Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy

By Pat Bianculli

It was the 1960’s, and the time had come for the young, both adolescents and twenty-somethings. The baby boomers were coming of age, and there were lots of us. And, we had power; power in numbers, power in music and power to move a nation. The Beatles showed us what was possible with a couple of Vox amplifiers, some twangy guitar strings and a couple of hundred great songs. Folk and gospel anthems told us we were on the “Eve of Destruction”, but in fact, “We Shall Overcome”. There were no songs written before this time, except perhaps for the war-related songs of our parents and grandparents that spoke to us so bluntly. And then, there was Jimi Hendrix.

As this nation of young people, we were all riding on Ben Franklin’s proverbial kite being flown in the storm and Jimi was the key at the end of the kite string. His guitar, his music, his hallucinogenic appearance, galvanized the anger we had for a country that could not stop the killing in Vietnam and the restlessness we felt just because we were young.
Many have come after Jimi, because of him and in spite of him. But isn’t that what rock is supposed to be?

Together in 1991, Harry Shapiro, author of numerous books on rock personalities and the drug culture of the 1960s, along with Caesar Glebeek, founder of the Hendrix Information Centre in Ireland, wrote Jimi Hendrix Electric Gypsy. It was revised and updated in 1995 to mark the 25th anniversary of the passing of this iconic musician and human being.
Publisher’s Weekly website writes about the book:
“Hendrix’s drug abuse and death from a probable barbiturate overdose are not sensationalized as the authors concentrate on his formidable music legacy, flamboyant individualism and sense of humor.”
One reviewer on Amazon.com says it all:
“ “Electric Gypsy” is the only “real” Hendrix biography available.”
The book, almost 800 pages, is a fast-paced account of a very brief creative life. The amount of research documented in almost 250 pages, includes reference notes, bibliography and a technical file listing all of the guitars and equipment that Jimi utilized during his career. We are honored and grateful to Mr. Shapiro for taking the time to answer our questions.

Jimi Hendrix 1968

Guitar Connoisseur: This quote, from your introduction to “Electric Gypsy”, really engaged me, “Jimi took the music way beyond the place where he found it.” What would you say is Jimi’s biggest contribution to rock and blues, and then, specifically to the guitarists who followed him?

Harry Shapiro: I think Jimi revealed the possibilities of the electric guitar that had not been seen before. Previously electric guitar was primarily a means of making a guitar sound louder. Jimi transformed electricity, power, and sonics almost into instruments in their own right – it was a fusion of instrument and technology that had not been heard before – which explains why the music sounds as fresh and powerful as it did when it was first recorded.

Jimi was a game changer, not only for guitarists that followed but also for all those who were his contemporaries; Clapton, Beck, and Townshend were all in shock when they first heard and saw him in London. Jimi was influential here on a number of different levels; so technically accomplished, honed over the years through constant playing. But not just on gigs and in studios. The guy lived and breathed guitar. There are stories of Jimi literally going to bed with the guitar, standing by a cooker, frying eggs for breakfast with the guitar around his neck. He just never stopped playing. Then he had a rare gift for being able to translate what he heard in head to the instrument, although in keeping with many artists at that peak level of inspiration and creativity – he was never satisfied and would drive musicians and producer’s nuts by doing take and after take. Jimi too was a consummate populist and fused a number of styles from blues, R&B, soul, and psychedelic rock to produce a sound that was uniquely his own. And on top of all that, was the image – the hair, the clothes, the stage persona. The talent, the vision, and the presentation all came together in one glorious if an all-too-brief moment in time.

GC: One could argue that Jimi Hendrix was the first great American rock export since the start of the late 1950s. Music had become an imported good due to the British Invasion spearheaded by Beatles. Was the world really ready for Jimi? Do you think that 1967 was the right time?

HS: Absolutely. He was one of the best examples of the right person, in the right place at the right time. Although I don’t believe he was that motivated by or interested in politics, he became a counter-cultural icon – a symbol of sixties freedom and a sounding board of the anti-establishment zeitgeist.

GC: I wasn’t aware of how London played such an important role in Jimi’s life and career until I read your book. The people he met there, girlfriends and musical colleagues as well-formed a coterie of both admirers and protectors for him. What do you think folks like Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck and the like, took away from their musical and personal friendship with Jimi?

HS: London is critical in the story of Jimi Hendrix. When Chas Chandler brought Jimi to London in September 1966, Jimi was almost living rough in New York, hardly making a living, getting by on tomato sauce sandwiches. If he hadn’t come here, the whole story of rock could have been very different. Chas was very clever in the way he marketed Jimi – not sending him out on grinding tours, but picking showcase London club venues and making sure that all the influential music journalists were invited. And it was a very small scene back then, so all the musicians got to hear about Jimi straight away.

Jimi Hendrix 1970

It is hard to say what musicians took away from their relationship with Jimi – not least because guitarists can be quite wary of each other – that kind of alpha-male, competitive stuff. Probably Eric was closest to Jimi; there are photos of them together and shortly before Jimi died, Eric tried to give him a guitar he had for him, but they never managed to meet. And Jimi made it a condition of coming to England in the first place, that Chas should hook him up with Eric. The first time Jimi played here was at a Cream college gig in Central London. Eric just put his guitar down and walked off. Any of those musicians who met Jimi would have been struck by his very self-effacing and humble nature who, offstage, would not go out of his way to gain attention – although they surely would have kept one eye on their wives and girlfriends. Jimi fell in love on a daily basis!

GC: From your research into his legacy of recorded material, videos of live performances, etc., does one performance really stand out to you and define the Jimi Hendrix we know from your book? What is it about that performance that makes that happen?

HS: Tough one. Album-wise, it has to be Electric Ladyland – everything I have said about Jimi so far in this interview – the sonic vision, the technical prowess, the sixties looseness, – and of course, the sex (Jimi did love the ladies) and the drugs (copious LSD consumed during this period) all come together on that album – and in particular ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) – the power and majesty of that track just leaves your jaw scraping the floor. From that moment on, Jimi becomes less the pop creation of Chas Chandler and more the archetypal rock star – with both good and bad consequences.
For a live performance – maybe Jimi plays Berkeley recorded in 1970. The reason I would choose this is because Jimi could have completely burned out before then. 1969 was a horrible year for Jimi; the heroin bust, break-up of The Experience, lots of legal, financial and managerial problems over the lack of a new studio album, the hassles of building the Electric Lady Studio and the machinations surrounding the Band of Gypsys. Even Woodstock was not an unalloyed success; his performance of the Star Spangled Banner cemented his iconic status, but from his point of view the whole event was a mess. So it was almost a miracle that he could come back so strongly in 1970 and his return to form is highlighted by that concert.

GC: It was at the Monterey Festival in June of 1967, where Jimi’s penchant for burning a guitar at the end of a performance really gained traction. Journalist and musician, Michael Lydon, whom you quote in your book, wrote of Jimi’s performance at Monterey that it was like:
“…five tons of glass falling over a cliff and landing on dynamite.”
And then he quotes Jimi after the show:
“But what do you play when your instrument is burnt? Where can you go next? “I don’t know, man,” said Hendrix with a laugh after the show. “I think this has gone about as far as it can go.”
My question about this festival and this pyrotechnic act…was this as far as it could go? With 3 years left to his very short life, Did Jimi’s career start a “slow burn” or, did he continue to set the world on fire?

HS: Well, Jimi certainly set the world on fire with the rest of his recorded material; Axis Bold as Love, Electric Ladyland and Cry of Love – and there were many era-defining concerts performances including New Years Eve 1969 with The Band of Gypsys. But Jimi soon found himself at odds with his management who continued to see Jimi’s career through a pop prism. And in a sense, they were in cahoots with the record company and fans; everybody wanted to hear hit singles, see the Experience and watch Jimi perform stage antics. In the end, he told a journalist, ‘I don’t want to be a clown anymore’.

Back in those days, nobody believed pop and rock had any shelf-life; the industry wisdom was that it would all soon be over, so you had to milk it for all it was worth before the gravy train left the station. So Jimi never got any peace; the pressure for a studio album after Electric Ladyland was intense; but a year after he had finished recording it, he had nowhere near enough material for the next one. But in 1970, the studio was finished, Jimi was back with Mitch and also Billy Cox and the tour was going well and bringing in some much-needed revenue. What Jimi needed was the time and space to work in the studio; when he got it, he produced Cry of Love. He should have been left alone to work; it wasn’t until Peter Grant took Zeppelin off the road and brought them back more popular than ever that people realized that the fans don’t forget you.

GC: I attended the famous 1970 “Winter Festival for Peace” at Madison Square Garden that you so accurately report in your book. Besides thinking I might have been the only one in the place that wasn’t stoned, my memory of Hendrix’s 3 AM performance was in feeling that the Garden was about to implode when he started playing. The concert was a paradox for me. So many disparate artists: “peaceniks” like Peter Yarrow, Richie Havens, and Harry Belafonte; to music legends like Judy Collins, Johnny Winter, and Blood Sweat and Tears. And then there was Jimi, at the very end, delivering this explosive, paint melting off the walls performance. Even then I thought he didn’t really fit. His music was way too large and otherworldly from the roster of artists that preceded him. Even Madison Square Garden could not contain him. Your book brought back a feeling that he was too much for this world. Do you think there were times when he might have felt that way? How might that have impacted his short life and even shorter career?

HS: I think it is fair to say that had Jimi lived – and had he been allowed to almost go into seclusion for a period – he would have gone on to paint a sound landscape that stretched beyond rock, maybe into various forms of jazz and then later probably world music of different sorts. And he would have warmly embraced all the technological developments that came along – that he helped to pioneer. But I think you have to be very careful about imbuing Jimi Hendrix with some divine purpose. He was an extremely talented, visionary musician who first benefited and then felt trapped by all the pop and media hoopla he got caught up in. Don’t forget that Jimi had a great time; he was not some tragic Byronic character; he had everything a young man could desire – and then some. However, back then, he had no protection; everybody had access and everybody wanted a piece of the action. And in the end, he was just flesh and blood.

Jimi Hendrix 1970

GC: Your bio makes reference to your work with Drugscope, the leading UK charity supporting professionals working in drug and alcohol treatment, drug education and prevention and criminal justice. With what we know of Jimi’s drug use and his unclear connections to the drug underworld that kept him supplied, can you speak about how your work as a successful author and rock biographer informs this other part of your life as Director of Communications and Information for Drugscope?

HS: I wrote a book called ‘Waiting for the man; the story of drugs and popular music’ which details all the connections between the two cultural phenomena going back to the early jazz days. I have also written about Jack Bruce and Graham Bond, two other musicians whose lives were dogged by drugs. I have also contributed to a number of documentaries on the same subject.

If you know anything about the music business, you almost wonder how people avoid becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol rather than how it happens. It is a brutal business where highly creative and often very fragile, temperamental personalities come to smack up against a hard-nosed industry. But working in the drugs field gives you an understanding of how people get into this largely as a coping mechanism against the trauma and stress that artists can face. I’m often asked about whether rock stars have an obligation to society, especially young people – as role models. The answer to this is quite long-winded; but the short answer is – while many guys would like to play like a heroic rock guitarist, they really don’t aspire to lying in the gutter with a needle in their arm.

You can find a link to the author’s book here:
Jimi Hendrix, Electric Gypsy: Jimi Hendrix

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