September 18th, 2010

Jimi Hendrix, 40 years on

(Originally delivered as a talk at the Gavin Martin-organised Talking Music Revolutions event at the Three Blind Mice bar, London, 2010)

I didn’t experience the 60s, I never had any idea who he was until the mid-70s but I finally got into Jimi Hendrix in 1978 when I came of age as a music lover. Polydor released a double album called The Essential Jimi Hendrix. Of course, one’s mid teen listening epiphanies tend to be lifelong – it was about this time I also first got into Can, Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, Karlheinz Stockhausen among others and they’ve remained prominent on the mountainscape of my listening ever since. But maybe it was a good time to be introduced to Jimi Hendrix, a time when you could really begin to see him for the many things he truly was. In their own era, artists like Hendrix, much like The Sex Pistols later on, tend to be dismissed in a very cool blasé manner by even rock experts as gimmicky, flashes in the pan, seem it all before, rather than regarded with shock and awe. But by 1978, Hendrix was a legend. Clearly, he’d raised the volume and temperature of rock music forever, to the extent that no one could really take, say, the Caucasian twang of a George Harrison quite so seriously again. In Blakean terms, he represented rock’s transition from innocence to Experience. Punk had just happened but the likes of The Clash and The Damned sounded like so many firecrackers by comparison with the thermonuclear energy of a “Purple Haze” or a “House Burning Down”. In fact,  my Hendrix obsession delayed for two years my appreciation of the seismic events of my own teenage years, punk and post-punk.

Because punk had been seismic. It exploded old certainties, it brought the whole idea of progressive, mainly white rock as the only road ahead down from its plinth. In deprivileging white rock, it opened up a new cultural multiverse and incidentally, opened my eyes at least to the transcendent diversity of Jimi Hendrix – the way he touched, and was touched by, not just heavy rock, but soul, jazz, psychedelia, blues, electronics, funk even the nascent ambient genre. They all had a piece of him and he a piece of them.

Of course, Hendrix, like no other solo artist in rock, represented physical and sexual potency. He was way, way more than a cock rocker but he casually tossed off the index for cock rock. He was more than just a guitarist, but someone who worked in the medium of electricity, in his amps, in his sound board, and in the air, someone who had the capacity to bring down thunder and lightning from the sky. In some ways, his apotheosis was Electric Ladyland, for me still, the heaviest and greatest rock album ever recorded and ever likely to be recorded. The apotheosis of that apotheosis was “Voodoo Chile”, an 800 lb monster demonstration of wizardry, brimstone and infinite black capability, released in 1968 against a blazing background of conflagration and uprising, and also the Olympic year in which Tommie Smith and John Carlos delivered the black power salute and in which the long jumper Bob Beamon practically jumped out of the pit to record an unthinkable world record of 8 metres 90 centimetres. To think of Hendrix is to think of rock’s closest approximation to a superhuman, someone apparently capable of physically altering the atmosphere, the environment, the times.

And yet, the truth is, Hendrix as a human being was not a strong man. He was slight, physically unassuming, diffident in interviews. He wasn’t a wild man but passive, his destiny often in the hands of others, including his management. He cowed beneath the authority of his disciplinarian father, and acquired from his early childhood a lifelong habit of not saying “boo” to a goose. “A fish wouldn’t get into trouble if it kept its mouth shut,” he once said. He wasn’t a natural rebel – although seen as a key provider to the soundtrack of anti—Vietnam protest, as an ex-paratrooper he was actually pro-US involvement in the war until well into the 60s, and even provided music for an army recruitment campaign. What’s more, when the Black Panthers came knocking at his door, looking him to press him into service for their cause, he acquiesced but in a very qualified, reluctant and uncomfortable manner. He is regarded as a pioneer in his times, trailing clouds of glory and imitators but in fact felt profoundly lonely, and out of kilter with the 60s, the decade he in some ways is supposed to symbolise, but of course, in reality wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. His sense of temporal displacement is best expressed on “I Don’t Live Today”, as a moan comes rearing out of the mix, “There ain’t no life nowhere.” And yet, all of this “weakness” somehow came to be Hendrix’s true strength.

Hendrix didn’t rise like a natural force through the ranks. He was 24 when he first made his impact proper, considered a great rock’n’roll age in the 1960s. Only a couple of years earlier, Melody Maker had run an editorial pondering the question, “Ringo Starr – too old to rock at 24?” Although impelled by his own curiosity to depart the Chitlin’ circuit, and providing backline accompaniment for touring soul bands like The Isley Brothers, there was no doubt that in America, that that was deemed his place. He was salvaged from this fate by the entrepreneurialism of Chas Chandler, and the dubious expedient of launching Hendrix in London, his genuine talents showcased under the pretext of frazzle-haired, Wild Man Of Borneo-type pop oddity. A stronger man might have resisted being paraded for the zoological fascination of a novelty-hungry, swinging London, still in the grip of appalling, racist assumptions about African-American men and their uncivilised proclivities. But Hendrix acquiesced, Hendrix went on tour with the Monkees, went along with the fabricated story of his being dropped at the behest of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Hendrix is one of the most identifiable figures in the rock firmament. Yet his own sense of identity in 1967, in 1968 was elusive and fluid, and he himself suffered a profound and inherited sense of displacement, coming as he did from a mixed ethnic background whose make up was Cherokee on his Mother’s side. What was he, this crossover figure at this time? African American? Native American? British American? American? A lack of certainly in his roots saw him casting and hankering about in all directions, in both past and future, flailing in an existential quandary. He was everywhere because he was nowhere.

By 1968, a sense of the general had overtaken the personal, and Hendrix was subsumed into a wider context. One of my favourite stories about Hendrix, which even it’s apocryphal is too true to be really untrue, concerns the day Martin Luther King died. He found himself in a bar. A group of white rednecks were laughing at the screen, loudly toasting Dr King’s assassination, perhaps looking to provoke a reaction out of Jimi. And a stronger man might have invited these guys outside. But Hendrix said nothing. Instead, later that evening, in concert, he offered a dedication to “a friend of mine” and unleashed a magnificently lachrymose improvised blues jam, an acid rainstorm of angry lamentation which no one who heard it could ever forget and which, sadly, no one had the presence of mind to bootleg.

This story, for me, speaks a great deal about Hendrix. Passive by nature, he absorbed, he internalised, in this instance as a black man individually but as black people had been forced to collectively. Rather than hit back or make some assertive show of manhood, he sublimated his feelings and, allowing them to sink into the prismatic, unfathomable depths and processes of his talent, returned to the surface with something far more powerful and stirring and harrowing than any reflexive show of angry agitation could ever have hoped to produce.

There are many Hendrixes – the bluesman on “Hear My Train A’ Comin’” summoning forth a coded message of civil rights in tandem with Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, the jazz pioneer, who helped set electric Miles on his way, on a similar journey of curiosity and profound loneliness. Hendrix the funkster, retaining some of the Isleys’s spirit and inspiring that group’s 70s funk/rock renaissance. But this soundtrack here, now, is perhaps my own, favourite Hendrix, imagining escape from a broken world to which ultimately he doesn’t belong or to which he is made to feel he does not belong, descending into deeper shades of turquoise into an aqua-Utopia of his own imagining, straining every piece of technology available in 1968 to its utmost, flying around the soundboard in tandem with his sound engineer Eddie Kramer. He’s part of a tradition of what’s been termed Afro-Futurists, who include names as divergent as Sun Ra, A Guy Called Gerald and Asian Dub Foundation, who chafe at the benign contentment in the here and now, who are deeply impatient at the dominance of conservatism and especially nostalgia in rock, having no reason themselves as black people to feel very much affection for past times at all. It’s escapism, but of the most meaningful sort. Sublimation, truly sublime.

When Hendrix did depart from this world in 1970, there was, of course, a shared sense of tragedy. Melody Maker’s headline that week spoke for many when it said, “Coliseum To Reform”. Actually, I think he died at an inconvenient point in the week, music press deadlines-wise, so perhaps . . . I suppose, then and now you feel the lose more keenly because unlike a great many rock’n’roll deaths, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, you didn’t feel that here was a man in bloated decline or bent on a death wish. His death was a terrible accident, one of those terrible things. It’s also led to speculation as to what he might have done next. People have talked of him collaborating with various people, including Miles Davis or Stevie Wonder, or going on a jazz odyssey, or even forming his own big band to help realise his Aquarian visions. Others say he was a burnt out case. I personally feel he’d gone so far and covered so much ground that while his talent was undiminished, he’d left himself very little to do, few places left to go. I regard his as a potential fulfilled, and his early death as convenient in an awful way, preserving him in his youth and preserving us from his iconic decline.

But what of his legacy? Occasionally, this has been spoken of in rather simple terms, Initially, he was seen as merely the Godfather of white guitar virtuosity, with the likes of Robin Trower regarded as his inheritors – or even as the inaugurator of heavy metal. Later, he was credited with a revival of black rock, and even, God preserve us, for having paved the way for Lenny Kravitz. But truth be told, Living Colour and a handful of others apart, there hasn’t been a whole lot of black rock and I don’t particularly think it should register as any particular failure that that floodgate hasn’t exactly opened. Rather than draw such straight lines between blackness and rockness, I prefer to find shards of Hendrix and his roomful of mirrors scattered across the spectrum, across rock time and space, in Public Image Ltd, in James “Blood” Ulmer, in My Bloody Valentine, in Brian Eno and The Orb, in minimal Techno, or in those countless many who use electronics as a sound palette – a myriad range of reference points, reflecting the myriad multiverse that, despite his popular image, is Hendrix’s true bequest.

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