I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Well I take my spirit and I smash my mirrors
Now the whole world is here for me to see
I said the whole world is here for me to see
Now I’m searchin’ for my love to be
. . .
Broken glass was all in my brain
Cuttin’ screamin’ crying in my head
Broken glass was all in my brain
Fall in my dreams cut me in my bed
. . .
No place to stumble
No place to fall
Can’t find war
No where at all
See nothing but sunshine
. . .
Love comes shinin’ over the mountains
Love comes shinin’ over the sea
Love will shine on my baby
Then I’ll know who’s exactly for me
Lord, I’ll know who’ll be for me
In the meantime, which is a groovy time
–“Room Full of Mirrors”, Jimi Hendrix
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a bookstore with my fifteen year old daughter. We were browsing the music section. She pulled a book off the shelf and said, “Look, Mom, a book on Jimi Hendrix. You should read this.” The book was Charles R. Cross’s thoroughly researched biography Room Full of Mirrors (2005). I got home that night, picked up the book and could not put it down. I read it straight through over the course of the next few days, completely mesmerized and also heartbroken by the man I was discovering behind the electric guitar and the velvet suits.
The material in Cross’s book comes from over 325 interviews over four years. The interviews include family members, groupies, musicians, industry people, friends, band mates, and others. It is a comprehensive compilation of material that unearths the real human being who existed under the legend of Jimi Hendrix. The book begins and ends with the lost grave of Jimi Hendrix’s mother Lucille. Cross stands by while the grave is found after decades of being lost, and in turn he discovers that unknowingly Jimi was originally buried a stone’s throw from the grave of the dead mother he mourned for most of his life. The book begins with the excavation of Lucille’s grave, and it turns into the excavation of James “Buster” Hendrix, the human behind the legend.
My daughter showed me the book because she has become enamored with the legend of Jimi Hendrix after she watched his groundbreaking guitar burning at Monterey Pop while I was writing a piece on D.A. Pennebaker’s rock documentaries for my column in CounterPunch magazine. Not only that, but a few months ago, I decided to start playing electric guitar. I’ve had a Fender Stratocaster sitting in my house for 20 years. I finally decided to start playing the thing, and in turn my daughter also took up guitar. So both she and I have been sharing our wonder at Jimi’s amazing guitar playing, and we both have seen him as this legendary, mythic, almost superhuman guitar player.
It makes sense that we would see Hendrix as superhuman. As a kid he was obsessed with comic books and science fiction, a fascination which led him to model himself as some kind of Astral Other. Throw on his fabulous costumes, an electric guitar as his magic weapon, and the man was a Guitar God out to change the world through music. Cross’s book shows where that image came from. As Hendrix’s life unfolds, we learn why and how Jimi constructed this superhuman guitar hero, and we also discover that Jimi Hendrix was a vulnerable human, a man struggling to outrun his past by reinventing himself through music and performance. But Jimi couldn’t outrun his past. Instead he became haunted by the ghosts of his impoverished and violent youth while also plagued by the fame he created for himself in the present. He was buried in his childhood home, and ultimately he never stopped being the child James “Buster” Hendrix even underneath the flash, flare and noise of his revolutionary guitar playing.
I remember the first time I heard Jimi Hendrix. It was 1974, forty years ago. I was twelve years old, and my dad had bought a stereo component system from Sears Roebuck. It had a state-of-the-art 8 track player, so he joined the Columbia Record Club and allowed me and my two brothers to each pick out an 8-track. I picked Rufus and Chaka Khan’s Rags to Rufus (1974) because I grew up listening to Motown and R&B, and I found the funk in this album unbelievably awesome. My second oldest brother Michael picked Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy (1973), and my oldest brother Kevin picked the posthumously released Jimi Hendrix album Cry of Love (1971). Kevin, being the oldest and holding the position of righteous privilege, played his 8-track first. He pushed it into the slot, and after a few seconds Jimi Hendrix launched into the wild cry of “Freedom” and eventually dissolved into the heartrending strains of “Angel”.
As the youngest child and only girl, I was pretty much dominated by two older brothers who listened to rock, so I always listened to soul as an act of rebellion. I had a vast collection of Motown 45 rpms. To me, rock was the manifestation of my oppressed position within my household hierarchy. But when I heard Jimi Hendrix that first time, I could not stop listening. This was not the rock the dominated my home life. I had no idea who he was, but I was unnerved by the sound of Hendrix’s voice and music. It was 1974, so Jimmy had been dead for four years, but I was so clueless about him that I didn’t even know he was dead. All I knew was that his music didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before. It was unnerving and captivating.
Now, after rediscovering Jimi Hendrix over the past decade of my life and reading Cross’s book, it is clear to me that my naïve twelve year old self recognized the underlying R&B in Jimi’s music, and my music unconscious could not entirely reconcile Jimi’s soul core with the fact that he was touted as a rock star whose music was played mostly on the independent and legendary Bay Area rock radio station KSAN. Clearly in my gut, even if not in my conscious head, I understood that at the depth of his soul, Jimi was playing rhythm and blues even as he ripped through electric guitar effects and towering feedback spewing amplifiers. Cross’s book confirms that above all else, Jimi’s roots were in R&B, from his early childhood days of listening to his aunt’s blues record collection to seeing blues bands play in Seattle. At the end of his career, Hendrix wanted both to return to those roots and also take them to their next level – jazz. He was able to accomplish some of that dream before the soil hit his coffin in 1970.
“Fly on My Sweet Angel,” Kim Nicolini, Cheap Ass Ballpoint Pen and India Ink on Paper.
My brother Kevin loved Jimi Hendrix. And he loved the blues. My older brother was an incredibly talented musician. He couldn’t read a single note of music, but when he played, he poured his entire soul into the sound he made. When he played guitar, he closed his eyes and ripped sounds that tore my heart and ears to shreds. I remember watching him mesmerized by the fact that when he played the guitar it was clear he was going to another place. Since I have started playing electric guitar, I understand its ability to allow the person playing to transcend the trappings of the material world. The combination of vibrations from the guitar, the resonating strings, and the echoes of ghostly music trickling through my tube amp take me out of this world, even if only momentarily.
Sometimes Kevin would sit down at our old upright piano and plow the blues out of the keys. He played the length of that keyboard. I never knew blues of that depth could come from a fifteen year old boy which is how old Kevin was when I watched him play the blues on that old piano. It is also how old Jimi Hendrix was when he got his first electric guitar.
Later in his teens my brother would battle an all-consuming addiction to heroin. He went through a lot of guitars in the process. Those days were hell. Jimi’s ghost was always in the background watching from the corner as my brother shot-up and played guitar. Kevin’s heavy eyelids weighed down by thick lashes brushed his cheeks in an opiated haze, not unlike the eyes of Jimi Hendrix. Kevin hocked guitars at the local pawnshop to fix. Then he’d get them out of hock, play for a couple of days, and the whole cycle would start again. He changed guitars like people change underwear. Jimi didn’t pawn his guitars, but he sure had plenty stolen and went through his fair share in his lifetime.
Just two weeks after his 23rd birthday, my brother Kevin died with a guitar in one hand, a syringe in the other, and a Jimi Hendrix album on the turntable, the needle hitting the end of the album in an eternal scratch and repeat.
The book talks about how drugs changed Jimi’s music while also ultimately destroying his life. LSD allowed him to transcend his musical vision and take it to new places. He believed psychedelic drugs took him to create music out of the cosmic universe and travel to those astral places he dreamed of as a kid. Certainly Hendrix’s music delivers a high in its own right. Interestingly, however, Jimi didn’t take LSD until he was 24, after he had been playing music for a number of years. In 1966, Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith discovered Jimi jamming in a small New York club.
Linda and her friends remained for the last set. When it ended, they invited Jimi back to an apartment on Sixty-third Street. There they talked of music, politics, and, inevitably, drugs. One of Linda’s friends was among the drug cognoscenti. Jimi was asked if he’d be interested in taking some acid. His answer showed both his naiveté and his complete inexperience with psychedelics. “No, I don’t want any of that,” he said, “but I’d love to try some of that LSD stuff.” He said this straight-faced, not knowing that acid was the street name for LSD.
So Jimi Hendrix got “experienced” at age 24. Taking LSD also firmly placed him within the “white” rock scene since LSD was perceived as a white drug, and it served like the gel that cemented his fractured identity between black R&B musician and white rocker.
I remember the first time I heard Jimi Hendrix when I was stoned. I was not involved with any “drug cognoscenti,” but I was certainly naïve. I was twelve years old that day I came home from school and found my brother Kevin and a group of his older friends sitting in the living room smoking Panama Red in a homemade bong made from one of my Johnson’s baby shampoo bottles. No more tears. No more tangles. Jimi Hendrix was playing on the old record player while my brother and his friends passed the bong to me and told me to take a hit. “Go ahead and suck on the straw,” they said. They showed me how to put my finger on the carburetor carved out of the plastic bottle and inhale. I sucked in the burning smoke and coughed it all out. My brother and his friends leaned into me laughing, chanting for me to hold it in. For them, it was funny watching a twelve year old get high. Jimi Hendrix was singing “Belly Button Window”: And I’m looking out my belly button window/And I swear I see nothing but a lot of frowns/And I’m wondering if they want me around. The Panama Red seeped into my brain and made the room and the faces laughing at me spin in circles along with the record on the turntable. The whole scene felt like a weird dream. I was looking through my own Belly Button Window while listening to what sounded like the weirdest song I had ever heard.
Then Jimi ripped into “Angel.” I looked at the fog socked sky outside the window and watched for my angel. She wasn’t there. For many years of my life, “Angel” would be my favorite Jimi Hendrix song. I attributed it to my brother’s death, his spirit, and his tormented soul. I learned in the book that the song actually was about Jimi’s mother, and Jimi’s desire to be returned to her in death. That day when I was twelve years old, I wished an angel would come and rescue me. None showed up, so I ran out the door and walked up the hill into the fog. After my brother died, I’d sit on his grave at 3 a.m. and listen to the sound of silent angel wings beating in time to sprinklers swishing on the cemetery lawn.
I put Jimi Hendrix behind me when my brother died. I was busy getting off to the No Wave sounds of James Chance and Lydia Lunch, the wailing grooves of Bob Marley, or new rock artists like Kurt Cobain, J Mascis, and Kristin Hersh. Of course, Cobain, Mascis and Hersh all owe a debt to Hendrix who did in fact reinvent the sound of rock. But over the past decade, I rediscovered Jimi as a musician in his own right, and I became completely enamored with him. I learned to a large degree how to separate the music of Jimi Hendrix from the tragedy of my brother’s life and death. I did not, however, learn to see Jimi Hendrix as a whole real person until I read Cross’s biography.
Before I started writing this response to his book, I had not made the connection between my initial confusion over the sound of Jimi Hendrix and the fact that Hendrix, even though touted as a rock musician, was ultimately a soul man. Now looking back at my brother’s extensive collection of blues albums on vinyl along with the fact that he owned practically every Hendrix album, I realize, like Hendrix, my brother Kevin had more soul than I understood even as he ridiculed me for listening to Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers. Hell, as I discovered in the book, Jimi Hendrix actually backed the Isley Brothers at one point in his career. Jimi was forever committed to the blues, and if you listen to his music, blues are the very heartbeat of it. They were also what beat at the heart of my brother’s music.
As I have rediscovered Hendrix, like so many people, I have seen him as a Guitar God. As super human, a larger than life myth, a musical revolutionary whose guitar playing changed the sound of rock forever. I had this image of a guy born with a guitar in his hands, who never stopped playing, and whose very heart was made of fret boards, steel strings and red velvet. Cross’s book certainly does give Hendrix his due in the rock world, but he also shows the real human being who existed under the Guitar God who burned his guitar at Monterey Pop. And Cross’s account of the man under the myth is one of the saddest stories I ever read.
Besides detailing every fraction of Jimi’s music career, the book unearths the story of James “Buster” Hendrix, a boy who grew up in a transitory life of extreme poverty in Seattle. He was abused and brutalized by his drunken father Al, abandoned by his mother Lucille, and saw his siblings carted away by social workers. His life was hard, and he softened the hardness with dreams. Dreams of cosmic space odysseys and fame. Jimi Hendrix in many ways was an invention that James Hendrix created to outrun his past.
Though I was always under the illusion that Jimi Hendrix was born playing the guitar, I was wrong. In fact, Jimi was so poor that when he first took an interest in guitar in his early teens, he was so poor that he played a broom.
Almost every day after school, Jimi would listen to Al’s radio and pretend to play along with the broom. Al, who thought a broom should be used only for sweeping, found this objectionable. “Jimi would be screwing around playing the broom,” Leon [Jimi’s younger brother] recalled, “and my dad would see straw from the broom on the bed and get mad.”
Hendrix didn’t get his first guitar until he was fourteen when he bought “a beat-up one string guitar” for five dollars from a paraplegic kid who lived in the same boarding house as Jimi. This was the same year Jimi experienced two life changing events – he saw Elvis perform and Little Richard preach, two influences that would underscore his flamboyant and commanding stage presence throughout his career. These events changed him forever. The following year, when Jimi was fifteen, Al actually got “Buster” his first electric guitar, and the creation of Jimi Hendrix began through a series of self-inventions and incarnations.
Jimi may have gotten a guitar, but he wasn’t the immediate Magical Guitar God his myth has led him to be. Hendrix spent years of relentless studying and hard work to become Jimi Hendrix. He studied the people he admired, practiced their moves and technique, and then with time he reinvented them to become his own. Hendrix played in back-up bands, visited small blues clubs to jam and studied with legends. He worked diligently to become a self-created star by studying what other people were doing. Everything Jimi Hendrix did was derived from something he admired. However, after years of dedicated studying and practice, he took everything he learned and made it into his own. He became the Jimi Hendrix Experience (along with his white backup band bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchel). But he did not become that groundbreaking sensation without a lot of hard work. When he finally broke through, he burned fast and hard. His Superstar career only lasted a couple of years compared to the dozen or so he put into preparing for it.
Interestingly, the person Hendrix admired more than anyone else was Bob Dylan, someone he only met once in his lifetime. To his dying day, Hendrix carried Dylan’s songbook with him like a bible, not the typical bible for a black musician.
So many myths of Hendrix are dismantled in this book, but they are not dismantled with cruelty or mal-intent but rather with the honor of letting Hendrix be a real human rather than a mythic construction, and the story of this human will break your heart. In reality, Jimi Hendrix’s career as a superstar was very short-lived. Though his dream was to become famous, leave his poverty-stricken background behind, and become a superstar, the reality was that it took him many years to reach that dream. When he got there, he found the life of a superstar was claustrophobic, life-sucking, and lethal. The demands of his fans and the music industry were suffocating, while at the same time he was continually haunted by his childhood and possessed by his father Al. Jimi forever remained the boy who grew up so poor that his shoes were stuffed with cardboard and undersized to the point that his feet were permanently pigeon toed.
. . . the very boots on his feet told the story of Jimi’s years of struggle. “When you saw the soles of those things,” Garland observed, “they were completely worn through.” Not only here his shoes old, they were decidedly out of fashion. “He had these winker-pinker black boots with zippers on the sides,” Noel Redding said. Some thought the worn-out soles were what caused Jimi’s curious gait, but even after he bought a pair of stylish size-eleven Cuban boots with square toes, the unusual pigeon-toed walk remained. “you could tell by the way he walked that he had had the wrong-sized shoes on as a kid, and that his gait was all screwed up,” observed Eric Burdon. “It was like his toes made a triangle as he moved.”
Indeed Jimi walked and lived in a triangle that would continue to return to his point of origin – impoverished, beaten kid trying to fight his way out of himself and his life with an electric guitar.
Like so many artists and musicians, Jimi was happiest when he was doing what he loved for the love of it, rather than to please his fans. The parts of the book that describe spontaneous jam sessions are when Jimi seems most alive and at peace with himself and his music. He hated performing, but couldn’t stop because he didn’t want to give up the fame he worked so hard to attain. It’s the old Catch-22 of recognition. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Jimi jams with Miles Davis. It is priceless. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that night.
Miles Davis showed up at Jimi’s apartment to jam, but he refused to be let in by the white British singer Terry Reid who answered the door. In fact, Davis slammed the door in Reid’s face. When Reid opened the door again, he was met with these words from Miles Davis: “I want fucking Jimi Hendrix to open Jimi Hendrix’s fucking door.” Hendrix eventually escorted Davis into his bedroom, and Reid:
. . . heard the sounds of Miles’s muted trumpet drifting out from under the door accompanied by Hendrix’s 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.”
Regarding Jimi and jazz (the place he really wanted to go in music if he hadn’t died), Carlos Santana said after a 1970 concert: “Very few people play fast and deep . . . Most play fast and shallow. But Coltrane played fast and deep, so did Charlie Parker, and so did Jimi.”
There is also a great scene when Mick Jagger showed his selfish cock strutting egomaniacal nature:
If Jimi continued to hold Dylan in awe, Mick Jagger had the opposite effect on him . . . “They would jam in private in my penthouse,” Deering [Howe] said. “When you saw Jimi play the blues, on an acoustic guitar, he was never better.” Jagger was, for once, speechless . . . Jimi turned 27 that November 27, and he spent his birthday watching the Stones at Madison Square Garden. Before the show, Jimi chatted up Keith Richards backstage . . . Jimi borrowed a guitar and began to play. A filmmaker was capturing the scene for a documentary, and – as if to turn the attention away from Jimi – Jagger repeatedly walked in front of the lens. When the concert itself began, Jimi sat onstage behind Richard’s amplifier, visible to the audience as well as to the band. Some might have thought and invitation for Jimi to jam with the Stones on his birthday would have been forthcoming, but Jagger offered no such summons . . . As one who always sought to be the brightest light in the room, Jagger had no desire to be upstaged at his own show.
And that is how Jimi Hendrix spent his last birthday alive, sitting behind an amp at a Rolling Stones concert and being the object of Mick Jagger’s resentment.
There is no shortage of mention of stars from the Beatles to Clapton (one of Jimi’s heroes who helped give Hendrix his start in London) and so many others during that time. England embraced Jimi because to the British he was the “exotic American negro.” But America continued to put race ahead of art, and made life very difficult for Jimi. The blacks hated him because he fronted a white rock band. The whites hated him because he was black.
There also is no shortage of girls, sex, drugs, parties, and band mentions. Jimi played with a lot of bands before the Jimi Hendrix Experience came into fruition. There is a hilarious scene with Little Richard, and many other scenes in which Jimi is hired and fired, basically for being outrageous and refusing to play by the rules, and because no star wants to be upstaged by some backup guitar player.
Though Jimi was back with Little Richard, the two were still frequently clashing. Before an April show in Huntington Beach, California, Jimi had Rosa Lee Brooks curl his hair and – in what had to be considered a hostile act toward Richard – he wore a woman’s blouse and a bolero hat onstage. Additionally, Jimi did every stage music antic that Richard had previously banned. “He played guitar with his teeth, behind his head, and he humped the guitar,” Brooks recalled. “Everybody in the place went crazy.” So, apparently, did Little Richard, who refused to pay him for the gig.
During Cross’s history of Hendrix, the book examines the complications around Jimi’s race. He grew up in racially diverse Seattle, but had to come to terms with his blackness in all forms of hostility in other parts of the States. At one point, even though he had spent years relentlessly practicing blues chops, he was told he had the blues moves but no soul to go with them, so Hendrix set out and worked the Chitlin’ circuit in America’s South to put some soul into his blues. He played the South for three years confronting the violent threat of American racism at every turn.
. . . just a week before President John F. Kennedy was shot, Jimi turned twenty-one. A month later, he headed for New York City on a Greyhound. Once again he carried his guitar on his back, in the style he’d learned from watching Johnny Guitar as a kid . . . As Jimi climbed on the bus, everything he owned was in a small duffle bag. It wasn’t much, but as he moved to the back of the bus – as all African Americans were required to do in the South – he pulled out his guitar for yet another public practice session. His fellow riders would have heard something to make any seasoned blues lover within earshot warm – there, beyond the fast playing and skillful technique, was the first hint of tone, smoothed out by almost three years of struggle in the South. This bluesman on the back of the bus had begun to sound like Jimi Hendrix, and no one else.
Besides being conflicted by his race and his place in the world of rock, Jimi Hendrix also was caught in the crossfires of politics. Hendrix’s groundbreaking performance of “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock has always been noted as an act of resistance and protest against the Vietnam War. But the truth is that, for most of his life, Hendrix was actually a patriot. His dream as a young man (which eventually came true) was to join the 101st Airborne. Jimi was proud of his military service, though ultimately he decided that music was the most important thing to him, so he fabricated being a homosexual to get discharged. (The broken ankle story is another constructed myth Hendrix created for the public.) For most of his short-lived life, Hendrix literally believed in the Red Threat. If he was around today, he very well may be sporting Support Our Troops bumper stickers on his many Corvettes.
In 1969, one year before his death, Jimi came out with a very incendiary response to Vietnam War protestors.
In most interviews, Jimi was asked about the political and social movement of the day: drugs, Black Power, and the Vietnam War. Jimi usually sidestepped these questions, though he did tell Mendelssohn, “There’s certain people on this earth that have the power to do different things, for instance in the Black Power Movement, they’re using it wrongly . . . Protest is over with. It’s the solutions everyone wants now, not just protest.” In one interview that month, Jimi compared U. S. troops in Vietnam to D-day: “Did you send the Americans away when they landed in Normandy? That was also purely interference. No, but that then was concerning your own skin. The Americans are fighting in Vietnam for the complete free world. As soon as they move out, they’ll be at the mercy of the communists. For that matter, the yellow danger [China] should not be underestimated. Of course, war is horrible, but at present, it’s still the only guarantee to maintain peace.” Jimi’s attitudes on the war would shift over the next year, but in a time when critics were ascribing an antiwar bent to his songs, his personal beliefs were surprisingly hawkish.
Likewise, Hendrix did not want to take up the racial political agenda. The Black Panthers wanted him on their side, but Jimi really wanted a world that transcended the world of race, war, and any strife. Perhaps this is because he grew up in such a violent childhood and would rather escape conflict through music than confront it. Jimi rebelled against being put in any box which would force him to take sides, yet he was buried in a box just a year after his statement above. In 1970, during one of his final American concerts in Berkeley, California, Jimi made an attempt at a reconciliatory statement.
Before “Machine Gun,” Jimi gave a detailed introduction: “I’d like to dedicate this to all the soldiers fighting in Berkeley, you know what soldiers I’m talking about. And to the soldiers fighting in Vietnam, too.” Before he played “The Star Spangled Banner,” he said, “This is for everybody together, the American anthem the way it really is in the air.” He called “Voodoo Child” “our anthem,” and dedicated it to the People’s Park and especially the Black Panthers. Nearby Oakland was the national headquarters for the Panthers, and Jimi’s dedication was the strongest public statement he ever made in support of the organization.
But Jimi couldn’t escape conflict. He was forever a conflicted person. For all his flashy fashions and mind blowing guitar playing, inside he was still a little boy who both feared and respected his father, a man who every time he visited Seattle was compelled to visit the haunts of his childhood. He never outran it. He only created a divide inside himself and between him and the world. He created a rift that he tried to bridge with drugs and booze. Right after the 1970 Berkeley concert, Jimi played his last concert in Seattle where he fell into a deep despair as he always did when he went back home. During an earlier visit, when Jimi was 25, Al actually threatened Jimi and his younger brother Leon with a whipping for showing up late for a family gathering.
Jimi appeared torn during each of his Seattle visits: While he enjoyed seeing his family, his visits only reinforced how different a world he now lived in. In Seattle, he was “Buster Hendrix,” who still deferred to his father; everywhere else he was a self-made man, and a superstar.
Shortly after that last visit to Seattle, Jimi died a lonely, sad and horrifying death, choking on his own vomit while the girl who was with him (Monika Danneman) left him to rot alone. Jimi’s body was sent back to the United States without adornment or splash. At his funeral, he was buried in the suit he bought to appear at aToronto drug trial instead of one of the transcending fashions he wore to exemplify his vision of cosmic freedom. His dead body was buried just a few paces from his mother Lucille’s grave, even though no one knew it at the time.
Even in death, Jimi was torn between two worlds – the world of his childhood and his bond to his abusive father and the mythic cosmic superstar he created for himself.
For pallbearers, Freddie Mae Gautier had picked James Thomas, Jimi’s manager from his teenage band the Rocking Kings, and Eddie Rye, Donnie Howell, and Billy Burns from the old Neighborhood. “Freddie Mae told us not to wear black,” Burns recalled. “She said, ‘Wear your bright colors, loud and proud.” . . .
The ceremony featured an open casket, and Jimi was dressed in the same suit he’d worn at this Toronto drug trial. His beloved hairdresser, James Finney, had flown in for the service and he privately worked on Jimi’s precious curls before the ceremony. The somber mood became heartbreaking when Buddy Miles collapsed in front of the casket weeping, and five men had to drag him away . . . Al Hendrix started rubbing Jimi’s forehead and scalp with his knuckles, just as he had done when Jimi was a boy. Al moaned, “my by, my boy” . . .
Jimi’s death was as torn and conflicted as his life, shattered into shards of his self just like that mirror. The colorful crowd celebrated the flamboyant brilliance of this kaleidoscopic Guitar God, yet his body was clothed in a suit he wore only once for criminal charges before a court. His hairdresser gave him his famous Hendrix curls, while his father Al kept him anchored firmly in the place of a boy by rubbing his son’s head with his knuckles.
One year before his death, Jimi recorded his inner demons that he saw in the shattered pieces of that mirror:
On one of his off days, he made an unusual home recording in his Brook Street flat: a three-minute spoken-word version of “Room Full of Mirrors.” On the track, Jimi unleashed an inner monologue about demons, Gods, and lost little boys: “Call out your loved ones, you better call a little louder because you will be lost within yourself, past dimensional stage, you’ll be lost in vacuums. I turn to the world; what has the world to offer me except pats on the back?” One line, shouted, sounded like Jimi was possessed: “Tell this idiot to get the hell out of me, and get me out of this damned mirrored room!” Music had once offered Jimi a way to imagine a life different from the grueling circumstances of his youth. Though his musical gift had indeed given him success, it had not proved to be the panacea he had expected. Like his “Room Full of Mirrors” spoken-word performance, Jimi’s career was now something he wanted to escape – it was no longer the fairy-tale dream that he had sought for so many years.
Reading Cross’s exceptionally thorough story of Jimi Hendrix brought me to tears many times. I cried for Jimi, and I cried for the pain and conflicts in my own life. Recognition is great, but it also comes with a price. Sometimes it seems so much easier to just disappear, which is what I was doing as I was curled up with my cats reading this book. Being no one is easier than being someone, but it’s hard to give up being someone once you’ve gotten there.
I have spent my entire adult life reinventing myself to try to outrun my brutal childhood. I’ve created dozens of incarnations of myself so I didn’t have to be “me.” But underneath all the layers of constructions I have made of myself, I will forever be haunted by myself – the girl who was beaten daily by her dad, who got stoned with her junkie older brother and watched him play guitar like Jimi Hendrix, and the teenager who landed on the streets at age fifteen. I’m none of those things now, and I’m all of those things now. Self-reinvention and running away doesn’t work. The past and the present are inextricably connected. I am also the 52 year old woman writing this article on Jimi Hendrix and who is also just now learning how to play electric guitar and loving the hell of it. I am sober. I am a mother. I sometimes go out into the desert streets at night and dance alone in the dark while listening to Jimi Hendrix in headphones. It is not all or nothing. Life is a mixed bag, and it’s good to avoid the body bag if possible.
When reading of Jimi’s funeral, I couldn’t help but think of my brother Kevin’s funeral. It was an absurd affair, not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s, though much smaller. My mother rented a limousine which I refused to ride in. Instead I drove my 250cc Honda motorcycle to the funeral. Kevin’s casket was covered with flowers while his overdosed dead body lay inside. I couldn’t rub my knuckles on Kevin’s head, but I did run to the coffin, hug it, sob and howl. A man from the funeral parlor pulled me off. I fled the funeral on my motorcycle. Whatever Angel I had in my life burned her wings on my tailpipe as I sped down the road.
I will never listen to Jimi Hendrix the same after reading this book. A friend recently gave me a collection of hundreds of unreleased Hendrix demos and other tracks, many of which are recordings from the jam sessions mentioned in this book. Now I understand why Jimi sounds so happy while playing them. He frequently spontaneously laughs, jokes about spaceships, and pays tribute to classic blues. These are the sounds of the voices inside Jimi’s heart, not the demands of record promoters, fans and fathers.
The book also helped me understand myself and my brother a lot more, not that that is easy. Jimi Hendrix has been a huge looming figure in my personal life since I first heard him on that 8 track player back in 1974. He is a musician who has possessed and hypnotized me with his electric power. Cross’s book reveals the man whose vulnerable heart beat underneath all those velvet suits and feedback-screeching stacked Marshall amplifiers. I highly recommend it. It is a compelling read that I could not put down.
All quotes from Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, Charles L. Cross. Hyperion, Hachette Book Group. 2005.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She published her first book of art, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She is currently working on a Dead Rock Star art and book project which will be featured in a solo art show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California. She can be reached at email@example.com.