Undercover: A Black Poet Does Hendrix Justice (03/22/79)

David Henderson‘s Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child of the Aquarian Age (Dou­bleday, 514 pp., $12.95) is the strongest and most ambitious biography yet written about any rock & roll performer. Exhaustive, simpatico, it has the force, humor and unfakable hipness of Hendrix’s monumental revision of “Like a Rolling Stone”; it captures the self-affirmation of “Voodoo Chile,” uncovering its confusion and menace. Straight off, Henderson establishes an irresistible momentum and never surrenders it, making sense of Hendrix’s life, career and art with such moment-to-moment intensity one comes away convinced that we caught no more than a glimpse of Hendrix while he was here to see in the flesh. The book exposes previous studies of Hendrix as near-frauds and shows up the standard biographies of Dylan, Elvis and Joplin as fundamentally unserious pieces of product.

Far too much writing about popular music of any sort is done by whites; Henderson, a black poet, is writing partly to reclaim Hendrix as an Afro-American artist. He begins with an extraordinary scene. It is Seattle in 1912. As people gather to witness the dedication of a statue of the Indian the town was named for, a small group of blacks is sighted on the edge of the crowd: vaudevillians stranded in the Northwest, among them Hendrix’s paternal grandparents. Within a few pages, following family history, Henderson has linked Hendrix to every major current in twentieth-century black music, from ring shouts to be-bop. We begin to see Hendrix not as a freak or even a star, but as the inheritor of a complex tradition determined to make that tradition his own, to join it to white culture and thus make that his own too.

Hendrix’s struggle to do this—to retain and deepen his identity as a bluesman while seizing every opportunity offered by rock & roll—takes up the rest of the book. In Henderson’s hands, this struggle—intricate, disorienting, dangerous, an original synthesis of Harlem and Greenwich Village, of roots music and technology, a sort of heroic miscegenation—makes a harrowing and exhilarating story. The richness of detail Henderson brings to his work, and his commitment to it, is unprecedented for a book about contemporary popular culture.

Doubleday seems not to have understood the worth of the book it has published: there is no index, and misspellings and typos riddle the pages (Henderson would never have written “Elmore Jones” for Elmore James ) Perhaps when the paperback appears this will be corrected, and the definitive discography and bibliography Henderson has prepared will be included. But whether or not he gets his due, Henderson has given Jimi Hendrix his. More David Henderson interviews on YouTube

Rolling Stone, March 22, 1979

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