Back in the days when rock music still had guitar heroes, when the term referred to lead and solo (generally electric) guitarists who played with greater technical skill, more imagination, and a bolder vision than almost all of their peers, when Guitar Hero meant more than a video game, Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitar hero of them all. That’s not just me talking, it’s an opinion shared by some of the finest rock musicians ever, many of whom share their memories of Hendrix on this documentary DVD. If you are one of the unconvinced, and even if you are already a true fan, this disc goes far in explaining why, a full forty years after his death, Jimi Hendrix is still idolized by so many musicians and fans alike.
This film would appear to be unauthorized by the Hendrix estate, which might explain why there are only a few snippets of Hendrix in live performance here, with most of the background music consisting of other people’s oldies. I enjoy listening to Hawkwind, Harry Nilsson and Lorraine Ellison (among many others heard here) as much as anyone, but they seem out of place in this context. This to me is the only real negative in this documentary, yet it’s a fairly small one. But the fact that this is most likely unauthorized means that interviewees feel free to speak their minds freely, without censorship. Thus we have, for example, a no-holds-barred look at Hendrix’s drug use, which everyone knows about, but which has rarely been openly discussed in such detail.
The film is narrated by Slash, whose admiration for Jimi Hendrix is well-known, and who seems quite well-versed in Hendrix lore, even though he died when Slash was only five years old. The great bulk of the interviewees, however, are people who knew Hendrix, many of whom played/jammed/associated with him, sharing their memories rather than relating unfounded rumors or hearsay. The musicians interviewed on-camera (mostly in 2009) include Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon, Mick Taylor, Zoot Money, Ginger Baker, Joey Covington, Bev Bevan. Mickey Dolenz, Lemmy, Stephen Stills, Alan White and Chris Squier, Dave Mason, and Paul Rodgers. Important, less publicly known parts to the story are recounted by Hendrix’ longtime English girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham, and his brother Leon Hendrix. Journalist/author Charles Cross adds a great deal of well-considered perspective as well.
Indeed, Leon’s tales of Hendrix’s poverty-filled childhood, raised by alcoholic parents who eventually split up and left the young brothers at the mercy of the Child Welfare system, provide many of the most poignant moments in the film. We learn that the parents’ constant arguing inspired one of Hendrix’ most touching songs, “Castles Made of Sand”. One can only speculate how this upbringing influenced the guitarist’s subsequent lifestyle choices. We hear from several sources that despite his copious drug use and “wild man” on-stage antics, Hendrix off-stage was quiet, polite, reserved, constantly with a guitar in his hand, practicing/rehearsing. Indeed, we are told that many of those on-stage antics were pure show-biz, his version of African-American showmanship that he learned during his apprenticeships with Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, Wilson Pickett, and others. Many of his “stunts”, such as playing the guitar behind his head and with his teeth, were used by earlier generations of blues musicians such as T-Bone Walker (and, I would add, Charlie Patton), but seemed new to the rock audience who hadn’t seen them before. Even his most outrageous moments were calculated, designed to gain maximum publicity, including the infamous guitar-burning/smashing at Monterrey.
We learn of Noel Redding’s jealousy, that rather than thanking his lucky stars that he found himself in an important, highly visible band, he felt he deserved to be “the star”, the guitar player for the band. (He was after all, as he would remind people, the best guitar player in Kent!). It turns out that he actually intended to audition for a guitar opening in the Animals, but that manager (and ex-Animal) Chas Chandler hired Redding as bassist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience even though he had no experience on the instrument. Redding’s dissatisfaction with and bare competence in his role explains why so much of the bass work on “Electric Ladyland” was by Hendrix himself, overdubbing, rather than by Redding. Dave Mason talks about how he came to play the acoustic guitar part on “All Along the Watchtower”, and how Hendrix’ classic solo on that track was actually a combination of three solos, including a slide part played with a cigarette lighter. I suspect much of this material may appear in various printed sources, but it’s nice to have it all in one place, confirmed by people who were there.
Musicians will appreciate the technical discussions of Hendrix’ fingerings, chord formations, sound effects, and amplifier set-ups by Slash, Stills, Covington, and Lemmy (Noel Redding’s one-time roommate, who served as a roadie for the Experience for several months in his pre-Hawkwind/Motorhead days). Thus, we learn that not only was Jimi Hendrix a guitar hero (we already knew that), but we learn WHY he was one, and how he became one. On a related subject, Hendrix was fascinated by sounds, and was always striving to turn the sounds and colors he heard in his head into reality. Producer Alan Douglas says you “couldn’t produce” Hendrix, “you could only help him to produce himself”; he knew what he wanted, but did not always know the technical means by which to achieve his goals in the studio. Hendrix died leaving many of his ambitions unfulfilled. We’re told he wanted to write symphonies. not only for orchestra but for large ensembles of electric guitars. We’re told he wanted to form bigger bands, that the short-lived Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, the band he played with at Woodstock, was only a small step in that direction. Others tell us he wanted to go back to his blues roots, while Stephen Stills feels he would have turned in the direction of fusion. But the business heads around Hendrix insisted he continue to do “Purple Haze” and his other hits over and over, which he grew to despise.
Bonus Features include an irrelevant ten-minute featurette of silent film footage of the Monkees, taken by photographer Henry Diltz (another of the interviewees on this disc), who didn’t join the tour in which Hendrix opened for the Monkees (talk about your classic mismatch!) until after Hendrix was dismissed. While it’s by no means uninteresting to see (though not hear) the Monkees onstage, it should be on another disc, not this one. Much more illuminating is the one full-length performance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience on the DVD, an early live version of “Hey Joe”, in which it’s clear that Redding isn’t connecting with Hendrix and drummer Mitch Mitchell. Also included are a number of extended interviews, which include insights not chosen for the original film. As in the main program, some of the most perceptive commentary comes from Charles Cross, while some of the most significant comes from Leon Hendrix, with more fascinating info on his brother’s youth and musical upbringing. There are two small photo galleries, one of random shots and one of Henry Diltz material, plus a 20-page booklet of photos and biographical material, which does not merely reproduce the film’s contents.
In all, I would say that this would be a highly instructive and rewarding way to spend some of your Christmas gift money. Not only did I learn a lot, I found the great bulk, perhaps all, of it to be trustworthy, much more so than one might find on a bowdlerized “authorized” DVD.