A shorter version of this article appears in the Observer, 20 September 2020
It is one of the defining moments in the story both of rock and of black expression. Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock 1969, finishing his set by deconstructing the Star Spangled Banner. A black man on stage, claiming the anthem as his own, stripping it of its reverence, and, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War – in the midst of the song Hendrix recreated the sound of gunfire and falling bombs – and of American cities burning in civil rights protests, infusing it with fury and pride. Hendrix, as Paul Gilroy has observed, was always defined by “transgressions of redundant musical and racial rules”.
It was 50 years ago this week that Hendrix died in a London hotel room, having overdosed on barbiturates. He was just 27.
Hendrix was born in Seattle in 1942. Aged 18 he joined the army to train to be a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division – he had been offered the choice or army or jail after committing a minor misdemeanour. He was discharged after a year, unsurprisingly not fitting into army life. He became a road guitarist, playing with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, before trying his luck in New York. Bohemian in his sartorial style – loud jackets and floppy hats – and pyrotechnical in his guitar work, he acquired a glittering array of admirers, including the likes of John Cale, of the Velvet Underground, and a young Patti Smith. But in the segregated, boxed-in world of 60s America, he never quite fitted in – his music was too “white” for r’n’b, too “black” for rock.
So, he came to London, at the behest of Chas Chandler, the former bassist with the Animals, who became his manager. London then was not just in its Swinging Sixties moment but was also experiencing a blues explosion. John Mayal, Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Paul Kossoff, Keith Richards, Alvin Lee, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Kim Simmonds – a dazzling collection of blues guitarists was ripping up the music scene. And an even more dazzling collection of black American blues artists – Muddy Waters, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Bukka White, Champion Jack Dupree – discovered a more appreciative audience in Britain than in America.
Into this maelstrom Hendrix dropped in. With bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and, in the space of four years, created an extraordinary new soundscape, stretching the blues with dissonance and distortion into something that was in equal measure soulful and disturbing, discordant and sublime. Hendrix was to rock as John Coltrane was to jazz – conjuring up a sound not previously imagined.
The story goes that one night, shortly after Hendrix had arrived in London, Eric Clapton, then with Cream, and feted as “God” for his virtuosity, invited him to jam on stage at the Regent Street Polytechnic in central London. Hendrix showed God how to play, especially on a tempestuous version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” . A furious Clapton confronted Chandler after the gig: “You never told me he was that fucking good.”
Oh, but he was. He really was. As he sang on Purple Haze, “’Scuse me while I kiss the sky”.