Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but I have followed up my investigation of the rock and roll world, which came from reading a book on Johnny Winter (reported in Log 210 August 9) by plunging into a book I found on my shelves about Jimi Hendrix. I have no idea how it got there, but it was probably left by one of my sons.
The book is called ‘Scuse Me While I Touch the Sky, the Life of Jimi Hendrix, first published in 1978. Unfortunately it is written by a poet, David Henderson, who was in thrall to Hendrix, not only as a guitar player, but as a personality, and this thralldom has led him to try to match with his prose the extraordinary effects Hendrix managed with his guitar. Thus, I found the book grossly overwritten, although I am sure the legion of people who still regard Hendrix as exceptional among rock artists would not agree with me.
The facts of Hendrix’s brief life --- he was born in 1942 and died in 1970, at the age of 27 --- are in themselves not particularly extraordinary. He was the son of a broken marriage, was raised between Vancouver and Seattle, and at an early age revealed virtuosic ability on the guitar. Much of the rest is simply typical of this strange world: he was robbed by dishonest managers; he over-indulged in the pleasures of the flesh; he was always surrounded by adoring young women, some of whom looked after him, others who led him down into the depths of despair; and he was fatally addicted to drugs, which, in the end, killed him.
I should note here that the author makes a particular point of correcting the widespread assumption that he died of a drug overdose. He did not: he died, according to the indeterminate evidence of the pathologists, from inhalation of vomit, and barbiturate intoxication. It is undeniable that his state of mind and physical capacities were overcome by the drugs he took on the day he died, so the distinction seems somewhat academic to me.
In spite of all David Henderson’s overheated prose, the best description of Hendrix and his music in this book is provided by the Chicago guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, who himself died of a drug overdose in 1981 at the age of 37. (Incidentally Bloomfield had to give up playing the guitar for a long time because of his heroin addiction: .. “I put the guitar down - didn't touch it.. Shooting junk made everything else unimportant, null and void, nolo contendre. My playing fell apart. I just didn't want to play,” he said, which strikes me as a sort of definitive verdict on the effect of drugs on rock and roll musicians.)
Describing the effect on him of hearing Hendrix for the first time, Bloomfield said: “I can’t tell you the sounds he was getting out of his instrument…He was getting every sound I was ever to hear him get…He was doing it mainly through extreme volume. How he did this, I wish I understood. He just got right up in my face with that ax, and I didn’t even want to pick up the guitar for the next year. I was awed. I’d never heard anything like it… Jimi had been fooling with feedback… (he) would sustain a note and add vibrato so that it sounded just like a human voice. He uses an immense vocabulary of controlled sounds, not just hoping to get those sounds, but actually controlling them as soon as he produces them. I have never heard such controlled frenzy, especially in electric music.”
So there it is: Hendrix was exceptionally devoted to the idea of producing unique sounds with his guitar. Part of his legend is that when he was young he slept with his guitar: until the end of his life he seemed to be in love with his mastery over the guitar. He said only the music mattered. In fact, he told Dick Cavett in one interview that the world was going to have to abandon politics, and in future make its decisions through music (a typical piece of hyperbole).
However, like other rockers, he was also into the exhibitionism required to send tens of thousands of people into frenzied appreciation. He would play his guitar with his teeth. He would do splits, cavort around, pretend to be humping his guitar, sit on it, play it upside down and backwards, and eventually set fire to it. I have watched on YouTube one performance where he set fire to his guitar, and thereafter, while it was still attached to the speakers, smashed it around the stage making I give out an assortment of weird sounds.
So, he was an exceptional guitarist But one of the problems with rock and rollers seems to be that the excess of attention given them can’t help but play with their heads, swelling their egos to unmanageable proportions.
A few pages later, Henderson, always straight-faced, taking Hendrix’s most extreme, far-out statements at face-value, is quoting Hendrix as saying: “Definitely I’m trying to change the world. I’d love to! I’d like to have my own country --- an oasis for the gypsy-minded people. My goal is to erase all boundaries from the world. You have to set some heavy goals to keep yourself going. As long as I know there are people out there who aren’t fully together I can’t withdraw to lesser goals... If I quit making money I would still want to change the world... The money scene can turn you into a slave to the public, a zombie, a penguin…. I just call (my music) raw, spiritual music…. Singing is letting off a certain frustration that I’d have to get married and beat up my wife to do otherwise… If our music were really an assault we wouldn’t have an audience after the fourth or fifth gig…”
I don’t know about others, but to me, Hendrix’s statements, full of contradictions and absurd statements (especially when backed up by the blizzard of extreme metaphors provided by David Henderson) sound like the stream of consciousness of a pretentious twenty-year-old for whom public adulation has affected the balance of his mind.
However, everyone can take from it what they will. I have listened to many of his tunes on YouTube, and all I hear is a guitar-player, not a prophet, not a leader, certainly not the world leader that Henderson purports him to be. Just another guitarist, although one with exceptional talents.