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Charles Shaar Murray on Jimi Hendrix

"There comes a screaming across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now ..." Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973)

1987: a British television arts series called Equinox is featuring a documentary history of the electric guitar under the splendidly onomatopoeic title Twang Bang Kerrang. After the obligatory nods to Charlie Christian and Les Paul, we are introduced to a couple of hopeful semi-pros, invited to marvel at the clean-cut chicken-pickin' wizardry of country cousins Jerry McGee and Jerry Donahue, reverently permitted to inspect the antiquarian wonders of Steve Howe's guitar collection and the technological sorcery of Andy Summers' effects rack, and vouchsafed a searing glimpse of the hotwired, hyperthyroid freneticism of Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy.

Somewhere along the line, Jimi Hendrix appears, briefly captured in that oft-quoted clip from the Monterey Pop Festival film where he out-Visigoths The Who – who had preceded him onstage – by not only smashing a guitar but igniting it with lighter fluid. Cut to Dr Glenn Wilson, a visiting psychoanalyst, who explains, in a tone so exquisitely condescending that it must have been rented from Margaret Thatcher, that pyromaniacs often attain orgasm at the moment of conflagration. Exit Jimi Hendrix, his place in the history of his instrument, his music and his times neatly encapsulated for posterity, his legacy reduced to a pile of trashed speaker cabinets, a Stratocaster served flambé and a soiled headband. Later on, the programme lovingly devotes a full ten minutes to the spectacle of a toweringly uninteresting corporate rock band at work on their next album. It is this kind of dismissive relegation of Hendrix to curio status – a loony black man peddling sex and violence, just another rocking Elephant Man from the sixties freak show – which helped remind me why I was writing this book.

Like rock music itself, nostalgia is governed by a simple, straightforward principle: First Simplify, Then Exaggerate. Nostalgia is a filter for history operated partially by the unconscious and partially by the architects and gardeners who tend what J. G. Ballard calls The Media Landscape. It is designed to remove history's nasty, inconvenient lumps, and it trawls the resulting soup for raw materials – images of sufficient resonance to solidify into symbols. When these nuggets surface, they can then serve double duty: they can function as comforting, reassuring landmarks, enabling us to navigate in a general consensus of everyday reality, and – since symbols are infinitely more mobile and flexible than our use of them can ever acknowledge – they can be rearranged into an ever-changing kaleidoscope of values and imperatives. Just as the term "traditional values" can mean anything which a conservative politician wants it to when he or she is about to announce something not in your best interests, so the sights and sounds of the past can be endlessly shuffled into "proof" of virtually any contention or interest. Nostalgia makes good Stalinists of us all, as that which it is inconvenient or unpopular to remember becomes progressively less real, fading to a grey rendered ever more muzzy by the bold tones and snappy graphics of the authorised version.

The "authorised version" of the Jimi Hendrix experience (sic) is that Hendrix was a crazy black man who did funny things with a guitar, had thousands of women and eventually died of drugs, which was a shame because he was a really good guitarist, and he could play it with his teeth, too. (Like David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, "he took it all too far/but boy could he play guitar".) He is a convenient focus for cosy generalizations about the innate phallocentricity of hard rock, the evils of drug use and the reactionary tedium of the extended guitar solo; and equally for mawkish or cautionary homilies on the destructive potential of stardom, the naïve futility of sixties idealism and how terrible it is that gifted people sometimes die young. All this has been digested; Hendrix is as serviceable as a symbol of the excesses, indulgences and pretensions of his era as he is of its aspirations and vaulting imagination. His death, like the final collapse of The Beatles, is a handy cultural marker for that moment when (depending on your personal view of these matters) the surge towards the millenium was ambushed in its prime, or – thankfully – everybody came to their senses and resumed business as usual.

Yet once we haul ourselves out of our comfortable bath of body-temperature privatized history, we rediscover that solid skeleton which the filter won't pass, that which refuses to be reduced to sampleable cliché, reproducible mannerism and a tidy package of greatest hits. His entire career – from his days as a hired guitarist in scuzzy clubs and bars to his peak as an international celebrity – was a ceaseless struggle against racial and cultural stereotyping; he was trapped first by unthinking reaction and rejection, and then by unthinking acceptance of what were originally intended simply as attention-getting devices to attract an audience to his music. His innovations were developed as a means of creating a personal vocabulary; he found himself lionized as a stuntman while he saw himself as a poet.

Stated at its simplest, he was the most eloquent instrumentalist ever to work in rock. I once asked B. B. King if he considered Jimi Hendrix to be a bluesman; he gazed at me pityingly and replied, "I consider him to be a musician; a great, great musician". Since "rock criticism" has generally been practised by drop-outs from literature classes, discussion of music as music has generally been subordinated to textual analysis of lyrics, with their musical settings given only minimal consideration (a critical method which, incidentally, has generally served black musicians poorly, since the verbal content of blues and soul music is an inextricable part of the whole, and therefore dependent on musical context and vocal intonation to communicate most fully). Hendrix himself was a composer and lyricist of considerable gifts, but his songwriting talents have been largely overshadowed by his achievements as a showman and an instrumentalist. Nevertheless, he developed a more personal "voice" through his instrument than most popular musicians could do with their words. Crosstown Traffic is about that "voice", and about some of what I hear it saying.

1988: Vernon Reid, founder of the Black Rock Coalition and guitarist/leader of Living Colour, is describing to me his indignation at the rock establishment's co-option of Jimi Hendrix as an "honorary white". "The first thing that made me aware of race in music and the role it plays", he recalled, not without considerable bitterness, "was when I was in high school. There was a local rock radio station I used to listen to all the time, and late at night on the anniversary of Hendrix's death they were playing some Hendrix music and the deejay said that Hendrix was black, but that the music didn't sound very black to him. Yeah, it was a white deejay... and I flipped out. At the time I was very culturally aware of the race issues because of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and all the ferment that was happening in the Black Power movement. I didn't really connect it all so much to music, but that really threw it in my face. It was a phone-in show, and I spent all night trying to call in. I fell asleep with the phone in my hand...

"It was not only an insult to his music, but I took it as an affront to me personally. Because if what the deejay said was true, what is he saying about me as a listener who loves Hendrix as a black artist? That started my awareness of these things in music..."

Guitarist Alvin Lee, whose band Ten Years After co-starred with Hendrix at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, once commented, "Hendrix wasn't black or white. Hendrix was Hendrix". Remarks like this from whites often simply translate as "He wasn't one of us, but he wasn't really one of them either – and anyway he liked us best". However, Lee has hit on that aspect of Jimi Hendrix which created the tortured dichotomy that so infuriated Vernon Reid; his frustration with received ideas of what a black performer was or was not allowed to do and be. His "discovery" by British rock musician Chas Chandler enabled him to gatecrash the white boys' "come as a black man" fancy-dress party, and walk off with the most glittering prizes; but his death – coming at a pivotal point in his musical development and aborting what would have been a fully-fledged artistic rebirth – left him forever identified with hard rock, a style of music in which black musicians have since been historically unwelcome. It also left his reputation helplessly vulnerable to the maudlin hagiography of popular culture's martyr syndrome; conveniently defenceless against the notion that he was simply a shooting star, screaming across the sky, a fabulous monster whose music came from nowhere and went nowhere, with neither ancestors nor offspring. In his 1961 essay, "The Retreat From The Word", George Steiner wrote of James Joyce, "there have been no successors to Joyce in English; perhaps there can be none to a talent so exhaustive of its own potential". Is this, then, also the final judgement of the legacy of Jimi Hendrix?

It is undoubtedly flattering to Hendrix to suggest that everything he used he created from scratch, and also that his work was so idiosyncratic and personal that it could not be absorbed, only mimicked. However, such hagiography rebounds unpleasantly upon its subject: his mystique thus assumes such intimidating proportions that his music survives in lonely majesty, a magnificent irrelevance looming atop a pedestal in its own revered annexe in the Great Rock Museum's "Psychedelic" Wing, rejected by a callous and insensitive black community and adored by imaginative, understanding whites. (We can almost hear, over hidden speakers, Steve Martin's narration from The Jerk: "I was born a poor black child...")

User-friendly though this pat little myth may be (just how friendly depends, of course, on the user), it does serious disservice not only to the man and his music but, as Vernon Reid suggests, to the roots and branches alike of the black American musical traditions from which – this book contends – Hendrix's art drank so thirstily, and to which it gave so generously in return. Ultimately, it is a deeply racist myth, one which surgically amputates Hendrix from the broad swathe of black culture; he has become, effectively, colonized territory. Rather than being recognised as a proud, shining link in the chain of great black American improvising musicians, he has been enshrined as a magnificent aberration, his genius – for that it was, insomuch as anything in popular music can be so described – magically transferred from the black page of the ledger to the white. To put it mildly, this is the cultural equivalent of a mugging on a crowded street in broad daylight. In this respect, Crosstown Traffic, therefore, is an attempt at a citizen's arrest.

"If I'm free", Hendrix once said, "it's because I'm always running", and he did indeed spend his whole life running. If there is an experiential core to his music, it is about the interlocking terrors of rootlessness and of feeling trapped. "There must be some kind of way out of here", he sang in Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower", and it requires no great powers of empathy to sense the intensity of his identification with that line. In his life as in his songs, he was forever searching for a place of his own; he escaped Seattle and school by joining the army; he escaped from the army into the world of the road musicians, perpetually shifting from group to group; he escaped from Harlem by moving to Greenwich Village; by relocating to London he escaped the codes of black showbiz and their attendant rules as to what a black entertainer could be, only, finally, to be ensnared by the more insidious webs of expectation and assumption spun by his well-meaning new admirers. Crosstown Traffic sets out to chart the routes along which Jimi Hendrix ran. In "trying to get to the other side of town", he transgressed many boundaries; both arbitrary musical definitions separating blues and soul or jazz and rock, and also those more fundamental divides between the archaic and the avant-garde, between individualist and collectivist philosophies, between blacks and whites, between America and Britain, between passive acquiescence and furious resistance, between lust for life and obsession with death.

Like Robert Johnson, the haunted Delta bluesman whose slavering demons never let him rest, Hendrix never did quite "get to the other side of town". Wherever he was, people always assumed his "real" home was somewhere else. Bobby Womack, the self-styled "Last Soul Man" who knew Hendrix when he was a penniless hired guitarist touring at the bottom on the bill of the soul revues, believes, "He was tryin' to fit in on his side of town, but it wasn't his side of town. He needed to be in another place... when he got to Europe, he got with people that was like him, and I was glad he found a place." But to "those people that was like him", the story seemed very different. Pete Townshend suggests, "[In London] Hendrix must've thought he was in a madhouse, but one that was great fun, sort of like going to Hong Kong. I can't imagine what it was like for him: the idea of him feeling comfortable is pretty preposterous. He might've been happy to find himself, like the eternal hippies always talk about 'finding themselves' in India." Robert Wyatt – the former Soft Machine drummer/vocalist who shared management with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and toured America and Europe with them for more than a year – recalls, "The nearest I ever saw to him looking at home was the closest I ever saw him to home, which was going up to Seattle and there was this huge family at the airport. What a wonderful sight! There was the history of America in the airport, almost. My initial impression was a lot of black men and a lot of Native American women. What a lovely bloke his dad looked with that lovely smile, and Hendrix seemed such a proud boy-come-home..."

Except, of course, that you can't go home.

This is an extract from Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop (Canongate Books) by Charles Shaar Murray. Other books by the same author are Shots From The Hip (Aaaargh! Press) and Boogie Man: Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American 20th Century (Canongate Books).


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