Jimi Hendrix and The "Greatest Guitarists in History"

Originally appearing on my 97% Chimp Tumblr Blog.

Before we get to Hendrix and musical greatness let's examine a recent case of debunking greatness. Keith Olbermann recently profaned the sacred by subjecting the Yankee’s captain, Derek Jeter, to a withering critique. Now, I like Olbermann, and you gotta see his diatribe as half tongue-in-cheek to begin with, but here’s the thing: Olbermann is correct that, in purely analytical and quantifiable terms, Jeter is, shall we say, better than mediocre but not amazing — actually, in some ways, he is mediocre and even less. However, Olbermann would make a lousy anthropologist or sociologist. Jeter is not merely a baseball player or even just a person at this point, he is, rather, what is called a “collective representation” — quite literally, he is a sign (icon, index, or symbol) that represents not only the Yankees but also baseball in itself. 

Basically, what this means is that Jeter is the central point in what amounts to a secular religion. He is like the Jesus of baseball. And like any collective representation, there is a gulf that separates what he is in the flesh and what he is for others; his social role, in other words, is greater than and different than the sum of its parts (Jeter is a sui generis object, not merely a person). That gap or surplus can sometimes be quantified and measured directly but in the case of things like Jeter or Jesus or some other social Thing, direct measurements are, at best, tricky and probably impossible to fully grasp. That ‘extra’ that goes beyond the numbers is what transforms an ordinary object into a sublime Object, or, simply, ‘The Sublime.’ Let’s transpose the split between Jeter the man and Jeter the icon to another realm of culture where there is often a massive disconnect between the analytic and the synthetic: music and, especially, guitarists.

The Rolling Stone list of 100 greatest guitarists represents a classic example of the gulf that obtains between social greatness and ability, between personal gifts (or lack) and social esteem. Easily half of the guitarists on this list are mediocre hacks that many 14-year-old kids could shred circles around. It’s just that simple. Now, there are many fine guitarists and musicians in this list (Vernon Reid is a personal favorite) but the idea that The Edge is somehow nearly three times ‘greater’ than Danny Gatton is laughable — many injustices are committed in this list. The Rolling Stone list, with Jimi Hendrix leading the way, is a travesty if we are only interested in personal abilities. Many truly monstrous players are not represented, the kinds of players that would embarrass 95% of the people on this list. Consider players like Shawn LaneTommy EmmanuelLenny Breau, etc. 

The list could be quite long. Sometimes greatness languishes away playing weddings. You’ve never heard of these players because people like this, the incomprehensibly talented, the freakishly amazing, are so far beyond the norm that they are pushed to the fringes of society as embodying an excess that threatens the holy constellation of the social sublime. People of this nature are often scruffy, ugly, psychologically damaged, addicted, die poor, young, and tragically after a life of futility playing dives and recording albums that nobody buys. 

What did Jeter have? His below average fielding abilities were offset by above average offensive abilities and tremendous good looks. He was the one player that your grandmother knew about. His main talent, however, was that he could be hitched to a program of selling souvenirs by the millions as well as cars, shoes, you name it. And he quite often had good luck. How do you script rainbows in right field? 

Here’s a secret formula that accounts for sublime objects, learn this and you’ll be better prepared to comprehend the world around you: Jeter isn’t a famous icon (or symbol) because he’s a great player, rather, it is the opposite, he is a “Great Player” because he was a manufactured icon, a media and corporate construct. He transcended the role of ‘player’ and emerged as a brand unto himself. It’s amazing that, unlike others that find themselves in such a position, he never did refer to himself in the third person. The same formula applies to things like money or crime, for example: you think you use money because it “has” value, obviously, when actually, money is valuable because it is used as a medium of exchange (with T. W. Adorno, we find that there is no value per se, rather it is constituted by relations of exchange). 

Likewise with crime: we don’t punish people because they are bad, per se, the are bad because they are punished (Durkheim). Society has a need for punishment so it finds the crimes to fit the punishment. As a truly insightful philosopher (obscure and therefore not great) once said: the good is the evil we choose to ignore. However, if we all knew this, life would be disenchanted (a favorite term from Max Weber) and we would not enjoy random occurrences like rainbows in right field and intuit by their presence the touch of the divine. This morning, people all across America, felt in their heart of hearts that god was smiling on Jeter during his last game at Yankee stadium. How else can one account for things like rainbows and walk-off hits? People prefer enchantment over contingency.

Jeter is great because not only did he represent the Yanks, and baseball, but he brought people together and, at the end of the day, people get off on other people, and symbols like Jeter are objects of social cohesion, they keep the eyes of the collectivity oriented on the same moral coordinates, and they generate streams of signifying discourse, an imaginary energy, that makes people feel animated and good. What Jeter represented for fans was going out there, every day, trying hard, win or loose and believing in yourself the whole way despite the fact that, in all probability, you will fail. What’s wrong with that? Keith Olbermann ought to feel like an ass in attempting to reduce Jeter to his WAR (wins above replacement). 

There are a lot of players, in baseball and in other domains of life, that are amazing, better than the Greats, but lack the ability or were not given the opportunity, to fulfill the sublime role of collective representation. That might drive you nuts, that somebody with superior talents is left to rot on the sidelines of life while posers stand in the limelight, but that’s one of the real mysteries of social life: how is it, exactly, that one person or object is selected out of all the other candidates? About half of it comes down to sheer luck and nothing more. If it had not been a Jeter or a Hendrix it would have been somebody else that fulfilled that function. You cannot truly find in the notes that Jimi played the source or genesis of his social sublimity.

Most ‘fans’ of Jimi know very little: the riff to Purple Haze (which is about as dumb as the one found in “Smoke on the Water”), that he lit his guitar on fire at a show (the 1968 Monterey Pop Festival), and that he died from a drug overdose. Jimi isn’t great because of his music but because he was, literally, the spirit of immoderation incarnated or ‘individuated’ in the body of some kid named James. If it wasn’t Jimi, some other player would have filled the role with different riffs and manner of death because history and society needed, at that precise moment, for the spirit of limitlessness and ‘freedom’ (really, anarchy) to crystallize at a narrow focal point. We needed a walking talking manifestation of that idea. We needed an icon and we manufactured one on the contingent material of some wild guy with a Stratocaster. The same logic, albeit inverted, goes for Jeter. 

Jeter represented the opposite of a Hendrix (different times, different sector of culture, different social and moral requirements): quiet confidence, longevity, restraint, perseverance, self-sacrifice, consistency, reserve, altruism, and so on. Why? Because those ideas are sacred to America and what society needed incarnated more than anything else at the end of the 20th Century. And Jeter embodies those ideals in his social role right in the heart of a civilization that, by its very nature, threatens those sacred principles. In a society besieged by permanent war, hellish inequality, and plagued by incomprehensible monstrosities like mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, an icon like Jeter is comforting and simple to grasp. But rest assured, if it had not been for Jeter, somebody else would have been elected to fulfill that role, serve that function. 

Olbermann may be correct that Jeter, analytically, fails to live up to the hype but that insight misses the mark entirely. You cannot ‘see’ greatness by looking directly at it. You can only see it with a sideways glance, from an oblique angle. Greatness lives in the blind spot of our collective vision. The Great Other, is a collective fantasy, projected, and filling the space of our deepest hopes, dreams, and fears. 

So long, Jeter, you had a Great career. We’ll all take a deep collective breath and begin our selection of the next Jesus of baseball.