NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, we'll look at what went right in yesterday's Air France crash to allow everyone on board to escape. The anatomy of a near disaster, tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll also continue our summer movie awards. What we want from you this week is your best teen flick of all time. Send your nominee to email@example.com with your phone number and a short paragraph explaining why. If you have the most passionate defense of John Hughes' oeuvre or the brilliance of "Gidget," we may put you on the air. I know it can be hard to pick "Ferris Bueller" over "Footloose," "American Graffiti" or "American Pie," but fire your submission in and listen to the summer movie awards' best teen film tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.
In 1968, as teen surfer films were finally starting to fade from the nation's movie screens, a new and very different youth obsession was blazing onto the scene. Over the next four years, Jimi Hendrix soared from obscurity to superstar. And today, more than 30 years after his death, he is still recognized as a guitar genius.
(Soundbite of "Little Wing")
CONAN: That was from "Little Wing." Those fluid, powerful solos sound like no one else before or since, and Jimi Hendrix didn't look like anyone else, either. He dressed in outrageous outfits, played behind his back and with his teeth, and he lived up to his famous line, `I want to hear and see everything.' Hendrix indulged his enormous appetites for sex and drugs as well as rock 'n' roll and died of an accidental overdose at the age of 27.
If you have questions about the life and death of Jimi Hendrix, about his career and his legacy, give us a call at (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Or you can send us e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Cross is a biographer who specializes in musicians from the American Northwest. His most recent book, "Room Full of Mirrors," chases the meteoric life of Jimi Hendrix. And he joins us now from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle, Washington.
Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. CHARLES CROSS (Biographer): Thank you.
CONAN: There's probably not a person alive that hasn't played a little air guitar while listening to Jimi Hendrix. It's comforting to know that he started out that way, too.
Mr. CROSS: He did. He loved playing air guitar, and he was so poor growing up he actually didn't have a guitar, and he played air guitar for about two years before he was lucky enough to finally get a guitar. So there's some small irony in all of us playing air guitar listening to him. We're just sort of following in his footsteps.
CONAN: You draw a wonderful picture in your book: Jimi Hendrix, a lonely superstar near the end of his life, as it turned out, going in the middle of the night on a tour of his old hometown in Seattle, Washington, with--just picked up a fan who'd stopped by to get an autograph, and said, `Hey, you got a car?,' and drove him around the town, and ends up looking through the window, putting his hands over his eyes and looking into the window of the house that he grew up in, where he played that air guitar on a broom in his little room.
Mr. CROSS: You know, what was fascinating was that Jimi came back to Seattle only four times after he was famous, but every time it was almost as if he were, you know, reliving the entire life story again by going back and visiting the high school that he had dropped out of and, as you tell there, visiting the house that he once lived in. The irony is that house is still a matter of a debate right now on whether that should be saved by the city or whether it should be torn down.
CONAN: Interesting, though--obviously, the question of a memorial to Jimi Hendrix--that house--he was never very happy in that house.
Mr. CROSS: Well, and I don't know that he was really very happy in his life, which is one of the sad things about superstardom. We want to imagine everyone that was famous and a rock star in the '60s as having a great life. And Jimi lived life to its fullest, but there was a lot of tragedy in his life that he had to overcome. He lost his mother very early, and I'm not sure that was a wound that he ever ultimately really recovered from.
CONAN: You point out that in his music there are so many references; "Little Wing," for one--references to angels. That was his mother.
Mr. CROSS: Well, that's what he said privately to his family and to other people. His mother died when he was 15 years old, and he thought of her after that point as kind of this ethereal presence in his life. And he's got a beautiful, beautiful song called "Angel" that is just, I think, one of the most beautiful things he ever did, and very clearly it's a love song to his lost mother, in my opinion, at least as a critic.
CONAN: One of the things--obviously, a very strange relationship with his father and questions, interestingly, of paternity. I guess Jimi and his brother, Leon--they were the only ones where questions of their father--who was their father didn't come up.
Mr. CROSS: Well, actually, no, it did come up in both of their instances. And then Leon was involved in a massive court case that was just determined last year in Seattle, where his paternity was a major issue. And you had a family here that--Al and Lucille Hendrix had at least two kids together, and if you want to believe the court records, as many as six kids together. And, you know, in researching this biography, I found a number of brothers and sisters of Jimi that no one had really known about. There are four other kids that Al and Lucille had that they gave up for adoption, gave away to the state. And those people really have never been talked to before, and their story's not been told. And it's pretty heartbreaking to hear their tale.
CONAN: The poverty in which he grew up is hard to believe.
Mr. CROSS: It is. And, you know, I always had known that he had grown up poor, but the level of poverty that he lived in was really extraordinary. And I think you almost have to understand that to understand when he gets onstage at Woodstock, how far he'd jumped to reach that. I think it makes the glory of his success all the greater. But certainly, this was a man who began with very, very humble origins.
CONAN: And I hadn't realized the extent to which his experience in the US Army, as truncated as it was--how important that was in his life--for one thing, getting him out of Seattle.
Mr. CROSS: Well, it got him out of Seattle. Part of that was just simply racial politics at the time. Very few African-Americans in Seattle had any other job opportunities. Most ended up joining the Army. And though Jimi grew up in Seattle, which--in the Northwest, we like to think of ourselves as more progressive. There still were many, many barriers to African-Americans economically and housing wise, and so he joined the Army, like a lot of other young men at the time. And then he got in the Army and kind of fell out of love with it and decided he needed to get out, which is one of the funniest stories in the book--how superstud Jimi Hendrix had to pretend, essentially, to be the Corporal Klinger of the 101st Airborne and pretend he was gay to get out of the service.
CONAN: He always told people he'd broken an ankle or something, but you found the real story.
Mr. CROSS: I found the actual Army medical records, which are funny beyond belief to read, where Jimi would go in to the psychiatrist every week and say, `I'm in love with my bunkmate,' and he would complain of all these other problems because his homosexuality had caused him to lose weight, he said. And Jimi never told that story--admitted it to anyone, ever, later in his life, but it truly was how he got out of the service. And, of course, he wasn't the only one to use that ruse.
CONAN: After he did get out--he's been playing guitar then for a while. And he comes under the influence of a mentor there--interesting expression that he uses in terms of Jimi Hendrix, the idea that he needed to acquire a little mud.
Mr. CROSS: That's Johnny Jones, who was a guitar player in Nashville and Indianapolis and in the South. And there's a hilarious story Johnny tells in the book of--Jimmy and Johnny have this showdown. And, of course, when we think of Jimi Hendrix, we think of this incredible guitar player. Well, Jimi came in the club and decided he was going to take Johnny on, and dragged his amp and guitar in. And they both get up and do their solos, and Johnny outclasses Jimi, and Jimi walks away very humbled. And Johnny Jones' response afterwards is, `I'm still the man!'
And I love that piece because it's--you know, we imagine Jimi Hendrix as a star. We don't remember that he struggled for almost five years before he found stardom in music, and he once was an up-and-comer himself. And I call him a musical cannibal in the book, 'cause he so much absorbed other people's ideas.
CONAN: And he learned a lot of those ideas on the old chitlin circuit. He toured with seemingly every R&B band in the world and got fired from most of them. And one story you tell--he actually got traded from one band to another.
Mr. CROSS: That was a hilarious story, that--Solomon Burke, the undertaker and great R&B soul singer told me. On the bus, he swears that he traded Jimi Hendrix to Otis Redding, just like you would trade a couple of ball players, but Jimi immediately got fired from that...
CONAN: For two horn players to be named later. Yeah.
Mr. CROSS: For two horn players to be named later. And at the time, of course, no one even called him Jimi Hendrix. He went under a variety of pseudonyms at the time, mostly Jimmy James and a whole bunch of other names that he thought would give him more sophistication. It really wasn't until 1966 when Jimi finally hit Greenwich Village that he kind of discovered his own voice and his own sense of himself.
CONAN: And then, you say, the guitarist who had been dismissed at that showdown for trying to sound too much like B.B. King--then he started sounding like nobody else.
Mr. CROSS: He did. And I think one of the more unique things about Jimi's history that I really hadn't known going in is that, you know, his greatest influence was really not a guitar player. It was Bob Dylan. Jimi adored Bob Dylan. And though, of course, Bob Dylan is not known as a great guitar player, I think Dylan gave Jimi a way to imagine him--his own career, imagine that he could do something a little left of center. Dylan was not a great singer, and Jimi didn't feel he was a great singer, but he so loved Dylan. And if you look at a picture of Jimi Hendrix--there are a couple in the book from 1966--you change the skin color, he looks exactly like Bob Dylan.
CONAN: We are talking with Charles Cross. His new book is the "Room Full of Mirrors," a biography of Jimi Hendrix. He's at the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail. The address is email@example.com. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.
And let's get some callers on the line, and we'll begin with Phil, Phil calling from Honolulu.
PHIL (Caller): Yes, good morning--well, it's morning where I am.
CONAN: Yeah. OK.
PHIL: And it's a little bit of a stretch for me to see Jimi looking like Bob, but I'll work on it. One of the things that I often say to young guitar players around here is that if you don't know the blues, you can't rock. And every time I hear Jimi, I hear the blues all in what he does. And I was wondering if you could comment--and you began talking a little bit about B.B. King, but I was wondering if you could comment on Jimi and his relationship with Buddy Guy.
Mr. CROSS: Well, all those major guitar players--Buddy Guy and B.B. King and Albert King--Jimi, when he was sort of coming up, he would go see those guys, and he would ask them for, you know, hints, for licks. And one of the more hilarious stories in the book is that they didn't feel threatened by him. So Jimi played with Buddy, I think, on a couple of occasions in clubs, and he clearly was an influence. And I think Buddy Guy is one of the only people playing today who, I think, really follows that legacy. You know, Buddy Guy was recently on a sort of Hendrix tribute tour, and just blew everybody away by playing acoustic guitar, which was one of Jimi's favorite instruments, actually. I don't think you need electricity to play the blues. And Buddy Guy continues in that wonderful Delta tradition, and his playing is just extraordinary to this day.
CONAN: Phil, thank you.
PHIL: The blues predates electricity. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Oh, there's no question about that. Let's talk now with Walt, Walt calling from Lewes, Delaware.
WALT (Caller): Hey, how you doing?
CONAN: All right.
WALT: Say--yeah, listen, I'd like to talk about, you know, what Hendrix will be remembered for. I'm a musician and a music teacher, too, and I think his main thing was his tone. He was a sound innovator. But I think he got a lot of what he did from two people--since you're a biographer, correct me if I'm wrong--Ike Turner and Sonny Sharrock.
Mr. CROSS: Yeah, I think that some of that's true. I mean, I think Jimi was influenced by so many people. But one story that I was able to confirm in this book that hadn't really been confirmed before is that Jimi did very briefly play with Ike and Tina Turner. Tina Turner denies that, and I think that part of it is that no one knew Jimi and Jimi Hendrix at the time. But Ike does confirm that Jimi was in that band for a while. And he was--you know...
WALT: A lot of people didn't know...
Mr. CROSS: ...kind of like a sponge. He just sucked up influences from everyone that he saw, yet he was able, I think, to put a unique twist on it. I do think one other important thing, though, beyond music is one reason to remember Jimi, and that simply is the issue of race. Jimi was really one of the very first African-American artists to have a large following of white fans. And for that fact alone, he was quite revolutionary, and I think that, you know, in our modern, mixed-ethnicity society today, we kind of forget how revolutionary that was, to have a black man playing to such huge audiences of white fans. And Jimi himself...
Mr. CROSS: ...commented in his diary on that, what a strange irony that was, that he had found that audience.
CONAN: Yet he did not, when he lived, have a big black audience and, in fact, always wanted to go up and be a big hit in Harlem.
Mr. CROSS: He did. And one of the--again, a hilarious story in the book is how, just two weeks after Woodstock--you know, Woodstock is the show we identify as Jimi's--pretty much his greatest moment, and maybe the highlight of the entire '60s on a musical spectrum. But two weeks later, Jimi played for free in Harlem to about a few thousand African-American fans at a street festival, and he was booed. And that was something that he was tormented by. He really wanted a larger African-American audience and found that, you know, black radio stations would not play his records, and that was frustrating to him.
CONAN: Hm. Thanks very much for the call, Walt.
WALT: I--all right.
CONAN: All right. Did...
WALT: I have one more question, if you could answer it.
CONAN: Go ahead, quick.
WALT: Yeah. What--there've been a lot of Hendrix biographies. What's different about yours?
CONAN: Good question.
Mr. CROSS: Well, I approached this biography and all the work I do as--I'm not so much writing a biography of a musician, but as--an important cultural figure. And I try--I talk a little bit, obviously, about what Jimi plays and what his musical accomplishments are, but I don't think you can understand his work unless you understand his life. So I try to give equal weight to every year of his life, and many of the other books that have been written--you know, Jimi's first 18 years, which was the first two-thirds of his life, might take up two or three pages. In my book, it's half of my book, and certainly, I'm as concerned with the making of the man as I am the making of the guitar. And I don't think you can understand the depth of that blues guitar solo that we heard on "Little Wing" unless you understand Jimi's mother, his family, his entire family's history, the fact that he was born from a family that included slaves and Native Americans. And there is a long tradition there that you must understand, I think, before you can really understand the artistry.
CONAN: Thanks, Walt.
Mr. CROSS: So that's my approach.
WALT: Thank you.
CONAN: And Charles Cross, thank you. We appreciate your time today.
Mr. CROSS: You're welcome.
CONAN: Charles Cross is the author of "Room Full of Mirrors." He was at the studios of KUOW in Seattle, Washington. Let's leave you with the song of the same name.
In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.