To date, there have been hundreds of books written about the late Jimi Hendrix, most of which have focused on the artist’s legend of excess, financial and legal problems and the Hendrix mystique while sidelining his musical innovations as incidental to his personal struggles. In Jimi Hendrix: Musician [Backbeat Books], author Keith Shadwick takes the opposite tack, focusing on the music and steering away from lurid details and weaving elements of Hendrix’s personal life only as they relate to his development as an artist. Moreover, Shadwick explains just exactly why Hendrix’s music was so important in real technical and musical terms that satisfy students of music without intimidating more casual readers.
Shadwick takes us through his early years in Seattle, his stint in the army and his professional development in Nashville and New York with a keen eye, balancing sources of information deftly and critically. This is no small task. Researching an artist of Hendrix’s stature is not easy since marginal figures in his life often tend to place themselves at the center of events with distorted memory and sometimes a false air of self-importance. The author is able to avoid the pratfalls of previous biographers and uses sheer common sense to discern the most likely scenarios of his subject’s formative years. He notes that even when while working in the backline of Little Richard, the Isley Brothers and King Curtis, key elements of his distinctive style were already forming. Shadwick pays special attention to this stage of his career as crucial to the fully-formed Hendrix which would soon be unleashed on the world.
Hendrix’s move to London after agreeing to allow The Animals’ Chas Chandler to be his manager and the subsequent events are presented in great detail as Shadwick punctuates previously well-documented chronology with solid research of all available recordings, concert film, interviews and studio notes. He is able to construct a clear and concise guide to the artist’s innovations and the effect they had on the explosive London cult of blues and R&B. He never second-guesses his subject’s motivations, allowing the pieces of the puzzle from a variety of sources to tell the story.
Perhaps the most original aspect of the author’s perspective is the idea that, while Hendrix is usually seen in the myopic view of his influence on rock and roll, the real meat of his style is rooted in a broader pantheon of stylistic influences, including jazz, country and the blues. Shadwick makes a compelling case for Hendrix as the heir apparent to the legacies of guitar greats Charlie Christian, Guitar Slim and John Lee Hooker, casting him as a direct descendent of these torchbearers. Hendrix was open to a wide range of influences from Bob Dylan to Texas swing, jazz and R&B, distilling them into a unique and highly personal playing and compositional style and in the process became the only true virtuoso that rock and roll has ever produced. He is portrayed not as a god who came to Earth to change rock and roll, but a natural product of American musical culture. His guitar playing was so eminently musical and expressive that his playing attracted the attention of such jazz luminaries as Miles Davis, Gil Evans, and Rashaan Roland Kirk. No wonder, since Hendrix’s improvisations were sometimes as melodically rich and rhythmically fluid and complex as those of some of the greatest jazz musicians.
Though clearly a champion of his subject, Shadwick is not afraid to be critical of Hendrix’s occasional musical excesses. 1969 was a particularly unproductive year for Hendrix in the studio. After breaking with Chandler as producer, he desperately needed someone to help reign in the guitarist’s genius and give it form, Hendrix spent most of that year lost in the creative woods, spending large sums of money wasted on recording pointless jamming never intended to be heard by the public, a great deal of which was released by legitimate and illegitimate sources, distorting his recorded legacy. He is also highly critical of producer Alan Douglas (who attempted to work with Hendrix for a short time) for producing a series of uneven and unflattering posthumous releases from some of this material.
Towards the end of his life, despite his physical and mental decline from too much work and partying, Hendrix finally started to get it together in the studio for his long-awaited follow up to Electric Ladyland, but died before the project was complete. Still, Shadwick’s critiques of live performances of the period make it clear that Hendrix was changing his approach and thinking of new ideas. There’s no doubt that Hendrix would have continued to evolve, had he been able to get a grip on his life.
What’s most overwhelming is the fact that this detailed, lengthy account documents a very short career. The reader is plunged into the vortex of the fast-paced events and it’s easy to forget that Hendrix’s time in the spotlight was only about three and a half years. But the story remains highly engrossing and Shadwick’s perspective on events make the book both an enjoyable read and an invaluable source of information for the hard core fan or younger readers curious to learn what all the fuss was about.