Jimi Hendrix and Rock Music’s Unforgettable “Experience”
Will I live tomorrow?
Well, I just can’t say
But I know for sure,
I don’t live today.
(From “I Don’t Live Today.”)
Well, that observation is debatable. He may be dead in the physical sense, but his spirit certainly lives on. Walk into any record store and you’ll immediately be struck by the sheer ubiquity of his image. His face is plastered on just about every type of commercial product marketed by the music industry: CDs, tapes, LPs, T-shirts, books, posters, videos, buttons, etc. Ask anyone to describe his status in the world of rock and roll and they’ll probably tell you he’s the greatest rock guitarist who’s ever lived.
It should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about rock music (or the Sixties) that I’m referring to Jimi Hendrix.
While the distinction of being the world’s greatest rock musician is intriguing enough in itself, there are a few issues concerning Hendrix that really pique my interest. For one, he is still a counter-cultural icon more than 30 years after his death. Hendrix is fixed in the historical record as a physical incarnation of the anti-establishment rebellion with which rock has always been identified. And it’s only natural that kids in the 21st century who are looking for a defiant and hip figure with which to identify would look to the decade of rebellion for idols. Fortunately, there is a wealth of published information and surviving colleagues to draw upon for insights into the current Hendrix revival.
On a recent excursion to a local record store (yes, they still sell vinyl albums) I overheard a young retro-hippie request Hendrix’s Cry of Love single. The fellow had looked in all of the sections of the store where he thought it might be but still couldn’t find it. And no wonder; the proprietor (a black man) had filed the Hendrix 45s in the “blue-eyed soul” section. Recalling that brings me to another interesting aspect of the Jimi phenomenon: he reigned supreme in a musical genre which both blacks and whites generally regard as a white domain. And evidently, even cool icons like Jimi are shunned by many in the African-American community as cultural lepers, supposedly afflicted with what could be called “not down syndrome.” That is, if you engage in (stereo) typically non-black activities (e.g. play rock and associate with whites), then you’re not down with your people.
In a decade every bit as fiery as his guitar in Monterey, Jimi Hendrix turned more than just his Fender Stratocaster upside down-he turned around common perceptions of music and culture. Jimi amended and transcended the narrow definitions of blackness and of rock stardom. Unfortunately, when it comes to Hendrixness, I’m not really that experienced. I was born too late (1968) to see him live in-concert or immerse myself in the great countercultural ethos embodied by his music. However, in this age of apparel-oriented politics, my generation can still rebel. If not with an “X” baseball cap or a Che Guevara button, then perhaps with a T-shirt featuring Jimi in a purple haze.