- With the arrival of a new biography and DVD, guitarist Jimi Hendrix may have finally gotten his due, the pieces of his puzzle finally assembled, with just enough mystery left over for the ages.
“Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix” by Charles R. Cross. (Hyperion); “Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock [The Deluxe Edition],” a 2-disc DVD from Experience Hendrix/Universal Music Enterprises.
By Milo Miles
A conventional notion holds that key milestones in rock and roll are tombstones. Eras ended with the deaths of Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. The notion has held up about as well as the romance of prom night and “be true to your school.” Whether people hoped that exploding rock stars meant the racket would end or wept that youthful ideals were dashed forever, the deceased masters have never stayed buried for long, not when there are legacies to be appreciated, artist-personalities to be understood, and profits to be made.
And of course, the largest and most enduring audience goes for the 1960s icons. Morrison’s persistence has become little more than an annoyance, Joplin is still misunderstood and lacks a settled reputation, but Hendrix may have finally gotten his due, had the pieces of his puzzle assembled, with just enough mystery left over for the ages.
Spewed out of the near-chaos of his brief stardom and messy death, Hendrix’s heritage has wandered a twisted road, frequently misguided by outsiders. He won critic Greil Marcus’s oft-cited “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes” (written in 1979) with perfect “10” scores in both “Past Contribution” and “Future Contribution.” Still, adoration for pure guitar wizardry has slowly declined since the rise of punk, so the nature of both those past and future contributions were problematic questions until around the end of the 1980s.
There was also floating discomfort that Hendrix had never found a way to develop a sizeable black audience, both when he was alive and afterward. George Clinton’s P-Funk empire clearly drew on his slithering, color-oozing guitar modes, but in every other way, their music was different. And there was a near-obsession with speculating “what would Jimi have done?” Producer Alan Douglas, who controlled the artistic end of Jimi’s estate for 13 years starting in 1975, apparently thought the answer was “mediocre funk-jazz fusion records,” which he tried to Frankenstein out of leftover or revamped recordings.
In his Hendrix biography “Room Full of Mirrors,” Charles R. Cross makes a persuasive case that the performer had no idea what his next direction would be — he was simply exhausted with being a headlong, rock-and-roll express train to nowhere. Seattle-based Cross’ bio of Kurt Cobain, “Heavier Than Heaven,” became a bestseller in no small part because it made the interactions between Cobain, his family members and their Northwestern environment so vivid. The doomed rocker became a person, not a symbol or victim or cipher. Although Cross is a few emotional and generational layers further away from Hendrix, his tireless research and quiet but dry-eyed sympathy performs a similar service for this shrouded celebrity.
Cross presents Hendrix growing up impoverished, but in a cultural scene without the fierce segregation of other parts of 1940s and 1950s America. Young Jimi appreciated the song stylings of Dean Martin and rambunctious rockers — white ones like the Fabulous Wailers and black ones like Little Richard — as much as he did Muddy Waters and Sam Cooke. Although Hendrix played with the Isley Brothers and numerous others on the Southern-East Coast Chitlin Circuit, his sartorial flamboyance was suppressed and his guitar explorations kept to a minimum.
The white audiences in London a few years later adored his psychedelic-dandy outfits and couldn’t get enough of his unprecedented mutant guitar sounds. What they didn’t know was that his headline-grabbing stage performance was largely cribbed from decades-long African-American show routines. But, Cross reports, when Hendrix, the hottest thing in rock and roll, came back for a Q&A session at his old high school, he was heckled by some black students newly energized by Black Power and who had not heard his music played on black radio.
Hendrix also never developed the slightest sense of home as a retreat, a place to settle and rest. His warring parents were both barflies and Cross presents a harsh picture of father Al Hendrix as far more comfortable being the father of dead-legend Jimi than raising the lonely, shy, rootless child, whom he refused to support emotionally or financially. But as a senior, propelled by a self-serving impulse or not, Al fought for the family to gain control of Jimi’s work and present it more carefully and respectfully. Jimi’s agonies over his often-missing and soon-dead mother — one of the most elusive figures in previous Hendrix bios — has never been given the pang Cross manages.
But, as he did with Cobain, Cross largely leaves the cultural context and the sensations of the music itself to others with “Room Full of Mirrors.” Indeed, much of the 1966-1970 period of Jimi’s highest fame feels too-familiar and played-out, obviously even to Cross. This would be more of a problem if a vast Hendrix literature didn’t already exist.
Charles Shaar Murray does an outstanding job dissecting the pop sociology surrounding Hendrix and does a perceptive, irreverent sashay through individual songs and albums in “Crosstown Traffic.” Murray also retains a welcome layer of nuttiness that used to enliven rock writing without overwhelming it — Cross is more of the modern, sober-earnest school. John McDermott lays out, in immense detail, the ins and (mostly) outs of the music business and Hendrix’s dealings within it. Celebrated engineer Eddie Kramer ponders his work on the guitar god’s sound voyages in “Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight.”
But all the technique examinations and electronics explanations fail to show why Hendrix makes newcomers flinch with amazement unto this day and why nobody has ever threatened to surpass him in his own style. Most likely, it can only be witnessed. Which is where the new 2-disc DVD “Hendrix at Woodstock” comes in. No question, a significant chunk of his fandom, which continues to add members, wants to hear every note the man squeezed into the bare four years he lived after starting the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
This crowd will immediately hop on the “Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock” DVD. The basic thrust of the set is known to most everyone who cares: the expanded band comes together only on occasion, but Hendrix is a ferocious jammer who clearly gives his all despite being up for three days straight. The version of “Voodoo Chile” is a monster. To be fair, if anyone desires what has to be the definitive presentation of the headline act at the counter-cultural watershed (“blah-blah woof-woof,” as Hendrix said), this is the one. Six songs were not included in the supposedly definitive previous DVD version of the Woodstock show.
One of them, an alright treatment of “Hear My Train a Comin’,” was only captured by a 22-year-old Bard student named Albert Goodman who was doing some black-and-white filming in the right place at the right time. Apparently, he screened the footage for Hendrix after the concert and then it disappeared for more than 30 years. Interspersed with the official film’s color footage on the second disc as “Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock: A Second Look,” it’s of historical interest only.
Frankly, too many Experience Hendrix products, now family-controlled or not, have replaced the misguided and excessive mode of the Douglas years with a new reverent and excessive mode. The question has been unhelpfully changed from “what would Jimi have done?” to “what is absolutely everything Jimi did do?” Those in charge of what’s next for Hendrix’s legacy should follow Jimi’s lead and try something nobody’s thought of yet — give it a rest.