How Mashed Potatoes Led to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘The Wind Cries Mary’
If it weren't for an argument over lumpy mashed potatoes, Jimi Hendrix may never have crafted one of his most famous songs.
Kathy Mary Etchingham was an apprentice hairdresser living in London when she met Hendrix in 1966. The two were introduced by Etchingham’s best friend who was dating Eric Burdon, lead singer of the Animals, and the attraction was immediate. The couple lived together for three years: the longest relationship in Hendrix’s short life. But it was a turbulent romance, marked by constant fighting. And one quarrel in particular would lead to one of the most mysterious rock songs of all time.
Listen to Jimi Hendrix Perform 'The Wind Cries Mary'
In a detailed interview on BBC Sounds in 2005, Etchingham recalled the experience of dating Hendrix quite frankly. “Most of our arguments seemed to stem from my cooking, or my inability to cook,” she said. And on one fateful day in 1967, the argument was about mashed potatoes. “The mashed potatoes were lumpy and he made some cutting remark,” Etchingham said. She then proceeded to smash the plate of food on the ground... and the other dishes, too, along with the pots and the pans. “He was very upset,” she admitted.
And all these years later, Etchingham still sees the song as a direct, lyrical interpretation of their disagreement. “'All the jacks are in their boxes' probably relates to during the argument when he said, ‘You play games, you’re always playing games,’” she explained to the BBC. While the broom, “drearily sweeping up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life,” appears like an obvious stand-in for Hendrix himself, brushing up the shattered china in their apartment. Etchingham said he was cleaning the mess as she ran out the door that night, crying.
She didn’t come home until the next day. And when she did, Etchingham said, Hendrix handed her the lyrics. The song was complete. “It actually documents, in a poetic way, the events of that day,” she concluded. She also offered further conjecture about the song’s other famous lines. “He [wrote] late at night, and in those days... when the television finished at about 11 o’clock, there was a test card with a clown and a girl. And he was probably sitting watching the test card,” she said, referring to the line, “The clowns have all gone to bed.”
Listen to Kathy Mary Etchingham Discuss Her Relationship With Jimi Hendrix
“The Wind Cries Mary” was recorded in the winter of 1967 as a last-minute addition to the session for “Fire.” The Experience's drummer, Mitch Michell, and bassist, Noel Redding, had not even heard the piece yet. But after playing it once through, Hendrix suggested just a few overdubs and that was it. The entire recording was done in just twenty minutes, Hendrix’s producer shared in the book Ultimate Hendrix.
“The Wind Cries Mary” was released in the U.K. on May 5, 1967 and went on to be the third hit single from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, following “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze.”
When questioned about the song’s origins in 1969, Hendrix confirmed Etchingham as the inspiration, telling the Daily Mirror: "Kathy is my past girlfriend, my present girlfriend and probably my future girlfriend; my mother, my sister and all that bit. My Yoko Ono from Chester."
The the titular Mary, it would appear, derives from Etchingham’s middle name. In her BBC interview, Etching called it a “tongue-in-cheek” reference by her former boyfriend. However, more recent research suggests that the muse Mary could have other origins. In the 2003 book Jimi Hendrix: The Stories Behind the Songs, music journalist David Stubbs noted that the words “Somewhere a Queen is weeping / Somewhere a King has no wife," appeared in poetry written to a different lover, Mary Washington, in Hendrix's hometown of Seattle.
On BBC, Etchingham revealed that at the time she’d had no idea about the rocker's (many) other girlfriends. Regardless, they broke up when Kathy left for New York in 1969. By that time, Hendrix was a bonafide superstar in England, his existence marked by “hangers-on, sycophants, drug dealers, you name it,” she recalled.
Etchingham published a memoir about the time with Hendrix in 1998: Through Gypsy Eyes. The title itself is borrowed from another of the rocker’s songs, supposedly inspired by Etchingham — the Yoko Ono from Chester.