Jimi Hendrix died 40 years ago, but his music and sentiments still resonate, including President Obama's recent reference when discussing GOP critics. Guest columnist Steven Roby reflects on the contributions of this famous Seattle son.
JIMI Hendrix really never left the planet 40 years ago. Whether through an anxiously awaited five-disc compilation of demos, alternate takes and previously unreleased recordings due this November, or an unscripted remark by President Obama about his GOP critics, it seems Seattle’s iconic lefty guitar player is still among us.
Obama claiming in Milwaukee that “they talk about me like a dog” is a direct reference to Hendrix’s earliest songwriting effort, “Stone Free.” In part: “They talk about me like a dog/Talk about the clothes I wear/But they don’t realize/They’re the ones who’s square.” The song chronicled his pre-fame years as an unknown sideman, often ridiculed and fired for not conforming to bandleaders’ strict dress codes of shiny shoes and identical, demeaning suits.
While researching my recent, early-years biography, “Becoming Jimi Hendrix,” cowritten with Brad Schreiber, I discovered that not only did the gutsy guitarist set out to break the rules of fashion — think purple boa with orange-striped pants — but also the rules of music. Although Hendrix never finished high school and did not read music, during his lifetime he released three studio albums in the U.S. that contained 35 original compositions that still culturally resonate for listeners worldwide.
Although Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of Hendrix’s passing, his influence and inspiration are still present. On the Psychology Today website, Dr. Arnon Krongrad notes that his spine surgeon colleague finds blasting “Foxy Lady” works well for his own performance in the operating room.
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Paul McCartney added “Foxy Lady” to “Let Me Roll It,” during his sold-out concert in Pittsburgh this summer. He later told the crowd how Hendrix learned and performed “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” just three days after it was released, which McCartney called one of the greatest musical honors he ever experienced.
But just as Obama’s “dog” quote got stuck in the fangs of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, Jimi’s untraditional rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” at the 1969 Woodstock Festival initially raised questions about patriotism.
When Hendrix appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show” shortly after the concert, Hendrix said it was just one of those songs he learned in school, and there was nothing unpatriotic about playing it that way. Cavett cringed and predicted bags of hate mail were already on the way for just mentioning it. Most rock music critics and ’60s historians now consider the performance the seminal cultural moment of the era.
When professor Paul Gilroy played the famous Woodstock clip as part of a lecture on African-American identity and culture as seen through the prism of Hendrixiana, the Harvard students sat motionless. Gilroy described the solo as “a systematically artful assault on the patriotic musical heart of the imperial nation in whose armed forces he had previously served with pride.”
Hendrix served briefly in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division before his commanding officers and fellow soldiers realized he would probably make a better musician than a marksman, and granted him an early honorable discharge.
Jimi Hendrix remained a determined man during his brief 27 years, and cared little about critics of his music or style of clothes. He figured out how to inventively play a right-handed guitar left-handed. His passion was music, and nothing could stop him from playing it.
Despite the dark desperation of his song “I Don’t Live Today,” it is ennobling to report that on that topic, he was thankfully, very wrong.
Steven Roby is co-author of “Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius” (Da Capo Press, 2010).