In Sound: Some Reflections on Jimi Hendrix
I am often uneasy when Jimi Hendrix comes up in conversation. To many black folks, he remains some wild brother who played white music. To many whites, he continues to be the embodiment of hippie freakdom—perceived as being always on acid, playing the way he did because he was so high.
For me—and for the relatively small number of black rockers of the late 60s—he was an emblem of a different sense of freedom.
Given the somewhat narrow range of what was considered black music, the sound of Jimi Hendrix resonated as both a question and an exhortation. You can hear me, can’t you, he seemed to be saying through each song and solo—and beyond that: why can’t you hear me?
Through what must’ve been a terribly lonely journey, on and offstage, he offered us a kind of revolutionary permission, the chance to imagine ourselves in terms not yet defined. Surely, he offered this to anyone who loved his music but, for now, I’d like to discuss him in terms of my own cultural framework.
I grew up in Philadelphia during the Civil Rights Era. There was a lot at stake, almost all the time, with regard to identity.
Questions and questions about questions: What does being black mean? Why does it mean what it means? Who decides and how best articulate one’s blackness?
Of course, these issues still hover about in the early 21st Century, but with palpably less urgency and menace than they held in 1968. (Just the fact that Hendrix played in a trio with two white guys was pretty troubling to many black people.)
Jimi Hendrix’s life and sound constituted an alternate narrative to the one that prevailed in my neighborhood and in black neighborhoods all over this country. We could be black militants—or black flower-children—or some strange hybrid of the two. However, as is often true with the emergence of any markedly new possibility, he was poorly attended to and, therefore, misunderstood or dismissed out of hand because he did not meet the given standards of acceptable black cool.
But he went on, anyway, being the odd thing he was, singing “I’m a voodoo chile, baby,” laying down new law with his guitar.
Honestly, after awhile, turning on his music was much less a choice than a compulsion. My ears thirsted for Electric Ladyland the way a lost man longs for a map. His solos held such raging sorrow, so many sonic surprises, so much love— I guess— that I simply couldn’t stop listening.
I mean, what makes someone invest the time and effort required to become a virtuoso if not a loving faith in life and the conviction that people are worthy of the sweat it takes to speak clearly to them—in word and beyond.
Hendrix grew up a poor kid in Seattle. He lost his mother early and was left with a rather unkind father who didn’t really want to buy him a guitar. Still, between the age of 12 and his death at 27, he changed our grasp of what might be known and felt in sound.
His shamanic sense of performance, the ferocious and inventive mastery of his instrument are unrivaled, at least in my lifetime. How can that not be recognized as heroic?—especially given the stifling pressures that race and racism entailed during that period. That his life and work remain on the margins of African American culture makes me very sad.
When I think of Jimi Hendrix I think of a kind of tender desperation, an intense drive to connect soul to soul, and I felt that drive to connect with other people—with all people—some kinda way, even though it was clear that the socio-political circumstances were bound to make such connection all but impossible.
There is something at the center of personhood that defies the implied limitations of cultural particulars. In the guitar of Jimi Hendrix, I found a secret discourse, ideas my heart knew before my brain did. As a black teenager, I suspected there was more to me than I was being given by the times. His music embodied a new map of what was uncharted turf.
What he did changed the way I approached my life.