Anyone who knows anything about rock music knows Jimi Hendrix. Purple haze, All Along The Watchtower, Crosstown Traffic, Voodoo Child (Slight Return), the many variations of John Lee Hooker’s Red House, and of course, the incomparable Electric Ladyland album. And those of us who play guitar know that absolutely no one, no one, has ever played it better than Jimi. That’s why any discussion of who is the greatest guitar player of all time has to begin and end with Jimi Hendrix simply because he was better than all that came before and all that followed. Not negotiable. You can take that to the bank.
So now an article appears in the UK Daily Mail, suggesting that the guitar player might have been murdered. This isn’t a new allegation but this one comes from James “Tappy” Wright, a long time roadie for Hendrix. He has now come forward to say that Jimi’s manager, Michael Jeffrey, made a drunken confession that he had murdered the rock star. This confession apparently took place approximately a year after Hendrix’s death. And dear old James is just now coming forward with the story. Why now? Could it be the book he has just published? But that’s the cynic in me talking.
According to the roadie, Michael Jeffrey stuffed pills and poured red wine into Jimi’s mouth, which resulted in him vomiting and aspirating the wine and drowning. This type of aspiration asphyxia is not uncommon in alcohol and drug abuse. Both alcohol and sedatives can cause nausea and vomiting and, when the individual is either very stuporous or in a coma, anything vomited can be inhaled into the lungs and cause death from aspiration. The question here is whether Hendrix fed himself the drugs and wine, which he apparently had a habit of doing, or did someone force them on him. At this late date there is absolutely no way to determine what is the truth.
This brings up an interesting forensic topic. If someone dies from a supposed drug or alcohol overdose, what is most important? The amount of drug in the stomach or that in the bloodstream?
In Jimi’s case. the official cause of death was listed as “barbiturate intoxication and inhalation of vomit.” John Bannister, the surgeon who attempted to save Hendrix when he arrived at the hospital, says that he remembered there was a large amount of red wine in his lungs and his stomach and that to him there was no doubt that Hendrix had drowned in the red wine. The question raised by James Wright is whether this red wine was vomited up from Hendrix’s stomach or, as he claims Jeffrey told him, it was poured down Jimi’s throat.
The kicker here is that apparently Jimi’s blood-alcohol level was very low, indicating that the alcohol in his stomach had been recently consumed. Alcohol absorbs very rapidly from the stomach and into the bloodstream. Anyone who has taken a drink on an empty stomach can vouch for that. The fact that the blood-alcohol level was low means that the Jimi had not consumed the alcohol over a long period of time but rather within an hour, or likely less, before his death. Otherwise one would expect the blood-alcohol level to be higher.
The same can be said for barbiturates, which were also found in Jimi’s case. It is the barbiturate level in the blood stream and not any pills found in the stomach that is important to intoxication. If someone is found dead and has several undissolved barbiturate pills in the stomach and the blood level of barbiturates is low, then the barbiturates were very recently ingested and did not cause the death. On the other hand if the pills in the stomach are dissolved or if none are found and the level of barbiturate in the blood is high, then indeed a barbiturate overdose could be the cause of death. I could find no official autopsy report on Hendrix but only many allusions to the fact that he had taken a large dose of barbiturates. Whether this was from finding pills in his stomach or from finding high barbiturate blood levels is unclear and this is very important.
So the answer to the questions I posed early is the alcohol or barbiturates in the bloodstream that is important. One cannot get intoxicated from alcohol or drugs in the stomach but rather only from those that have absorbed into the bloodstream. Alcohol and drugs in the stomach cannot affect the brain whereas those in the bloodstream do. So if Jimi was not severely intoxicated, the question is why did he vomit and aspirate wine? The unknown here is what his blood barbiturate level was. If this was low, then a case for homicide, as Wright claims, could be made. But if it was high, high enough to cause nausea and vomiting, high enough to make Jimi stuporous and subject to aspiration, then he might very well have overdosed on barbiturates. It is possible he could have consumed a massive amount of wine just before he became stuporous and then aspirated this wine into his lungs and drowned. We may never know what the truth is but I surely wish people would let James Marshall Hendrix rest and simply listen to all of his wonderful music.
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