The guitar was an extension of Jimi, a fifth limb he relied on as much as others would a leg or an arm. He played during set breaks or on the bus, recorded or jammed after shows, played along to Bob Dylan records during interviews and slept with the guitar at the edge of the bed.
Hendrix was born in Seattle by a teenage mom while his much older dad was stationed in the south. Jimi’s parents were both poor and alcoholic and they moved around a lot, living out of flop houses, cheap hotels and with friends and relatives, never staying too long in any place. With an upbringing marked by uncertainty, hunger, the death of his mother and belt whippings by his dad, Jimi became shy and introverted. One of his few joys was playing guitar on a broom along to old blues records. Somebody talked his dad into buying him a guitar and he spent his teenage years playing in a band around Seattle, including the premier club in the Northwest, the Spanish Castle. It didn’t take “half a day to get there,” as he later sang in “Spanish Castle Magic,” but traveling in beat-up cars sometimes led to unpleasant delays.
After a brief stint as a parachuter with 101st Airborne Jimi left the army guitarless, wearing issued clothes and $300 in his pocket. He walked into a jazz joint and spent all but $16. Unable to afford the Greyhound back to Seattle, he snuck back on the base and begged to get his guitar back from the guy he’d pawned it to. After recovering the axe, he spent the next three years priming his chops as a hired gun on the Chitlin’ Circuit—juke joints, cafes, dances and parties from Virginia to Florida, in the Delta and over to Texas—not unlike Robert Johnson had before him. Jimi’s knowledge of R&B, soul and rock hits of the day led to backing jobs for the stars of the day—Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner and many others—but he kept getting fired for being too flashy. Otis Burke traded Jimi like a baseball card on the tour bus to Otis Redding for two horn players. He was fired a week later and left on the side of the road, but the penniless guitarist simply waited till another tour rolled through town for job.
Jimi eventually made it to New York City, playing with Curtis Knight—a pimp with a band—and his own, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Hendrix was finally in the spotlight, but his guitar reverberated nightly across an empty room at the Cheetah Club. Luckily, his dexterity caught the attention of Keith Richards’ girlfriend, Linda Keith, who kept bringing musicians and producers into the club until Chas Chandler of the Animals decided to fly Jimi to London. Finally, his career picked up speed. The day of Hendrix’ arrival, his guitantics wowed members of Britain’s musical cognoscenti and he found himself a girlfriend who had previously dated Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones and Keith Moon of the Who. Eric Burdon of the Animals who was present that night recalled later that, “It was haunting how good he was.” A week later Chandler brought Jimi to a Cream show so he could meet Clapton. Armed with his guitar he asked if he could jam—a request so ballsy that the guys were caught off guard. Nobody had ever asked to sit in with Cream before. Grafitti around London at the time proclaimed Clapton was God and here was this unknown, wild haired dude clutching a Fender Stratocaster. Jimi plugged in and played Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” in triple speed. Eric’s jaw dropped. “I thought, ‘My god, this is like Buddy Guy on acid,’ ” he recalled later.
The years on the Chitlin’ Circuit finally paid off. Hendrix had learned how to entertain audiences from watching Little Richards, how to bend strings from Albert King, sat by the feet of B.B. and picked up techniques from an apt student of T-Bone Walker and Freddie King. The analytical musical cannibal had finally transformed into a virtuoso anxious to take on the world.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience shook the world with its innovative sounds and fierce electric assaults. He used amps and electronic effects as instruments as much as the guitar, creating dive-bombs, haunting feedback, wah-wah modulated melodies, the sound of a rapid-fire machine gun and Delta blues soaked with dripping washes from the uni-vibe. Jimi suddenly found himself as the celestial center of the psychedelic 60’s, embracing road sex and alterations from acid to speed. Although some women were more important to Jimi than others, he shied away from intimacy and commitment, perhaps ingrained from watching his parents. Off stage, Jimi remained polite, but shy and reserved. He kept few close friends and rarely ventured outside the realm of music, socializing almost exclusively with musicians, producers, groupies and hangers-on. That and an incessant tour schedule and recording dates taxed him.
Jimi Hendrix’ performances became erratic during the last two years of his life. He complained that fans came to hear his early hits and watch him play guitar with his teeth. One night he collapsed on stage. While vacationing in Morocco, most likely the only vacation of his life, an old fortune-teller with a Tarot deck drew the Death card. The card could also mean rebirth, but Jimi freaked out. A few weeks before his death, he told a Danish journalist, “I’m not sure I will live to be 28 years old. I mean, the moment I feel I have nothing more to give musically, I will not be around on this planet anymore.”
Before Hendrix went to bed for the last time, he gobbled nine sleeping pills that belonged to a girlfriend. The German pills were stronger than he was used to and sometime in the early morning hours he puked, suffocating himself in deep sleep. Before Jimi went out that last night of his life he had worked on a new lyric: “The story of life is quicker than the wink of an eye.” Jimi’s ended at 27.