Flashy, raucous, sad: the Jimi Hendrix experience
By the age of 27 he had revolutionized rock music
Fired by Little Richard. Fired by Ike and Tina Turner. Terminated by numerous now forgotten blues and rock bands.
You would think this was the résumé of a second-rate back-up guitar player, but it's the precelebrity track record of no less than the late, great Jimi Hendrix.
Often hired and often fired. In the end the reason was always the same: Hendrix's guitar solos that became, as Ike Turner said "so elaborate they overstepped the bounds."
Yet those flashy, raucous, but elegant electric guitar solos would revolutionize rock music. They became Hendrix's trademark: colorful sounds that painted the anarchistic spirit of the late sixties. Hendrix described the sound he was reaching for as "electronic church music."
However, while he was relatively unknown, many fellow musicians described his performances - the sexual gyrations, the gimmicks, such as demolishing his guitar - as "too much."
But Hendrix was a guitar virtuoso. His imagination was boundless, and, for better and for worse, by the late 1960s, nothing anybody could imagine was too much.
Published on the 35th anniversary of Hendrix's death, Charles R. Cross's new biography, "Room Full of Mirrors" does not cover much new material. The general outlines of Hendrix's life have been covered before.
But the true test of a rock 'n roll biography - as Cross should know, having previously written on the life of Kurt Cobain - is the skill with which the writer sorts through lies, rumors, and facts. Few public personalities are as surrounded by myths and exaggerations as rock stars. "Room Full of Mirrors" succeeds as an efficient, straight-ahead biography.
Hendrix was born in poverty in Seattle. He served 14 months in the military, then cut his teeth playing back up for black R&B bands.
He relocated to London to jump-start his solo career. The hottest English guitar heroes of the '60s, names like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Pete Townshend welcomed Hendrix into their fold, recognizing something new. "The difference," remembers English blues musician Brian Auger, "was that you could tell what the influences were in Clapton's and Beck's playing. But Jimi wasn't following anyone - he was playing something new."
The trio he found, The Jimi Hendrix Experience made a splash in America with a dramatic performance at the Monterey Pop Festival where Jimi "sacrificed" his guitar (set it ablaze). He was one of the biggest names in rock music from 1968 to 1970, before his mysterious drug-related death in London, at age 27.
Charles Cross provides the best account yet of Hendrix's childhood. Jimi and his brother Leon grew up truly hungry and often stole food from grocery stores. Their father, Al Hendrix, was both abusive and neglectful, and put several of Hendrix's siblings in foster homes. In one of the many bitter ironies that characterize his story, Jimi Hendrix never made a will and upon his death, Al Hendrix became the main inheritor of the estate.
It is fact - not legend - that Hendrix procured an early release from military service by putting on an elaborate charade that he was gay.
He later told a friend who had enlisted, "They got ways of getting out of that. Just go say you're gay."
Charles Cross also does an excellent job of charting the many bands for which Hendrix played backup. These gigs provided Hendrix with a fount of influences from which to draw. He combined traditional blues - which he played very well - with the otherworldliness of the new electronic music.
Being an original also made Jimi Hendrix an anomaly - a black rock star who performed "hippie music" primarily to white audiences. Cross details a Hendrix concert in Harlem, an unsuccessful attempt on Hendrix's part to expand his black audience.
Finally," Room Full of Mirrors" gives an authoritative account of Hendrix's death. On Sept. 18, 1970, Monika Dannemann, a German groupie who was Hendrix's sometime love, woke beside his dead body. Before she took her own life in 1996, Dannemann told many versions of Hendrix's last days (all of them slanted to increase her own importance).
By age 27 Jimi Hendrix's drug and alcohol intake was enormous, but his death was accidental. Hendrix was an insomniac as well as a borderline addict. While Dannemann was passed out, Hendrix swallowed some of her sleeping tablets without realizing they were an extra strong prescription brand. He vommited and choked to death in his sleep.
Dannemann then called Eric Burdon, lead singer of the Animals, and together they cleared the room of illegal drugs. Dannemann certainly called an ambulance, but her later claim that she held Hendrix's hand in the ambulance is false.
Cross writes, "The emergency workers found Jimi alone in the room; neither Monika nor anyone else was present." The sad truth is that Jimi Hendrix died purposelessly and, in the end, alone.
• Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.