Even though music takes half the time and focus of this project, I find myself talking about it hardly at all, which is probably unfair here “Where Music and Words Meet.” So, today I’m going to talk more about music. If that’s not your interest, I’m still going to ask you to keep reading, as beside the music nerditry, I’m going to touch on other things.
It was my first concert, and so of course it must be memorable. It was at the big amphitheater in Des Moines, a place where about two decades later Ozzy Osbourne would have a memorable encounter with a bat. I was a young teenager, it was the Sixties, and my dad was going along for the concert with me, driving the two-lane roads from our little farm town, just the two of us in the usually crowded Plymouth station wagon with fighter plane wings and sparkle-threaded upholstery that was already tearing in places. I believe he asked me if I wanted to go.
Perhaps this was meant to be a father-son bonding experience. Maybe he’d noticed that I had this somewhat solitary interest in music, but I have my doubts. I had no demonstrable musical talents, and the only music I made was singing, which I did off-key. My father had a pleasant voice—my mother said it was as good as Perry Como’s—and I had heard him singing occasional solos or leading a congregation in church. I don’t think we talked much about it before, after, or during the nearly two hour drive that day.
Like I said, he asked me if I wanted to go. I was warned, or perhaps it was a stipulation if I accepted, that the concert would be long, and I’d have to be patient.
We went to our seats, far back from the stage, and I remember the slope of the seating and our height in the building as being oddly scary to me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I leaned forward in my seat I might tumble over the rows in front of me all the way down to the floor hundreds of feet below.
I came to see why I’d been warned about the concert’s length. It was perhaps two to three hours long, more than twice the length of a church service. I fidgeted some, but I also wanted to listen and understand the music, a performance by a massed choir and an accumulated orchestra of Handel’s Messiah.
In 1970 Jimi Hendrix died in someone else’s flat in the early morning hours of September 18th London time, of an accidental overdose of unfamiliar sleeping pills and wine. That’s a long time ago and stories differ, but it’s likely that a contributing factor was the ignorance, intoxication, or uncaring nature of that someone else. Like Handel, Hendrix had emigrated to England in his twenties to find success there. How complicated this was for Handel I don’t know, but I can speculate a bit with Hendrix.
When David Bowie died, a good deal was made of his ability to reinvent himself as a performer and artist multiple times. Of course artists invent themselves, at least most of the good ones do, but it is rarer to do that more than once or twice. But then in our twenties, artists or not, we all invent ourselves and find some accommodation in the world that we live in. To pull that change off even once should be remarkable, though some inventions are more striking and original than others.
Jimi Hendrix didn’t invent himself into moving to London, a couple of British citizens colluded to offer this to him. At the time Hendrix was having trouble with his invention of himself as a musician. His musical ideas were developing rapidly, and he had experience with the showmanship side of entertainment, if for no other reason than a short stint working in the band behind Little Richard, one of the most outrageous performers ever to tread the boards. Putting those two things together would be an invention, one he probably intended.
Britain poured gasoline on that fire, and I’ve always found some of that gasoline offensive. How much did the sideshow “Wild Man of Borneo” exotic-negro thing figure into his rise there? I’ll refrain from judging too much. After all Hendrix’s stage show at the time was not subtle, and the scene at the time expected spectacle not so much from elaborate stage sets and technical tricks as we see today, but from human movement and actions. My personal reading is that he wanted not so much the attention his act and stage persona invoked, but the safety of that ceremonial mask that would hide the fragility of its inventor. In off-stage interviews, even in his between song-patter, that inventor, still somewhat unsure of the work, would emerge.
In less than a year he took that still forming invention back to the US: the uninhibited, no-boundaries performer combined with the flash guitarist, and it sort of worked there too after the alchemy of his London sojourn. Not everyone was convinced state-side however. Early rock critic Robert Christgau capped off an often-perceptive report from the Monterey Pop Festival with this review of Jimi Hendrix’s American debut:
Hendrix is a psychedelic Uncle Tom. Don’t believe me, believe Sam Silver of The East Village Other: “Jimi did a beautiful Spade routine.” Hendrix earned that capital S. Dressed in English fop mod, with a ruffled orange shirt and red pants that outlined his crotch to the thirtieth row, Jimi really, as Silver phrased it, “socked it to them.” Grunting and groaning on the brink of sham orgasm, he made his way through five or six almost indistinguishable songs, occasionally flicking an anteater tongue at that great crotch in the sky. He also played what everybody seems to call “heavy” guitar; in this case, that means he was loud. He was loud with his teeth and behind his back and between his legs, and in case anyone still remembered The Who, Hendrix had a capper. With his back to the audience, Hendrix humped the amplifier and jacked the guitar around his midsection, then turned and sat astride his instrument so that its neck extended like a third leg. For a few tender moments he caressed the strings. Then, in a sacrifice that couldn’t have satisfied him more than it did me, he squirted it with lighter fluid from a can held near his crotch and set the cursed thing afire. The audience scrambled for the chunks he tossed into the front rows. He had tailored a caricature to their mythic standards and apparently didn’t even overdo it a shade. The destructiveness of The Who is consistent theater, deriving directly from the group’s defiant, lower-class stance. I suppose Hendrix’s act can be seen as a consistently vulgar parody of rock theatrics, but I don’t feel I have to like it. Anyhow, he can’t sing.”
That paragraph should hang next to the reviews of John Keats’ poetry in the all-time bone-head review hall of infamy, and yet Christgau has so much honesty that he makes it available on his website to this day, along with his later opinions. But it does point out a problem, that combining extreme showmanship with musicianship is an unstable combination. Music may be inherent to humanity, but for most audiences (including most music reviewers) the eyes ace out the ears in the race to the mind.
Hendrix himself was troubled by his invention and its reception. He may have wanted the mask of the showman at first, but that need seemed to fade as he asked himself what Jimi Hendrix 2.0 should be. It may have been presumptuous for Christgau to call him a “Psychedelic Uncle Tom,” but Hendrix’s Afro-American audience was slow to build. What seemed to be the forefront of his invention, the combination of the flamboyant showmanship with striking musicianship wasn’t entirely new, even if for most white audiences of his time it had stopped with Chuck Berry, who had never risked expressing the sexuality in Hendrix’s version—but there was something else there. Hendrix was inventing modern Afro-Futurism.
In saying that I’m going to (unfairly) ignore Sun Ra, and some of the occult religions and Rosicrucian-like beliefs that preceded Hendrix. That’s a big subject, but one I’ll ignore here not just for length, but because I don’t know how much Hendrix knew of these predecessors as he developed his next invention. Hendrix was living and intermittently performing in New York in the mid-Sixties during Sun Ra’s New York residency period, so I would think Hendrix might well have known something of Sun Ra, even seen him perform, but that’s not for certain. I’ve never seen Sun Ra mentioned by Hendrix, and none of the inconsistently available Sun Ra recordings are included in Hendrix’s known record collection. It’s also a reasonable belief that more of you may be reading this because I have Jimi Hendrix in the title than Sun Ra, and that says something about Hendrix’s eventual impact compared to the incomparable Sun Ra.
It’s likely that Hendrix’s source, besides his own imagination, was Science Fiction of the Fifties and Sixties. In order to be an Afro-Futurist you have to be intrigued with the future and other worlds, worlds like the vision in that rare barely-ironic Steely Dan song that says, “Any world that I’m welcome to, is better than the one that I came from.” Unlike Sun Ra or later Afro-Futurists, Hendrix didn’t express this vision with costumes; or with meaningful stage props as George Clinton would. Instead he expressed it with his least understood and appreciated talent, as a songwriter and lyricist—and that’s why Hendrix’s Afro-Futurism could be news to you, decades after his death. The cult of “Jimi Hendrix, the greatest rock guitarist ever” has a side-effect, it obscured his lyrics, which were often buried in the mix per Hendrix’s wishes (he shared Christgau’s opinion of his own singing voice).
What if James Marshall (Jimi) Hendrix had expressed his SciFi interests with an electric typewriter instead of an electric guitar?
Here the LYL Band unmasks Hendrix’s lyrics to a song from his first LP.
One obsession in the Cult of Jimi is the question of “What would have happened if he had survived the night of misadventure 48 years ago?” He could have become a mid-level act beloved by other electric guitarists or those who appreciate musical originality like unto Jeff Beck, or he could have easily succumbed to the Seventies’ decent into poly-drug abuse and contractual obligation albums hammered out between hits on the pipe. Many guitar-nerds see Hendrix moving to the jazz-fusion genre that was forming at the time of his death, and speak longingly of the collaborations with Miles Davis and Gill Evans that were being mooted in 1970. But on the evidence of his last recordings, he seemed to be doubling down on the Afro-Futurism with his great lost album First Rays of the New Rising Sun.
Last night I watched Black Panther with my son, who had seen it on release and who wanted to show the movie to me. During the scene near the end, when the two warring kings are watching the sun over Wakanda my own soundtrack in the back of my head was still playing Hendrix’s “New Rising Sun.”
More than fifty years after taking the drive to Des Moines to see Handel’s Messiah, I was visiting London and went to Mayfair and a block of flats there. You enter and pay your admission at a desk in a somewhat cramped entryway, but upstairs is the expansive apartment that George Frideric Handel used as his home as well as his composition and rehearsal studio in the 18th Century.
And further on, you come into a second, smaller 20th Century apartment, decorated in a way I could remember from my youth, with inexpensive gee-gaws and accessories, a hi-fi given its special place, a home altar to the music it played.
This is the place Hendrix lived in for a little over a year while based out of London, the place that must have been even more precious to him that it does to any visitor grasping at their nostalgia for “Swinging London.” Many of you have a place like that in your own memories. Your first apartment, or the first place you lived in with a partner, that place where you invented yourself, or some first version of yourself. But Hendrix had an extraordinarily unsettled childhood, passed from relative to relative, a half a step from foster homes, maybe a single step from homelessness. He’d washed out of the army, couch-surfed a life as an unnoticed musician. Not only was this his first place of his own, it may have been a first candidate for “home” in his life, perhaps the only such place.
As it turned out, being an Afro-American big-deal in the small world of Sixties pop music could not supply that home, but his lyrics and the Afro-Futurism that he helped engender are rich with the dreams and visions of it.