The strangest summer season in my memory has drawn to a close.
I’ve spent recent summers sweating it out at Louisville’s music festivals, interviewing bands and soaking in the scene. I’ve spent this summer looking back with a strong sense of nostalgia, and longing for the opportunity to do it all again.
I wonder if when we do gather again to celebrate great music we’ll witness one of those transcendent, powerful, history-making moments when an artist offers up a breakthrough performance that turns the whole event into a cultural touchstone. Like Woodstock, or Glastonbury, or Monterey.
Jimi Hendrix offered up several of those moments. Like the time he set his guitar literally ablaze on the stage of the Monterey Pop Festival. Or the time he gloriously shredded the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, capturing perhaps the most perfect expression of America from that tumultuous era.
Hendrix undoubtedly had many more history-making performances left in him when he departed this life fifty years ago this week. Like many of his era, he had more than a passing interested in illicit drugs and he succumbed to an accidental overdose of barbiturates at the tender age of 27. Yet after just five years at the top of the music seen more than five decades ago, he still dominates as one of the most revered guitarists of all time! It takes moxie to leave such a deep and lasting impression in such a short time, and Jimi Hendrix had it.
Moxie is shaped by challenges.
Hendrix was born into challenging circumstances. His young mother gave birth to him while his father was stationed miles away and unable to get permission to return home and care for his young family. It would be years before the family would be reunited, and by then the fractures were deep and beyond healing. Hendrix’s parents fought bitterly, and substance abuse and instability made it impossible for them to care for their children. Hendrix and his siblings bounced around between relatives and foster care for years.
Hendrix always expressed an interest in music and especially in guitar, and finally bought a guitar when he was in his teens. He taught himself to play by watching others play and never learned to read or write music!
In nearly every story of moxie, I’m privileged to tell, there’s a common theme: people with moxie are almost always backed by family, friends, and mentors who support and encourage and nurture them. It’s tougher to find that theme in Hendrix’s story. His childhood likely provided him with a deep well of pain, and he drew beauty from that well, most often pulling the rope by himself. That takes moxie.
Moxie sometimes dwells in the shadow of greatness.
Hendrix developed his musical chops on the Chitlin’ Circuit, playing for acts like the Isley Brothers, Curtis Mayfield, and Little Richard.
But Hendrix soon began to outshine the acts he was backing, and he found it harder to get work on the circuit. So he made his way to New York and started playing clubs in Greenwich Village. He caught the ears of Linda Keith, the girlfriend of Rolling Stones’ guitar player Keith Richards. She recognized talent when she heard it, and helped him make connections in London. Thanks to Keith’s connections, Hendrix hooked up with a manager and a band in London, and his career took a giant leap forward.
Moxie makes it memorable.
Maybe it was because he was self-taught, but nobody ever told Jimi that you couldn’t play guitar behind your back. Or between your legs. Or with your teeth. Or any of another myriad of ways he coaxed magical sounds from his ax.
Hendrix’s skill and artistry extended beyond his musical ability. He was a gifted performer who presented the world with a larger-than-life character. The “Jimi Hendrix” the world witnessed on stage was a vision of sartorial splendor, oozing with sensuality and burning up — sometimes quite literally — the stage. Offstage, he was quieter and more introverted.
“He was a lovely man, though very different from his persona onstage. He was very quiet — I don’t want to say naive, but just a real nice, real quiet guy. But then, of course, he would launch into this incredible persona onstage, which was just phenomenal,” remembered Mickey Dolenz of Monkees fame. “We partied, and he partied just as good as anybody else, but it wasn’t like he always had to be the life of the party and always have the attention. That’s probably the reason why we got along because I’m the same way: I get fulfillment onstage, and when I’m offstage, I want to be left alone.”
The word that comes up most frequently in describing Hendrix is “freedom.” His performances flowed with such audacious artistry that he empowered the listener to join him in sonic exploration.
How will you remember Hendrix?
Jimi Hendrix’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimi_Hendrix
Woodstock’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodstock