Room Full of Mirrors: a biography of Jimi Hendrix, by Charles R Cross

An electric gypsy's trail
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Three and a half decades after his death in London, the astonishing impact Hendrix made in a career lasting only four years leaves him permanently installed in the upper echelons of rock's official pantheon. As trailblazing instrumentalist and composer; charismatic Sixties icon and human crossroads between rock's black roots and white blooms, he was, and is, a uniquely fascinating figure, as well as the subject of several previous biographies. The existing benchmark works are David Henderson's 'Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky, outstanding for its empathy, imagination and insistence on the primacy of an African-American perspective; and Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebeek's Electric Gypsy, qualifying as the heavyweight reference biography by sheer thoroughness.

Now Cross shoulders his way into the front rank. He cannot match Henderson's depth of understanding for his subject's life and work (let alone his prose style), or Shapiro and Glebeek's solidity and density of detail. And he adds little to existing accounts of what happened to Hendrix after his Greenwich Village "discovery" and subsequent success, except one delightful anecdote: Hendrix being refused service in a Liverpool pub in 1967. Was it because he was black, Hendrix wondered, or a hippie rock musician? Neither: the circus was in town and it was the pub's policy to ban clowns in costume.

The real strength of Cross's book lies in its exploration of Hendrix's family history and early life. His research stretches back through several generations of a complex melange of African, European and Native American ancestry, as well as the tempestuous, poverty-racked, alcohol-soaked, hard-scrabble existence of the Hendrix household. Jimi never got three square meals a day until he joined the army.

The fraught relationship between his parents, Al and Lucille, resulted in much of Jimi's childhood being spent with relatives and neighbours. All but one of his younger siblings, one blind and others afficted with debilitating birth defects, were put up for adoption or institutionalisation.

In 1995, after a lengthy legal battle, the Hendrix family (primarily represented by Janie Hendrix, Al's daughter from his second marriage) succeeded in wresting back control over Jimi's catalogue and estate. The judgement was hailed, by this writer among many others, as a triumph for natural justice. Yet the uncomfortable fact remains that the list of those who currently benefit, via the estate and its corporate incarnation Experience Hendrix, from the income generated by Jimi Hendrix's life and work includes none of the surviving offspring of Lucille Hendrix. Neither does it include any of the musicians (the drummers Mitch Mitchell and Buddy Miles, the bassists Billy Cox and the late Noel Redding) who performed on Hendrix's records.

The remains of Lucille Hendrix, the inspiration for many of her son's greatest songs, were left in a pauper's grave, marked only by a one-word headstone bearing the surname of her second husband, and mere paces from where Hendrix's body rested until it was recently moved to a splendid new memorial. Cross's account would, I suspect, be as uncomfortable for Jimi Hendrix as it is for the reader.

Charles Shaar Murray's 'Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and postwar pop' is published by Faber