An amped-up look at Hendrix's life - but not his music

Biography

October 02, 2005|By JONATHAN BOR | JONATHAN BOR,SUN REPORTER

Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix

Charles R. Cross

Hyperion / 384 pages

Rock music was already soaring when Jimi Hendrix touched down on British soil in the fall of 1967. The Beatles had turned the corner into psychedelia, Cream and the Rolling Stones were melding American blues with hard-driving rock, and a serious young guitarist named Eric Clapton was the subject of graffiti declaring him God.

Then, at a London club, the little-known Hendrix plugged his guitar into someone else's amplifier, cranked up the volume and let loose with - well, what was that, anyway?

FOR THE RECORD - A review in the Oct. 2 Sun of the book, Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, misstated the year of the guitarist's death. He died in 1970.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Everyone's jaw dropped to the floor," said organist Brian Auger, quoted in Charles R. Cross' exhaustively researched Hendrix biography, Room Full of Mirrors.

"The difference between him and a lot of the English guitar players like Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Alvin Lee, was that [with them] you could still tell what the influences were ... There were a lot of B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King followers around in England. But Jimi wasn't following anyone - he was playing something new."

Guitarist Mike Bloomfield, a blues-rocker who had heard him months earlier in New York, could have told the Brits what to expect.

"H-bombs were going off, guided missiles were flying - I can't tell you the sounds he was getting out of his instrument," he said. "How he did this I wish understood."

Even Clapton, Cream's lead guitarist, was humbled by Hendrix's virtuosity. As Cross notes, "Jimi had been in London for eight days and he had already met God, and burned him."

None of this will surprise graying rock enthusiasts who well remember their own reactions to Hendrix's first album, Are You Experienced?

More enlightening is the book's portrait of the sad and fractured childhood that may partly explain Hendrix's dissolution later on. Born in Seattle to a 16-year-old girl who never quite knew what to make of motherhood and an alcoholic father who occasionally beat him, Hendrix spent much of his youth living with relatives and friends who pitied him.

His salvation, of course, was the guitar, initially a beat-up instrument with a single string and warped neck.

"To most, this instrument would have been a worthless piece of wood," writes Cross, author of a biography of Kurt Cobain. "Jimi, however, turned the guitar into a science project: He experimented with every fret, rattle, buzz and sound-making property the guitar had."

The music wasn't far behind. Hendrix practiced constantly, slept with the guitar across his chest and even carried it around in a gunny sack. He dropped out of high school to play and later feigned homosexuality to escape the Army when music's lure proved irresistible.

By his early 20s he was playing the "Chitlin Circuit" with the likes of Little Richard, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding and the Isley Brothers.

"Five dates would go beautifully, and then at the next show, he'd go into this wild stuff that wasn't part of the song," said Burke, one in a long line of employers who fired him. "I just couldn't handle it anymore."

Cross deftly chronicles Hendrix's rise to fame, especially the crucial London tour where he smoked the Beatles' marijuana and found a popular audience that had so far eluded him in the U.S.

But the author does little to explore what distinguished Hendrix's playing besides bombast and theatrics. Missing is even a hint of the subtlety that suggested Hendrix was coaxing sounds with the whorls and loops of his fingertips, or of the clever asides that marked even his most explosive solos.

Instead, Cross dwells on his descent into drug use, his insatiable sexual appetite and the despair brought on by endless touring and an inability find intimacy. His fixation on Hendrix's excesses undermines what is otherwise a satisfying excursion through the life of a musician whose drug-induced death in 1971 seemed to bring rock's richest era to a dispiriting close.

Who knows what might have been? Cross suggests one possibility in recounting the time, circa 1970, when Miles Davis showed up at the guitarist's New York apartment. The only witness was singer Terry Reid, who listened in an adjacent room while Davis played on muted trumpet and Hendrix on unamplified guitar.

"It was truly beautiful," Reid recalled. "It was tasteful playing, nothing showy or over the top. In the jazz context, Jimi was still pushing the limits, and all those jazz guys respected him like they respected no one else in rock.'"

jonathan.bor@baltsun.com

Jonathan Bor covers medicine for The Sun and writes about books related to music.

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