Live your life like Jimi Hendrix played his guitar
Fifty years ago, on September 18, 1970, the world lost its finest electric guitarist then or since, in Jimi Hendrix. That no one has come along to match Hendrix’s virtuosic mastery speaks to the singularity of his genius, which doesn’t mean that his legacy of learning isn’t an inclusive one.
Hendrix had matchless chops as a player, but his greatest gift was an ability to remake himself time and again, while nurturing an underlying identity that helped him keep moving forward.
It’s a long journey, stylistically, from the molten blues of “Purple Haze” in 1967 to the various live renditions of “Machine Gun” in 1970, which sounded like Picasso’s Guernica turned into music. He channeled Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, into his own special salmagundi, but you never thought you were listening to anyone but Jimi Hendrix.
He’s a beacon of identity for people trying to determine who they are, and I’m sure there are kids today who experience that restless, questing spirit just like young people did in 1968. Your ears all but bug out of the side of your head upon first discovering Hendrix, but when you dig into the career, you learn about a man realized one sublime achievement so as to try for the next all the quicker.
There’s an old hockey expression that you’re only as good as your last shift, and Hendrix exemplifies the idea. When I first fell in love with his debut album, Are You Experienced?—which remains the most shocking debut in rock and roll history—my world might as well have been detonated. But then I heard Electric Ladyland from just a year later, expecting an extension of those earlier pyrotechnics. Instead, this was electro-Baroque futurism music, what you might listen to on either Mars or in the ancient kingdom of Atlantis. Or just plain old suburbia that was now a lot more exciting.
We reach a mantle or hit a goal, and we tend to remain in place. We work our territory. Provide us with plaudits and keep ‘em coming, and we’re all the more apt to stay sessile. We’re also likely to miss out on new directions that help us better understand what we can and can’t do, how we can make differences in other ways, for ourselves and others.
Hendrix exploded upon the music scene like a fireball, and that same fireball absolutely torched any notion or temptation he might have had for complacency. He wasn’t scared to fail, like when he ditched his original band the Experience and launched the Band of Gypsies.
He’d try and make music with anyone, and was the king of sitting in with other artists and having them sit in with whatever unit he had going at the time. All were welcome, because you never knew how even people with contrasting styles might jell. Seems a good way to go about life even if you couldn’t tune a guitar to save your life.
Yes, you want to rock out in the car or at the gym to Hendrix, but it’s the morphability component of Hendrix that is the most sublime. And it’s especially mercurial given that Hendrix didn’t make it past age twenty-seven.
Most of us will, so let Hendrix’s churning, burning, morphing guitar be a reminder to always be blasting off towards a new challenge, a new potential friend, a new viewpoint, a new sound. Be the life version of a guitar god, and crank it loud.