In the beginning there was man, half
Indian, half black. And the man played riffs for five dollars, which is how
much his first guitar cost. He bought it from one of his father's drunk
friends. And with it, for the first time ever, he understood himself.
There is a parable told about Jimi that describes how one day after having slept very little he went on the Dick Cavett show on television, who then put him down for the version of the American national anthem he had played some days before at Woodstock. And, like Christ before Pontius Pilate, Hendrix turned the controversy upside down, with the idea that each person has his own version of what is the truth. What the reporter was insinuating was that the musician had been trying to make the sound of an air raid as a protest against the selfish warmongering of the American government in front of a brigade of peace and love loving hippies. "I didn't think it was unorthodox; I thought it was beautiful."
That event was the fundamental embodiment of flower power and Hendrix crowned it all with a mind-blowing show of distortion, buzzes and sexual coupling with his Marshalls.
Jimi Hendrix at that time was already venerated as a god, having left behind the trinity of the Experience and had just one year left to live on this earth. His fiery show was, without even Hendrix himself aware of it, a form of Evangelical. But all began in a baptism of fire some years before.
Three, to be precise. Recruited by Chas Chandler, ex-member of the Animals and his rookie manager after hearing Jimi's cover of Billy Robert's 'Hey Joe'. Jimmy Hendrix had jumped the puddle, leaving behind Duosonic, his back up group and his pseudonym Jimmy James, to try his luck in England. As soon as he touched down, the two men went straight to see Cream in concert, a trio of bluesmen, ad majorem Dei gloriam. The Deus, of course, being Clapton.
Today we know why destiny allowed such a thing to happen, but at the time it all seemed very strange indeed. Half way through the show, Hendrix went up on stage "to jam a while with that guy, a great guitarist", he said. What happened next was that Eric Clapton's arms went limp, his pick falling to the floor. In front of him, worse – in front of his audience, was a guy doing things to the guitar never before seen, showing him the new road to travel down.
And that was when Hendrix, the left-handed nobody who slept on the floor, took his place on slow hand's throne. He turned the story upside down, just as he turned his recently acquired Stratocaster upside down to be able to play it on the left, tuning it how he felt like it, doing to it whatever he fancied, with all the fun he had playing with his teeth, pedals and so forth. Jimmy soon stopped writing sad letters to his dad. From then on, he would write about his successes, signing his letters, Jimi, Jimi Hendrix, who would soon be the leader of a three-man band that took his name, so that everyone might feel his goodness. First in the UK, then in the USA and finally all around the world.
With Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, Hendrix tirelessly invented new musical textures, making his ignorance of musical theory a virtue, constantly experimenting until he found the exact way to express what he was feeling within. At the Monterey Festival, they definitively conquered the world, and after the 'Axis: Bold as Love' tour, Chandler got the chop. Hendrix needed to free his message, giving a free rein to his torrential creativity, a pell-mell of endless fine-tuning, variation on variation, unsatisfactory experiment and take upon take.
The 'Electric Ladyland' sessions were a lysergic ecstasy of forsaken and forsaking disciples, new incorporations, the smoke of dope and double-crossing, blood-filled, sleepless eyes, strings, amps, distortion, noise, feedback, wild and thoughtless improvisations, bouts of fury, belly laughs and endless tracks. Ah yes, Chas, you can take a hike, man. You and your traditional four-minute cuts, thanks for the services rendered, get your stuff, send me the bill and don't forget to close the door behind you. We don't want a single note to get out. We need every last one of them. Actually, I'm short of them; the Strat is always asking for more of them, because she knows what I can give her, which is everything, and you want to hold me back, mould me, standardise me. No way, man, no way. The screams, the sighs, the noise, she wants them all, and I can't betray her. It is my mission. Thanks for everything, Chas, but get out, get out already.
And with Chas, the others followed. Then came Woodstock and that 'Star spangled banner' when he was the leader of Band of Gypsys, putting the all-powerful on the back foot and dazzling his followers, making them his disciples of peace and love and him the definitive prophet after that exhibition of changing things round, upside-down, back to front, out on the edge, for all to see.
Word has it that, together with Zappa, he invented the wah-wah pedal, squeezed the last drops of possibility from the Fuzz Face, the Uni-Vibe, all the machines around him. Everyone now would paint his portrait with him wearing that Gibson Flying V, which Hendrix had his last supper with at the Isle of White Festival. And today everyone associates distorted sounds with acid colours, the guitar solos to the dreamlike camera recordings. Today, up on stage we see long, drawn out thrashings that remind us of sirens, jam sessions, playing with the amps and wild, crazy poses. Hendrix started all these hare-brained things. In his four 'gospels' - three with the Experience and then the live performance of the Band of Gypsys. And in all those tens of hundreds of apocryphal tales that arose from his death.
Jimi Hendrix's Electric Church is full of pirate records and found recordings, reinterpretations, re-mastered copies, endless writings about his music, his message, his importance. To found a new religion is no easy feat. You have to kill god (the previous one, naturally), inspire the masses, spread your word throughout the world, leave some kind of relic for its later veneration… and die at the right time, right at the peak of ecstasy, with the crown recently placed and still gleaming.
It doesn't matter if the crown is golden or made of thorns. Or flowers, as it was in this case. Flowers, acid and pyschedelia. Jimi Hendrix, with little more than three years of public life, never stopped teaching us his works, gathering legions of devoted disciples, multiplying his musical palette, turning the rain into a bacchanal and founding a new faith to which he offered up his Fender Stratocaster as a sacrifice, burning it alive before his followers at Monterey.