This review of Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius (affiliate link) was recently published on TheRoot.com.
For many people Jimi Hendrix will always be frozen in amber. Like Bruce Lee and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jimi will always be young, beautiful and at the peak of his abilities. The images we’re left with are iconic: Jimi setting his guitar ablaze in London in ’67 or his rendition of Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock in ’69. In fact, it’s easy to forget that didn’t just spring forth fully formed.
As a reader’s first exploration into Jimi’s early years, Steven Roby & Brad Schreiber’s well researched book provides a solid start. Amazon.com notes 127 other biographies and memoirs, including Black Rock Coalition co-founder Greg Tate’s Midnight Lightning and David Henderson’s definitive ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky. The bulk of the Roby/Schreiber book covers the period from 1962 to 1966, Jimi’s years of apprenticeship, as it were. It was during that time that he learned stage presence, showmanship and how to please a crowd. It’s where—here’s a nod to Malcolm Gladwell—he put in his 10,000 hours learning countless R&B songs for the cover bands in which he performed. It’s incredible to see that he played backup for the likes of Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and the Isley Brothers. He also had a chance to learn from some of the best artists of the day, bluesmen like Albert King, Albert Collins and B.B. King.
On one hand deeply rooted in rhythm and blues and Delta blues, these early years were so much about Jimi’s quest to manifest the emotional, spacey and mystical sounds he heard in his head. He was never afraid to try things musically, such as wailing, feedback-infused solos in the middle of popular R&B songs. Despite the fact that audiences seemed to love him, he was fired from nearly as many bands as he played in because many bandleaders felt upstaged.
By the time he arrives in Harlem in the 1965, he finds its musicians and club owners also have little patience for not only the feedback and volume he favored, but also his style of dress which, with its “ruffled sleeves, brightly colored shirts and bellbottoms, jewelry, wide-brimmed hats and capes” was more suited go-with-the-flow East Village versus the uptown cool of Harlem. It’s no wonder that Europe felt more welcoming.
What emerges is a picture of an icon as a human being. Jimi Hendrix came from a family who loved him, but he was also shaped as much by his own vision as he was by the community of musicians and supporters around him. He was naïve and, at times, childlike, but could also fall into fits of jealous rage. You could look at these early years, note his suffering (he was often hungry, broke, and steps away from being homeless) and say he paid a steep price in order to realize his vision. But it’s also impossible to read this book and conceive of him doing anything else. After all, here’s a guy who slept with his guitar.
What this book does well is bring a legend down to earth, if only so that readers can, 40 years after his untimely passing, better understand from whence he came.