Jimi Hendrix – Starting at Zero: His Own Story
(Bloomsbury, 256pp., £18.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)
‘His own story’ is the crucial element in the title of this intriguing book, a posthumous memoir of (arguably) the greatest guitarist in the history of rock music, Jimi Hendrix. Painstakingly assembled, by documentary film-maker Peter Neal and producer Alan Douglas, from interviews, diaries, stage announcements, lyrics and even letters and postcards to fans, Starting at Zero aims to tell Hendrix’s story in his own words, from the night in 1942 when he was born (‘the moon turned a fire red’) to his death in 1970 (‘when I die I’m going to have a jam session … Roland Kirk will be there, and I’ll try to get Miles Davis along if he feels like making it. For that it’s almost worth dying’).
Perhaps the most misrepresented figure in 1960s popular culture (‘Wild Man of Pop is Dead’ was typical of the headlines announcing his premature, tragic demise), Hendrix emerges from this collection of autobiographical snippets as the thoughtful, modest, music-obsessed artist he was rather than the flamboyant, guitar-burning, drug-soaked womaniser portrayed in the tabloids of the time.
In an entry from 1969, Hendrix reflects on this dichotomy: ‘A couple of years ago all I wanted out of life was to be heard. Now I’m trying to figure out the wisest way to be heard. I don’t want to be a clown anymore. I don’t want to be a rock and roll star … [Breaking things up and burning guitars] were just added on, like frosting, but the crowd started to want them more than the music.’
One of the most persistent effects of such ‘frosting’ was the idea, constantly promulgated in the popular press, that Hendrix’s stage act was obscene. He refutes this with his characteristic blend of broad-mindedness and percipience: ‘I don’t think it’s vulgar. Perhaps it’s sexy, but what music with a big beat isn’t? Music is such a personal expression that it’s bound to project sex. What is so wrong with that?’ Another effect, the widespread perception of him as a proselytiser for unbridled drug use, is also dealt with head on: ‘This I really believe, that anybody should be able to think or do what they want as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else. It’s your own private thing if you use drugs of any kind. It’s nobody else’s concern … The trouble starts when people let [drugs] rule them instead of using [them] as a step to something else.’
Also firmly knocked on the head by this memoir is the notion that Hendrix was somehow shamed, by the Black Panthers referring him to him as a ‘coconut’ (black on the outside, white within), into espousing the politics of racial confrontation: ‘Race isn’t a problem in my world. I don’t look at things in terms of races. I look at things in terms of people … I’m thinking about the obselete and the new.’
Such single-minded determination to concentrate purely on matters musical pervades this collection: ‘Music is a universal language, and if it were respected properly it would have a way to reach people … there is no white rock or black rock. There are only two kinds of music – good and bad … My goal is to be one with the music. I just dedicate my whole life to this art.’
By allowing readers to hear Hendrix’s voice unmediated, straight from the heart, Starting at Zero places the man himself, in all his complexity, firmly at the centre of his own life story, and as such it usefully complements the most sensitive and comprehensive biography to date, Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek’s Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy; what it doesn’t do, however, is allow the jazz world (as it so often does, with talk of collaborations with Gil Evans and friendship with Miles Davis) to claim him as a potential convert: ‘[I]f I’m at home I’d never put on a jazz disc. I consider jazz to be a lot of horns and one of those top-speed bass lines … But I don’t happen to know much about jazz.’ Ah well, nobody’s perfect, even Jimi Hendrix.