Oct/Nov 2004 Nonfiction

Hendrix After Thirty Years

by David Graham

All breathing human passion above. —Keats

It's late enough into the party that everyone who really meant it when planning to make it an early night has in fact gone home, every clever remark has been made and seconded, and we who remain don't require a lot to keep us going, but we do require something. The host pops a tape into his VCR. It turns out to be a documentary on the life of Jimi Hendrix—not a bad choice for this late in the evening, with this many empties lining the counter tops ("like a classroom of raised hands," my college buddy used to say), and all of us, for the moment, talked out but reluctant to leave.

There are a couple of students here at this faculty party who weren't born when Hendrix died, and at least one couple too old to understand what the fuss is about ("Buddy Holly!" he shouts, "hasn't anybody here heard of Buddy Holly?"). But the rest of us are Sixties Children, all with our Hendrix memories and attitudes, and we're rapt before the TV.

It's a fairly recent tape, but full of footage from thirty years ago and more. I can't decide whether to feel melancholy or elated when a woman on the show says, three decades ago, "we'll be outdated soon, but Jimi never will." It's true: her hairstyle, her T-shirt, her slang, all outmoded. And Jimi's still a kid, really, not yet past the thoughtless beauty, the genius of first heat. However brilliant he was, and there are those of us who thought him possessed by the true fire, now he's as he'll forever be: ignorant as a snail.

There's a different sadness in watching the more recent interviews—his fellow musicians have grown older along with us, which we cannot help but love them for as we count the white hairs sprouting, waistlines thickening. Odd to see them, though—these former heroin addicts, recovered drunks—back alongside Hendrix in the replays. For it's suddenly clear that Jimi could have made it, too, with a different throw of the dice, one less pill, one refused drink—with just a little taste of the luck these others rode on into the meadow of middle age.

Nothing we could say to the students, of course, would explain our fascination. Part of me recognizes how silly, how dated all this must seem. If it weren't dated we wouldn't be so sentimental. Even Jimi at Monterey in his most famous moment, setting his guitar aflame—we've all seen wilder things on commercials for athlete's foot remedies. Not that anyone's asking, but I couldn't begin to explain how Jimi lives a little in our blood, even now, long after the generational divorce from drugs, long after the end of feedback, long after sheer volume could satisfy. I remember that hum in my ears for hours after the concert was over—every time slicing a little more off the top end of my hearing, I cannot help reflecting.

Furthermore, there's less call these days for Hendrix's electronic virtuosity. A synthesizer can do all the feedback you want, can sample his tone and mix it with others, can be more guitar than even Jimi could handle. Yet in a way that's precisely what still fastens us to Hendrix—seeing him onstage with just bass and drums, all playing their actual axes. It's like watching surgery before anesthesia. Heroic anachronism.

It is also, to be honest, more than a little boring. The flip side of Byronic beauty and intensity is its endless, smug love of itself, and no one more than Hendrix loved to be the brilliant center of the single spot. And I have to notice that, though there's no denying Hendrix's talent, he does spend more time fiddling with distortion than actually constructing a solo. Sad to say, he was capable of better than he often performed.

You have to mention the drugs, too, I suppose. For in a quite real sense our parents were correct: the whole thrust of this music is oblivion, that delicious not-feeling so easy for the young to confuse with life lived intensely. It's the kind of music you have to play loud—think about that—and I remember when albums (the vinyl kind) used to advise "turn it up" on their liners. I remember when that seemed like a gesture toward freedom. Not that I'm pushing some puritanical revisionism. It's not that drugs made the music or even that you need to be stoned to appreciate it. But the truth remains that it's music with a druglike obsessiveness, a tedious lack of modulation or subtlety, often, and in fact a young music. Nothing wrong with that, I think, and nothing to be gained by denying it.

It's hard even to imagine a Hendrix grown old, except perhaps reborn as a traditionalist. I can see him, I guess, picking the blues straight ahead, improving his already fearsome chops by playing alongside the late Muddy Waters or the still-kicking B. B. King, maybe going acoustic at last without tricks. But probably not: he needn't have aged predictably, you have to grant him that.

Or he might have grown worse, nursing himself along through his various addictions, playing smaller and smaller halls, still doing a glittery, fake "Purple Haze" at age forty-five or sixty. It's all too easy to imagine him landing in some courtroom years after his days in the limelight, brought up on charges of possession, maybe, or carrying a concealed weapon. We would just shake our heads and tell anecdotes of Woodstock and the Fillmore East, lost in the syrupy depths of nostalgia. Or—and these are possibilities based less on Jimi Hendrix than on a world we can't accuse him with—he could well have joined the ranks of the saved. Like other born-agains, he might have rewritten his songs to serve Jesus.

What's almost impossible to imagine, though, is a Hendrix who simply continued, improving with the decades like Duke Ellington, maybe leaving his band behind to carry on after his death, fronted by his son. Impossible to imagine as Keats grown old. Is that a sad thought? I am far too wrapped up in my own thirty-year reverie to begin knowing.

Like most of the rest, I am content at last just to watch and listen. Here's Jimi at Woodstock again, bending and prodding "The Star-Spangled Banner" into cascades of screaming feedback. He's rendering justice at last to the rockets' red glare, seeming, even to my middle-aged ears, to get more of Vietnam and Watts into his runs up the upper registers than any newspaper or even poem has done. Listening to this most incandescent solo, I cannot even begin to describe its outrage, its vehemence, its reckless surge toward the edge. If I did, I'd probably look and feel just as foolish as the talk show host, circa 1970, asking puzzled and earnest questions about this raw, deliberately ugly version of the national anthem. What I'll long remember, though, is Jimi himself, sitting on that television couch without his guitar, so slim, shy and polite. How he answered that host in his surprisingly soft voice, "But I think it's beautiful."


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