– Fred de Vries
London has guidebooks that take you to buildings where rock stars stayed, played, got laid, smashed up TV-sets and overdosed. New York has a guidebook entirely devoted to the East Village scene. It covers the downtown geography and history of subversion, starting in 1903 when Emma Goldman moved into a brownstone on E 13th Street to write anarchist manifestos.
Fortunately, there are still places where tracing the footsteps of old bohemians requires real effort. For the fifties and sixties, Morocco is the place to go. Half a century ago, writers like Kerouac, Corso, Bowles, Burroughs, Beiles, Gysin, Genet and Ginsberg took refuge in sleazy small hotels in Tangier. They smoked kif in tea houses on the Petit Socco and enjoyed unparalleled (homo)sexual freedom. The Muniria Hotel, where Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch, is still popular with aspiring Beats.
The next decade was the time of the hippies. In Tangier, Rolling Stone Brian Jones discovered the hypnotising sounds of the Master Musicians of Joujouka. Crosby, Stills and Nash sang about Marrakech. And Jimi Hendrix wrote Castles Made of Sand after seeing a palace near the southern coastal town of Essaouira.
Essaouira is where I happened to be. But sadly, there were no obvious remnants of that rock ’n roll hedonism. After the Moroccan authorities decided to crack down on the dope-smoking hippies in the seventies, the small town became a regular tourist place, full of surfers and bourgeois French house hunters.
But being the ultimate rock fiend, I decided to search for that sandy castle of Jimi Hendrix. I set out on foot, along the beach. Soon I was stopped by ‘guides’ on camels who approached me with a whispered, “La maison de Jimi Hendrix?” I ignored them. Finding Hendrix’s palace, apparently an old ruin near the next village of Diabat, should be easy.
After a good forty minutes, I stumbled upon what indeed must have been Hendrix’s beloved hideout. The people used to call it Dar Sultan, the House of the Ruler. But since a hippie commune settled here in the late sixties, it had been re-christened as La Maison de Jimi Hendrix.
Naturally, there wasn’t a single thing that recalled a possible stay of the guitar legend. In fact, it was hard to imagine him and his coterie spending days in what were basically a few broken walls and heaps of sand. But three local youngsters, who had followed me to the palace and noticed my disappointment, came up with a suggestion. “Larbi knew Jimi Hendrix!” shouted 13-year old Ahmed. I gave in. They would take me to this Larbi guy.
Larbi, it turned out, lived in Diabat, which had obviously missed out on the tourist boom. The boys knocked on a metal fence. A few minutes later a dozy-looking man appeared, wearing a green-yellow-red woollen hat. “That’s him,” smiled one of my guides.
The compound was a collection of rusty objects and prickly weeds. Larbi, somewhere in his fifties, shuffled inside to make tea. I peered into his living room. It resembled a blackened cave. The tea was lukewarm. He served it in an old tin. I took a sip. It tasted of rotting water. Larbi, ever the good host, also handed me a piece of bread, hard as an anthill. He then lighted a dagga-pipe. “Yes,” he began, “Hendrix was here. In 1976. Oh no, in 1967. He came with a whole family. People from Mexico, Pakistan, Canada. He used a lot of drugs. Cocaine, heroin.”
A deep cough, followed by a blob of phlegm in the dust. “He stayed here for two weeks. Then he had to return to New York.”
Sure, Larbi knew the music of Jimi. “If you listen to it after taking drugs, it’s very dangerous,” he warned me. “My favourite song is Doodoohutu.”
I frowned. Doodoohutu? Couldn’t think of any Hendrix title resembling that.
“Yeah,” smiled Larbi, inhaling more sweet smoke. “Great song. Hendrix had a lot of women here. Four or six. Canadian and American. Nice guy. He also played a Pakistani flute and Moroccan drums.”
“Cat Stevens was also there. And Santana. And a Rolling Stone. They’re all gone. Those were good days. We ate majoun [kif with almonds and honey]. There were many drugs. Many! Sometimes I took so much that I visited the stars.”
“Now I am a fisherman. I’ve taken too many drugs.”
I nodded and got up from my wooden crate to say goodbye and give Larbi and my guides some money.
As soon as I got back home, I took out my comprehensive Hendrix biography, Electric Gypsy. Alas. It just said that Hendrix stayed for one week in Morocco, somewhere in 1969. What he did there and where he stayed, remains a mystery. Only Larbi knows. Doodoohutu, yeah!
Fred de Vries is a Dutch writer/journalist, who moved to South Africa in 2003 to do research for a biography of Johannesburg Beat poet Sinclair Beiles.
His books include Respect! (with Toine Heijmans), about hip-hop in Europe, Club Risiko, a look at 80s underground music in six cities, Afrikaners, volk op drift about the post-1994 fate of the Afrikaners which was translated into Afrikaans as Rigtingbedonnerd and Gehavende Stad with Erik Brus, an overview of 50 years of literature and music in Rotterdam.
He wrote about his travels for The Sunday Times and Sunday Independent, and taught travel writing as a guest lecturer at Wits. He had an interview column for The Weekender, which were collected in The Fred de Vries Interviews; From Abdullah to Zille. Afrikaners, volk op drift was nominated for Best Journalism Book and Best Travel Book in 2013. De Vries was nominated for Correspondent of the Year in 2014 and 2015.
His seventh book, Wiegelied voor de witte man: ras en muziek in het Amerikaanse Diepe Zuiden en Zuid-Afrika was published in October 2017.