“White collar conservative flashing down the street, pointing their plastic finger at me.
They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die,
But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high, high!”
– Jimi Hendrix: If 6 was 9
Possibly the Greatest Guitar Player Who Ever Lived and one of my personal musical heroes, Jimi Hendrix was truly one of a kind. I can’t think of a musician past or present who seemed to be so incendiary in their approach to their instrument (I’m my humble opinion anyway). He continues to inspire songwriters even today with his Force 5 Hurricane playing, soulful singing voice and outrageous personal style. Like so many Counterculture figures from the 60s and 70s, his time on this earth was but a brief flash in the pan, a few years inspirational years of creative genius, to be snuffed out way to soon by chemical excess in 1970 at the tender age of 27.
Born in 1942 in Seattle, WA, Jimi was of African American and Cherokee ancestry. His early childhood years were ones fraught with economic anxiety as his father struggled to find work, and moved his family in and out of a string of cheap hotels and apartments. His parents struggled with alcohol addiction and often fought when drunk, leading the young Hendrix, a quiet and sensitive child, to hide in the closet to get away from his parents’ violent outbursts. According to legend, he would walk around with simply a wooden broom handle, pretending it was a guitar, until his dad finally relented and bought him a real one in high school.
After some juvenile rebellion and a stint in the army, Hendrix decided to make a go of it as a professional musician, gigging around the Chitlin Circuit with the likes of Little Richard and The Isley Bros. But after being discovered by Chas Chandler of the The Animals, he moved to London and made the leap to stardom with his new group, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. With their string of hits from his first album, Are You Experienced, Jimi Hendrix quickly became a success in the UK. Starting with his US debut at the Monterrey Pop festival in 1967, he returned triumphant to his home country and soon was rocketing into superstar status. By the time he walked onstage at Woodstock two years later to play the Star Spangled Banner, he was the highest paid musician in America.
And Goddamn, his clothes were LOUD. Hendrix definitely had his own uniquely individual fashion sense going on, that’s for sure. Velvet bell bottom pants, gold-embroidered 19th Century military jackets, feather boas, massive rings, feather-plumed fedoras, and a headband wrapped around his towering afro, he looked like a psychedelic gypsy troubadour- but somehow it all worked for him. Onstage, playing his Fender Stratocaster behind his back, one-handed, with his teeth, sensually making love to neck of his guitar in a swirl of sonic screams, Hendrix cut a wild figure; a literal torrent of energy. I doubt anyone who saw him perform could walk away without picking their jaws up off of the floor. His musical talent was unprecedented in Rock music, and saw the use of effects, pedals, extended solos and distorted feedback that had hitherto never been heard before. There’s not a guitar player alive who doesn’t owe Jimi Hendrix a huge debt, and certainly, even if they realize it or not, are still referencing his mind-melting licks, stage charisma and attitude like it’s going out of style.
I think his playing here at Woodstock is pretty damn revolutionary, or least it was when he played it 50 years ago:
Considering this was 1969, and the Vietnam War was at its height- as well as an increasingly agitated Anti-War and Civil Rights movement- his rendition of the National Anthem was boldness personified. I think many were offended at the time, but in Hendrix’s words, he “thought it was beautiful”. The fierce, distorted wails of his guitar mimic the sounds bombs dropping, machine guns firing, protesters getting beaten in the streets, young men coming home in bodybags, two separate countries screaming simultaneously in agony. Its one of the most powerful musical statements of the 20th Century, and speaks louder than words ever could.
It is indeed a tragedy that we never got to hear what great art Jimi Hendrix could have gone to have made had he lived. I think he was only just getting started revolutionizing popular music. Somewhere, up in the great blue yonder, I hope there’s a really great rock band playing: maybe John Bonham or Keith Moon on drums, Jaco Pastorius on bass, Janis Joplin on vocals, and Jimi on lead guitar. That would be a show I hope to one day see.