How Jimi Hendrix’s London Years Changed MusicBreaking News
tags: books, music, 1960s, rock and roll, Jimi Hendrix
Wild Thing BY PHILIP NORMAN LIVERIGHT
“It’s so lovely now,” Jimi Hendrix said in his muzzy mumble, his topplingly elegant, close-to-gibberish, discreetly space-traveling undertone, onstage one night in 1967 at the Bag O’Nails in London. “I kissed the fairest soul brother of England, Eric Clapton—kissed him right on the lips.”
This is one of many groovy scenes recorded in Philip Norman’s new Hendrix biography, Wild Thing. The fairest soul brother, we can be sure, was transported. Hendrix had arrived in London a year earlier, with not much more than the clothes he stood up in, and immediately induced holy dread in the city’s top guitarists. “There were guitar players weeping,” reports the singer Terry Reid of one early Hendrix performance. “They had to mop the floor up. He kept piling it on, solo after solo. I could see everyone’s fillings falling out.” And of them all, Clapton was the toppermost: clapton is god read the spray-paint legend on a wall in North London. Hendrix, who—let’s be real—could have destroyed Clapton with a flick of his wrist, was all humility: He reverenced Clapton’s work in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and (especially) Cream. Clapton, terrified at first—“You never told me he was that fuckin’ good,” he protested to Hendrix’s manager, Chas Chandler, over a wobbling backstage cigarette—fell swiftly and properly in love.
As did everybody else. The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, at every Jimi Hendrix Experience show he attended, would punctually weep for joy: “In whatever dark London vault the Experience played,” writes Norman in a particularly beautiful sentence, Jones “would be visible as a dual glint of blond hair and tear-wet cheeks.”
Norman is a veteran music journalist and biographer, best known for 1981’s Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation, a classy piece of Beatleology that was nonetheless renamed Shite! by a less-than-thrilled Paul McCartney. Wild Thing is good on Hendrix’s meteoric impact on Swinging London (and then the world), the crater he left in consciousness. It’s not quite as good on the precise electric-acoustic dimensions of that crater. But that’s always the challenge with Hendrix: how to describe, how to even verbally gesture at, the extraordinary sounds he made? Or to reconcile this diffident, melancholy man with the Promethean audacity of his art? The best analysis in the book, rather poetically, comes from an unnamed Finnish journalist quoted by Norman, who reviewed a Hendrix show in 1967 and heard “a voice from the reality of today’s worldwide information network that effectively spreads both terror and delight.”
The other challenge with Hendrix—a challenge for us, now—is to part the beaded curtains and the veil of dope smoke, to pierce the purple haze and reckon with him politically, aesthetically, and culturally as a Black artist in his time. Charles Shaar Murray did a musicologist’s version of this with 1998’s Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Post-war Rock’n’Roll Revolution, but the canon of Hendrix biography, in my opinion, still awaits a book with the historical heft and acumen of David Remnick’s King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero—a book, in other words, capable of mapping the larger forces of which Hendrix was the electrified nexus.
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