Hendrix revisited

Hendrix revisited

“The idea of playing guitar with my teeth came to me in a town in Tennessee. Down there you have to play with your teeth or else you get shot!”

Jimi Hendrix did not get shot in Tennessee. That’s because he played the guitar with his teeth, with his elbows, behind his head, and other unimaginably unique and atrocious ways that shocked and awed an entire generation of rock‘n’rollers. Within a short career span of four years, he went from an unknown back-of-the-band musician to probably the most iconic, influential and legendary guitarist of all times, managing to don a mythical aura over himself in the process. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Hendrix is “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock and roll”.

This musical icon has now managed to accomplish another unimaginable feat — authoring his memoirs 43 years after his death. His newly published book, Starting At Zero, is a well edited and creative compilation of his lyrics, poems, interviews, diary entries, jottings and other thoughts-on-paper. Hendrix was considered an eccentric recluse, but Starting At Zero reveals his struggles as a musician and his sufferings as a person. “Guys would get fired in the middle of the highway because they were talking too loud on the bus or the leader owed them too much money… Bad pay, lousy living and getting burned — that was those days.” 

Starting At Zero is a fascinating read, not because it represents the vulnerable voice and creative mind of a pioneering rock guitarist, but because it takes the reader behind the scenes of a nascent music industry. Recording companies were still trying to understand and cope with an unprecedented eruption of strange music styles, and the stranger musicians who were creating them. And the musicians themselves were still full of non-commercial innocence, forming bands and performing internationally, unfettered by tedious red tape and formal contracts. 

But Hendrix’s early days in the South were one big blurry struggle against starvation and poverty. Things didn’t get better even when he went to that musician’s land of hope, New York City. “I stayed up there, starved up there for two or three weeks. I’d get a gig once every twelfth of never. Sleeping among the garbage cans… Rats runnin’ all across your chest, cockroaches stealin’ your last candy bar from your very pockets.” But even amidst such extremely miserable hardships, Hendrix remained true to his love of music. “I still have my guitar and amp, and as long as I have that, no fool can keep me from living.” Thanks to his stubborn tenacity, his luck changed slowly. He started playing in back-up bands for renowned names like Sam Cooke, B B King, Chubby Checker, Chuck Jackson and John Hammond Jr. 

Name dropping is a terrible social offence, but Hendrix is one of the few people who gets away with it since he does this not to impress, but as a narrative of the struggling musician. “When I was down in the Village (Greenwich Village, New York City), Bob Dylan was also starving down there. I saw him one time… We were both stoned and just hung around laughing. Yeah, we just laughed.” In addition to the fascinating fact that Dylan and Hendrix were both starving but managed to buy and smoke pot together, Hendrix writes in a casually candid manner about meeting and jamming with some of the greatest rock musicians of all time.

Chas Chandler, the bass guitarist of the Animals (of House Of The Rising Sun fame), saw Hendrix perform and promptly invited him to come to England and form his own band. And the rest was history. “The first time I played guitar in England, I sat in with Cream. I like the way Eric Clapton plays… And Ginger Baker, he’s like an octopus, man.” Soon a three member band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was rocking England and Europe. “The Beatles used to come and see us sometimes… and Paul McCartney told me they were planning to do a film (Magical Mystery Tour), and he wanted us to be in this film.”

Within months, the Jimi Hendrix Experience posted several top ten hits on British charts, including Hey Joe and Purple Haze. Hendrix’s popularity and fame continued to rise, and quite naturally, he was one of the headliners at pioneering rock festivals like Woodstock, the Monterey Pop Festival in California and the Isle of Wight Festival in England. And his band also played in illustrious venues like the Royal Albert Hall. “I tell you, when I die I’m going to have a jam session… When I die, just keep on playing the records.”

“The story of life is quicker than the wink of an eye.

The story of love is hello and goodbye. Until we meet again…”

On September 18, 1970, James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix died of unknown causes. He was 27 years old. He continues to inspire thousands of guitarists with his music and his life. And even today, he continues to be a larger-than-life crowd puller at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.

Starting at zero
Jimi Hendrix
Bloomsbury2013, pp 2561,

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