The venerable PBS series American Masters — deep-dish documentary portraits of American artists — has a tradition of healthy eclecticism, incorporating select figures from popular culture into its generally highbrow mix. In the years since the series began in 1985, its subjects have included such diverse pop giants as Woody Allen, the Doors, Clint Eastwood, Annie Leibovitz, Marvin Gaye, Jeff Bridges, and Johnny Carson. (Just last night, the series re-broadcast Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ marvelous 1998 documentary about Lou Reed.) That said, the notion of American Masters devoting an episode to Jimi Hendrix, the guitar visionary of purple blues-rock psychedelia, has an almost mischievously counterintuitive ring. What next, Metallica? Iggy Pop? (I say why not: If Inside the Actors Studio can feature the cast of Arrested Development, then surely American Masters can do Iggy.) Yes, Jimi Hendrix was a genius — arguably the most brilliant and influential electric guitar player of the last half century. Yet his legend is drenched in ’60s sensationalism: the drugs, the noise, the royal Carnaby Street pimp clothes, the whole grand quest for a kind of aural annihilation.
The fascination of Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’, which premieres tonight at 9:00 p.m. on PBS, is that it takes in all that stuff (at a distant glance), but it also looks past it to take Jimi Hendrix deadly seriously as an artist. The reason the documentary gets away with its refined, earnest, sober approach is that Hendrix, as it reveals, took himself that seriously. He was always, on the one hand, a baroque showman, playing on stage not just as if he were “making love to his guitar” but really fornicating with it, his body movements sinuous and imperial. Where most rock-god guitar wizards turned the instrument into a phallic symbol, Hendrix went beyond them by treating the guitar as a partner to be tamed. (He seemed to be grabbing it by the scruff of its neck.) Yet Hendrix’ whole relationship with the guitar was obsessive and perfectionistic. He would carry the instrument with him all day long, putting it on in the morning, say, to go into the kitchen, always noodling and practicing. Hear My Train A Comin’ documents Hendrix’ infamous shyness, but it’s not that he was some painfully reticent wallflower — it’s that he didn’t trust words the way he did music. He was suspicious of them. The guitar became his voice.
Born in Seattle, and raised mostly by his father (his mother was a party girl who came and went, but seems to have bequeathed Hendrix her sensual nature), he entered the military in his late teens, joining the 101st Airborne, where he trained as a paratrooper (he wrote to his father, “We jumped out of the 34 ft. tower on the 3rd day here — it was almost fun”). After breaking his ankle in a jump, which got him discharged, he devoted himself to music, working the “chitlin’ circuit” of black honkytonks, playing backup for Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, and others. We hear one amazing clip of him performing with the Isley Brothers in the early ’60s, and though the song itself is relatively staid, Hendrix’ style — those notes he seems to hold up to the light as if plucking each one out of the air — catapults itself out of the live mix. The voice of his guitar is amazingly fully formed, even back then. The photographs of him with various R&B bands during this period are almost funny, because the other backup players all look like they were meant to be backup players, whereas Hendrix, even in his uniform duds, leaps out like a movie star. He already had that leonine sexiness — the jutting chin and insinuating smile, the twinkle of insolence.
At the Toronto Film Festival a couple of months ago, I saw John Ridley’s fine Hendrix biopic, All Is By My Side (starring an amazing André Benjamin), which chronicles the time that Hendrix spent in London, starting in Sept. 1966, as he rose to fame. Hear My Train A Comin’ demonstrates that Ridley mostly got it right, and it fills in a lot of details of how Hendrix found his mojo as a solo artist. Chas Chandler, the former bass player for the Animals who became Hendrix’ manager, was looking for someone to cut a version of “Hey Joe,” then known in an acoustic rendition by the American expatriate Tim Rose. Hendrix was doing his own version — and, in fact, it was the first song he performed (by coincidence) the night Chandler came to see him. We hear a snippet of Rose’s version of “Hey Joe,” which is lovely (it’s about a man trying to escape to Mexico after shooting his wife), and then we hear Hendrix’s, which is startling, because he turns what is basically a downbeat folkie anthem into one of the most ominous rock tracks ever recorded. When Hendrix sings “He-ey Joe, where you goin’ with that….gun in your hand,” the way he says “gun” (and the pause before it) transforms the song into an African-American psychodrama, with that gun standing in for every violent scarred ego and vengeful familial meltdown in the inner city.
Hendrix spent nine months in London, and Hear My Train A Comin’ chronicles how he crossed paths with the Beatles and the Stones and mesmerized audiences in clubs. Yet there’s virtually no mention of Hendrix’ experiments with drugs, and that seems a little priggish, even for American Masters. Decades ago, it became part of the Beatles’ lore that they used LSD and marijuana, and that it had a profound effect on the blossoming of their music, from Rubber Soul onward. So why would the use of hallucinogenic drugs by the man who wrote the line “‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky” be any less relevant? It wouldn’t, but Bob Smeaton, the director of Hear My Train A Comin’, makes a deliberate attempt to play down that countercultural baggage and to treat Hendrix’ music as a kind of pure American art form: the blues updated and transfigured. To be honest, I think there’s a value in that. Smeaton forces us to experience the explosiveness of what Hendrix did outside the boring time capsule of the ’60s. Each album was different, as he strove for sounds that were grander, more multi-layered, and — at times — softer. Some of his quietest vocals (like “Little Wing”) were among his greatest, and had he lived, I can imagine Hendrix tricking his marvelous voice, which he (wrongly) never liked, into a croon. Yet even as Hendrix’ music developed in the studio, through the sonic magnifications of Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland, it remained, for the most part, a fairly tumultuous sound, and so to have this much of his tumultuous life left off screen is, at times, a little dislocating.
Hendrix got Warner Bros. to build a recording studio just for him, the million-dollar Electric Lady studio on 8th St. in the West Village, and that was a sign of what a powerful figure he’d become in the music business. The film is frank about his love of women, and how attracted they were to him, but his love of cocaine, and the deleterious effect it started to have on his live shows, never earns a mention. I think Hear My Train A Comin’ misses the drama of the last chapters of Hendrix’ life, and I wish it had spent some time talking about his immeasurable influence. Why doesn’t it include enlightened testimonials from Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, or Brian May? Yet the film channels the drama of Hendrix’ greatness — this artist who, in his very presence, smashed through barriers, merging R&B into the birth squalls of metal, fusing showmanship and rock artistry, and (it must be said) black and white, in a way that would never allow those categories to be as separate again. So watch Hear My Train A Comin’, not just to relive the shock of Jimi at Monterey or the glory of Jimi at Woodstock, but to feast, for two hours, on the cool that Jimi Hendrix embodied: the musician as Master of the Universe.