Bob and I crutched down the hallway past men dressed in either Army khaki or hospital blue. It was September of 1968 and I was in Fort Devins Army Hospital, recovering from an RPG that didn't have my name on it, just my initials.
We were headed to the small auditorium attached to the hospital. The flyer still clutched in Bob's hand and crumpled around his crutch handle read: "Tonight only — the rock band "What's This Madness?' 7:00 PM."
There is nothing worse than being in a hospital, especially an Army hospital, when you are young, ambulatory and bored. The flyer at least held the promise of a respite from the boredom if not the ache from healing wounds. From our ward window we had seen the band's Volkswagen Minibus pull through the gate. It was powder blue and covered with psychedelic flowers with "What's This Madness?" scrawled across the side in balloon letters. The contrast of bright colors verses olive drab had us heading down early to get front-row seats. Bob and I chatted while the small auditorium filled halfway with mostly officers and hospital staff. There was only a scattering of blue pajamas. The house lights dimmed and I squirmed with excitement in my seat as the curtain opened. The drum set on stage, painted with the same psychedelic flowers as the minivan, held great promise — then the band came on stage.
"Ah, shit," muttered Bob, and I had to agree.
Three girls had walked onstage. Two with guitars, one with drumsticks. An all-girl band.
How lame.
Oh well, the music part of the night was over, but at least there were women. I checked out the drummer first. She had long dark hair that I really like in women — but she was on the chunky side and wore jeans with an oversized white T-shirt to help disguise the chunks. I checked her off my list. The bass guitarist had light brown hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. Her face was cute, right down to the freckles. She was wearing jeans and a pink turtleneck. Her body wasn't bodacious but it would do.
The leader stepped to the front mike and the spotlight hit her. She wore jeans, a dark tie-dyed long-sleeve T-shirt and a guitar slung low. Her face was stunning. No, not Marilyn Monroe stunning, more like Frankenstein stunning. She was skinny and her shoulder-length mousy brown hair looked barely combed. Her bulbous forehead set off her deep, dark, sunken eyes. As if in defiance to her large brow, little pink plastic bow clips held back her hair above each eye.
I closed my eyes and shook my head. I don't think I'd ever seen such an ugly woman. So much for a fun night.
She began to play.
My eyes popped open in disbelief. The first strains of Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe' floated through the air and danced through my consciousness.
Then she began to sing.
I sat stunned, listening to a voice very much like Jimi's, only female. It wasn't raspy like Janis Joplin or totally feminine like Grace Slick. It was Jimi's voice a half an octave higher. The two behind her fed her licks and vocals just as well as Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. My mouth fell open and stayed that way until she played an incredible guitar solo. Then it stretched into a smile.
The microphone was set low and she never looked up through the entire song. I saw why she wore the plastic pink bow clips. With her head down over her guitar, her hair hung in her face and the clips allowed her to see the strings.
"Hey Joe' ended to a light scattering of applause — except for me. I leaped up on my one good leg and pounded my hands together as hard and as rapidly as I could. Bob pulled me down with the admonishment that she was a double brown bagger.
I sat down but didn't look his way — I couldn't take my eyes off the lead singer. Somehow her appearance had changed. She was certainly ugly but there was something else about her…
They broke into "Purple Haze" then "All Along the Watchtower" without a pause. Their playing was extraordinary. When the song finished, I once again launched into spirited applause, but kept my seat. She lifted her head enough to look at me and slightly raised an eyebrow. She lowered her gaze and began "The Wind Cries Mary.'
During that song her body became somehow — alluring. It was as if she was a chameleon and her powerful music her background color. She was still skinny but it wasn't the skinniness devoid of strength as it is on most women. It was the wiry hardness of tendon and bone.
They began a set of what had to be their own songs. The sound had the same bluesy quality and wild riffs, but the lyrics were dark and filled with a grainy reality. Where Jimi's woeful songs always ended on a confident note, hers didn't. They embodied a feeling of hardness and despair that I'd only witnessed before in other veterans. I hadn't thought anyone would know that feeling if they hadn't been in sustained combat. I watched the shadows play on her face as she sang her version of Jimi's "Bold as Love."
They ended their set with "Angel." This time she played with her head up and eyes closed, never once looking at the audience or her guitar. Her voice and her playing held such poignancy that it reached deep within me. I felt a barrier dissolve.
As the last riff drifted away in the dark she opened her eyes and looked at me.
She was beautiful.