The Genius of Hendrix

When he was “on” Hendrix was amazing and his innovations in sound will retain their impact for generations. Sure, his techniques have been eclipsed by armies of precocious teenagers since the early 80s but Hendrix was not just a guitar player and his greatness can’t be reduced to just technical innovations. What set Hendrix apart was his capacity for capturing the scary contradictions of human life like no one else. Sure, a lot of the time he simply played blues, rock, R&B, sometimes he played silly things (especially if they were written by Noel Redding), he could be a bit of a flake, and sometimes he was just plain terrible. But every now in then, especially toward the end of his life (and after somewhat of a political enlightenment), he was able to reach a whole new level that was right up there with the likes of Coltrane. He wasn't the musician that 'Trane was but their achievements might have been similar had JH lived longer.

To know what I'm talking about you must immerse yourself in "Machine Gun" off the Band of Gypsies album. In just that single moment Hendrix earned the title to the greatest guitarist of his time. In no other recorded moment in the history of guitar (or perhaps music in general) has so much been represented as in "MG." You can see, hear, smell, and feel, F-4s dropping napalm on human beings as they scream, you experience the terror of college students as their National Guard murders them at Kent State, you can feel the rage of blacks in LA as they burn down neighborhoods. And beyond just the 60s that he experienced and tried to invoke, it's as if the collected history of human misery and anguish were embodied in that one song: from worker exploitation, poverty, to mass murder and genocide.

Hendrix, if for one fleeting moment in time, qualitatively surpassed everything that had come before him. On that night he truly went with the guitar where no human had gone before. Perhaps Coltrane had treaded there as well. Sadly, in our era of self-congratulation, pseudo-seriousness, and spectacle, the hair, image, and the hype has eradicated anything like that. Page was cool, Vai has a lot of wow factor going for him and I could name 100 other guitar players that I think were and are great but few even attempt what Hendrix did on threshold of 1970. I truly think that had Hendrix not died so young that everything he had done musically prior to 1970 would constitute the mere preface to his life's work. I think he was on his way beyond music.

What’s to get excited about in today’s guitar-centric music? A bunch of posers with the frightening hair and the leather pants, the signature model guitar, the cool factor, the fans, "the rage", but they're doing and saying nothing of cultural significance. In the worst cases, these bands merely celebrate and cultivate (perhaps unintentionally) the very social and political factors that contribute to human misery. The appeal behind most of the "heavy metal" bands I see today is based upon the latent and manifest authoritarian dispositions of angry, white, suburban kids: it’s musical fascism. The last 25 years of music has brought us many wonderful guitarists (especially in the jazz world) but there hasn't been another Hendrix. And why that's the case I don't know. Because, if you look around, things are just as bad as they've ever been.