Jimi Hendrix: Anti-War Forever
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was a helluva time by any cultural time clock--but undeniably the music certainly fit those times. The Vietnam War raged Washington bathed in an orgy of lies, and the rock and pop you heard on the radio--whether AM or FM--carried an edginess rarely approached in music today. Few references to bitches or whores, and more lyrics and battle cries mostly against the war. You gathered your anthems to your heart, in an age when resistance and rage wafted across the dial, long before Clear Channel and Michael Powell controlled the airwaves.
"Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods," observed Michael Herr. Having grown up 50 miles from Motown, the music I personally remember from that era of the war-torn, assassination-prone Sixties ranged between the artificially sweetened gooiness of Bubblegum to mellow Motown, to the outraged bellow of the betrayed and doomed, personified by British blues bands like The Yardbirds and Jimi Hendrix, a former US Army veteran and outspoken antiwar activist.
Jimi Hendrix, one of the best at voicing that betrayal and youthful rage, sang with a bluesy, cavernous force, a voice of dirt poor, Delta determination mixed with a unique, urban discontent, a voice widely ignored before that time by most of white, middle class America. In four short years, Hendrix became a combination court jester, outspoken agent provocateur and erotic Paganini to a wide swath of young people nauseous of the lies spewing forth from pompous Washington, DC and the whitebread media. To most adults--shocked, dismayed or disgusted--Hendrix represented a cross between Pan, the Pied Piper and Pandemonium in bell bottom trousers and wide-brimmed hats.
And man, could he kick ass on the guitar. Fantastically, or fiercely attired, in the eyes of our parents (and every other authority figure we despised), but colorfully costumed to young clubgoers, record buyers and concert fans, Hendrix didn't so much sing as wage war with the only weapon he had at hand. The white Fender Stratocaster Jimi wielded, a weapon he played upside down (he was left-handed), with bass strings below and treble above, sounded unlike any guitar played and few since.
Said Mick Taylor, "It was amazing to hear someone play so well . . . and with the guitar backwards! Jimi Hendrix could play both ways . . . which is quite phenomenal. I've never met anyone else that could do that. It's like playing the piano backwards . . . . because all the strings and notes are reversed. He seemed to be able to play equally well both ways . . . which is quite phenomenal. To turn it upside-down and play backwards. All the chords are reversed . . . and instead of bending a string . . . . You'd have to pull it."
Born Johnny Allen on November 27, 1942 in the city of Seattle, Hendrix was shuffled from relative to relative until his father, Al, returned from the war and discovered that his son had been named without his input. On September 11, 1946, Johnny Allen's name was officially changed to James Marshall Hendrix. Around the age of twelve, his father bought him his first electric guitar, a white Supro Ozark. Sometime still later, James became Jimmy (he later performed as Jimmy James) and finally "Jimi" to adoring fans. Before dying in London on September 18, 1970, Hendrix burned across the sky in a purple haze of erotic insinuation, generational confrontation and antiwar indignation not seen before or since his death.
A few months before he died, in 1970, I heard Hendrix play in San Antonio with the short-lived Band of Gypsies. As Mick Jagger once noted in classic understatement, "He didnít have a very good voice but made up for it with his guitar." A group of us went together, a car full of Air Force enlisted men, driving over from Lackland Air Force base. To a man, we were antiwar in word if not deed; white, middle-class pissants in spit-shined shoes and khaki pants by day, non-conformists (so we thought) in bell bottoms by night.
A year before, at Woodstock in the summer of 1969, Jimi Hendrix performed an infamous, antiwar version of The Star-Spangled Banner, adding luster to his already considerable reputation--along with boxer Muhammad Ali--as an outspoken antiwar advocate. Hendrix was the last, headlining act of the weekend festival, scheduled to close the show on Sunday night, but he didn't take the stage until 8 a.m. Monday morning.
Of the estimated 500,000 people who attended that humid, often rainy, outdoor August concert in upstate New York, only about 30,000 remained. Hendrix had been paid $32,000--top money to headline--and Jimi did an extended version of the SSB on his guitar with a band called the Electric Sky Church. Jimi's early morning set was very unorthodox, to say the least, and caused some controversy among conservatives who felt he had desecrated the song. Hendrix had been playing his version, however, for about a year, beginning as part of a guitar solo he played during "Purple Haze ." When he toured southern states in the USA--land of the free and home of the brave--Jimi had been advised not to play his version, but he performed it nonetheless, despite, or because of the threats.
And damn if we young enlisted men didn't approve. Whatever he had to say about the country in his version of the song was certainly closer to reality than what Francis Scott Key wrote long ago. Also, Jimi had belonged to the elite US Army paratroopers, and now spoke his mind in his songs with the same sense of courage and daring required to leap out of planes. He lived a flamboyant life, back-sassed the White establishment (as we were too timid to do), composed crude poetry which became powerful, impassioned songs, slept with wild women of every race--which we all wanted to do--dressed outrageously, and made a helluva lot of amplified noise never heard before.
We knew nothing of Hendrix's perfectionism (Chas Chandler, who allegedly "discovered" Hendrix, complained that Hendrix insisted on doing multiple takes on every song, 43 takes on "Gypsy Eyes" alone, and Hendrix still wasn't satisfied.). We knew nothing of these idiosyncrasies and little of his personal battle with drug addiction. The San Antonio, Texas performance we heard was powerful, yet short and, if I recall correctly, Hendrix left the stage without an encore.
A friend of mine--white, middle-class--once confessed he wished he could have been baseball legend Willie Mays. If I had to choose to be someone else, a musician perhaps, it would probably be Jimi Hendrix. He crossed the racial divide, drew fans from around the world, stood up on his spindly frame and performed unforgettable, signature licks, in a style unlike anyone else at the time.
Not long after that San Antonio performance, Hendrix was dead. A man often given to silent moods mistaken for sullenness or morbidity, Jimi earlier observed: "It's funny the way most people love the dead. Once you're dead, you're made for life . . . . You have to die before they think you were worth anything."
The self-satisfied, mainstream media chortled that Jimi Hendrix choked to death on his own vomit after an overdose of drugs. We didn't care then; the media had nothing to say to us about our heroes, never had, and probably never would. Better to die young with a mouthful of vomit, we thought, then to live comfortably to a ripe old age mouthing shit.
Hendrix left behind over 300 recordings, but more importantly he left behind tremendous impact on other musicians, left behind an example of resistance, continuous resistance to state conformity. Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, who knew a thing or two about influence and impact, was so taken with Hendrix's rendition of "All Along The Watchtower" that he often performed it that way himself. Years later, Hendrix was voted the greatest guitarist in rock history, according to a poll in Rolling Stone magazine. Hendrix still has the power to inspire, in ways unimagined. A few years ago, polar explorer BÝrge Ousland admitted that the music of Jimi Hendrix--especially "All Along The Watchtower"--had urged him onward over the ice.