Incendiary Rocker Jimi Hendrix Is Gone, but Ken Voss Remains the Devoted Keeper of the Flame

updated 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

At first glance, Ken Voss doesn't seem to be a man obsessed. His smile is pleasant, his demeanor—albeit scholarly—is normal. But look a little closer. His eyes burn with passion. And check out his tie-dyed T-shirt in '60s-era, retina-searing purple. It's emblazoned with a picture of Jimi Hendrix, the wa-wa king of psychedelic guitar who died, at a way-too-young 27, back in 1970.

"Jimi Hendrix seemed to be able to turn a guitar into an orchestra," says Voss, enthusiasm rising in his voice like a soaring Hendrix solo. "Did he have some one-on-one relationship with the guitar that nobody else has ever been fully able to comprehend or translate?" As the curator and originator of the Jimi Hendrix Information Management Institute (JIMI), Voss, 38, often ponders such imponderables. Four years ago, "to continue the legend and the legacy of Hendrix," he started JIMI in the basement of his suburban Des Plaines, Ill., home. It's part archive, part memorabilia museum and part shrine to the memory of the fallen rock hero whose guitar playing, songwriting and singing ("Foxy Lady," "Purple Haze") galvanized the Woodstock generation. JIMI also happens to be a computerized information network that's available to some 1,500 Hendrix loyalists in the U.S., Germany, Japan, Britain, the U.S.S.R., Canada, Poland and Australia.

Voss, a sound-and-light contractor, leads the way down the basement stairs. Though crammed with posters, paintings, books and other Jimi-ana, one corner of the Hendrix sanctum sanctorum is dominated by the JIMI Mobile Museum. The centerpiece display is a black-velvet two-button suit once worn by Hendrix and donated by Jimi's father. A purple, mauve and green flowered lady's shirt is tucked underneath. "He used to buy women's shirts because he was left-handed," explains Voss. Nearby is a set of drums used by Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles and three guitar effects pedals—Cry Baby, Octavia and Fuzz Face—of the sort that Hendrix often used. To help pay for JIMI (the institute is only marginally profitable), Voss occasionally trucks the museum to Jimi-fests—featuring Hendrix impersonators—at nightclubs.

In fact, Voss's Jimi-mania derives from his own college days at Southern Illinois University. "I was sitting in a dorm room one night in 1969 and somebody put on Electric Ladyland," recalls Voss. "One song starts with Jimi going, 'Hey man, take a look outside...it's raining.' I looked outside, said, 'It's not raining,' and everyone started to laugh. I thought somebody was actually talking to me."

Hendrix couldn't have asked for a better listener. Next day, Voss went out and bought his first Hendrix album. He now owns virtually every known recording the guitarist made—his collection of bootleg and commercial releases numbers 500. He publishes a quarterly fanzine, Voodoo Child ($12 per annum), and his computer bank holds a 100-page discography that takes 75 minutes to print out, a service he performs for $10 for fellow zealots. Also on computer is a complete list of every confirmed live performance dating back to what Voss believes is Hendrix's first gig, on Feb. 20, 1960, in Seattle, when he was still in high school. By appointment only, fans can examine JIMI's neatly cataloged collection of 1,500 newspaper and magazine articles and 30 to 40 hours of film and video. There are more than 100 posters including psychedelic, black-light portraits of Hendrix, relics dating from that '60s era when popular culture was infatuated with drugs.

Which brings up a sore point for Voss. Most people think of Hendrix, who died after pill and alcohol consumption, as a martyr of the just-say-yes generation. Not Voss. "He did not die from a drug overdose," Jimi's archivist insists. "He died from an inhalation of vomit." He points to a framed copy of the guitarist's death certificate, which says that Hendrix died of suffocation. Voss claims that Hendrix was high on nothing stronger than wine when he mistook his girlfriend's sleeping pills for his own milder prescription—and that the death was more accident than drug abuse. He vows not to rest until he sets the record straight.

His wife, Anne, a phys-ed teacher who's partial to John Denver music, hopes that day will come soon. Though she says their daughter, Bethany, 6, would fall asleep in infancy only when "Foxy Lady" was hummed to her, Anne is not a JIMI fan. "Listen," she says, laughing, "the better part of my house belongs to JIMI. I stay completely out of it."

"When I first started JIMI, I was doing 40-50 hours a week," says Voss, who recently cut back his devotions to a mere 20 hours a week. "My wife said, 'Spend some time with us, I don't want to live with two men, especially one who's dead.' "

Dead? Hendrix lives on in the minds of his fans. Once a month or so, Voss conducts tours for visiting guitarists who want to research the arcane techniques that Hendrix pioneered. "To this day," says Voss, "we still can't give a full answer as to why nobody has been able to re-create the Hendrix sounds." Or, as one of Jimi's record producers is fond of saying, "Hendrix created a school—and nobody's graduated from it."

—Judy Hevrdejs in Des Plaines

From Our Partners