Saturday, January 31, 2015

Excuse me, while I read between the lines

Jimi Hendrix died in 1970 at 27. His stint as the lead vocalist, guitarist and composer in the Jimi Hendrix Experience lasted roughly four years. Four years, three studio albums — that's the bedrock of the Hendrix legend. Everything else — the live albums, the footage of him playing Woodstock and Monterey, the numerous outtakes and b-sides — is window dressing. Every year some new Hendrix curio comes to light, and is solemnly packaged and distributed to the faithful. One of the strangest of these is Starting at Zero, a quasi-autobiography assembled from Hendrix's own writings.

Starting at Zero's journey began when British filmmaker Peter Neal, director of Experience (1967), the first ever film on Hendrix, began to gather material for a documentary on the musician. To create as authentic a portrait as possible, Neal, along with writer Michael Fairchild, set about collecting everything Hendrix had ever said: quotes culled from press meets, books, magazines, recordings and concert raps. They had an unexpected windfall in 1990, when a large collection of Hendrix's handwritten notes were auctioned in New York (Fairchild somewhat overestimates this as "the most amazing archaeological find since the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls"). Neal incorporated some of these notes, and completed a first draft in 1991. However, a copyright battle with the Jimi Hendrix estate stalled publication for almost two decades. It was finally published in the U.K. in 2013.

The entries in the book, though not precisely dated, cover the entirety of Hendrix's life. We know this because the first page has Hendrix recalling his birth ("It was fireworks — so it must have been the Fourth of July"), and the last words in the book are "When I die, just keep playing the records". In between, Hendrix discusses the first time he heard Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, his stint in the air force, his largely unhappy career as a sideman in the States, and the chance meeting with Chas Chandler that bought him a ticket to Britain — and instant fame. It's certainly Hendrix's voice — you can almost hear him speak some of the lines in his woozy, dulcet tones.

Those who know the general trajectory of Hendrix's life should welcome this opportunity to read between the lines. When we read Jimi's 1965 letter to his father ("Nowadays people don't want you to sing good"), we can sense his quiet confidence and connect it to the fact that he was finding his own sound around this time. For someone who comes across as an unusually modest rock star, there's a rare moment of hubris when he writes in another letter home in 1966: "Tell Ben and Ernie I play the blues like they NEVER heard." He was right, of course, and in a few months, the whole world would know it.

Purists will complain that Starting at Zero is cheating — and they won't be wrong. These aren't notes for a book; they're simply musings, scattered thoughts and random utterances that have been collected and given the shape of a biography. This "shaping" is key; on the same page, presented as part of the same thought process, may be sentences Jimi said or wrote years apart, in very different contexts and moods. There are four interviews that read like regular fanzine Q&As: it's only when you go to the book's website that you realise that the questions are all from different interviews. The other problem the book suffers from is the man's famed spaceyness — his tendency to obscure meaning in clouds of science-fiction, mumbo-jumbo and marijuana fumes. This becomes more pronounced as the book goes on, and after a while, less patient readers might begin to scan pages for references to specific events, songs and performances, rather than Hendrixian raps about the planets, love and cosmic consciousness. ("Where all the earthquakes stem from is bad vibrations," he writes at one point.)

Still, this is hardly a less worthy project than the dozens of Hendrix compilations and reissues that have surfaced since his death. Hendrix anticipates these in the book, writing about recordings he made with Curtis Knight and the Squires when he was a session man that surfaced as bootlegs when he became famous: "It was just a jam session, and here they just try to connive and cheat and use... They never told me they were going to release that crap." Yet, last year, it was announced that the Hendrix/Knight recordings would be released in their entirety. Posthumous compilations such as these (and probably Starting at Zero too) are more likely to appeal to completists — people happy to glean a lot of chaff for a kernel of gold — than to regular music fans. And there's enough gold sprinkled here to keep fans interested: Hendrix's evolving thoughts on Eric Clapton, The Beatles and Bob Dylan; his surprisingly frequent mentions of composers like Bach and Wagner; his initial aversion to political issues, followed by his growing involvement.

Of the three J's who died at 27 (Jimi, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin), Hendrix was by far the biggest loss to music. He was fertile till the end, and would have probably embraced funk, rap, perhaps even punk if he'd continued to record into the '80s. The last few entries in the book have him enthusiastically discussing his plans for setting mythology stories to music ("It wouldn't be like classical music, but I'd use strings and harps, with extreme and opposite musical textures...") At one point, he writes that he'd like to achieve a sound that combines the strengths of "Handel and Bach and Muddy Waters and flamenco". No wonder he admits soon after that "I can't play guitar well enough to get all this music together." But he came closer than anyone else, and Starting at Zero is a reminder of this, and of what might have been.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

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