Today would have been the 76th birthday of James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix. Over the course of four years, his bombastic, fever-dream take on the blues guitar made him a musical icon. To this day, his image is instantly recognizable, and his music has been written into the very frame work of rock and roll. Simply put, he is the patron saint of psychedelic music.
When Jimi took the stage, he was a force of nature. Check this version of “Foxy Lady” from Miami Pop in 1968 to see him at his finest…all wailing guitars, crazed poses, and mind blown fans as he did what he did like no other…
The classic moments of Jimi’s career are the stories of legend. With the country mired in the most divisive war yet, Hendrix decided to rework the national anthem itself to reflect the trying times. His rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock devolved into a screaming chaos, meant to mirror the insanity of the battlefield. The screams and wails from his guitar were to give voice to the young men who had fallen. A veteran himself, he managed to juxtapose the truth of the conflict while serving the patriotism he still felt for our nation.
As his star rose, Hendrix famously had it written into his contracts that he would always be the last act on any bill he played on. It was a star move, to be sure, but who could follow him? When there’s an artist whose every note was being hung upon with an intensity never before seen who would literally light the stage on fire with his guitar…who would want to follow him?
Though his sound was rooted in the blues, when Jimi began layering in distortion, feedback, and looping oscillation effects, he found his true sound, an unmistakable wall of sound that is as instantly recognizable now as it was then. The pop charts were dominated by his singles and albums, as he scored hit after hit. His first album spent nearly a year on the charts, held from reaching the number one spot by The Beatles’ masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s juggernaut. He didn’t take it personally, and even covered the title track!
Sadly, the excess that marked Hendrix’s onstage performing sadly carried over into his personal life. The drug use and fame hit the previously soft-spoken man like the freight trains that his blues heroes had so often saluted. Like many other notables of his generation, the star flamed bright, sputtered and was extinguished far too soon.
Some would argue that his death sealed him forever into the perfect touchstone for the sixties. He lived fast, died young and left a good looking corpse. He didn’t become an embarrassment to himself, slowly losing the fire that made him a guitar god. He rode in like the fiery intro he wrote for his cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” and faded out just as quickly.
It’s impossible to say with any certainty whether he would have continued to push the boundaries, to innovate or fall into a bloated self-parody of his former greatness. But one thing we can say with no fear of mistake is this…he was fire. He was the living incarnation of musical rebellion. He gave voice to a sound he heard in the wind, and his cries in the night echo still to this day. He was many things to many people…son, friend, and inspiration. But to the entire world, he was one thing above all others…he was Jimi. And without him, we would have been all the poorer.
Happy Birthday to James Marshall Hendrix, and thanks from all of us spinning on the third stone from the sun.