow with a proposition: How about if I reported on, and reviewed, major pop and rock acts that came to Connecticut — on my own time? It wouldn’t cost The Courant an extra cent.

That was an offer Kravsow couldn’t, and didn’t, refuse. But, he added, he wasn’t going to assign photographers to concerts; they had better things to do. (And that summer, they certainly did.) That was fine with me. I brought along my camera, and now, half a century later, I have my own amateur but evocative photos of some of those who played here.

Besides the Jimi Hendrix Experience, I saw the Vanilla Fudge and Wilson Pickett at the Bushnell; the Who and Herman’s Hermits at the Oakdale Theatre and other acts at more unusual venues, such as the Left Banke at the West Hartford Armory.

In those days, meeting the performers was easy. I didn’t need an ID or a backstage pass. I let the promoter — often someone about my age — know that I’d be there; identified myself to whoever opened the stage door and the next thing I knew I was face-to-face with genuine rock stars, most of whom turned out to be more than willing to talk with a reporter, and to let me photograph them.

I was warned that Hendrix didn’t like the press and was generally nasty toward reporters, but this was incorrect. He was polite, even charming, although he did request, forcefully, that whatever I wrote include something about his band members, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding. I happily complied.

I rode along with Herman’s Hermits from a Meriden motel to the Oakdale, interviewing them and taking photos on the way. At the theater, the band was greeted by a bunch of fans; in the front were several mothers and fathers, wheeling their children with severe disabilities closer to their idols. Peter “Herman” Noone said that this was a common practice at concerts.

The Who warmed up for their Oakdale show, in what was then a rustic dressing room, by consuming most of a bottle of MacPherson’s Cluny scotch. A pal of mine had told me that lead guitarist Pete Townshend’s right index finger was deeply scarred as a result of his so-called “windmill” style of playing, and I persuaded him to let me photograph it. He got a kick out of the idea, saying he had never thought his finger was all that newsworthy.

The Courant gave me great latitude in writing, but insisted that 1960s pop music terms that perhaps wouldn’t be familiar to adults be explained. When I wrote that Hendrix had used a fuzz tone and a wah-wah pedal, an editor asked what they were. A reasonable question: “Fuzz tone blurs the music,” I added to the story, “and wah-wah makes each guitar note sound as if it were saying ‘wah wah wah’.”

I moved on to other reporting and editing jobs and continued to write about pop music in my spare time for several years. Eventually, the newspaper hired a pop and rock music reviewer and assigned professional photographers to cover concerts and interviews — a big improvement.

Sandwiched between 1967 (the Summer of Love) and 1969 (the Summer of Woodstock), the summer of ’68 might seem now like a pop music also-ran. But for me, 1968 was the apex. It was the summer I helped The Courant begin to take popular music seriously.

Henry McNulty, who was a writer and editor for The Courant for more than 26 years, is a retired communication consultant living in Old Saybrook and Cheshire.

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