Disclaimer: Since about the age of 16, I have been under the impression, which many share, that James Marshall Hendrix is the single best guitar player this world has ever seen. His musicianship continues to astound me, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt in my mind that I like, with varying degrees, every single piece of music he ever recorded. His influence is such that, even 43 years after his extremely premature death at the age of 27, guitar players today cannot even begin to imitate anything that Hendrix did with any real success. For all of Clapton’s disciples (which, if you ask any of the guys with whom I was in a band in high school, they will tell you I am, to an annoying degree), all the wannabe-hip Django-heads and the legions who trust in Jimmy Page’s mysticism, it is Hendrix’s shadow which keeps everyone searching for the light.
Because of my unrelenting devotion to the left-handed magician, I always welcome any opportunity to return Hendrix to the forefront of the popular conscious. I wanted to say “to restore him to relevance,” but the fact is that, whether you are aware of it or not, Hendrix will always be relevant in some capacity or another. When Experience Hendrix, L.L.C. released People, Hell and Angels, an album of unheard studio tracks, on Legacy Recordings earlier this year, my ears opened with excitement. Then, PBS announced that it would have an episode of its American Masters series focus on Jimi Hendrix, and it became apparent that this would not be a typical Hendrix retrospective. American Masters: Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train a Comin’ is the Hendrix documentary I would have wanted to make. It begins with his birth in Seattle, Washington, on November 27, 1942, and takes the viewer through each of the important stages of his development, from his father Al’s purchases of acoustic and electric guitars for his son to his mother Lucille’s struggles with alcoholism. The film moves at an almost feverish pace, but you never notice it because of how much ground each of the interviews covers in such a short amount of time. American Masters took all of the best and most important interview snippets from previous Hendrix documentaries and combined them with new ones. Several of the subjects were among Hendrix’s closest confidants in a shaky and uncertain inner circle, from Linda Keith, the former Keith Richards girlfriend who discovered Hendrix in Greenwich Village in 1966, to Faye Pridgeon, whom Hendrix called “Auntie Faye” when he would visit her Harlem apartment.
The film makes all the necessary stops on Hendrix’s journey to the top of the 1960s countercultural movement, highlighting his experiences in the United States Army with the 101st Airborne Division, through which he met bassist Billy Cox. Hendrix then becomes a touring session player with luminaries such as the Isley Brothers and Little Richard before moving to New York, and PBS recounts the introduction to former Animals bassist-turned-manager Chas Chandler through Linda Keith and his forming of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which features Noel Redding falling ass-backwards into a bass-playing gig under the impression that he was auditioning for a new version of the Animals. Hendrix remarked that he liked Redding’s hairstyle. An interview with Paul McCartney yields his admiration for Hendrix, describing a performance on June 4, 1967, at which Hendrix opened with a cover of the title track of the Beatles’ legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had seen release only 3 days previous.
The Experience became a quintessential power-trio of 60s psychedelia and proto-blues rock, and the film accurately tracks that rise. At every point where I wanted something to happen, it did. For instance, in detailing Hendrix’s breakthrough American performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, the film appropriately turns the focus on the festival development and Hendrix’s invitation at the behest of McCartney before showing what has become one of the most legendary introductions in the history of rock music, thanks to Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones:
He then, of course, went on to set his guitar on fire, along with the world, and was well on his way to becoming immortal in the annals of performance art. His stage antics and perceived gimmicks earned him notoriety, not all of it desired, but it nevertheless catapulted him to the forefront of pop culture. Hear My Train a Comin’ marks his transition to transcendence in a delicate but efficient way, noting Hendrix’s otherworldly practicing and recording habits as well as his twin appetites for music and women. For a film which has Experience Hendrix approval, the takes on his many girlfriends and lovers is surprisingly transparent.
American Masters also points out the pressure Hendrix felt from the Black Panthers and other civil rights advocates of the time who thought that a black man fronting a rock and roll band with two white guys in the rhythm section was not a strong attempt to convey a political message that Hendrix never advocated in the first place. Acclaimed music journalist David Fricke makes an excellent point: “What Hendrix was doing was expressing the ultimate civil right: to do whatever the hell he wanted.”
A relatively innocent and shy man, Hendrix wanted only to play his music. The film is careful to point out the strong relationship with his father through every step of his stardom and how, when he returned home to Seattle for a concert, he stayed in his childhood home rather than an expensive hotel. His interview with Dick Cavett shows his distaste for praise, as he felt it distracted from creating good material and contributed to the egotism of popular artists. In many ways, Hendrix foreshadowed what pop music would eventually become
All of the truly necessary bases are covered: the Experience falls apart after Redding and Hendrix have a falling out over Hendrix’s perfectionist studio tendencies, the guitarist pieces together Gypsy Sun and Rainbows for what would become an almost mythical performance at Woodstock, and Band of Gypsies rises out of those ashes to record one of the best live albums of all-time. Jimi reforms the Experience but with Billy Cox on bass in place of Redding, all the while battling criticism as a gimmick-oriented virtuoso who can interpret and play at an exceptional level but cannot sing or write significantly well. He builds the Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village with friend and legendary engineer Eddie Kramer before passing away on September 18, 1970, at the age of 27, having predicted to friends prior that he would not make it to 30. The amount of music he left behind, everyone agrees, is minuscule compared to what he had still to give, and futile speculation has persisted since his death over what direction he would have taken as he moved forward.
The film comes up short in a few areas. First, its take on Hendrix’s relationship with manager Michael Jeffery is not objective, nor does it expose all of the issues Jeffery created for Hendrix in his side-dealings. Jeffery is lauded as a fatherly or brotherly figure who was one of the only people Hendrix trusted, but in truth he contributed majorly to the financial pressure Hendrix faced in constructing his dream studio and the dismantling of Band of Gypsies, which many see as Hendrix’s best and clearest attempt at expressing himself musically. Some believe that Jeffery drugged Hendrix the night of the ill-fated Gypsies gig that led to the band’s demise, much to the consternation of drummer Buddy Miles. To that point, Band of Gypsies does not receive nearly enough focus given its widespread influence on the 1970s in funk and psychedelic rock, although PBS includes enough of the “Machine Gun” performance to whet the palate.
The portrayal of the 1968 Miami Pop Festival, which was the first major rock festival on the East Coast, is way over-hyped in the grand scheme of Hendrix’s career, and although a recently-released concert film of that concert does showcase the guitarist at a transitional and creative time (did Hendrix ever have a time in which he was not creative?), it seems unnecessary to have placed such emphasis on a relatively insignificant festival performance in a sea of classical festival performances. The interview with Miami Pop and Woodstock organizer Michael Lang feels wasted, and the anecdote about that Sunday’s concerts getting rained out directly inspiring “Rainy Day, Dream Away” could have easily been relegated to Bonus Features status on the DVD or Blu-Ray. As another footnote, the documentary missed prime realty in not recounting the argument Hendrix had with Who guitarist Pete Townshend backstage at Monterey Pop about who would follow whom, which probably inspired the incendiary guitar display in the first place.
The film ends on a dutifully somber note, with all of the interviewees describing what Jimi Hendrix meant to them and could have done if he had stuck around this world for a while. Speculation will be eternally endless because Hendrix’s influence is eternal, and what he created in four too-short years of prominence will inspire generations of electric guitar players for as long as the electric guitar is a readily-available instrument.
Approaching the eve of what would have been his 71st birthday, it is difficult to accurately place Hendrix in the pantheon of musical and creative geniuses, particularly given how complicated the criteria surrounding that term has become. College students will continue to emblazon their dorm walls with posters of Hendrix doused in tie-dye and surrounded by the likes of Bob Marley and Pulp Fiction, and aspiring guitarists will continue to trace their ways back to Hendrix through Stevie Ray Vaughan, or album-oriented radio stations playing “Purple Haze” or “All Along the Watchtower,” or whatever. Hear My Train a Comin’ is a great starting place for understanding who Hendrix was, what he did and why he became what he became, and it serves as an adequate portrait of where he stands in the United States of 2013. Which is to say, up next to a mountain, chopping it down with the edge of his hand.