Review of “Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child”

Review of “Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child” by David HendersonBy David Blake

In many ways, Buddy Holly epitomizes the idealized 1950s. His geeky yet winsome bespectacled face. His giddy, earnest, and charmingly innocent music. Those lyrics telling of pure, proper, and just-so-wild teenage love. These characteristics provide the grist to untold reminisces of the decade, whether through Happy Days, American Bandstand, or untold Time-Life collections. Forget the turmoil, the social upheavals, and the disintegration of the so-called American dream family through empowered, rebellious teenage leisure; the 1950s is lily-pure, and Buddy Holly is its role model.

Of course, Buddy Holly is considered as such because, through tragic fate, he did not outlive the 1950s. He is eternally young, eternally a memory. Because he cannot defend himself, he becomes eternally an ideological figure, a figure whose connotations have unavoidably trumped his personality. Dead men tell no tales, so men with agendas do so for them.

The same can be said for the subject of David Henderson’s biography, Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix, of course, died in 1970, likewise cast in eternal youth. Unlike his contemporaries Eric Burdon and Eric Clapton, he never shifted into 1970s styles or shifted his guitar virtuosity towards mainstream lite-pop.  He remains stuck with his unkempt Afro and broad features, gazing with his lazily poignant eyes and asking: Are You Experienced? He has become inextricably bound up with the 1960s, the figure most representing, depending on who’s doing the associating, free love, peace, and a better world, or drug-fueled, Dionysian amorality. Hendrix, like Holly, has shifted from flesh and blood to spirit. His spirit, though, has been converted to superficialities no deeper than the posters on countless dorm room walls bearing his face and signifying nothing more than thinking smoking pot is cool because the parents are no longer there.

The task becomes for a worthwhile biographer, then, how to resuscitate Hendrix the person, and separate him from Hendrix the concept. This question is thankfully undeniably on the mind of David Henderson, acclaimed author and poet. Henderson had the benefit, as a young rock critic, to meet and talk to Hendrix before his death, and it would be an understatement to say he made an impression on the author. The book jacket exhorts that the biography is a promise to Jimi. Henderson clearly deeply appreciated Hendrix, not just his music or image.

It is this desire towards understanding Hendrix, not just describing his life, that drives Henderson, and that makes this biography an enjoyable and insightful read. Both Henderson’s obvious perceptiveness, as well as his poet’s sense of aesthetic and art, help paint a picture of Hendrix that sees him not as a Rock Star, but as a shy, awkward, idealistic young man who spoke better through tones than language and sought nothing more than to express himself and find inner peace in a forcedly nomadic and poverty-stricken existence.  Henderson teases flesh and psychology out of Hendrix, and does so in a way that reins in the idealization that comes part and parcel with such a task.

Nowhere is this desire to humanize Hendrix more apparent than in the opening salvo that attacks whether Hendrix died of a drug overdose. The morning of September 18, 1970 has remained a mystery, but the public assumes that Hendrix’s red-wine-and-vomit-stained end came from a drug overdose. This is of course not a neutral claim; implicit in such a judgment is that he died because he was a sinful, hard-living hedonist whose death is a lesson for the dangers of drugs. Henderson’s response on page 6, italicized and set off from the rest of his text, claims simply, but powerfully, “Jimi Hendrix did not die of a drug overdose.” During this section, Henderson succeeds in providing facts that throw enough doubt into Hendrix’s last moments to question his final moments. Monika Dannemann and Eric Burdon do particularly poorly under Henderson’s gaze. Towards the end of the book, Henderson’s characterizations of the Mafia, the anti-Black Panther movement, and Hendrix’s undeniable depression and exhaustion likewise call into question conflating his death with ‘60s psychedelic haze. By taking on popular accounts of Hendrix’s unfortunately most famous moment, Henderson lays his ideological cards on the table, saying in essence that Hendrix deserves better.

Henderson importantly never lets you forget that he was African-American, and that the difficulties in his childhood and during his days gigging and traveling as a sideman have racial overtones. He also ensures that Hendrix’s political stance is resuscitated from “free love;” his anti-Vietnam stance and relationship with the Black Panthers are emphasized. Henderson is also not an apologetic for Hendrix’s behavior; his drug use and sexual promiscuity are described matter-of-factly, as an important part of his personality and ethos.

Henderson is too poetic to write just prosaically, and his text is enlivened by his extended quotation of interviews with Jimi. These provide a way for Henderson to let Hendrix speak for himself. Henderson is careful to describe at length the publicly shy and quiet Hendrix as well as the at times excited, at other times exhausted public Hendrix. These quotations both provide direct insight into Hendrix’s thoughts (Henderson is thankfully aware that he can’t help but be a filter) as well as help tell Henderson’s story.

Unfortunately, one device that Henderson uses that is less successful is his insistence on turning Hendrix’s lyrics into stories when he describes his songs. Hendrix, by the author’s own insistence, communicated more authentically through his music than his words, both lyrics and speech. I feel that Hendrix’s lyrics should not be taken literally, but rather are sonically pleasant approximations and intimations of states of mind that Hendrix understands prelinguistically but fumbles at describing. Though Henderson, being a poet, is naturally drawn towards the written word, I believe that such lyrical focus does not capture the essence of Hendrix’s message. Moreover, his paraphrase of generally known material seems uncharacteristically clumsy in the midst of his generally assured prose.

A metaphor for how I consider Hendrix’s lyrics can be actually seen in Henderson’s description of his music. Henderson is not a trained musician, and his use of musical terminology is best digested figuratively, not literally. Painting music with words is a difficult, if not ultimately futile task (if it wasn’t, why would music be so powerful and mysterious?). Henderson gets around this by describing the music not through rigorous analysis and carefully placed description, but through grasping gestures whose spirit seems to mesh well with Hendrix’s gestures. More care with accurate use of musical terms would be appreciated, but Henderson understands well that, when clarity isn’t possible, the aesthetic of the word/prosodic gesture can communicate just as effectively. Hendrix’s lyrics are likewise predicated on the aesthetic of his words, and it would have been better for Henderson to deal with them on that level.

Despite these misgivings, I found Henderson’s prose illuminating, provocative, and edifying. While Hendrix will always be ideological, Henderson’s portrayal is as realistic and sensitive as can be expected, and accurately challenges the myths that have grown in the nearly four decades since his death. One has the sense of the man, his charms and flaws, outside the psychedelic smoke clouds that surround this decade. We need all the help we can get to keep from superficial mythmaking of the 1960s, perhaps the most lionized decade in recent memory, and Henderson does an admirable job towards this goal.