The Beautiful Sounds of Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix: I Hear My Train A Comin’

a film directed by Bob Smeaton
in the PBS series American Masters
David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images
Jimi Hendrix performing at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1969

Shortly before his death at age twenty-seven on September 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix told his friend Colette
Mimram that he didn’t have much time left. He’d heard it from a fortune-teller in Morocco, and he believed her. Hendrix, who’d grown up penniless, could earn $14,000 a minute playing his white Fender Stratocaster guitar at Madison Square Garden, but he couldn’t find a minute’s peace. He was worn down by the predatory behavior of his manager Mike Jeffery, a corrupt former MI5 operative. Student radicals demanded that he play for free; the Black Panthers tried to shake him down for “support.” He had been acquitted of heroin possession in Canada but faced a paternity suit in New York. He was making a new record but had to tour constantly in order to pay for Electric Lady, the studio he was building on West 8th Street. Though famously chivalrous, he’d begun to lash out at his lovers, one of whom had to be rushed to the emergency room after he threw a bottle at her in a drunken rage. He was fed up with being a rock star: he wanted to jam in small clubs and study composition, so that he could learn to read music, maybe write for an orchestra. But Hendrix had the kind of career that doesn’t allow for sabbaticals.

In a recent documentary for the PBS series American Masters about Hendrix, I Hear My Train A Comin’, Colette Mimram says that she was shocked by the nonchalance with which he predicted his own death, but she couldn’t have been surprised. Hendrix’s lyrics depicted life as a race against time. He imagined himself “living at the bottom of a grave,” and wondered whether he would live tomorrow, or whether—as he sang in “Purple Haze,” his biggest hit—tomorrow might be “the end of time.” “The story of life,” he wrote just before he died, “is quicker than the wink of an eye.”

The afterlife, however, can go on forever if you’re a legend like Hendrix. Not only has he received belated recognition from American Masters, but he—or rather the family estate, Experience Hendrix LLC—has released a number of “new” records in the last year. (These range from the electrifying performance at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival to the desultory outtakes on the compilation People, Hell and Angels.) Hendrix is even the “author” of a new memoir, Starting at Zero, assembled from diary musings, letters, and interviews. Starting at Zero was published without the cooperation of the estate, whose involvement in I Hear My Train A Comin’ left the documentary scrubbed clean of all but the most discreet allusions to Hendrix’s prodigious appetites for women and drugs. Even so, the “memoir” is little more than a clip job, strictly for Hendrix fans, for whom every trace…

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