Forever young? Unfortunately (but maybe not)

Having died 40 years ago at age 27, rock star and guitar genius Jimi Hendrix may actually have something over his contemporaries who are alive today.

Hendrix 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hendrix 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
People tend to remember where they were when they heard momentous news, such as JFK’s assassination, the moon landing or 9/11. I was at my friend Stuart’s house when I heard that Jimi Hendrix was dead.
It was September 18, 1970 – 40 years ago this past weekend. I was 16 and played guitar in a basement band in a suburb of Hartford, Connecticut. I had all of Hendrix’s albums and knew all his songs and riffs.
I went to see him every time he came to town. And, like him, I played a Stratocaster (although as much as I tried, I couldn’t get it to sound like his).
Hendrix’s fingers were long and slim, capable of amazing reach and speed.
One moment he was a blast furnace throwing off torrents of white embers, the next – after a segue so even and seamless you hardly felt the shift – a golden sunset, the gentle lapping of an outgoing tide. Sometimes he’d bend an especially sweet note – slowly, very slowly – until it swelled and yelped and howled as if a thousand lunatics on meth and reverb had been let loose in the sound system. (And those were the days of analog fuzz boxes, phase shifters, wah wah pedals and feedback – none of the digital Star Wars electronics that today turn Junior into Eddie Van Halen in just one lesson.) Although I appreciated him more for his ballads, most people found Hendrix’s brilliance in the din, the darkness, the energy and the occult. Indeed, to close his show, he’d often kneel astride his Strat, douse it with lighter fluid and flip in a match. With flames dancing higher, the strings would groan and the pickups would scream, and Hendrix, eyes closed, mouth half-open in thrall, would writhe like a pagan priest at the Altar of Doom.
He was like no entertainer before him (and the impresarios quickly took note).
Hendrix wore blazing swaths of velvet and silk adorned with dazzling bandanas and love beads. He slammed, splintered and torched electric guitars and drawled of sex, drugs and revolt. Clearly, he was not the role model your middleclass parents had in mind – which meant that with the Kennedys being blown away and the Vietnam war careening out of control, he was exactly what you were looking for. He was revolt, in its purest sense, and it was inevitable that an entire generation of guitar-playing American boys would grow up trying to emulate him.
At age 27, though, barely four years after exploding onto the scene, Jimi Hendrix was dead, having overdosed and drowned in his own vomit in a seedy London apartment half a world away from home. The news literally blew me down, as if that little transistor radio in Stuart’s kitchen had been a triple stack of Marshall amps at full volume. (Don’t forget, too, that it was not yet semi-de rigueur for rock stars to die in mid-career: While Brian Jones had gone the year before, Janis Joplin wouldn’t pack it in for another two weeks, and Duane Allman and Jim Morrison for another year.) The cynics say that for Hendrix, dying was a wise career move. Toward the end, critics had begun writing that he was getting tired and stale and that his live performances, more and more dope-addled, were becoming sloppy (if he showed up at all).
But for me, having never gotten closer than Row 22, it was – and is – as if there had been a death in the family.
Had he lived, Hendrix would be closing in on 68.
It’s hard to imagine him trudging with the missus out to the mailbox, where, like in those ads for retired people, they nod and smile as they tear open the Social Security check. Instead, like too many of his living contemporaries, he’d probably be hauling his wattles, hearing aids and titanium knees on stage for the boomers who’ve kept their turntables and pre-punk tastes – but also just as likely to cover all the back taxes and alimony.
So maybe the cynics have a point, for on that day 40 years ago Hendrix became an unassailable legend, an artist forever at the top, an enduring photograph of a slim young man with smooth skin, a full head of hair and wearing every hue of the rainbow. Just like he wrote in “One Rainy Wish”: Gold and rose, the colors of the dream I had/ Not too long ago/ Misty blue and lilac too/ Never to grow old.