Records, film, press and gossip are collectively ambitious in creating the image of a rock superstar. With Jimi Hendrix – as with Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison – mythology is particularly lavish.
Unfortunately, it is also often irreversible–even when it's ill-founded or after the performer himself has gone through changes.
Several weeks ago, Life magazine described Jimi as "a rock demigod" and devoted several color pages to kaleidoscopic projection of his face. Well, why not? The fisheye lens shot on his first album cover shows him in arrogant distortion: on the second album, he becomes Buddha. Lest anyone forget, Leacock-Pennebaker's Monterey Pop has immortalized his pyromaniacal affair with the guitar. Rock-media bedroom talk makes him King Stud of the groupies. Stories circulate that he is rude to audiences, stands up writers, hangs up photographers, that he doesn't talk.
What Jimi's really all about – and where his music is going – is an altogether different thing.
For most of the summer and early fall, Jimi rented a big Georgian-style home in Liberty, New York – one of Woodstock's verdant "suburbs" – for the purpose of housing an eclectic family of musicians: Black Memphis blues guitarists; "new music" and jazz avantgardists; "Experience" member Mitch Mitchell; and – closest to Jimi and most influential – Juma Lewis, a multi-talented ex-progressive jazzman who is now the leader of Woodstock's Aboriginal Music Society.
The hilltop compound – replete with wooded acreage and two horses – was intended for a peaceful, productive musical growth period. But hassles did come, sometimes sending Jimi off on sanity-preserving vacations in Algeria and Morocco: local police were anxious to nab "big-time hippies" on anything from dope to speeding; the house was often hectic with hangers-on; pressure mounted from Jimi's commercial reps to stay within the well-hyped image and not go too far afield experimentally.
But with it all, growth, exchange and – finally – unity was achieved among Jimi and the musicians, whose work-in-progress was evidenced in occasional public appearances in the New York area (at the Woodstock/Bethel Festival, Harlem's Apollo Theater, Greenwich Village's Salvation discotheque, and ABC's Dick Cavett show) and has been recorded for Reprise on an LP which will be released in January. The name of the album, Gypsies, Suns and Rainbows, epitomizes the new Hendrix feeling.
With close friends of Jimi, I drove up to Liberty on a quiet September weekend. The melange of musicians and girls had departed. In a few weeks, Jimi himself was to give up the house, woods and horses for less idyllic prospects: a Manhattan loft and a November hearing on the narcotics-possession charge he was slapped with in Toronto, May 3rd.
Photographs have a funny way of betraying his essentially fragile face and body. He is lean. Almost slight. Eating chocolate chip cookies on the living room couch in this big house – furnished straight and comfortable – he seems boyish and vulnerable.
He offers questions with an unjustified fear of his own articulateness that is charming – but occasionally painful. "Do you, uh – where do you live in the city?" "What kind of music do you li— would you care to listen to?" He is self-effacing almost to a fault: "Do you ever go to the Fillmore? No? – that was a silly question, sorry." "I'm sorry, am I mumbling? Tell me when I'm mumbling. Damn ... I always mumble."
It becomes uncomfortable, so one says: "Jimi, don't keep putting yourself down. There's everybody else to do that for you." He attaches to that statement, repeats it slowly, whips out the embossed Moroccan notebook in which he jots lyrics at all hours of day and night, and scribbles something down.
Fingering through his record collection (extensive and catholic; e.g., Marlene Dietrich, David Peel and the Lower East Side, Schoenberg, Wes Montgomery), he pulls out Blind Faith; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and John Wesley Harding. The Dylan plays first. Jimi's face lights: "I love Dylan. I only met him once, about three years ago, back at the Kettle of Fish [a folk-rock era hangout] on MacDougal Street. That was before I went to England. I think both of us were pretty drunk at the time, so he probably doesn't remember it."
In the middle of a track, Jimi gets up, plugs in his guitar, and – with eyes closed and his supple body curved gently over the instrument – pick up on "Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," riding the rest of the song home with a near-religious intensity.
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