Posted on Sep 17th 2010 12:30PM by Brad Schreiber
Jimi Hendrix is forever associated with the most widely heralded moment of '60s pop culture -- his astounding and powerful interpretation of 'The Star Spangled Banner' at the historic Woodstock Music Festival.
Courtesy of Experience Music Project, Seattle, WA
Courtesy of Experience Music Project, Seattle, WA
Although Jimi's solo performance is one that evoked the sounds of gunfire and bombs and prompted many professional musicians to admit that, upon first hearing, it moved them to tears, James Marshall Hendrix in fact started far from the psychedelia many associate with him. In fact, when one delves into the various genres of music he conquered, one becomes convinced that Jimi Hendrix was not simply a rock guitarist. In the process of redefining the electric guitar, he became trans-musical.
Sept. 18 marks the 40th anniversary of his untimely death at age 27 in London. One of my intentions in researching his early life for the book 'Becoming Jimi Hendrix' (Da Capo/Perseus), co-written with Steve Roby, was to inform casual fans about not only his psychology and his genius but also his unceasing growth and interest in all forms of music. Jimi traversed and enlarged everything from Delta and Chicago blues to rhythm and blues to even surf, jazz and, inevitably, a radically new form of guitar playing.
The lonely Seattle boy who fashioned a guitar out of cardboard and cellophane, and even carried a broom to elementary school, playing it like the instrument he longed for, responded immediately to the blues. His aunt Ernestine Benson exposed him to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson, and insisted his father, Al, buy him his first real guitar, a battered remnant, for five dollars.
One can see how deep the blues ran in his blood in the documentary 'A Film About Jimi Hendrix,' when he spontaneously picks up someone's Zemaitis 12-string, gets instantly familiar with it and reels off a version of his 'Hear My Train A-Comin'' that has every bit of the intensity and authenticity of any Delta blues performance one might name.
So, how did Jimi Hendrix become the apotheosis of psychedelic rock? One hint of his interest in a sound that no one was yet playing came in Clarksville, Tenn., with his band the King Kasuals, after his honorable discharge from the Army's 101st Airborne Division in 1962. Singer-songwriter Jimmy Church recalled the moment Jimi busted a speaker in his amplifier and asked Church to listen to the new sounds that emanated from the cabinet: "I looked at him kind of funny and said, 'Your speaker's busted.' He said, 'Yeah, but listen to that tone.'"
But in the competitive milieu of Nashville rhythm & blues, Jimi could not gain acceptance for the bursts of frenzied inventiveness he sometimes cut loose onstage. Certainly, his performance style had become more theatrical, including biting strings and playing behind his head, necessitating the fan club called the Buttons, which sewed back on the buttons Jimi sheared off his outfits during his flashiest tricks.
Jimi's first real acceptance of his experimentation was on the so-called Chitlin Circuit, the small, rural clubs in the Deep South that howled with appreciation for the sonically and theatrically outrageous. But as Jimi learned on the road with numerous musical greats, including Little Richard, the Isley Brothers and Ike and Tina Turner, neither popular music consumers, nor the bandleaders he worked for, approved of his early use of feedback and tonal shifts. Jimi Hendrix was fired regularly for his explorations. Once, his guitar was thrown out the window of a tour bus and he was stranded by the side of a road in Knoxville.
Jimi wanted to assert himself when he was based in Nashville. Playing songs like 'Tutti Frutti' and 'I'm a Man,' 'Twist and Shout' and 'Stand by Me' every night grew tiring for him. He yearned to take music into a new direction. In a later interview in Downbeat magazine, he stated, "I mean, I love the blues, but I wouldn't want to play it all night. It's just like although I love Howlin' Wolf and Otis Rush, there are some blues that just make me sick. I feel nothing from it."
Everything about his circumstances suggested that Jimi Hendrix would never go beyond being a backup guitarist and occasional session man. He did not lead his own groups. He was embarrassed by his own singing voice and did not write songs. And while he could play a right-handed guitar upside down and pick up melodies with staggering speed, Jimi alienated many of his fellow players in Nashville with his new approach that was deemed to be merely showy and pretentious.
Wisely, Jimi never ceased his quest to learn. And being on tours with the likes of Albert King, B.B. King and Albert Collins provided him the chance to study with masters. Jimi admitted that Curtis Mayfield's smooth and fluid style also impressed him. Jimi paid the highest possible compliment to his boss Little Richard, the self-proclaimed "King of Rock and Rhythm," saying he wanted to do with his guitar what Little Richard did with his voice. But their touring together was punctuated by admonitions to Jimi to stop stealing the limelight, as well as fines levied against Jimi for not wearing the humiliating outfits Richard demanded of his backup band.
Jimi found inspiration in classical music that he and Army buddy-bandmate Billy Cox listened to in Nashville. Jimi was taken by Dick Dale, "King of the Surf Guitar," who showed Jimi his "power slides" in a club in Pasadena, Calif. By the end of his life, Jimi Hendrix, weaned on the blues, was jamming with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin, as well as with the group Traffic.
His rejection by R&B club owners and players in Harlem ironically led to his breakthrough, in the burgeoning coffeehouse scene of Manhattan's Greenwich Village. In the dark, underground confines of the Café Wha? on MacDougal Street, Jimi found himself, writing and singing his own songs for the first time, bringing in the blues and jazz and R&B and the science fiction of his youth and his dreamlife and his humor and his despairing side and his hopes for a world united, not racist and politicized.
It took Linda Keith, the former girlfriend of Keith Richards, to persuade Jimi to sing, and he wound up being complimented by the man they both idolized when Jimi created his version of 'All Along the Watchtower,' which Bob Dylan acknowledged as better than his own.
The greatest testimony to how far Jimi Hendrix liberated pop music is still, in my opinion, on a tape box of the master of the single 'Purple Haze.' Some technician at Track Records in London sent it to Reprise/Warner Brothers Records in Burbank, Calif., for remastering, prior to its release in America. On the box were the handwritten words, "DELIBERATE DISTORTION: DO NOT CORRECT." Jimi had to wait for the music industry, recording technology and the masses to catch up to the sounds he heard ahead of us all. And when the time finally came, my God, did he let us have it.
Brad Schreiber is a Los Angeles journalist, screenwriter, producer, and author of five books. His latest, co-authored with Steve Roby, is 'Becoming Jimi Hendrix : From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius.' Read his blog on Red Room.