Jimi Hendrix

Died 1970, aged 27

        I wish not to be alone,
        So I must respect my other heart.
        Oh, the story of Jesus is the story
        Of you and me.
        No use in feeling lonely,
        I am sending you to be free.
        The story of life is quicker
        Than the wink of an eye
        The story of love is hello and goodbye
        Until we meet again.

These are the last lines of a song called The Story of Life, which Jimi Hendrix wrote on the eve of his death. Like Chidiock Tichborne in the Tower of London in 1586, Hendrix was writing his own elegy, though, unlike Tichborne, he didn’t know that he’d be dead upon the morrow. And yet this song - with its earlier references to Jesus on the cross, to the soul of man which roams after he has fallen in battle, and to God being at our side at the moment we die – this song does suggest a man who is making peace with his “God,” and preparing himself for immortality. Hendrix hoped that he would achieve immortality in his music. “When I die,” he said, “I want people to just play my music.” Today, over thirty years later, Jimi Hendrix is idolized by millions of discerning young music lovers, many of whom weren’t even born at the time of his death. Unlike those of my generation, they cannot claim a nostalgic attachment to a second “Elizabethan” Golden Age of “English” music, in which the émigré Hendrix was the brightest star in a glittering, celestial panoply of musical splendor. For them, Hendrix’s music speaks on its own terms, not only as a virtuosic assault on the senses, but also as a profound cry of sincerity and, ultimately, of faith, hope, and love.

True genius is also something acknowledged by the other bright lights in the current celestial panoply, regardless of the weight or absence of popular and critical acclaim, which can often be very fickle and misguided. It took a genius of the stature of Franz Josef Haydn to acknowledge that young Wolfgang Mozart was the greatest musician of the era, at a time when Haydn himself was basking in sustained popularity and Mozart was subject to the whims of his public. Hendrix had no shortage of gifted peers who recognized that he was the brightest star amongst them. “No one else was in the same building!” is the blunt judgment of Neil Young. I had the honor of hearing a similar though more elaborate judgment directly from the mouth of Mick Taylor, who, back in 1966, the year Hendrix arrived in England, was a precocious sixteen-year old guitar wizard launching his career with the John Mayall Bluesbreakers. “Hendrix,” Taylor told me “was without doubt the single greatest musical genius of that period, in terms of the sounds he created, his experimentation with electronics, and his sheer virtuosity.” In the summer of 1969, Taylor joined The Rolling Stones, replacing Hendrix’ close friend Brian Jones, who had been one of the first musical celebrities in London to realize that a messenger had come among them.

But if Hendrix was the “Mozart” of his period, then without question his “Haydn” was Eric Clapton, who had preceded young Mick Taylor as the resident guitar virtuoso with the John Mayall Bluesbreakers. In fact, a famous condition set down by Hendrix for his sudden and epoch-making move from New York to London was the opportunity to meet and perhaps to play with Eric Clapton, whom he revered, as Mozart revered Haydn. Sure enough, within a week of his arrival in London, his tough, straight-shooting manager Chas Chandler fulfilled the promise. On October 1, 1966, Hendrix met Eric Clapton on the stage of the Central London Polytechnic, where he jammed along with Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker. It just happened to be the first public performance of Cream, which, to this day, is regarded by many as the finest ensemble of virtuoso musicians in the entire history of rock and roll. Not only did Hendrix perform with these Titans, he left them in awe. “I’ll never forget Eric’s face,” says Chas Chandler. “He just walked off to the side of the stage and watched.” Within a week of his arrival in England, Hendrix had established with Clapton the intense rivalry and love of Mozart/Haydn soul brothers that for the next four years fueled the fire in each of their souls, and turned the fire that was already burning brightly in the British music scene into a full-blown conflagration. All the established greats of British rock music – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and other guitar virtuosos such as Jeff Beck – all now realized that the music they played would have to be held accountable at an even higher artistic level.

The music rose to the new challenge during Hendrix’ first full year in Britain. 1967 was an annus mirabilis; possibly the most creative year in the history of popular music. The Beatles produced Seargent Pepper’s; Cream produced D’Israeli Gears, including  Sunshine of Your Love, which was dedicated to Jimi Hendrix; an esoteric quartet from Cambridge calling itself Pink Floyd launched its journey into outer space with an album called Piper at the Gates of Dawn; and Jimi Hendrix, with his quickly assembled band of brothers, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, produced two albums, Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold As Love, that became treasured possessions for every enlightened British youngster with an ear for what we then called “progressive music.” For a few halcyon moments, the British musical elite basked in the glory of having this émigré genius amongst them, as one of their own. Even Mick Jagger, who had a rather strained personal relationship with Hendrix, was proud to announce, “He was ours.” But he wasn’t. At the same time Mick Taylor gave me those earlier comments, he also said of Hendrix, “As a genius, it was hard for him to fit in anywhere.” Just as Byron called himself a “Citizen of the World,” Hendrix was a “Citizen of the Cosmos,” and as such he had no true home in any one place.

It was inevitable that once he had made it big in Britain, which he did in just a few meteoric months, he would go back in triumph to conquer his original home, America. By now, all British musicians were aware that the only thing that mattered in the music business was success in the lucrative American market. So Hendrix, the raw material imported from America, would be exported, like a Rolls Royce or a Jaguar, as a very high-class piece of “British” merchandise. The occasion on which Hendrix was introduced to his new American audience was the Monterey International Pop Festival, staged in June of that miraculous year, 1967. It was Paul McCartney who insisted to the Festival organizers that any prestigious music event without Jimi Hendrix would not be worth its name. This just six months after McCartney had first heard Hendrix jamming in the London clubs! What greater references could any new musician have in 1967 than The Beatles and the Rolling Stones? Fittingly, Hendrix traveled to California with the Rolling Stones’ founder Brian Jones, who went, specifically, to introduce to the estimated crowd of 90,000 the man he called “… my very good friend, a fellow countryman of yours, who is the most exciting performer I’ve ever heard.”  

Once Hendrix had conquered the American market, it was obvious that he would spend an increasing amount of time in his native land. Sentimental patriotism aside, his two British managers were very keen to cash in on the adulation of US audiences, though they disagreed vehemently over the wisdom of launching Hendrix’ Post Monterey American campaign via a nationwide tour supporting The Monkees! This madcap venture was the inspiration of Mike Jeffrey, the more shamelessly mercenary of his two managers. Fortunately, Chas Chandler’s greater commitment to the artistic integrity of his precious commodity eventually prevailed, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience was able to “withdraw” from the farrago with a minimum of fuss or damage to the fragile egos involved. But after this farcical beginning, America provided one triumph after another, such that Hendrix moved the center of his operations from London back to New York, where, in the last year of his life, he opened his own recording studio. But though America was his home, and New York a city he loved, because of its dynamic club scene, he remained an outsider. His sense of belonging to America was compromised by his rejection of its materialistic values and by his uneasiness concerning the major political issues – civil rights and the Vietnam War - that were damaging the soul of America in the late 1960s. Hendrix was also very conscious of being a very unusual breed of American, in a culture that hyphenates people into one ethnic category or another. A black man from Seattle with a powerful infusion of Cherokee Indian blood, he defied tidy classification, and it’s significant that during his life time only a small percentage of Black Americans connected with his music. He preferred to look upon himself as a Gypsy, and cultivated this image both in his flamboyant dress and the lyrics of his songs, which frequently evoke images of magic, prophecy, and erotic power in the same vein as El Amor Brujo.  

Though at heart a homeless Gypsy, Hendrix also enjoyed his time in London. As a wanderer in Space and Time, he relished being in a city with a rich historical tradition, all the more so when he discovered that his fashionable Mayfair flat had been the home of George Frederick Handel. What a stroke of Fate that two musical émigrés of genius, 250 years distant from each other, would end up under the same roof!  Hendrix saw the hand of Providence in this. A man of eclectic musical tastes, he was far more sensitive than the average rock musician to the importance of classical music, especially to the intricacies and the colors of orchestral composition, a genre to which he sincerely aspired. At the time he moved into Handel’s old digs, he was unfamiliar with the great man’s work, though he did know some Bach. He promptly made up for lost time and bought every available LP recording of Handel’s music. Sadly, he never lived long enough to enjoy it all. Perhaps at least he had a few moments of peaceful solitude in which he could enjoy Music for the Royal Fireworks and Messiah.

Like Handel, Hendrix was a master plagiarist, not that this seemingly pejorative label detracts one jot from the genius of either musician. Handel was perfectly happy to snitch other composers’ tunes, certain that he could use them to greater effect. Similarly, Hendrix would spend countless hours in the pubs and clubs of London listening sometimes to Cream and Jeff Beck, but more often to rather mediocre bands, which, nevertheless, might produce some little spark of inspiration. While Chas Chandler would be tugging at his sleeve, anxious to be rid of the tedious cacophony and to be off at the bar nursing another pint, Hendrix would insist on staying the course, to hear and absorb that one little flourish by an otherwise lackluster guitarist that he, Hendrix, like Handel, could use to greater effect. And while we know Hendrix primarily as a creative artist who wrote his own songs, he would occasionally take great delight in covering another artist’s song, confident he could transform it into something rich and strange. His version of the Troggs’ hit Wild Thing was a favorite from his early days in London, to the extent that he eventually became rather jaded of having to perform it at concerts by popular command. With greater personal pleasure, he frequently enriched the splendor of Sunshine Of Your Love, each time dedicating it back to the trio of master musicians who had dedicated it to him. This he did most famously on January 4, 1969, during a live, prime time, Saturday Nite B.B.C. show, when he interrupted a rather labored performance of one of his own songs to announce his farewell tribute to Cream on the occasion of its disbanding. But his greatest cover song, indeed, one of the greatest songs he ever recorded, was of Bob Dylan’s classic All Along The Watchtower, in which Hendrix not only displayed his virtuosity, but also his growing spiritual awareness, voiced through Dylan’s foreboding poetry. Dylan himself – a man never noted for his modesty – admitted that the Hendrix cover version actually improved on the original; a noble testament to the rich “orchestration” of the Hendrix arrangement, which added even more vigor to the profound lyrics.

As a composer in his own right, Hendrix is remembered for a number of classic songs that demonstrate the vast range of his technical and emotional powers. At one extreme, he produced the delicate ballad Little Wing, almost Schubertian in its economy and ethereal beauty, conveyed in the gossamer layers of both its melody and its poetry,
Well she’s walking through the clouds
        With a circus mind that’s running round
        Butterflies and zebras
        And moonbeams and fairy tales.
        That’s all she ever thinks about
        Riding with the wind.

At the other extreme is the quintessential anthem of psychedelic angst, Purple Haze, with which Hendrix announced himself as a major songwriter in March 1967. This, his most famous song, opens with a dramatic guitar riff that, as a motif stamped indelibly in the minds of an entire generation, is rivaled only by the opening of the Stones’ Satisfaction. This jarring dissonance, with which Hendrix mesmerized a whole generation, contains the musical interval of a tritone or flattened fifth. During the Spanish Inquisition this particular note was reviled as Diablo in Mứsica, and Church musicians were prohibited from using it, for fear of invoking the devil! Instinctively, Hendrix clearly knew what he was doing with his own Diablo in Mứsica, as he shows in such anguished questions as “Am I happy or in misery?” and “Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?” He goes some way to answering these questions in Voodoo Chile, which is perhaps his most autobiographical statement. Gypsy imagery abounds; his mother confirms the prophecy that the moon would turn a fire red on the night of his birth, whereupon she “falls down right dead.” Now motherless and abandoned, this Voodoo Chile baby is found by mountain lions, which set him on an eagle’s back for a journey to the outskirts of infinity. He returns to earth via “Jupiter’s sulphur mines,” where he finds William Blake’s “arrows made of desire,” though not, surprisingly, his bow of burning gold! Where was Jim Morrison when he was needed?

As a live performing artist, Hendrix had arrived in London a seasoned twenty-three-year old, groomed in the clubs of Chicago and New York by such legendary black musicians as The Isley Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, and, most famously, Little Richard. It was under Little Richard’s tutelage that Hendrix learned all the tricks, the moves, and the gestures that make for a consummate stage performer. In fact, young “Jimmy James,” as he was known in his pre-London days, threatened to upstage his vainglorious paymaster, so he received his marching orders. All of which reduced him to temporary poverty, but paved the way for his historic flight to London. Once in England, Jimi Hendrix, as he was now called, quickly adapted to his new environment, and within months was discharging as much live electricity as the Rolling Stones and The Who. More than any other artists, The Who had taken live music in Britain to a new level of physical and emotional intensity – an intensity its surviving members have maintained into the 21st century!  By the beginning of 1967, it knew of three guys who could generate as much raw power as its four guys. But there was a big difference: while the white heat energy of The Who was generated by the fierce competition between its three chief firebrands – Pete Townsend, Roger Daltry, and, especially, Keith Moon, who usually won! – the energy of the Jimi Hendrix Experience was generated largely by Hendrix himself.

Sadly, I never saw Hendrix perform, so any words evoking the power of his performance art must inevitably be borrowed. Fortunately, I can borrow a few which were written by a teenage girl from my native Yorkshire:

“The violent colours of the spotlights paled into insignificance beside the color of the man beneath them. My eyes begged to close, but I could not move them from his face. I watched his long fingers caress the guitar shaft. I watched as he tore the strings viciously with his teeth. I watched as the words flung themselves out of his throat and hung above us somewhere. I watched Jimi being torn to shreds by his music; his skin and his mind stripped away, leaving the skeleton of his dreams shining white and brittle in the raw darkness. I wanted to comfort him, but I was helpless. Then he stopped singing; stopped the sensuous movements of his lithe body; stopped time.”

At the time of his death, in September 1970, virtually all his fellow musicians acknowledged Hendrix as the most important creative artist in rock music. As to critical acclaim, the London Times stated in its obituary, “he was largely responsible for whatever musical metamorphosis pop music has undergone in the last three years.” And regarding popularity amongst the record-buying, concert-going public, Hendrix commanded bigger audiences and fatter fees than anyone, with the exception of the Rolling Stones.

But it’s also clear from his movements and his comments during the last year of his life that Hendrix was not content to rest on his laurels. In fact everything suggests that he was less than satisfied with his current accomplishments – staggering though they were! – and that he was driven by a yearning to explore and experiment in a variety of different and even more ambitious musical genres. Almost certainly he would have incorporated jazz techniques into his composition and playing, and jazz musicians into his ensemble. For several years, he’d admired free-form jazz masters such as saxophonist Roland Kirk, with whom he eventually had the opportunity to jam. He also jammed with jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, who alone, perhaps, excelled Hendrix for pure virtuosity. McLaughlin at the time was a mainstay with the Miles Davis band, which was breaking new ground with such albums as In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Sure enough, Hendrix got to meet the maestro himself, with whom he became friendly, in spite of Davis being a bit of a musical snob – Hendrix having no background in music theory- and in spite of Hendrix being the cause of the separation between Davis and his wife. The potential for a future collaboration between these two giants poses a tantalizing image for what-might-have-been. Hendrix was also entranced by Pink Floyd, with whom he’d shared a playbill back in May 1967 at a Cattle Auction Hall in Lincolnshire; a remarkable gig that had also included Cream! Talking to an interviewer just a few weeks before his death, he said that his music “… could be on similar lines to what Pink Floyd are tackling… Western sky music and sweet opium music…they are the mad scientists of this day and age.” And there would also be a classical component in the future music of Jimi Hendrix. “Strauss and Wagner are going to form the background of my music. Floating in the sky above it will be the blues.”  One esteemed classical music ensemble – The Kronos String Quartet – has often included the music of Hendrix in its repertoire. It’s very possible that, had he lived for another 20 or 30 years, Hendrix would have been composing on a regular basis for Kronos and for a host of other adventurous classical musicians. He might be collaborating with such dynamic conductors as Pierre Boulez and Esa-Peka Salonen. Without question, he’d have written a violin concerto for Nigel Kennedy!

But it was not be. Hendrix was summoned to Mount Olympus – or perhaps to Valhalla if Wagner had anything to do with it!  He died on September 18, 1970 in a bizarre accident, his death caused, in the words of the London coroner, by “an inhalation of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication in the form of quinalbarbitone.” At the time, much was made of the “drug factor” and of the general tendency for rock musicians to indulge in heavy drug use, leading in several celebrated cases to their early deaths. For sure, Hendrix indulged and experimented in drugs. “He pushed things to the nth degree,” as his drummer Mitch Mitchell said. Hendrix was a true disciple of William Blake in believing that “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But, as Mitch Mitchell adds, “He exhibited no suicidal tendencies… and if he’d taken all the drugs the papers and rock books say he took, he’d never have lived as long as he did.” Drug use may have been the immediate and accidental cause of his death, but it was not the symptom of a prolonged journey towards death.

If anything did put Hendrix on a journey towards his early death it was a deep-rooted melancholy. It was the melancholy of a gentle spirit frequently at violent odds with the institutions and the morality of a world in which he was not entirely at home. It was the melancholy of a free spirit, who was both a lover of his fellow man and a man alone, tormented by doubts and loneliness. In all of this, he was more a fellow traveler of the great Romantic poets of the early 19th century than of the drug-crazed rock ‘n rollers of the 1960s. He would have been perfectly at home in the company of Byron and Shelley, especially Shelley, with whom he shared a Promethean optimism about the capabilities of the human spirit, in spite of the melancholy that shrouded his own spirit. Shelley’s words from Prometheus Unbound about the poetic spirit might well be applied to Hendrix:
Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses,
        But feeds on the aëreal kisses,
        Of shapes that haunt thought’s wildernesses.
        …from these create he can
        Forms more real than living man,
        Nurslings of immortality!

Like Byron, Hendrix was a magnet to and was magnetized by women, though, like his role model, it’s unlikely that he ever found true happiness with any single woman. For both men the scars from childhood ran deep, especially those cut by betrayal in love. For Byron it had been his unseen father who had held the knife; for Hendrix it was his mother. But each man had an idealized vision of feminine purity and beauty. In Byron’s case it was modeled clearly on his half-sister Augusta, who became the spotless “Astarte” of his Manfred. Hendrix’s idealized vision of Goethe’s “eternal feminine” came largely from his mother Lucille, who, in spite of her “betrayal,” embodied for him everything that was gentle and lovely in a woman. In The Story of Life, Hendrix writes,

        We will guide the light
        This time with a woman in our arms
        We as men can’t explain the reason why
        The woman’s always mentioned
        at the moment that we die.

Or as Goethe puts it at the conclusion of Faust,

        Here insufficiency becomes fulfillment,
        Here the indescribable is accomplished;
        The eternal feminine draws us heavenward.

The day after Hendrix died, his friend Eric Burdon disturbed many people by some comments he made during the BBC’s 24 Hours current affairs show. “Jimi made his exit when he wanted to,” Burdon told veteran interviewer Kenneth Allsop, “His death was deliberate. He was happy dying and he used the drug to phase himself out of this life and go someplace else.” I watched that interview, and Burdon’s words have tantalized me ever since. Burdon would later curse himself for “being stupid enough to speak publicly about the death of friend,” which is not to say that his original comments are devoid of truth. In the interview, Burdon made much of the elegy which Hendrix wrote the night before his death, and, just two weeks before he died, Hendrix himself told a Danish journalist that he didn’t think he would live to see twenty-eight. This same journalist cites Hendrix as telling her that he’d been dead for a long time and had been resurrected in a new musical body.

It is possible, therefore, that in the last year of his life Hendrix reached a stage of mystical awareness, which not even his closest friends could understand. The one friend who might have understood this was Brian Jones, who’d died the previous year. It may well be that all of Hendrix’ elaborate plans for his musical future were for a future in a different plane of existence; that the Wagner he would hear would, indeed, herald his entry into Valhalla! And perhaps he realized that he’d already done enough to establish his immortality in this plane. If so, he was right.