For such a revolutionary and continuously revered musician, there are wide variety of books in varying quality on Jimi Hendrix' tragically short life and career. Given his stature, it's quite shocking that there still has never been a definitive biography on the man; there are several good ones (my favorite is Setting the Record Straight by Eddie Kramer and John McDermott), but there doesn't exist that one book that is the consensus final word on Jimi's life. In this new book, Starting At Zero: His Own Story, the true account of Jimi's life is to be told through his own words and to hopefully set the record straight once and for all.
Compiled by documentary maker Peter Neal and record producer Alan Douglas, both of whom knew and worked with Jimi, the story of Hendrix' life and career are told straight from his own mouth, using passages culled from interviews, articles, stage banter, letters, and other sources. These were then stitched together into the chronological narrative of his life, akin to putting a documentary film together as analogized by Neal in his introduction. I must admit that when I saw that Alan Douglas was involved, I was uneasy since I'm familiar with his work and the controversy that surrounds it...he's well known for having taken Hendrix session tapes and, after Jimi's death, erasing parts and having new studio musicians overdub parts before releasing them to the public. Bearing that in mind, I decided to give him a fair shake when I began reading the book. The other thing to note is that the book is accompanied by some really nice drawings by legendary comic book artist Bill Sienkiewicz, who's adaptations of famous Hendrix photos into drawings add a really nice touch to the book.
The book traces Jimi's life from the day he was born, "age zero," and uses his own words to tell his story in a way that has never been done before. For someone who constantly was writing lyrics, poems, and stories on any scrap of paper he could find, it seems logical that a memoir could be pieced together using source material such as this. The book gets pretty quickly through his unhappy and sad childhood to when he left Seattle and joined the Army as a teenager. Eventually, he is discharged from the Army and bums around America honing his skills as a guitar player and living a real hand-to-mouth existence until he's eventually discovered in New York City by Animals' bassist Chas Chandler, who takes him to England. London becomes Jimi's adopted home city and it is there that he forms the Jimi Hendrix Experience with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. It's interesting to note that, in Jimi's own words, he dislikes his name being the "star of the show" and prefers the band to be called simply The Experience instead.
The bulk of the book is made up of Hendrix' words from the heady days of 1966-1970. After his initial whirlwind success and the release of his first two legendary albums in 1967, where Jimi's tone is very upbeat and excited, it turns a bit more dour in 1968 when he's starting to complain of stress and tension within the band. The year-long gestation and recording of the band's masterpiece, Electric Ladyland, results in fissures in the band that come to a head in mid-1969 when the band breaks up. Jimi seemed almost relieved and relished the opportunity to try something new and formed a larger band which debuted at Woodstock. However, as 1969 came to a close, he was hounded by a lawsuit brought up by an old producer he'd recorded for years before he was famous. This led to the formation of the Band of Gypsys lineup and the recording and release of the classic album of the same name. However much he tried, however, Jimi was constantly forced back into the trio format that had made him so successful. Additionally, his profligate spending (along with his manager Mike Jeffrey, who is suspected of bilking him for millions) and the huge cash outlay to build his own Electric Lady Studios in New York City led to Jimi being nearly broke at the end of 1969. By 1970, Jimi was forced to tour relentlessly to recoup all of that money, and his tone gets very desperate and sad. Throughout the earlier parts of the book, he always comes across a bit lonely but happy. By the final year of his life, he complains of being exhausted physically and mentally, feeling isolated and alone, and frustrated that his grand ideas and visions for his music go ignored and he's forced to trot out Foxy Lady and Purple Haze for the crowds who only want to see him play the guitar with his teeth and set it on fire. A couple of heartbreaking and eerie passages have him wishing to just disappear to make music out of the public eye, and right before his untimely death at 27 he presciently states that "I'm not sure I'm gonna live to be 28."
Overall, the book is quite enjoyable. I was assuming when I started reading that it was going to feel stitched together and have no flow, but it actually flows quite well. There are some passages that don't make a lot of sense because of Jimi's unique sense of humor and also some of his strange ideas which are down to either his one-of-a-kind imagination, the copious amounts of drugs he consumed, or both. Many of the passages I of course recognized from song lyrics, stage banter from live albums (official and unofficially released), or other books, but the bulk of the material was relatively new to this book. In some cases it was obvious that certain passages were cherry-picked because I've read other sources where Hendrix later contradicted himself, but unless one is a serious Hendrix fan, this won't be noticeable. A thread running throughout the book is how humble, if not insecure and dimissive, Jimi was about his own talents. He constantly extolled the virtues of Eric Clapton, the Beatles (Paul McCartney in particular), and Bob Dylan at the expense of his own achievements, and by the end of the book was almost pleading for help for feeling lost and all alone in the world. To me, these and the other intensely personal passages made the book really worthwhile. The times when Jimi bared his sole range from interesting and amusing to heart-rending and spooky at times and it's here that I feel the documentary approach to creating this book has its greatest impact. The book eventually ends up reading like a film in your mind and the moment it started feeling this way is when I believe it transcended it's otherwise somewhat piecemeal construction.
Starting at Zero is probably required reading for any fan of the 1960s rock music legends, and certainly for any serious Hendrix fan. The man left us music that sounds like it came from another planet ("Mississippi blues by way of Venus," as I read many years ago in a magazine) and from this book, one can see that his mind worked in much the same way. The impression is of a kind, imaginative, friendly, passionate man who found himself chewed up, spit out, and worked to exhaustion by an industry he helped build immensely and a manager (Jeffrey) who saw him as little more than a meal ticket. While ultimately the book feels slightly unsatisfying (I wanted a bit more depth the entire time I was reading it), it's certainly the closest we'll ever get to an autobiography from Jimi and for that it's invaluable.
(For anyone interested, while there are no footnotes or citations in the book, at the end of the book there is a link to a website that has references to all of the source materials used in the book. There is also an accompanying film that's supposedly due out soon, started in 1967 by Peter Neal and near completion according to the website.).
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