'You have to forget about what other people say about you sometimes...You have to go and be crazy. Craziness is like heaven. Once you reach that point where you don't give a damn what everybody else is sayin', you're goin' toward heaven...'
James Mashall Hendrix died in London on September 18,1970. Even 35 years later, we're still feeling the shockwaves of Jimi's timeless, seismic supernova. Nobody has come close to the impossible, one-off benchmark he branded somewhere in the stratosphere.
This DVD does a good job of telling you why and how. It also underlines the great tragedy of Hendrix's carer. Ripped off, punishing work schedules and rampant creative progress constantly stifled and opposed. But then he'd sought refuge in his own fantasy world since his unhappy, lonely childhood. No wonder he took to drugs and groupies like a berserk duck to water. Jimi was only in the spotlight for little more than three years. Like Morrison, Jones and Joplin, he was only 27.
Any guitarist you care to mention has had his music tainted by the hand of Hendrix, whether they know it or not. Mind-blowing noise, groin-spawned sex-grooves and his self-styled 'sweet opium music' poured from the most flamboyantly charismatic and unpredictably outrageous showman of all time. Hendrix's shadow just grows bigger as the years go on.
Guitars have been used, abused and misused as the ultimate rock 'n' roll weapon for decades. They might dominate punk rock but the mighty axe was also responsible for half the music it was railing against. It would not be uncommon to go to a gig and encounter guitar solos lasting up to half an hour. The instrument should have come with a 'Keep away from people who've taken LSD' warning. Someone had to get the blame and it was usually Hendrix. The difference is that Jimi might've played the longest, loudest and druggiest but he did it better than anyone before, then or since. Transcended all the rules, writing new ones in the process. Here was a black American R&B circuit stalwart suddenly elevated to the position of ultimate figurehead of the whole '67 'flower power' movement.
Jimi may be known as the greatest rock guitarist of all time but his impact went a lot further. In the days before technology advanced to computer, digital and anal, Hendrix did it without a safety net. Boffins are still trying to reproduce Jimi's sound using every gadget on the planet and fail miserably. Hendrix cut so deep because his soul raged so hard and poured out of his instrument with the ultimate orgasmic, moving or mind-frying results. One of those divebomb feedback wails could rip your groin screaming out through the new hole in the top of your head.
Hendrix offended purists in all genres as well as the race-conscious of all colours. Punk rock united black and white at the punky reggae party, but Jimi bridged that gap ten years earlier. He was one of the first black futurists, along with Miles Davis. He reflected the times, from love 'n' peace hippiedom, through Black Panther agitation to raging aural protest against the Vietnam war. He shocked establishment, redneck and parent alike, more than anyone before. As former NME writer and publicist Keith Altham says in the DVD, there were three things that prevented you getting a cab in New York - being black, a hippy or having long hair. Hendrix scored on all three counts. He'd come on TV and make older jaws drop at the dinner table. Bill Grundy-style outrage every time he appeared on the Lulu Show. It was great.
Jimi managed to release just three studio albums - Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland.[while he was alive - there are countless posthumous out-take collections, as well as legions of bootlegs]. The rest of the time he was on the never-ending tours propagated by his unscrupulous and mercenary management. As the touring wore on and crowds turned up just for the showboating and guitar pyrotechnics, Jimi increasingly wanted the circus to take a back seat and give the music a go at driving. I saw Hendrix once - at the Royal Albert Hall in February '69. By now he had taken to just stretching out on the guitar, often standing still while directing his energy at tearing the roof off the heavens. When he made one of his only moves of the night - a slow motion kneedrop grind during 'Purple Haze' - in order to underline a noise that sounded like the Devil shooting his load, the whole place lifted about ten feet in the air and I fell off my chair. Even to a wide-eyed 15-year-old, Jimi's now brooding charisma, simmering sexuality and awesome talent were enough to make that night my own life-changing gig.
Later that year, Hendrix ditched the Experience for the Band Of Gypsies, including old forces mate Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. Now it was an all-black band, who released a live album recorded on New Year's Eve at New York's Fillmore East. Back to the roots and reaching an unearthly peak with the incendiary assult of 'Machine Gun', an aural napalm attack on the Vietnam war which started to take shape when Hendrix deposited his blazing version of the 'Star Spangled Banner' at Woodstock. I recently burned off CDs for Mick Jones and Topper Headon made up entirely of different live versions of this scathing beast, which many rate as Jimi's song greastest of all. [One of the first albums Mick Jones bought was Hendrix's greatest hits and you can hear his ghost having a playful hump against Mick's amp with Carbon Silicon].
'Our music was getting uglier but then so were the times,' said Jimi. 'We weren't living in 'Blue Danube' times then, were we?'
By now, Hendrix just wanted to hole up in the Electric Lady studio he was building and create his 'sweet opium music', unless the gig was on Venus. He last played the UK at the Isle Of Wight Festival in August '70 - not his best cos he was knackered. He started going on about wanting to retire to a Pacific island made of pure cocaine.
Jimi died at London's Samarkand Hotel, in Notting Hill, after taking sleeping pills to try and grab some much-needed kip. In the night he choked on his own vomit and was dead on arrival.
I'm not ashamed to say that I have been obsessed with Hendrix ever since he exploded out of tea-time sets in November '66, playing 'Hey Joe' on Ready Steady Go.
I've seen most of the countless documentaries telling the story of Jimi's unhappy childhood, stint in the forces, musical apprenticeship in chitlin circuit soul bands, discovery and subsequent whisking off to London and overnight transformation into the most exciting star of his generation. Some are shoddy and cheap. Some show respect. This is one of the better ones.
It tells the story via talking heads. The star speakers are former publicist Keith Altham and road manager Gerry Stickells. Men with tales to tell. There's also an old girlfriend, and even 60s cabaret soul man Geno Washington. Former Stones manager Andrew Oldham's old partner Tony Calder tells a good story about the night they saw the unknown Jimi in NewYork. Oldham, off his face on 'non prescription drugs', passed because 'guitarists never make it'.
The dialogue is interspersed with photos, bursts of Jimi in slow motion and the odd slip into full-blown Hendrix glory. The screen is instantly energised when Jimi and his guitar pop up - mostly from the Rainbow Bridge movie filmed in'70 when he played at a meditation centre on the Pacific island of Maui. They obviously have the rights to use this music and some old pre-Experience stuff licenced from Ed Chalpin, the New York producer who took Jimi into a studio and got him to sign one of those little bits of paper. In '68, I might have questioned the involvement of Chalpin, who is also interviewed, after he repackaged this early stuff after Jimi hit big. Whatever way you look at it, it's still Jimi, and those recordings - also available here on a bonus CD - stand up as a fascinating document of a talent about to bust out. Chalpin might have cashed in and would later fight for a slice ofJimi but think what he actually lost when Chas Chandler swooped in and whisked Jimi away to London. Doh!
The film serves as a good way to lead newcomers into Jimi's incredible world and, as far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier - as long as its heart's in the right place. Criticisms are minor and trainspotterish. [Hendrix never played with his teeth. It just looked that way as he held up the guitar and played the lines by pressing his fingers down hard on the frets. An old blues trick].
Of course personally, I'd be quite happy with just acres of live footage - whole Hendrix songs rather than 30-second snippets used to back up a quote from the drummer in the Righteous Brothers. But, as a dramatic, factual account, it builds nicely until the unexpected twist at the end where they've filmed a re-enactment of Jimi's death. Not sure how to take that, but it's quite tastefully done.
Jimi Hendrix mustn't be forgotten and this DVD is as good a place as any to start finding out what all the fuss is about.
Kris Needs – tMx 21 – 09/05