The image of Jimi Hendrix is forever intertwined with the psychedelic movement. His iconic face, surrounded by the curlicues and swirls of groovy concert posters — his even more iconic guitar style somehow capturing the sound of expanded consciousness — of tripping, man.
Not bad for someone who was only ‘mainstream famous’ for 4 years. Yes, like the psychedelic era itself, Hendrix burned bright and left an indelible mark on the world.
So, on what would be his 79th birthday, we’ve decided to look at his life and legacy, to keep his spirit alive for those who love him, and perhaps to introduce him to a new generation — if you’ve never heard any Jimi Hendrix — we’re so jealous! You are in for a life-changing freak-out (in a good way of course!)
The Early Life of an Icon
Johnny Allen Hendrix was born on November 27th, 1942, in Seattle, Washington. Hendrix had a troubled childhood, he did not meet his father James Allen (Al) Hendrix for the first 3 years of his life, as he had been conscripted for World War 2, and refused furlough for his son’s birth. His mother, Lucille, struggled to raise him without his father’s presence, and even when he returned, they lived in poverty, as work was scarce and both parents suffered from alcoholism. Eventually Al and Lucille divorced, when Jimi (whose name had been changed to James Marshall Hendrix in 1946) was 9 years old.
In the mid 1950s, a young Jimi was obsessed with guitars, although he could not physically access them. He carried around a broom to emulate one, his pleas for a real instrument falling on his father’s deaf ears. Eventually he found a one-stringed ukulele in the trash. Despite the obvious disadvantage of the solo string, his innate talent shone through and he was able to play along, by ear, to Elvis Presely songs he heard on the radio. Eventually however, Jimi got his guitar, and was soon playing professionally— though was fired from one of his first gigs by an unnamed band for ‘showing off’. Clearly, this show-off was born to be a star.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
After stints in the ensemble bands of the likes of Little Richard, Jimi finally got his break, with former The Animals bassist Chas Chandler taking a chance on him, and helping him to form his band The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was also around this time he met legendary musician Eric Clapton. Clapton knew even then he was in the presence of another future legend, recalling in 1989;
“He played just about every style you could think of, and not in a flashy way. I mean he did a few of his tricks, like playing with his teeth and behind his back, but it wasn’t in an upstaging sense at all, and that was it … He walked off, and my life was never the same again”
Seems like seeing Hendrix play could be just as life-changing as your first shroom trip, eh? Lucky Clapton….
‘Are You Experienced?’
By 1966, Hendrix was based in London, and setting the world alight. Writer Bill Harry wrote; “Now hear this … we predict that [Hendrix] is going to whirl around the business like a tornado”. Despite the hype, and finding fans in Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Paul Mccartney, John Lennon and The Who, Hendrix shook off any labels, citing the band’s sound as ‘free feeling.’
He continued on this vein, ploughing a path the likes of which had never seen before. The sounds he made with his guitar were mind-bending, and totally encapsulated the psychedelic era that was raging. He used distortion and effects pedals (most notably the ‘wah-wah’ pedal, so named because it mimics the sound of a baby crying — kinda!) to make a noise that sounded like the very neurons pinging around your brain. Jimi himself was famously into LSD, with even his debut album ‘Are You Experienced?’ being thought to be a drug reference — as in have you experienced LSD? It really was the question of the time.
One of Jimi Hendrix and The Experience’s most famous songs Purple Haze, reads;
“Purple Haze all in my brain, lately things don’t seem the same. Actin’ funny but I don’t know why. ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.”
And who hasn’t felt like they could kiss the sky while tripping? Jimi was keen to use psychedelics to open himself up to new experiences that he could then share with his audience, explaining at the time;
“I just used it for certain things, as a step towards seeing it both ways, if you like.”
In 1967 during The Summer of Love (i.e. the peak of the psychedelic ‘60s) Jimi Hendrix and the Experience played at the Monterey Pop Festival, thus cementing their reputation as one of the biggest bands in the world. It was here that Jimi famously set fire to his guitar, the pictures becoming instantly iconic. At Woodstock in 1969, Jimi would again create an archetypal moment in rock history (he just had a knack for it I guess!) playing the Monday morning of the now-legendary festival, as the schedule had run so late his Sunday night slot had only just opened. Playing his brain-melting version of Star Spangled Banner on a rainy Monday morning, Hendrix said “the headliner always closes the show.”
The Death of a Superstar
Sadly Hendrix’s abuse of drugs such as heroin, weed, speed, sleeping pills, cocaine, alcohol and many more began to catch up with him. He died on September 18th, 1970 due to a reported overdose of sleeping pills, speed and red wine. Although there are rumours of murder and intrigue, as there tends to be when an icon dies, sadly it was more likely due to the reported habit Hendrix had of just grabbing handfuls of substances and consuming them without thinking. Dying aged 27, he joined the beautiful-and-damned ‘27 Club’, soon to be joined by psychedelic cohorts Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.
The Sound of Psychedelics
Today Jimi Hendrix holds on to his place as one of the most iconic rock stars of all time. In terms of skill, style, and just plain cool, few have even come close. He sells more records today, yearly, than he ever did during his lifetime. And he’s still one of the top soundtracks of choice for those taking a psychedelic trip. One of the reasons that Hendrix and psychedelics are so intertwined is not just because he used them regularly. He also encapsulated the feeling of freedom, new hope, and that anything was possible. He wanted to spread love, like the warm waves of a hallucinogenic experience, and blow minds like psychedelic revelation.
Although he left this world far too soon, his contribution to it will ring out forever, in groovy distortion.
Happy Birthday Jimi Hendrix!