Think of Jimi Hendrix and you probably conjure up the guitarist on his knees, gazing with stoned detachment at his instrument in flames. Largely because of that legendary moment at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Hendrix became, along with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison, an avatar of ’60s pop. He was a flashy freak, a ”crazy black man,” as Charles Shaar Murray sarcastically sums up the popular image, ”who did funny things with a guitar, had thousands of women, and eventually died of drugs, which was a shame, because he was a really good guitarist and he could play it with his teeth, too.”
The central accomplishment of Murray’s extraordinary new book, Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Revolution, is to rescue Hendrix, the towering musical innovator, from the myth he helped fashion. But that is not all: In establishing Hendrix’s proper context, Murray, one of England’s premier rock critics, has composed a text that fuses memoir with a sweeping historical discussion of soul, jazz, the blues, and the impact of electronic technology on modern pop music. The result is not simply the best book yet on Hendrix but the most compelling — and literate — essay on rock since Greil Marcus’ 1975 Mystery Train.
Though his book is by no means a conventional biography, Murray summarizes the salient facts of Hendrix’s life, adding plenty of fresh detail from new interviews. Born in 1942 of black, white, and Cherokee blood, Hendrix grew up in Seattle, an introverted outsider in a white-bread culture. Through his father’s record collection he learned to love the electric blues of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Howlin’ Wolf. While on the road in the early ’60s as a rhythm & blues sideman, he mastered every significant soul guitar style, from Curtis Mayfield’s sweet obbligatos for the Impressions (refined on Hendrix such songs as ”Castles Made of Sand”) to Jimmy Nolan’s stuttering rhythm fills for James Brown (listen to Hendrix’s ”Wait Until Tomorrow”).
After a series of odd jobs with everyone from Little Richard (a major influence on his showmanship) to King Curtis, he landed in Greenwich Village in 1966, backing up John Paul Hammond Jr., son of the legendary producer and a central figure in the white electric blues renaissance. By then, Hendrix had developed into a player of stunning originality. When Mike Bloom eld, the kingpin of rock and blues guitarists in America, finally caught Hendrix live, he was floored: ”There were nuclear explosions and buildings collapsing. I never heard anything like it in my life.” Chas Chandler, bassist for the British rock group the Animals, had a similar reaction; he convinced the guitarist to return with him to London, where Hendrix reinvented himself as a psychedelic rocker.
On one level, this sounds like a stock — albeit strange — Horatio Alger saga. But, on another level, there is something as deeply enigmatic about Hendrix as there was about the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. ”There was a real vengeance there,” Pete Townshend of the Who tells Murray, recalling the savage glee Hendrix took in upstaging established rock heroes like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and, most memorably at the Monterey Pop Festival, Townshend himself. By then, Hendrix was consuming LSD with casual abandon; behind his facade of spacey eccentricity, demons lurked. ”Hendrix had that uncontrolled fury,” Vernon Reid of the group Living Colour tells Murray. It is ”the uncontrollable spirit of the thing that makes him extraordinary.”
In addition to chronicling Hendrix’s life and art, Murray devotes chapters to the roles of machismo and racism in rock, showing ”how the sexuality expressed through the blues gradually mutated into the penile dementia of heavy metal,” and also how the white hipster’s obsession with black music as a ”personification of the untrammeled id” confined performers like Hendrix. Hungry for a hit, the guitarist at first shamelessly — and successfully — pandered to that stereotype. When he wanted to change gears, though, it proved all but impossible. By 1969, Hendrix faced a vast white audience more interested in watching him burn his guitar than hearing him stretch out in increasingly jazzlike improvisations.
Finishing Murray’s book, you return to Hendrix’s recordings with renewed appreciation, but also with a sense of loss. For Murray has composed what amounts to an elegy, not simply for a tormented musical genius but also for an era when rock & roll was, as Whitney Balliett once famously said of jazz, ”the sound of surprise.” In 1967, as Murray points out, ”the possibilities of pop — as a manipulable symbolic language, as cultural guerrilla warfare, as a long-term, large-scale cash cow; hell, as permanent employment — had barely been recognized, much less explored, much less still codified and mechanized.”
Part of the codification, of course, has involved Hendrix himself. The archetype of every rock guitarist since, he remains — for this very reason — unsurpassed. For, unlike Eddie Van Halen, or even Prince, his greatest contemporary disciple, Jimi Hendrix in the fury and untamed spirit of his playing was, as Murray so eloquently reminds us, a genuine original — the ”sound of surprise” incarnate. A