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Prince of our Disorder



He died 26 years ago this week in a London hotel room, with a girlfriend who couldn’t make up her mind to call an ambulance. James Marshall Hendrix had ingested nine German sleeping pills, some wine, and a meal of brown rice. He was 27 years old.

The British had discovered him — give them credit there. Like Faulkner and the French, it took another country to recognize this quintessentially American artist. Born in Seattle, Washington, Hendrix was a mix of African, Cherokee and Irish blood. The product of a broken home, his father had removed him from his teenaged mother’s care at age three. Jimi was brought up by relatives when Al was away, and in later life Hendrix was opposed to marriage. More telling he drifted in and out of romantic relationships in a way that fit the mores of the nineteen sixties, but suggested a deeper anxiety. The female figures in his lyrics are either the evasive, angelic wanderers of songs such as Little Wing, or the dangerous temptress’ of Dolly Dagger and Foxy Lady. He took up the guitar at thirteen, dropped out of high school at 17, and then joined the 101st Airborne. He became a paratrooper and jumped 26 times before breaking his ankle on his last attempt. It was just as well. An honorable discharge kept him away from Vietnam, and he had quickly come to understand that the army was not a place sympathetic to guitarists. Billy Cox, his friend, bass player and fellow serviceman recalls that his nickname in those years was "Marbles," a tribute to the fact that Hendrix would walk down city streets playing an unplugged electric guitar. He was honing his chops; steeping himself in the native music of the south. The blues became his backbone, at a time when slicker and more popular Motown productions were winning over the country.

Hendrix scratched out a living playing the "chitlin circuit," a string of southern roadhouses where rhythm and blues bands made their living in the fifties and sixties. For brief periods he played behind The Isley Brothers, Little Richard and B.B. King. Eventually he moved to New York where he won the $25 first prize in the Apollo Theater amateur contest. But it was Linda Keith, girlfriend to one of the Rolling Stones, who stumbled upon Hendrix in a Manhattan disco. She put him in touch with Chas Chandler, former basist for the Animals and fledgling record producer. Chandler promised Hendrix that if he would move to London, he would make him a star. Hendrix got on the airplane. In a shrewd marketing move, Chandler hired two white English musicians to back Hendrix on drums and bass. What emerged was a unique multi-racial, multi-national rock trio, powered by Hendrix’ incredible guitar playing. Within a matter of a few months London was at their feet. Eric Clapton was so smitten he had his hair redone to closely approximate Jimi’s "afro." The Beatles became backstage worshippers, calling on Hendrix when given the opportunity. Rolling Stone Brian Jones flew to California to introduce Hendrix at his American debut with the Monterey pop festival. On stage Jimi burned his Fender Stratocaster. Rock and Roll history would never be the same.

After that it was a creative tightrope act. His first two albums are explorations of such musical intensity that it’s hard to fathom that until then the young guitarist had never published a song. Chandler had simply sat Hendrix down and explained to him that to further his career he’d have to do an album of original material. It was like telling the young Keats that the time had finally come for the poetry. In a few months Hendrix poured out a series of compositional masterpieces concealed in the guise of rock and roll tunes. Anyone who has heard the Kronos string quartet do their rendition of Purple Haze understands that beyond pop star, there was a bigger game afoot.

Maybe the game was too big. In a shrewd and respectful analysis of Hendrix’ entitled Crosstown Traffic, English writer Charles Shaar Murray points out that Hendrix was bestride musical, personal and sociological faultlines. A black American with a international white audience; a pop star with an intense desire to play blues and jazz; a quiet, shy, even dreamy man famous for his ferocious stage act: Hendrix was dogged by his psychedelic wild man image, and troubled that he couldn’t win over a black audience. At the end of the decade Hendrix felt as if he had lost his creative thread. Drugs and exhaustion from relentless touring took their toll as well. At Woodstock, he had to be literally coaxed up on stage. Still, by the winter of 1970, it looked as if Jimi Hendrix had bottomed out. He was acquitted on drug charges in Toronto, a triumph attributed to his charm on the witness stand and his straightforward admission that he had used many drugs in the past. At the same time the creative block that had been a source of confusion and despair over the previous twelve months was beginning to break. He was working in earnest on a new album and looking forward to finishing his new record at Electric Lady — the state of the art recording studio he built in Manhattan. Hendrix had an extraordinarily close relationship with his sound engineer Eddie Kramer, a white South African who shared his client’s eclectic musical tastes. Electric Lady was to be their creative hive. But it was complicated. Electric Lady was co-owned with Hendrix’ manager, Jeffrey Meyers, a shrewd, manipulative, business man, who had helped turn The Jimi Hendrix Experience into the then highest paid act in rock and roll. The studio had almost bankrupted both Meyers and Hendrix and they no longer trusted each other. They finally agreed on one point — to complete the studio Hendrix would have to go on one more European tour. It would be the tour that led to the London hotel room and the nine sleeping pills.

Twenty-six years later it seems like such an incredible waste. Hendrix would be 53. With the exception of Charlie Christian and Robert Johnson, the other black geniuses of American music all had more time.

Still, few musicians have lived more thoroughly the life of their times. Unlike the tie-dyed, good time trip of Jerry Garcia’s Grateful Dead, Hendrix felt both the raw, unleashed energy of the sixties, and also the decades terror and confusion. Listening to his rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, or the equally powerful Machine Gun from his Band of Gypsies album one can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t the most empathic musician to ever pick up a guitar. In those works Hendrix seemed to feel everything for everyone — black, white, GI, protester, hippie, straight — he found a place for all of us. American music would never be the same.

Copyright (C) Kevin Cooney 1995 email

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