Seattle native James Marshall Hendrix, known as Jimi Hendrix, would’ve turned 75 this November 27. He toiled as a guitar sideman, made his way to London, broke as leader of the Experience, bounced back to the U.S., and exploded into superstar status at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967; cut three studio albums and one live album; died sadly, messily, mysteriously, and became as immortal as rickety civilization shall allow.
Widely considered the greatest rock guitarist ever (although you’d be shocked by how many folks rate Richard Thompson higher), Hendrix did indeed love parties, drugs, and especially the ladies. But to local writer Gillian G. Gaar, author of the new coffee-table saga Hendrix: The Illustrated Story (published October 1 by Voyageur Press), people don’t pay enough attention to how hard he worked, pre- and post-household name.
“Jimi was just one of those artists who are driven to create,” Gaar says in an e-mail interview. “That was obvious from a young age, as he tried to get music out of broken instruments [starting with a one-stringed ukulele], when he was learning to play and had nothing else to work with. Nothing would dissuade him, as he wasn’t really interested in anything else. People would remember him at home playing a certain musical passage over and over again, breaking it down in every way that he could, taking it apart, putting it back together, just obsessed with it.
“A girlfriend later observed she felt her competition was not other women, but his guitar. It’s just something some artists have. Where does it come from? We don’t know.”
Gaar says that Hendrix’s childhood friends revealed interesting information, such as “how the neighbors would go out of their way to look after Jimi and [younger brother] Leon. They would shoplift food; they wore shoes with holes. But Jimi made music a priority for himself, more so than his other friends. I think his Seattle years were quite interesting… He was able to develop at his own pace, and then his Army stint came along at the right time to get him out of town.
“He immediately found more [musical] opportunities, both while he was in the service and after he left. And he traveled so much from the time he left the service until he went to London, we’ll never be able to get an exact chronology of where he was during those years. Just constantly on the move from one gig to the next.”
Gaar’s first memory of the man was seeing the trailer for 1973’s A Film About Jimi Hendrix. “I learned more about him through reading books. I believe the first were ’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky by David Henderson and Electric Gypsy by Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek.
“I actually think the first album I heard was [popular posthumous anthology] Smash Hits. I borrowed a friend’s copy. I didn’t listen to more than that really until the CD reissues of 1997 came out. Then it was like taking a crash course in Hendrix. I like the earlier, shorter, punchier stuff better than the longer improv stuff. I like how he integrated different styles; there would be blues, but it wasn’t ‘blues rock.’ He listened to everything.”
Asked about her favorite album of the four released during Jimi’s life, she opines: “I still like the first one [1967’s Are You Experienced?] best, as it’s the most focused. It’s also a surprise to hear how strong the original songs are, because he hadn’t been writing much of his own material before. It was as if he blossomed overnight…
Discussing surprising aspects of Hendrix’s psyche, Gaar notes that his shyness and reserve offstage were atypical of most rock stars. “But then he really came to life when performing. Initially, I hadn’t realized how devoted he was to making music; he was playing constantly, and if he wasn’t recording or doing a show, he’d be going out looking for someone to jam with.”
“He didn’t seem to be too introspective about it; ‘Why am I like this?’ He just went with it. He might have been insecure in other areas, but he had unerring faith in his talent.”
Is the town that spawned Hendrix forgetting him? Gaar seems surprised by the question. “Earlier,” she allows, “memorials were criticized because of his drug use. That began changing when Mayor Norm Rice issued a proclamation for ‘Jimi Hendrix Day’ in 1992. There’s always a Hendrix exhibit at MoPOP [formerly the Experience Music Project].
“His gravesite [at Renton’s Greenwood Cemetery] has been revamped; I went out there, and there’s a steady stream of people coming by. The statue on Broadway remains, even though the business that set it up (AEI) has moved from that location. Now we have the Jimi Hendrix Park, and there are supposed to be portraits of Jimi in a future light rail station. I think it’s fun to find him unexpectedly; when I went to the Central Tavern and they had a little shrine of departed Seattle legends, including Jimi. I suppose the ultimate legacy would be people being inspired by him to pick an instrument and make music themselves.”
And was he truly the greatest, Richard Thompson notwithstanding? “Well, it’s all subjective in the end. But it’s inarguable that he did have an astonishing level of skill. I think it’s probably safe to say he’s the greatest. He really brought the electric guitar into its own, as an instrument, as something that could be as expressive as the human voice.”
Gaar will be appearing at Sub Pop's SeaTac Airport shop sometime in October. Details tba.