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Starting At Zero


living the reckless genius
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, March 7, 2014 15:43
Tags : Jimi Hendrix | Starting At Zero | Leonard Cohen | Electric Ladyland | Peter Neal | Alan Douglas |

While convention and prevailing superstition demands that one must not compare one’s age with somebody who has given up his ghost, I couldn’t help but ponder what had I achieved when I was 27. Because that was his age when Jimi Hendrix died of Barbiturate-related asphyxia in London in September 1970, stunning the world to silence even in a decade where nothing anymore stunned anyone. Yes! All of 27. His career spanned for four years. To put it in perspective, Boy Dylan and Leonard Cohen have close to six decades of career behind them as we speak here.

And yet, there is no one in the western music industry who has remotely come to achieve the laurels that he achieved. Rolling Stone, arguably the last word on western music, ranked him the greatest guitarist to walk this earth and the sixth best artist ever. The same magazine ranked three of the albums cut by his band, Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland among the 100 best albums ever produced.

Other magazines and web portals routinely find him as the “most talented”, “best instrumentalist”, “greatest performer ever” and other permutations of the same in their polls. But of course none sums it better than Rolling Stone’s once darling reviewer Holly George-Warren, who maintains that, “Hendrix pioneered the use of the instrument as an electronic sound source. Players before him had experimented with feedback and distortion, but Hendrix turned those effects and others into a controlled, fluid vocabulary every bit as personal as the blues with which he began.”  Some achievement that, I say.

Naturally, he still has a fan following that can give a run for money to the Canadian boy with pimples and singing issues who is kind of fad these days. Volumes on Hendrix vanish from bookshelves the moment they are launched—on both sides of the Atlantic. Therefore when Jimi Hendrix: Starting At Zero was launched as “Hendrix’s posthumous memoir”, it did ruffled some feathers, and justifiably. Compiled and edited by Peter Neal and Alan Douglas, both of them friends of Hendrix, Starting At Zero is a collection of diary entries, notes, quotes, letters, fan-mails, pensées and interviews. In the strict sense of word thus, it is hardly a memoir—posthumous or no posthumous.

However, that is not to say that the book lacks merit. In fact, it is a perfectly readable book that in letter and spirits imbibes Hendrix. Incoherent, uneasy and irreverent, this book in many ways is like Hendrix himself. But the merit of this book lies somewhere else. During his brief career, Jimi Hendrix attracted an unusually high number of brickbats from the press and peers. Part of it was because of the prevailing bias that even the liberal press had against anyone who was not sufficiently White, and part of it because of an era where sitting on the fence was not an option. Hendrix suffered at both the fronts.

The press branded him an uncouth, women-beater, drug addict, guitar-burning, reckless genius. That’s a tad too much adjective for someone who was merely around for four years. And if that was not enough, in a visceral world of racism, artists sitting on the fence were derided more than those who openly affiliated with Ku Klux Klan mindset. Louis Armstrong is one such case in point. But in the case of Hendrix, it reached its pinnacle. It was an era of Black Panthers. And their members infamously described Hendrix as a “coconut”, a slang for someone who was Black in appearance but whose soul was sold to the White folks.       

This book is also an attempt to redeem Hendrix from all those awful adjectives. And let me add that it has done so rather brilliantly. With casual interviews and quotes, the editors bring out a Hendrix that that was hitherto hidden. Here was a regular guy who wanted to do regular things. He never wanted the stardom and wanted to run away from it when it came his way. He wanted to write some great compositions. He wanted to sit in a quiet club where people understood Bach and Mahler and inspire others to compose like them. But his stardom was not going to let him go easily, and that is what happened. The book deals with this aspect rather lucidly.

Talking about his life, Hendrix says, “A couple of years ago all I wanted out of life was to be heard. Now I’m trying to figure out the wisest way to be heard. I don’t want to be a clown anymore. I don’t want to be a rock and roll star ... [Breaking things up and burning guitars] were just added on, like frosting, but the crowd started to want them more than the music.”

I would have bought the book merely for this quote.  When a Moroccan soothsayer predicted his early death, Hendrix reconciled with it effortlessly. “When I die, just keep on playing the records,” he had said. Make sure you do that.

Author: Jimi Hendrix

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-1-4088-4974-3

Pages: 256

Price: Rs. 499

Publisher: Bloomsbury

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017