Having recently heard yet another live release of The Jimi Hendrix Experience (this one authorized), I offer a few reflections on the man who died forty-five years ago, but who will not be left for dead musically or culturally. I first heard his music when I was thirteen; now I am fifty-eight. Experiencing his works when I was younger—and now that my musical predilections have deepened with age—provides perspective.
Hendrix came from a bad family, led a hardscrabble life, was a hustler, and was not a morally virtuous person. All his musical talk about freedom was more about license, not the strength and vision to do the good in one’s life. He went into the military to avoid going to jail. He got out of the military by lying to his superiors (about being a homosexual, believe it or not). He was a mean drunk, and hit women. Money was something to be spent immediately. He left no will. He did take heroine and just about any other drug you can imagine. Although he needed glasses, he never wore them. His many car accidents attested to that. He was a sex addict, as is widely known. He left many illegimate children, for whom he did not care. This is sinful.
Clothes did not make this man, but Hendrix knew how to dress outrageously without looking like a clown. He dressed the part of a psychedelic gypsy, which added to his mystique. Women found him irresistible and he resisted few of them. He was, perhaps, the most-photographed musician of his day.
Musically, Hendrix was rooted in the blues—John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King. Music was his only consistent passion and all his skill reduced to his music. He did not read music and knew little theory. He was a natural who practiced endlessly—sometimes falling asleep in bed with his guitar—and jammed with anyone he deemed worthy. His showmanship came mostly from a brief stint with the supernaturally-flamboyant Little Richard. (Compare their mustaches.) Hendrix also stole the idea of destroying amps and guitars from Pete Townsend of The Who—although Pete never set a guitar on fire (to my knowledge).
Spiritually, Jimi attended church a bit while growing up in Seattle, but abandoned that as a young man. He would later call his music “electric church.” He reveled in science fiction. I found a photo that shows him before a shelf of books, one of which is from C. S. Lewis’s The Space Trilogy. I wonder if he ever read that—and if he did, what would have happened. His worldview was that of a hedonistic Gnostic. His attempted ascents into the divine never left sexual license behind.
This electric shaman took you there through the ecstasy of his music and liberal doses of hallucinogenic drugs. For a time as a teenager, he deceived me into thinking he was a conduit to ultimate meaning. He was not. I was wrong. Christ is the way, and Jimi never recognized this.
Hendrix could be comical. When Dick Cavett asked him if Jimi liked to get up and start making music, Hendrix laconically responded, “I usually try to get up.” When Cavett said, “Many say your are the best guitar player in the world,” Hendrix replied, “Best guitar player in this chair.”
At his best, Jimi Hendrix’s playing was mesmerizing. He made the electric guitar speak in a tongue it had never before known. In that sense, he was like John Coltrane, although not aesthetically serious or gifted musically. Hendrix used electricity intuitively and made what was considered a mistake (feedback) into an integral part of his playing. He could lock into a grove that finds and sticks to your core—if you listen. He was also the sloppiest live rock player I have heard. He took too many chances, was often too drugged, and sometimes played in the wrong key. His antics on the guitar often put it out of tune. Sometimes he seems to be fighting himself because of it, altering his playing to avoid the rocks of ruin. Then there is the incessant tuning in between numbers. Of course, he was punishing the instrument in ways never before known and the electric guitar had not reached its level of sophistication known today.
Jimi Hendrix was a path-breaker in music. But he died young because he lived badly. Please don’t look to his lyrics for enlightenment or especially for sexual ethics or spirituality. He could be clever, but he was not wise.