Heavy as Hendrix
An incendiary Monterey Pop performance. “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. “Purple Haze.” For many music fans, these career highlights mark the extent of their knowledge of Jimi Hendrix’s life.
Three and half decades after his death, the guitar hero remains a one-dimensional super-icon. Even the residents of Seattle — Hendrix’s hometown — take their city’s most famous musical son for granted. Yes, there is a bizarre “memorial rock” at Woodland Park Zoo, a tribute to him outside of Muzak’s offices on Capitol Hill, and Jimi’s career is regularly extolled deep in the metallic bowels of Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project. But there is no “Graceland” for Jimi here, no fitting permanent memorial for one of the most influential musicians in rock.
However, a new Hendrix bio, Room Full of Mirrors (Hyperion) may change that.
The result of years of exhaustive research and interviews, the book, released to coincide with the 35th anniversary of Hendrix’s death, transforms an icon back into a human being. It’s now being hailed by many critics to be the most definitive biography of the late guitar-slinger ever produced.
As writer, editor and publisher of the Rocket (Seattle’s seminal, now-defunct music magazine known for featuring Nirvana and other “grunge explosion” bands before the fuse was even lit), author Charles R. Cross absorbed Northwest rock history like a sponge. He wrote about Hendrix in the magazine, and became acquainted with Jimi’s father, Al Hendrix. But in preparing Room Full of Mirrors, Cross left a lot of his “Hendrix knowledge” behind, starting fresh with dozens of new interviews and a dogged pursuit of public-record paper trails.
With much of the same engrossing style he used to create his bestselling biography of Kurt Cobain (2001’s Heavier Than Heaven), Cross, while clearly passionate about his subject, separates fact from fiction with the skill of a surgeon. By minimizing opinion and speculation in favor of stark truths and reliable anecdotes, Cross relates a story that is much more fascinating than the slew of Hendrix myths that have been perpetuated over the years.
At a cafe just north of the Seattle city limits, I recently sat down with Cross to discuss a handful of the many facets of Hendrix’s life and legacy.
I just finished reading your book this morning, what a story — a non-fan would enjoy it. One of the first things I noticed as I turned the pages is that you thankfully manage to avoid sensationalism and clichés.
Thanks. As a rock critic, you begin to use the same words in every record review. Eventually, you begin to look at your reviews and say, ‘My God, I’ve used every one of these adjectives 15 times before, in different combinations.’ So I think one of the things I’ve really tried to concentrate on in book writing is letting the storytelling carry it, instead of approaching it like a critic would.
This book has received incredible reviews, but it has gotten a couple of negative comments that I love — they said, ‘There’s not enough about Jimi as a musician.’ When the music freaks say that, I say, ‘I don’t want (my) books to be about B-sides, the thickness of Jimi’s strings and all the other stuff that only someone with a musician’s mind would be interested in.’
I’m truly trying to write for a wider audience, one that would be interested in a broader story.
Did you expect the media to pick up so quickly on your revelation about Hendrix feigning homosexuality to get out of the Army?
I’m surprised, because it was so common at the time to do that. There were so many people, so many musicians in the Sixties who did similar things. Usually, they feigned being gay to avoid being drafted. Jimi’s circumstance was a little bit different, because he was already in the military. He had enlisted to avoid a jail term [for car theft – S.S.], so he couldn’t quit, because quitting would have meant going to jail.
What was unusual about it was that it was quite dangerous thing to do at the time. To be black, in the South, in the Army and professing to be gay could have gotten you killed. I interviewed a number of people who were in the service around the same Jimi served, and they said it was a fairly common thing to do — but if you failed [to get discharged], and stayed in the Army identified as gay, you faced ostracism, and possibly, friendly fire.
Are you angry that so many news services and reviewers — who didn’t read the book — incorrectly stated that Jimi feigned gay to get out of Vietnam, rather than to pursue his musical ambitions?
And some said he was a coward, which he was not.
I don’t know if I’m mad, but it’s a demonstration of how a book with 170,000 words can be condensed into seven words on the Fox News ticker — “Hendrix Used Gay Ruse to Avoid ‘Nam.”
I don’t write books to create scandals, I write books to tell the full story of a life. In interviews, people have asked, ‘What was Jimi’s opinion about Vietnam?’ That’s complicated, you can’t explain it in one line. He had some concerns about Communism, but, as time went on, he thought Vietnam was a bad idea — as so many people did. But initially, he was not as anti-war as people have identified.
I found that interesting; it’s one reason to write books — people are complicated, and it’s fascinating to see how they change and evolved over time. I suspect there may be many Americans who were for the war in Iraq, but now, 1,800 American deaths later, are rethinking their position.
Given your passion for local music history, one might think that a Hendrix biography might have been one of the first projects you would have tackled. Is this something you had to work up to, mentally and/or emotionally?
I always wanted to write about Hendrix… I did write about him over the years in the Rocket. As for the timing, I always knew someday I would write this book. In terms of whether now is a good time or not, it just worked out that this time made the most sense. The story of Jimi’s family has changed significantly in the last few years, that made for an exciting end (to the book), though there are issues still unresolved.
I wish I would have known a lot of the things I know now when Al Hendrix was alive, because I would have challenged him on it. I mean, myself and many other journalists who interviewed Al over the years, we just didn’t know the whole story. I didn’t know his ex-wife was buried in an unmarked grave [Jimi’s mother, Lucille, suffered from acute alcoholism and tuberculosis and died in 1958 – S.S.], I didn’t know he gave away four kids — there were rumors of things like that, but I had no actual knowledge.
So, I kind of let Al off easy in my interviews, because I had no knowledge of these things.
You certainly weren’t the only one, I always suspected that everyone in the local media treated Al with kid gloves. How traumatic it must have been for Jimi to have such a splintered family from day one.
The thing that was amazing for me, emotionally, was to read in Al Hendrix’ autobiography that he denied that he fathered any of these children, and then to find an actual welfare paper that he signed. Al signed that he was the father on every birth certificate, and he stood up in court and said that he was the father of these children, and he wanted to give them up to the state.
For him to later deny paternity certainly seems to be revisionist.
To actually meet some of these kids…I mean, Jimi has a brother and sister living in Seattle who has never been written about before this book. To hear Joe Hendrix’ stories, that was simply mind-boggling. Joe has never received five cents for being related to Jimi Hendrix; he has lived in State care most of his life. And he looks exactly like Al Hendrix, he could be his twin. [Cross offers up off-the-record theories on Joe Hendrix’s controversial DNA test, which concluded that Al was not his father. – S.S.]
It seems that one of the main themes of the book — of Jimi’s life — is yearning. He longed for a home that he really never had, for his father’s acceptance, for his mom. Very, very sad.
I think we’re all yearning for that — we all have a desire to be loved and accepted. And this poor kid, the original latch-key kid, was shuttled from home to home; what he ultimately wanted was a stable home life, and he didn’t have it. I think, sadly, when we look at some of his relationships with groupies, with women, what he really was seeking was the stable female figure that he didn’t have in his life, other than his aunts.
Of course, when you’re seeking a stable female figure, a 20-year-old groupie is not the way to go; I think he began to understand that.
I wrote the last chapter of the book first. I went to Al’s funeral in 2002; as part of the funeral procession, I realized, as we were driving towards Renton, that we were driving past all of these things that were parts of Jimi’s past. No one at Al’s funeral acknowledged that. I also realized, as the procession went by, that this was the exact same route that, more than 30 years earlier, Jimi’s funeral procession would have gone. I thought, ‘We’re driving right by where Sicks Stadium was, where Jimi saw Elvis as a kid, and where he performed later… and his hearse also drove right by it. This is phenomenal.’
Jimi spent two-thirds of his life in Seattle, and obviously, he became famous in London. But I don’t think you can understand the glory of his success unless you understand how hard he struggled to get there.
It’s not that I feel that you can only psychoanalyze someone by examining their childhood, but in Jimi Hendrix’s case, so little of that childhood had been explored before, and I think it was so essential in understanding him, and why he was so unique.
-ba Back to the issue of his mother, he wrote at least four songs about her, and his mother has been rarely mentioned in the press. So if we are going to understand his music… this was part of his muse. He always had this ethereal character, whether it’s in the songs “Angel” or “Little Wing” or other songs, there was always this sort of ethereal character that he was yearning for, as you say. I don’t think his mother was his only influence, but she clearly was a major influence on his artistry, and he kind of had to understand that in order to understand his work.
Were you aware that the issue of race played such a big part in Hendrix’s career? It seems like his trip to London is comparable to black jazz musicians flourishing in Paris.
I wasn’t aware going in. I grew up poor in the South, so I understand what it’s like to be disenfranchised. But even in my own mind, I was shocked at the level of poverty that Jimi grew up in.
We think of Seattle now as such a diverse and liberal place. Well, in the era that Jimi grew up in, African-Americans certainly were a large part of the city, and there was less of the overt racism that you saw in the Jim Crow South. Nonetheless, there were economic barriers to blacks finding housing or jobs, and they were pretty severe and limiting. Jimi didn’t have many choices after getting out of high school — it was either work for Boeing, work at the shipyards, or enlist.
I found out some remarkable stuff about racial politics in Seattle. As late as 1960 in Seattle, an African-American could buy clothes at the Bon Marche [a local department store swallowed up by Macy’s in recent years – S.S.], but he couldn’t try them on there. That’s the world Jimi Hendrix grew up in — if he could have afforded the clothes, he couldn’t try them on first; then you look at what he does ten years later, when he’s wearing outrageous outfits and shocking the fashion world. So it means so much more to know that he was once penniless and limited by the color of his skin…at times, his wearing of such outrageous clothing seems to have been a statement against racial barriers.
Race was a huge part of his story, and it continued to shock me as I worked on this book. You mentioned his going to London…I think one of the single most telling stories of the book — and it’s only one sentence — is the tale of when he came back from England to play the Monterey Pop Festival.
He’s become a superstar in England, and he’s got a layover in New York on the way to California. The first afternoon he’s in New York City, he’s mistaken for a bellhop by someone at his hotel.
So here’s a contrast: In England — superstar. In America — it doesn’t matter whether he’s a superstar or not, he’s black.
The book underscores so many ironies in Jimi’s career — accepted in Greenwich Village, almost shunned in Harlem, star in Europe, no one knew what to make of him in his hometown. The world really was split up then, in terms of politics and music and trends.
One of the goals of a biographer is to try to explain a time and a place, and we can’t even begin to understand how hot racial politics were in 1969. When Jimi played a Harlem street festival two weeks after Woodstock, people booed him because he wore white pants. The color of your pants mattered then, the world was so politicized.
You’re right, Jimi had a difficult situation. He was always ‘too black’ for white America, and ‘too white’ for black America. I do think one of the more amazing things about his story, something that doesn’t get talked about enough, is the fact that he truly was one of the first African-American artists of any genre to have a large following among whites.
That alone should win him a statue, a place in cultural history. The fact that he was able to break color lines and defy racial stereotypes in music was really significant. It also earned him an investigation by the F.B.I., because they were afraid that he would become more politicized.
Jimi was a groundbreaker in many ways.
You read so many biographies of dead celebrities who died young — Hendrix, Morrison, whomever — and they’re sensationally defined by such a short period of life, a handful of years. It seems unfair, in many cases; had they lived, they could have straightened out their problems, gone on to achieve other things to be remembered by. After all, Jimi was 27 when he died, a very young man. He had no idea that he would be leaving behind such a legacy.
I don’t think you should define somebody by their obituary. I don’t write obituaries, I write biographies. That’s one of the problems we have in rock [history], we tend to look at someone’s obituary, and talk about someone’s death, his last moments of life, which, in almost every case, lacks dignity.
Jimi Hendrix led a very dignified life, a very full life. He was famous for four years, minus one week. It would have been four years since he arrived in England. In this remarkably brief window of time, he recorded three studio records that are considered some of the best in rock, recorded one live album and countless other recordings, performed hundreds of concerts, wrote a ton of songs, partied with the Beatles, bedded hundreds of girls.
I prefer to look what he did, rather than what we lost when he died. His death at such a young age was certainly a tragedy, but most people who grow up in similar circumstances never achieve crap. What this kid did was phenomenal… to have such an impoverished beginning, where no one believed in him, to believe in himself that strongly, to be so groundbreaking — it’s an amazing story, you couldn’t make it up.
Did you have to twist any arms for interviews? I notice that you interviewed several of Jimi’s girlfriends and other individuals who have written books of their own.
Without identifying anyone, singling someone out by name, there were a number of people whose arms I had to twist. But I’m tenacious, and I just had to stick with it. I’m grateful that I got a number of people who had never talked before to come forward.
As a writer, I try to interview someone more than once, to test the validity of their story, and to add small details. With Noel Redding, for example I revisited a particular story several times, and got some incredible details.
His girlfriends certainly played a major role in the telling of Jimi’s story. There are a number of people who have written their “memoirs,” their story with Jimi. Those books have their value, but they’re not true biographies; it’s the writer’s story, and everything’s related to them. Jimi may be important to them, but they might not have been as important to Jimi. As a biographer, Jimi is my central character, everyone revolves around him.
Even Redding, who wrote a very good memoir… I’m really not interested in Noel’s bedroom antics on the Experience tours — which were quite extensive, I’ll tell you.
No Mitch Mitchell…
Yeah…I tried to ‘get him,’ and I couldn’t.
As a Seattle rock journalist, it must have been rewarding to be able to give credit to local legends in the book, such as the Fabulous Wailers and [Wailers guitarist] Rich Dangel.
There are other, unsung, African-American guitarists mentioned in the book, too. As for the Wailers…actually, I was surprised when I talked to Carmen Goudy, Jimi’s first girlfriend, when she told this story about Jimi: ‘Yeah, we were in the park and he was playing this song by that group in Tacoma.’
And I asked, ‘What was that?’
‘You know, Tall Cool One.’
Carmen was a great example of someone who had never talked to the press before. She was there the day Jimi got his first guitar. What a great witness to history. Al told all kinds of stories about Jimi’s first guitar, and most of the stories made Al look really good. Carmen had no agenda, and it was a wonderful story. It was probably the happiest day of Jimi’s life.
What were some of the difficulties you encountered while writing the book?
There were all kinds of obstacles… one of the problems was that there are a significant number of people involved that were dead. It’s been 35 years… thankfully, most of (the deceased) had done interviews or written things that I was able to track down.
We’re also talking about the Sixties — there’s that joke about the era, “If you remember it, you weren’t there.” I struggled to verify stories; there were a number of great stories that I had to leave out, because I couldn’t find a secondary source to verify them. A lot got left on the cutting room floor.
I know you traveled all over conducting interviews… do you have any favorite research anecdotes?
There were a lot of moments where I was talking to somebody and… we all forget that Jimi Hendrix was a living, breathing person. I mean, when people become icons, we strip them of their humanity; at the same time, we inflate them.
I was doing an interview in L.A. with this guy named Paul Caruso, and he was telling this story about Jimi, and he says, “It was right across the street here.” You forget that there is a physical presence to all this that still exists.
Certainly, by far the most surprising thing about writing this book was Jimi’s mother’s grave. Asking a few family members where her grave is, and getting an answer, “She’s buried in the same cemetery.”
“Where in the cemetery?”
“Well, we don’t know, it’s unmarked.”
And to ask five cemetery workers where it is, to have them point to this grave and say, “Over there.” They were pointing to Jimi’s step-mother, who he had met four times in his entire life.
“No, where is his real mother buried?”
To try to convince this guy to get out this ancient map that plotted where people were buried… it was unbelievable… the guy then grabbed a shovel and started digging.
I thought, “What is he digging for, Is he going to dig until he hits bones?” He dug up almost two feet of dirt until he had reached the actual welfare marker, that much dirt had overgrown it over the years.
That shows you how, if you were black and you died in Seattle without funds, you got a single brick with your last name on it, and your grave was covered up. How many other graves are covered up?
But the fact that the mother of Jimi Hendrix doesn’t have a tombstone, and yet the family that controls his estate — his step-sister [Janie Hendrix, controversial executor of the Hendrix estate – S.S.] — spent several million dollars on this memorial where Jimi, Al, and Jimi’s step-mother are buried… I can’t believe it, to this day.
It’s a great metaphor to show you how distorted this family has been.
What reactions have you received from Jimi’s blood relatives, if any?
It’s hard for people to read, because there is abuse and neglect in there. It’s hard for them to see it on the page, even though they knew it or had lived it. At the same time, they enjoyed it and were glad to see the true secrets of the family get out.
Has this book been an impetus for a fitting Jimi Hendrix memorial in Seattle?
I think so. The book has gotten a lot of attention locally, and it has sparked debate, which is good. I have been contacted by a couple of politicians that want to see something happen — whether it is saving the Hendrix house [one of the many dilapidated houses Jimi once occupied as a youth, itself a center of debate – S.S.] or not, I don’t know. I think the time is right for something to happen.
Since the story about Jimi’s mother’s grave has come out, a number of high-profile musicians have told me they will pay for a gravestone, they’ll play a benefit, whatever.
An interesting thing about this is the musicians who have emailed me come from all over, country music, you name it. Hendrix’s influence was so much wider than you would think.
By telling Hendrix’s story, Room Full of Mirrors looks at so many aspects of the Sixties — music, politics, fashion… Jimi was quite a central figure.
Well, that’s one reason why I wrote this book, and why I find it so interesting. The outrageousness of his life is a good way to explore the Sixties. How many people’s stories intersected with Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, the Beatles, Little Richard, Brigitte Bardot, Dick Cavett, Woodstock, Eric Clapton? Jimi really was a transitional figure, from the Fifties to the Sixties. He lived a life that few of us today can begin to imagine. From being on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” where blacks were confined to road houses and juke joints, playing strictly to black audiences, and a few years later, playing Woodstock? What an unbelievable ride. And along the way, he touched on so many other important things in America.
As he promotes his new book, Cross says he is already working on ideas for the next one, which he hinted at as being “probably not about music, but relating to Seattle culture… nothing has been solidified yet.”
Steve Stav was a regular contributor to The Rocket from 1998 until it’s final issue in 2000.