Guitar god Jimi Hendrix got the PBS treatment last night in the American Masters broadcast of the two-hour documentary Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train a Comin'. In other words: a thorough, serious-minded consideration of his career that soft-pedals some aspects of his personal life, such as his drug use. While the high priests of Hendrixology will be familiar with most of it, the film has some previously unseen treasures, such as his performance at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival, and smart commentary from the likes of Rolling Stone's David Fricke. Even viewers moderately familiar with Hendrix's legend could enrich their understanding of his life. Five examples:
Hendrix looked good in a uniform.
Although he later became famous for peacock fashion – hats with feathers, aquamarine chemises – Hendrix looked sharp in a uniform. The documentary has a great vintage photo of him in the military (his unit was the 101st Airborne, and he lasted as a paratrooper until he got an honorable discharge). And although he may have chafed at the musical limitations of backing up Wilson Pickett and the Isley Brothers at the beginning of his career, he could look arresting in a matching leopard-print jacket.
Hendrix had his guitar with him at all times.
Although Hendrix was blessed with abundant musical talent, he honed it by playing the guitar pretty much every waking moment, which meant that he always had an instrument with him wherever he went. (It also served the purpose of deflecting conversation – offstage, he was rather shy.) Various friends and girlfriends testify to how he always carried a six-string: for example, in the morning, he'd strap it on before walking into the kitchen for breakfast.
Moving to London in 1966 was even better for Hendrix than he could have hoped for.
When he got to town, under the wing of manager and producer Chas Chandler (formerly of the Animals), he needed a place to stay. In the early days, that place was Ringo Starr's apartment.
Hendrix didn't think much of his singing voice.
While his vocals obviously aren't as virtuosic as his guitar playing, they're more than capable – but Hendrix was intensely self-conscious about them. "We had a constant row in the studio," Chandler remembers, about "where his voice should be in the mix. He always wanted to have his voice buried and I always wanted to bring it forward. He was saying, 'I've got a terrible voice, I've got a terrible voice.' I'd say, 'You may have a terrible voice, but you've got great rhythm in your voice.'"
The Jimi Hendrix Experience got their career-altering Monterey Pop appearance on the recommendation of Paul McCartney.
The Beatle saw Hendrix at an early London gig and became huge supporters. You may have heard about Hendrix kicking off a 1967 show with the title track to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, only days after the album came out – but this film has great footage of McCartney, in Pepper garb, rocking out at the show. When McCartney was asked if the Beatles would play the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, he declined, but suggested Hendrix instead. Given the opportunity, Hendrix blew the crowd away, lit his guitar on fire and launched his American career.