Born on November 27, 1942 to a 17-year-old mother and a father in the military, Jimi Hendrix was raised by relatives and grew up in poverty. Expelled from school as a teenager, he was later caught stealing cars. As punishment, the young man faced probation or the military. He chose the latter, but was discharged after a year of military service.
Publicly, Hendrix said he was let go from the army after breaking his foot parachuting; but in reality, the rebellious soldier avoided serving in Vietnam after telling a doctor he had fallen in love with a fellow male soldier.
Hendrix’s first hit, “Foxy Lady,” attested to his love for women, however — the guitarist also had affairs with the likes of French screen goddess Brigitte Bardot.
There are as many stories surrounding Jimi’s first instrument: a one-stringed ukulele, a broomstick he used for wild guitar solos, or even just an imaginary air guitar. One thing is certain, however — he mastered the guitar at an early age.
The young man moved around after leaving the army, living from hand to mouth and playing the guitar alone or in bands. He soon got work touring the US with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, playing top 40 standards. He was making money at last but was musically frustrated and unsatisfied.
Hendrix, who still went by the name Jimmy James, pocketed his first record deal in 1965, which in turn guaranteed him club performances in New York.
He had a band, started experimenting with LSD, chained amps together for new feedback effects, and managed to make a guitar string sound simply by touching it. Left-handed, he came up with totally new guitar techniques; he could sound like two guitar players. Jimi called his musical inventions the “Electric Church.”
Animals bassist Chass Chandler heard Hendrix play and, feeling America wasn’t ready for his unique sound, brought him to London. “We’ll all be learning from him,” Eric Clapton reportedly said about young Hendrix.
Along with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, the exotically-dressed man with the white guitar formed a new band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience — which soon became the talk of the town across the British music scene. The timing was perfect. The Beatles had stopped performing, and the stage was set for a new musical revolution.
People were blow when they first heard Jimi Hendrix play his psychedelic blues rock, his mind-altering music striking like lightening. Early hits like “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze” cemented his growing renown, which was growing beyond Britain.
Next stop: Woodstock
At the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, Hendrix’s first big performance in the US, the audience were stunned by the power pf the music, but also his eccentric clothing, his alleged sexual exploits and constant drug taking. In the midst of the “Summer of Love,” Hendrix hit a nerve among young Americans and became an icon of the hippie movement.
In August 1969, Hendrix was booked as the top act at the Woodstock festival. Due to chaotic planning by the organizers, he performed on a Monday morning when most of the 500,000 festival goers had already left. After three days of partying, the crowd still milling around the festival grounds were exhausted but Jimi’s version of the national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” had everyone in their feet again with music that sounded like war, helicopters and bombs falling. The harsh reality of war in Vietnam had been brought to Woodstock.
That transcended everything that ever been played on a guitar, says Klaus Theweleit, author of a 2008 Jimi Hendrix biography. “It was a breakthrough to a completely new expression of art,” he said, adding that Hendrix didn’t “destroy the anthem, he actually made it audible for the first time.”
Jimi Hendrix died a year later.
Unable to sleep and stressed out, he drank a bottle of wine and took nine sleeping pills in his hotel room in London and died of asphyxiation after allegedly chocked on his own vomit.
Suicide was ruled out — Hendrix had great plans for the future.
But perhaps he was never of this world.
“What he was doing moved him too far away from his generation,” Theweleit argues. “There is a reason why he said of himself that he was ‘from Mars’.”
Hendrix’s African American and Native American background, combined with his outre lifestyle and groundbreaking music “really put him ‘far out’,” says Theweleit.
Nonetheless, Hendrix’s untimely death at age 27 still leaves many wondering what the guitar god might yet have achieved.
This article was originally written in German.