Book Review: Starting at Zero: His Own Story
Culled from his interviews, diaries, scribbles on napkins, this is the autobiography that Jimi Hendrix never wrote
Ever since his shocking death in 1970, Jimi Hendrix’s name has entered the unreal realm; a place where cultural monoliths live for posterity and opinions outnumber the few credible signs that they even existed. For almost half a century, armed with his three studio albums and a glossary of concert bootlegs, grainy videos, the usual posthumous legacy releases and words attributed to the man, generations of enthusiasts have tried to make sense of the Hendrix enigma.
The puzzle, though, has always had a few big pieces missing. Hendrix scholar Michael Fairchild points out in a closing essay in the book that only a fraction of fans ever saw the guitarist live in concert during his four short years in the limelight. Since bootlegs, both audio and visual, were rare then, the millions who knew him did so from the studio albums. But as the years have rolled on, the possibility that his legacy can continue to be milked, coupled with the increasing primacy of the visual, has left but a simulacrum in the popular imagination.
Consequently, most of the contemporary rock-listening world knows Hendrix as little more than a guy who dressed weird, played loud and untidy, set fire to his guitar after extorting from it an unbearably screechy Star Spangled Banner, lived a largely drug-addled existence and died by aspirating on his vomit. Yet, somehow inexplicably, Hendrix pops up in every top-100 guitarist poll.
It’s a large part of this gap that this little miracle of a book plugs succinctly and quite definitively. Culled from countless interviews, diary entries and various scribbles on anything from hotel stationery to cigarette cartons and napkins, and organized chronologically by the editors, this is the autobiography Hendrix never wrote. Sure it reveals him as the wild child he was, but more so as a sharp and relentless creative mind, driven by an unquenchable desire to excel at his craft, for its own sake, at all cost.
With the chronological, especially in the first third of the book that leads up to his famous years, Hendrix has a breezy relation. An impatience with living in the past, a need to get away from what’s already been done, a thirst for self-actualization and a sense of destiny emerge as major themes. “I can’t remember all the things I do. It’s just the way I play. I’d die of boredom if I didn’t put everything into it,” he says. At another point, while talking of his breakthrough debut album Are You Experienced, he says: “Maybe some of the stuff is far ahead, I don’t know. I’m very happy with it, but already I can hardly wait for something else.” He talks openly about his difficult relationship with a strict father, a flamboyant mother he barely saw and who died when he was still young, running away from home, getting expelled from school, getting into trouble with the law and enlisting in the armed forces as a bargain against a two-year sentence for riding in a stolen car.
The bulk of the book, culled largely from interviews he gave while on tour, is dedicated to the last four years of his life. After moving to England in 1966, Hendrix found almost instant recognition, and his life was never the same. The timeline is maintained, but the narrative gets increasingly introspective. Thanks to the painstaking research and authentication behind the source materials, we’re treated to a ringside view of Hendrix’s life, both external and emotional, as it played out smack in the midst of a cultural revolution. Without giving away too much, we’re treated to everything he had to say in public about you-name-it: from moving to England with nothing more than the shirt on his back, to putting together The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “breaking” America, the music industry, the extensive touring and endearingly frank ruminations on the anti-war movement, race, girls, drugs, voodoo, hippie culture, his philosophy of music and critics (“It’s like shooting at a flying saucer as it tries to land, without giving the occupants a chance to identify themselves”).
He’s particularly mordant and often witty when going after a few chosen peers: “Engelflumplefuff” Humperdink gets the special (“Maybe if you don’t have a very good imagination, you need good looks and a flawless voice”), as do the Monkees (“the plastic Beatles”). But there’s also a lot of love and generosity for others, among them his Experience bandmates, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Richie Havens, Albert Collins, Jeff Beck, Alvin Lee and countless others.
Scattered among the 100-odd two-line stories of his youth are bits and pieces of what is perhaps the most compelling of all the stories here. It’s not about one of the odds that he found thrust upon him, nor the one about the glory and the pitfalls of fame, but the one about the odds a young Hendrix chose for himself after being discharged from the 101st Airborne division at Fort Campbell in 1962.
After you’re done with this book, it’s this unlikely, hurriedly told, buried story that lingers. What was it that made a 19-year-old decide to spend four penniless, starving years between Nashville and New York, sleeping with the roaches and rats on the streets and on tables in countless clubs, busking at street corners, and learning on the job playing backup for everyone from Sam Cooke to B.B. King and Curtis Knight with little pay, and even less respect, so far away from home? He could just as easily have perished, faded away. He eventually did burn out, but not before he made sure anyone who ever picked up a guitar would know his name. That is why this is such a good story.
Also Read: An excerpt from the book
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