When I started watching the PBS special on Jimi Hendrix I was asking myself why I did not consider myself a big fan. After watching two hours of “American Masters,” I realized that his career had flashed across my music radar like a burning meteor and was gone before it could grow on me.
It was barely more than three years from his explosive debut at the Monterey Pop Festival until his death in September 1970 in London. He released only four original albums while alive and prudish producers kept him off the Ed Sullivan show. Despite that, he connected with the Woodstock generation in a way that transcended race (bass player Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell were both white) and musical genres.
Listening to him play during the show, I realized how he led the way into psychedelic music and created the mold for heavy metal bands while not losing his blues and rock roots. He certainly was an American original as a guitarist, songwriter and performer. And when Jimi covered a song, he owned it (“Hey Joe,” “All Along The Watchtower,” and “The Star Spangled Banner”).
His back story is well-told in this documentary. His parents separated and later reunited. He joined the Army and became a paratrooper until he broke an ankle on his 25th jump. He played the Chitlin Circuit backing up The Isley Brothers, Little Richard and Wilson Pickett among others. His first break came when Chas Campbell left the Animals to manage him and took him to England where he wowed fans and rock stars in clubs.
When the Monterey promoters tried to get the Beatles to perform, Paul McCartney suggested they invite Jimi Hendrix. It was there the world got to see his tricks of the trade: playing behind his neck, playing with his teeth, using the amp and the mike stand as finger picks. It is fascinating to see how he keeps the music moving forward as he does all these gyrations. Then of course he lights the guitar on fire (and the band plays on).
Jimi’s humor comes through in the rare interviews he did. Asked about the gimmicks he used on stage, he replied, “The whole world is a gimmick.” When Dick Cavett lauds him as one of the best guitarists in the world, Hendrix demurs. “Maybe the best guitar player sitting in this chair.”
Despite the antics and costumes, Hendrix remained dedicated to his music and worked at this craft around the clock. As Rolling Stone writer, David Fricke, put it, “Jimi had the faith the guitar could take you someplace you’ve never been before and he made you believe it.”
Jimi reached the top of the music mountain when the 1968 release, “Electric Lady Land,” hit number one on the charts and brought along “Are You Experienced” and “Axis: Bold As Love” into the top 20.
The stage show clips are riveting but the quiet ballads and blues riffs are the scenes that showcase the purity of his voice and playing (don’t miss the acoustic song at the end).
The story builds to that watershed event, Woodstock. Jimi didn’t hit the stage until 9 Monday morning when he began by greeting the soggy diehards with: “I see that we meet again.” He ended the set with the iconic version of the National Anthem that still seems as fresh and innovative as it did 44 years ago. He spoke of the time and to the young people caught up in the sixties. “(I did it) the way the air is in America today,” he told an interviewer. “The air is slightly static.”
“American Masters, Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train Coming” is airing on PBS stations this week, is available on line at pbs.org and for sale on DVD.