Got to keep moving
- Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop by Charles Shaar Murray
Faber, 247 pp, £7.99, November 1989, ISBN 0 571 14936 7
- Autobiography by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe
Macmillan, 400 pp, £13.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 333 53195 7
The idea that a falling object was about to defy gravity before it hit the ground is a familiar one in the mythology of the pop idol. It is the gist of Charles Shaar Murray’s book about Jimi Hendrix, who enjoyed a great career as a virtuoso guitar player between 1966 and 1970, when he died in a London hospital after an overdose of sleeping pills. In a sparkling homage, far more readable than most books about pop music, Murray argues that the extravagant left-hander who introduced a new vocabulary to rock guitar-playing was the unsung progenitor of a jazz we will never know.
Vol. 12 No. 13 · 12 July 1990
Jeremy Harding, reviewing Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop by Charles Shaar Murray and an Autobiography by Miles Davis (LRB, 24 May), writes at some length on Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson and ‘a form of the Yoruba deity Eshu-Elegbara’. Miles Davis is hardly mentioned, except to illustrate his condescension (immediately capped by the reviewer) towards Hendrix.
Compared unfavourably with both Davis and Robert Johnson, Hendrix seems to fall between jazz, blues and the reviewer’s two stools of credibility: Davis heading the cool academy and Johnson’s pre-war, rural and sinister obscurity combining ‘street-cred’ ethnic primitivism with early music. Hendrix is left to the vague, tinseltown no man’s land variously called ‘pop’ or ‘rock’. His years of apprenticeship in the culture and some specific performing circuits of black North American music, traced in some detail by Murray, are largely ignored.
Harding concludes that the shortcomings of a contemporary public ‘became the biggest obstacle in Jimi Hendrix’s path’ and we are to gather it completely defeated him. After commenting probably on the early canonical studio performance of ‘Red House’, Harding writes: ‘Later, stumped for ideas, Hendrix would do a phrase to death. This hectoring mode was an admission of defeat at the hands of pop music. “Red House”, by contrast, could easily withstand a further two verses of solo guitar.’ It may well be biographically right to speak of Hendrix’s ‘defeat at the hands of pop music’, but musically the assertion is qualifiable. Harding concedes that ‘even after his ascent up the British pop charts, the blues remained his strongest suit.’
His development of the form – for instance, in slow blues (from the self-consciously old-time ‘Red House’, ‘Hear my train’ and ‘Peoples’ to ‘Machine-Gun’, his final, more original contribution) – belies the reviewer’s statement that ‘by 1970 Jimi Hendrix had played his way through rock music into a dangerous limbo.’