Today is the anniversary of the 1970 death of Jimi Hendrix, an occasion which I mark every year by dressing all in black and burning a very small guitar.
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut album, Are You Experienced?, released 9/23/1967. John Ridley, in a recent Huffington Post piece, called Are You Experienced? “the most important music album ever.” He was being hyperbolic to make a point, but who am I to argue? I was in utero when the album came out, and here we are many many years later still talking about it. That’s got to mean something.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Jimi’s continued impact is that, if you do the math, he was only in the limelight for a little over three years. It’s hard not to wonder would have happened if he had lived. Would he have become a washed-up relic of another era like Clapton? Would he have had a long fallow period followed by a late-career renaissance like Dylan? Would he have been shot down by some nutjob like Lennon?
We’ll never know. Musically, he probably had some innovations left in him, but he was already on somewhat of a downward arc by the time he died. Compare Jimi’s legendary 1967 performance at Monterey — where he is flamboyant and innovative but still within the context of actual, definable songs played by a tight band — with the 1970 Berkeley performance where he’s so whacked out on dope that he often seems to forget what song he’s playing. It’s a bit sad, and you hate to think of Jimi going any further down that rabbit hole. On the other hand, maybe he would have cleaned up and gotten his act together. Again, we’ll never know.
But one thing we can say with certainty is that his cachet as an icon would only have been diminished had he lived on. All the real titans of cool, the ones that move posters in bulk, did the whole die-young-good-looking-corpse thing: James Dean, Marilyn, Morrison, Guevara, Cobain. (You might say Elvis is an exception, but I think that in the popular imagination Young Elvis and Old Elvis are actually two different people; Old Elvis killed Young Elvis and ate him. Hence the postage stamps.)
Still, depressing as it is to think of a fat, doddering Hendrix trying to play guitar with his dentures, I think he deserved the chance to walk around on Earth and breathe the air a little longer. So today’s lesson for all you kids out there is: If you’re going to mix hard drugs with prescription medication while partying with your Swedish girlfriend, when you pass out in the bathtub, make sure it’s on your stomach.