Doug Jerebine plays at Radio 1 Dunedin May 2010

Doug Jerebine plays at Radio 1 Dunedin May 2010

Several times over the past 30 years I have fantasised about what Jimi Hendrix would have been doing if he had still been alive.  It has always been one of those fascinating daydreams with almost limitless possibilities.  Music history would have been changed if Hendrix had not died in 1970 but would Hendrix have changed the history of music?

Some of those fantasy possibilities were better than others it has to be said.  On the one hand, there was the very real possibility he could have ruined his reputation by doing some awful ‘80’s electro funk thing with synthesizers and electronic drums or doing session work on Guns’n’Roses albums. Worse still, he could have spent the ‘90’s on the celebrity circuit jamming with Eric Clapton and U2.

But, on the other hand, he really could have created some new kind of music by fusing jazz, blues, psychedelia and inter-dimensional space travel. That certainly seemed to be where he was heading at the time of his death.  Or, alternatively, what if he had decided to give it all away, retire from the music business that was poisoning him with its greed, lies, mismanagement, expectations and pressure, and instead concentrate on a simple life of meditation and purity?

It’s tempting to view the remarkable story of New Zealand 1960’s guitar hero Doug Jerebine as a version of this fantasy in reality.  Jerebine, guitarist in a band called The Brew, was renowned by his peers in the 1960’s as an “out there” guitar player with the playing ability to rival Hendrix. He headed to the UK in the late 1960s, changed his name to Jesse Harper on the advice of his ambitious manager (Jesse Harper – Jimi Hendrix – the similarity is unlikely to be a coincidence) recorded a demo album of heavy psychedelic rock, put together the World Band and was on the verge of being signed to a major label. But, according to the story here – –  Jerebine recoiled from the cigars and whisky excess of what was to be the celebratory signing and walked away from music. Instead he sought spiritual enlightenment by joining the Hare Krishna religious movement, moved to India and effectively vanished for 30 years.  Just another casualty in the rock and roll wars.

That 1969 album under the name Jesse Harper survived on a handful of acetate copies. One found it’s way back to NZ where Human Insinct covered many of the songs on their first two albums (Jerebine having played with Human Instinct briefly in NZ). Another of the acetates was eventually obtained by UK psychedelic obscurities re-issue label Kissing Spell and released around 2000 (without Jerebine’s knowledge or permission), providing a new generation a hard-to-find chance to become acquainted with The Legend of Jesse Harper. The Legend (as told in the sleeve notes of the Kissing Spell CD reissue of the album) had become embellished over the years with what have since been confirmed by Jerebine as completely fictitious stories of “Jesse Harper” playing with Hendrix in London.

Much to everyone’s surprise Doug Jerebine re-emerged in about 2003 and started playing the guitar again after a break of over 30 years. He teamed up with drummer Miles Gillett, the son of one of his fellow band members in The Brew in the 1960s.  Remarkably, he picked up where he left off and, with new equipment and his self-made electric sitar or “ragtar”, began playing an improvisational fusion of Indian devotional music, jazz, avante-garde and heavy psychedelic blues rock.

In May 2010 Doug Jerebine toured New Zealand with Miles Gillett. I had the great fortune to help out by lending a drum kit when they played in Dunedin in May and got to meet Doug and witness an extraordinary musical experience when he and Miles played a live-to-air session in a tiny broadcast booth at the Radio One station at Otago University in Dunedin:

Doug Jerebine plays at Radio 1 Dunedin May 2010

Doug Jerebine plays at Radio 1 Dunedin May 2010

Doug is in his 60’s now – a slightly built but agile man, very modest and quietly-spoken. It’s fair to say he’s embarrassed by The Legend of Jesse Harper and how, in the absence of the subject of The Legend, it had spread without being corrected. But he is also humbled by the number of people who know of him and come to see him play. When he started to play in that tiny studio, the sounds he coaxed out of his guitars through nimble finger work, delay, overdrive saturation, feedback, volume pedal and tremolo arm was a master class of the possibilities of the electric guitar. He played like he was possessed by some spirit or energy.  Miles’ drumming provided a solid backbone of musical rhythm, anticipating where Doug’s creative flights were heading and matching the dynamics.  Hearing Doug play was like a time capsule had opened, the contents unspoiled by the influences of the intervening decades, and the possibilities for musical exploration without boundaries developed further from the point he left off in 1970.

While I was watching and listening to this I started to have one of those “what if?” Hendrix fantasy daydreams.   Imagine Hendrix had retired to a life of meditation and healthy living and then re-appeared after 30-odd years… what would people think and would his playing have been anything like this? In so many ways the True Story of Doug Jerebine is a much better story than the (mostly fictional) Legend of Jesse Harper.  It looks like the 1969 “Jesse Harper” demo recordings will be re-issued properly now (Doug recently oversaw their re-mastering along with NZ rock archivist John Baker). Doug and Miles have also recorded new material for a future release.  Excuse me while I kiss the sky…

UPDATE: April 2012 – The Jesse Harper album has had an official re-released on legendary US alternative label Drag City. There’s an LP version and an NZ issue of a CD with extra tracks.