Friday, March 12, 2010
Anthony DeCurtis’ recent New York Times article, “Beyond The Jimi Hendrix Experience” (2/28/10) is refreshingly accurate, especially about the circumstances of the great guitarist’s death, which he attributes correctly to “misadventure” as opposed to a heroin overdose (so often reported as fact especially in anti-drug propaganda). However, his characterization that Jimi “never spoke out about the pressing civil rights issues (of his day) either in his lyrics or in interviews” is simply not accurate. A look at some of the facts reveals an essential part of the man, his music, and his times.
Though it may not reference them directly, his song “House Burning Down,” (which appeared on the “Electric Ladyland” album) was written following the 1967 Detroit riots and implores in one lyric, “Try to learn instead of burn, hear what I say.” In live performance, Jimi usually dedicated “I Don’t Live Today” to the “American Indian,” in part, as tribute to his Cherokee Grandmother and in a heartbreaking description of the blight of reservation life. Any listener interested in his attitude toward race should reference the lyrics to both of these songs.
The scorched earth instrumental “Midnight” is apocryphally said to have been an improvisation recorded in anger and outrage the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Transcending color is a major theme in much of his body of work. It is also a featured element in his legendary and as yet unreleased musical autobiography, “Black Gold.” He spoke about civil rights during many interviews as well including one in which he said, “I wish they'd had electric guitars in cotton fields back in the good old days. A whole lot of things would've been straightened out.”
According to some of his closest friends, the fact that the African American community did not embrace him during his lifetime is said to have troubled Jimi. Despite his free street concerts in Harlem, promotion as the “Black Elvis,” attempts at recruitment of him by the Black Panthers, and his replacement of the original Experience with the all black, Band of Gypsies, Hendrix’s fan base remained largely middle-class and white—even though he greatly influenced contemporary black musicians like Miles Davis and Sly Stone. Among the biographies that treat this aspect of his life are David Henderson's well received, "'Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky: Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Chile" and "Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy" by Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek (founder of the Hendrix Information Center).
Like the era with which he is so synonymous, Jimi Hendrix was complex, conflicted, and deeply indebted to African American musical tradition. His success—typified by the fact that he was the first rock performer of any color to earn $100,000 for a single concert—was the hard earned result of playing as Little Richard’s guitar player, working the chitlin’ circuit with the Isley Brothers and other major R & B artists, and in acknowledging still other forebears as he did with his definitive, non-chalant cover version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (memorialized in the documentary, "Jimi Plays Berkeley").
Today, Jimi’s legacy as a fearless virtuoso is common wisdom. But, the part of his personal story that also needs to be told is that he was truly an artist beyond color—and that is why, as Mr. DeCurtis observes, he also continues to be “an enduring symbol of personal freedom.” His breakthrough as one the most celebrated rock stars of the sixties—and the only one “of color”—is an achievement that should be considered enough of a statement about race relations at that tumultuous time.