The idea that a falling object was about to defy gravity before it hit the ground is a familiar one in the mythology of the pop idol. It is the gist of Charles Shaar Murray’s book about Jimi Hendrix, who enjoyed a great career as a virtuoso guitar player between 1966 and 1970, when he died in a London hospital after an overdose of sleeping pills. In a sparkling homage, far more readable than most books about pop music, Murray argues that the extravagant left-hander who introduced a new vocabulary to rock guitar-playing was the unsung progenitor of a jazz we will never know.
In their very extravagance, Murray’s claims are consistent with his subject, for Jimi Hendrix, who played with more flair than any contemporary pop instrumentalist, was as flamboyant in his musicianship as he was in his ‘act’, straddling guitars and setting them alight. On a good day, or at a good recording session, he could run through the crude repertoire of rock changes like a brisk wind; one tree after another quivered in that banal little orchard of three and four-chord progressions, and irresistible fruit dropped from the branches. Three or four harvests on, Murray suggests, and there would have been rich pickings for jazz lovers. It is a hypothesis that can never be tested, though it is true that Hendrix was soon impatient, as Murray reminds us, with the rock patterns dealt out by his long-suffering British back-up boys, The Experience. ‘I know what I want,’ he sang on the first album, ‘but I just don’t know how to go about getting it.’ In 1968, with the release of Axis: Bold as Love, there were signs that he could see a way out of the rock impasse. Several of the compositions are more sophisticated than anything from the rock canon. One of them, ‘Little Wing’, was often performed by the jazz arranger, Gil Evans. ‘Every time I listen to his tunes,’ Evans said of Hendrix, ‘I hear something new. That’s the mark of a great composer.’
In 1970, Jimi Hendrix and Gil Evans had planned a live album from Carnegie Hall. Hendrix died before the concert but Evans put out an album in 1974. Murray calls these arrangements ‘a gorgeously tantalising vision of one of the many possible futures Hendrix’s music could have explored’. Further support for his case can be adduced from the fact that Miles Davis and Hendrix were playing and hanging out together a year before Hendrix’s death. There were hopes that the two men would make a recording, but it never happened. In his recent Autobiography, however, Davis is just as condescending about Hendrix as he is about everyone else who figures in the book. ‘I would be telling him this technical shit like, “Jimi, you know when you play the diminished chord ...” I would see this lost look come into his face and I would say: “Okay, okay, I forgot.” ’ Hendrix was hoping to overcome such difficulties. ‘I want other musicians to play my stuff,’ he said, ‘I want to be a good writer.’ But even if he had sorted out his drug habit and applied what was left of his mind to the problem, he would have needed more than elementary musical theory to hold his own with the likes of the parsimonious Miles. It requires a certain optimism, and a measure of snobbery, to claim that jazz was the next stop in this troubled itinerary. Curiously, Murray is neither an optimist nor a snob. It is simply that he needs an elaborate figure of speech – and ‘jazz’ will do – to articulate the uncomfortable fact that by 1970 Jimi Hendrix had played his way through rock music into a dangerous limbo.
Murray is far more enlightening on the origins of Hendrix’s talents. He takes us through the career of a young man, part-black, part-white, part-Cherokee, born in Seattle and deposited in Kentucky – close to the heart of black (and white) American pop – during a spell in the Army. He shows us a sideman playing for Little Richard (‘I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice’) and, later, an itinerant with catholic tastes in New York City, listening to anything from the sonorous Ornette Coleman to Bob Dylan, the cloth-eared darling of the Village who failed to write a 20th-century version of ‘Le Bateau Ivre’, but managed to supply Hendrix with one of his greatest cover songs – ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Hendrix was also playing with the Isley Brothers, Curtis Knight and later King Curtis. The New York idyll was interrupted by the arrival of Chas Chandler, a character not unlike Eddie Ginley’s brother in the movie Gumshoe.
Bass-player for the Animals, Chandler was keen to lay down his instrument and take up the lucrative cross of rock star management. Hendrix was signed up and whisked away to London, where he quickly sorted out the men from the boys in the grimly masculine world of British blues. An earnest Eric Clapton was dazzled and outclassed in a club performance soon after Hendrix hit town. Others, less distinguished, fell like ninepins and, by 1967, Jimi Hendrix had become a star. Even after his ascent up the British pop charts, the blues remained his strongest suit. The greatest electric blues guitar players – Albert King, B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy – feature extensively in Murray’s careful lineage. Hendrix was in awe of B.B. King and a loyal fan of Buddy Guy. These men are perhaps his real precursors. ‘Red House’, a medium-paced 12-bar blues with a guitar break of one verse, situates him firmly in the tradition. The tone of the guitar is high and reedy; the phrasing is clipped, like a vocal, and when figures are repeated, that repetition serves a purpose. Later, stumped for ideas, Hendrix would do a phrase to death. This hectoring mode was an admission of his defeat at the hands of pop music. ‘Red House’, by contrast, could easily withstand a further two verses of solo guitar.
The most striking antecedent invoked by Murray is the Delta blues singer Robert Johnson, whose ghostly appearance in this survey of ‘post-war pop’ (he died before the war) may be conclusive proof of his supernatural powers. Johnson’s life and music are legendary, largely because he is thought to have sold his soul to the devil. Hendrix and Johnson have obvious affinities – both died young, both were keen philanderers, both were isolated by the singularity of their gifts – but in the end these are superficial. Of the two sensibilities, Johnson’s was by far the darker. Where Hendrix could sing exuberantly of himself as a ‘voodoo chile’, Johnson was plagued by his involvement with the Delta cults.
Much of Robert Johnson’s life is conjecture. He was probably born in 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi; he was probably seventeen when he married. His young wife died in childbirth. He may have gone on to have natural children or he may have married again. He certainly played the harmonica and he was certainly derided by two well-known Delta musicians, Son House and Willie Brown, for his early efforts to play the guitar. ‘Such another racket you never heard!’ said Son House. Johnson disappeared for a year after his first wife’s death; he re-emerged one Saturday night at a dance where the two older men were performing. They were well amused to hear that he wanted to play the guitar for them, but the mood didn’t last. ‘When he finished,’ said Son House, ‘all our mouths were standing open.’
To acquire such impressive skills in the Delta you had to be fooling around with the Devil. Tommy Johnson, another Delta musician, once described the process to his brother LeDell. You must take your guitar to a crossroads, he explained, get there before midnight and start playing. ‘A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you.’ Tommy Johnson knew the procedure well. ‘That’s the way I learned to play anything I want,’ he told LeDell.
Murray believes that the tall black man is ‘Legba (Ellegua? Elijah?), mischief-maker, trickster and god of the crossroads’. This seems plausible. The figure is probably a form of the Yoruba deity Eshu-Elegbara, who does indeed preside at the crossroads, though other dubious spirits enjoy this place of confluence and decision, where it is unwise to linger. In West Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean, Eshu-Elegbara takes many forms, but in the original myth of the Yoruba pantheon, he is a Mercurial force, bearing messages and bestowing the gift of interpretation. Above all, he helps to realise undeclared potential, both good and bad, in the world and the devotee.
If Eshu-Elegbara is the ‘devil’ with whom Johnson struck a pact, what did he offer on his side? The music suggests that he paid with his soul for this curious patronage and that he found the process terrifying. In his songs, nature is a theatre of portents: the wind is rising, the leaves are ‘trembling on the trees’; ghostly creatures pursue him and the divinity knocks on his door in daylight. His response is to ‘keep moving (got to keep moving)’, but life on the run is merely an unwitting commitment to the divinity he hopes to shake off, for Eshu himself is an eternal wanderer and Johnson’s vagrancy a drab mimetic piety. Sometimes he seems to know that restlessness is the currency in which his debt is being repaid. ‘You may bury my body down by the highway side,’ he sings, ‘so my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride.’ Yet in the song ‘Crossroads’ there are no devotional pretensions whatever. Instead, he is standing at some fatal intersection begging for mercy and confessing that he is ‘sinking down’. The voice is that of a man who is out of his depth.
If Johnson envisaged his spirit wandering through a purgatory of bus stations and cheap hotels, Jimi Hendrix did not fare much better in real life, even if he was vastly more rich. Like all pop musicians, he toured too much and, crucially, as Murray points out, he found favour with an audience of drowned Ophelias and denimed Christs in England before he had built up a black American following – the one base he might have come to regard as home. He tried to mythologise the itinerant life in ‘Highway Chile’ but the song lacks the conviction of his best music, let alone Robert Johnson’s. The guitar-carrying hero is unmistakably a Sixties type who would have seen no point in being buried near a busy road when his ashes could be scattered at Glastonbury.
Yet the plaintive voice from the Delta was as much a part of the Sixties as Jimi Hendrix. In 1962 Philip Larkin, who cannot have enjoyed the rawness, the deplorable lack of howdy-doody, in Robert Johnson, deferred (unconvincingly) to a ‘fine’ issue of his songs. In 1966, the year Hendrix recorded his first hit single ‘Hey Joe’, Columbia/CBS released the first volume of Robert Johnson’s recorded output. The second and last was released in the year that Hendrix died. Meanwhile, ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Love in Vain’ had furnished hits for Cream and the Rolling Stones. By 1970, Robert Johnson’s music would have been known to the audience who heard Jimi Hendrix perform at the Isle of Wight that year.
By all accounts, this was not his best appearance. He had done better at Woodstock, a year earlier, performing a deranged version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the end of the festival. The piece was addressed, though Nixon was now in power, to the Administration of Lyndon Johnson. It became a favourite among Americans serving in Vietnam, but its evocation of exploding bombs and shells overshadows its less obvious success as a theme tune for the domestic woes of the Great Society.
Hendrix the dissenter is less memorable now than Hendrix the blues guitarist who introduced a note of furious sobriety into the facile British pop of the mid-Sixties. As with the blues – the sound if not the sentiment – there was an erotic edge to his music. His long improvisations also came to be seen as a formal liberation for pop music. In the easy-going ideology of hippy London, these two elements were conflated and Jimi Hendrix was soon synonymous with free love. At the time, the beautiful people’s franchise had been extended to men only and so, in due course, Jimi Hendrix came to stand for an ugly phallic prowess. In this sense, he simply fell foul of a muddled counter-culture. But there is also a very British aspect to his undoing.
When he sauntered through customs at Heathrow as a Chas Chandler property in 1966, Jimi Hendrix entered a world in which notions of eroticism were defined not only by Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull but by Eric Sykes and Hatti Jacques. No wonder he cut an exotic figure, touring Britain with the Walker Brothers and Engelbert Humperdinck, the ersatz Mediterranean who could barely stay upright in Cuban heels, let alone play an instrument with his teeth. The kids loved it and they called for more and more explicit scenes; as Germaine Greer wrote in 1970, ‘they wanted him to give head to the guitar and rub it over his cock. They didn’t want to hear him play.’ Like Jagger, Hendrix appealed to a public which could never quite generate a credible symbol in its quest for sexual candour. That failure, which was Jagger’s very bread and butter, became the biggest obstacle in Jimi Hendrix’s path.