The cultural object that says the most to me about the vexed question of Jimi Hendrix’s place in the present is a T-shirt originally produced in 2008. The graphic on the shirt is a black-and-white portrait of Hendrix. He’s smoking, pensive, looking away from the camera. If you haven’t seen this particular picture a thousand times before, you’ve seen a thousand Hendrix pictures like it. Above his head, in all-caps Garamond, are the words “BOB MARLEY.” At first glance, it could pass for an inept foreign bootleg — the most epic of fails, the greatest thrift-store find of all time. You can imagine rival ironists fighting at the Goodwill rack over who saw it first. But it’s actually a boutique appropriation of the bootleg aesthetic: It was first designed as a band T-shirt by a short-lived Bristol, England, psychedelic-rock/comedy act called African Apparel, which morphed into an art-prankish streetwear label after the band dissolved. The line now includes other double-take-inducing designs, like a Beyoncé T-shirt identifying Sasha Fierce as “RU PAUL” and artist Christopher Wright’s repurposing of Joy Division’s iconic Unknown Pleasures album cover as a joke about morning wood.
Both of these shirts are funny, but that’s about all they are. The “John Marley” shirt (as it’s referred to on the African Apparel website, possibly to create a purple haze around the obvious likeness-rights issues) taps into something deeper. The more you look at it, the more it looks like a veiled protest — against consumer culture’s colonization of history, against the way pop remembrance sands the edges off of complex people, against rock’s ability to reabsorb and monetize even the most violent break with tradition. When you strip them of historical context, trim their legacies to three or four hit songs in a Jack-FM playlist, and slap their images on T-shirts to be sold to generations of collegiate stoners, is there really that much of a difference between Marley and Hendrix anymore? Between Hendrix and Jim Morrison? Between Morrison and Tupac? The more tragic the public figure, the more easily they lend themselves to souvenir-ification and commercialized mourning. It’s a paradox that Lana Del Rey nailed the only way Lana Del Rey can — quasi-inadvertently, absurdly, somehow perfectly — on “Hollywood’s Dead,” an unreleased song that leaked in 2011: “Hollywood’s dead / Elvis is crying / Marilyn’s sad / Hendrix is lying there,” she sings, guilelessly conflating all of these sexy dead stars like she’s arranging dolls at a tea party. It’s worth noting that when Hendrix first took acid, he looked in the mirror despite being urged not to do so, and the face he saw was Monroe’s. Maybe it was a premonition.
The specter of John Marley is the reason I laugh every time I hear Drake say “I’m a descendant of either Marley or Hendrix / I haven’t figured it out ’cause my story is far from finished” on “Lord Knows,” from 2011’s Take Care. That Drake’s music sounds almost nothing like Marley’s or Hendrix’s is beside the point; the reference is an assertion about the kind of artist Drake believes he is, or means to become. DJs and producers have been up on Hendrix’s bottomless trove of dope beats and trippy noises for decades, and the Soulquarian movement led by Questlove and D’Angelo in the early ’00s was essentially one long and semi-successful Jimi séance conducted in the maestro’s old house. But Hendrix has never had a moment in hip-hop quite like the one he’s having now. Rappers invoke him as a creative pole-star and a drug-intake benchmark, sometimes in the same breath, keeping him alive in pop-cultural memory while adding to the existential weed-fog that shrouds his image. Hendrix has been the Boomer counterculture’s cool black friend for so long that his reclamation by rappers as an African American rebel, swag inventor, and Mount Rushmore–class stoner feels like a necessary corrective. But when Future calls himself “Future Hendrix,” when Danny Brown drops Jimi’s name among a litany of other drug casualties on “Die Like a Rockstar” as a symbol of the death by overdose he’s willing to risk, when Lil Wayne dons a Hendrixian-style Borsalino on the cover of Vibe or laces a track with an adorably terrible guitar solo, they’re still working within the parameters of the official Hendrix mythos. Reimagining Hendrix as a Tony Montana for hip-hop’s neo-psychedelic pills-and-lean period is still a reduction of what he actually meant.
You don’t discover Hendrix, you reclaim him. As with the Beatles, you have to take him back from everyone who’s admired him before and find your own way in, even if what you’re really looking for in the music is the same thing those old admirers found there. For the narrator of Sherman Alexie’s story “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock,” it happens on the way home from a basketball game, in the middle of a snowstorm. The narrator’s in a car with his father, who in the ’60s was “the perfect hippie, since all the hippies were trying to be Indians.” The narrator’s father did state-prison time in Walla Walla for beating up a National Guard trooper at a Vietnam War protest and got out just in time to hitchhike from Washington to New York to catch Hendrix and his under-rehearsed Gypsy Sun and Rainbows band at Woodstock.
“After all the shit I’d been through,” the father tells the narrator, “I figured Jimi must have known I was there in the crowd to play something like that. It was exactly how I felt.” By this point the narrator knows his father as a drunk, knows to throw in his father’s tape of Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” when his father gets home from a long night of drinking, so he can listen to it on repeat, as if to torture himself with the memory of the world it once promised him. But that night in the car, a DJ on the late-night classics show plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Betty in Tekoa, and it’s as if the narrator’s hearing it for the very first time:
My father smiled, turned the volume up, and we rode down the highway while Jimi led the way like a snowplow. Until that night, I’d always been neutral about Jimi Hendrix. But in that near-blizzard with my father at the wheel, with the nervous silence caused by the dangerous roads and Jimi’s guitar, there seemed to be more to all that music. The reverberation came to mean something, took form and function.
That song made me want to learn to play guitar, not because I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix and not because I thought I’d ever play for anyone. I just wanted to touch the strings, to hold the guitar tight against my body, invent a chord, and come closer to what Jimi knew, to what my father knew.
It happened for John Ridley the first time he heard “Sending My Love to Linda,” a Hendrix obscurity cut during a session at the Record Plant in New York in January 1970, eight months and two days before Hendrix died. Although he considered himself a Hendrix fan, he’d never heard any Hendrix music quite like this. He started digging for more information about Linda; in 2010, he wrote a column for NPR about who she turned out to be. “One night in May of 1966,” Ridley writes, “a beautiful girl walked into a bar. Really. The bar was the Cheetah Club in New York City. The beautiful girl was Linda Keith.”
Keith was a model, a blues-music fanatic, and Keith Richards’s girlfriend. Ridley’s new film, Jimi: All Is by My Side, begins on that night in May at the Cheetah Club, when Keith notices a charismatic and gifted left-handed guitar player in B-list R&B singer Curtis Knight’s band, and leaves off in June of the following year, with the Jimi Hendrix Experience walking through an airport, about to board a plane to America to play its first U.S. gig at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Keith is played with backbone and real melancholy by Imogen Poots; the guitar player, who still goes by “Jimmy,” is played by the rapper/actor André Benjamin, who still goes by “André 3000” on occasion. As one-half of Outkast, Benjamin often dressed like a 31st-century hippie and played a little guitar in addition to being one of the best rappers alive, so the notion he might someday play Hendrix in a movie has been in the wind for years.
Although they’re currently in the midst of a cheerfully low-stakes (and presumably high-reward) reunion tour, Outkast have effectively been broken up since the mid-’00s, and Benjamin’s spent the ensuing almost-decade in flight from the expectation that he might someday make a solo album. His August interview with the New York Times was a virtual catalogue of the things musicians say when their reluctance to make a definitive statement by making a record and putting it out is a force powerful enough to melt clocks, to hold off heaven: I write ideas, I write thoughts … I sit in my house and just play. I’ve been drawing and painting a lot more … No, I’d love to put out an album … When you feel it, it’s right. If he’d played Jimi Hendrix about 10 years ago, in a different kind of movie, the analogy might have helped people unfamiliar with “Bombs Over Baghdad” accept Benjamin as a rock star, if not an actor; All Is by My Side is probably far too weird and elliptical to make that happen.
But you have to admire the bravery of the 39-year-old Benjamin’s decision to play a guy who died at 27, just as you have to admire Ridley for resisting the temptation to extend his film’s time frame by a day or so to incorporate Monterey Pop, where Hendrix — tripping on high-grade acid supplied by celebrity chemist Owsley Stanley, with the cream of counterculture society watching from the wings — wrote himself into legend in the time it took to play 10 songs, douse his Strat in lighter fluid and set it on fire, then put it out of its misery by slamming it against the stage until it broke. Captured on film by D.A. Pennebaker in 1968’s Monterey Pop, it remained the most indelible moment of Hendrix’s career as a live performer until his noise-rock napalming of the national anthem at Woodstock two years later. Bob Smeaton’s 2013 American Masters documentary Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train a Comin’ underlines the guitar-murder’s importance by refusing to show it to us at first; an early montage builds to clips from Pennebaker’s film, but cuts away before the match is lit.
It’s only after what feels like hours of dutiful biography that Smeaton actually lets the scene play out, before throwing to Dweezil Zappa for a sound bite about what an unprecedented occurrence this was. One of the documentary’s producers was Janie Hendrix, who is the adopted daughter of Jimi’s late father, Al Hendrix, and the president and CEO of Experience Hendrix, the LLC that controls Jimi Hendrix’s $80 million estate and demands “full participation” in any Hendrix movie seeking to use its subject’s original music. If the comprehensive, boring Hear My Train a Comin’ is what “full participation” looks like — wall-to-wall hits washing down the frustratingly incontestable thesis that Jimi was a sweet guy who just wanted to play his guitar — it’s probably for the best that Ridley went forward without the blessing of Jimi’s heirs.
It’s probably for the best no matter what. All Is by My Side can’t rely on Hendrix’s music to drive the story or bridge its gaps, the way the similarly fragmented Get on Up did with James Brown’s catalogue. Instead it finds music in the air — Dylan, the Seeds, the Yardbirds — and in overlapping bar conversations, in feedback and sudden bursts of pin-drop silence. That we’re never confronted with the irreducible force of a Jimi Hendrix song played and sung by Jimi Hendrix only helps the movie, which is less about reminding us that Hendrix was genius and more about reminding us that geniuses are often infuriating to be around and oblivious to who they hurt. The movie suggests that in the case of Hendrix’s London girlfriend, DJ and hairstylist Kathy Etchingham, the hurt was literal; at one point Jimi beats Etchingham (Hayley Atwell) bloody with a pay-phone receiver. (More than one biographer has suggested that sexual jealousy brought out the worst in Hendrix, although Etchingham told the Sydney Morning Herald in June that Ridley’s portrayal of their relationship as abusive is “completely made up.”) Mostly, though, Hendrix just floats through Swinging London, driving lovers and would-be benefactors crazy with his refusal to meet them halfway. (“You stumble along thinking genius is enough to win the day for you,” a fed-up Keith fumes at one point, in one of several scenes in which someone says something wise to Hendrix that he totally shrugs off.) As imagined by Ridley and given Snagglepussian voice by Benjamin, Hendrix is funny and charming, but he’s also kind of a whiner and kind of a dick. In other words, like a lot of 24-year-olds, he’s a work in progress; also like a lot of 24-year-olds, you can’t tell him anything.
He lived three more years; Ridley’s film doesn’t speculate on whether he’d grown up at all by the time he died, or just grown so famous it no longer mattered. Apart from a few old photos that flash onscreen when Jimi calls his father collect from London, the past doesn’t intrude on this story, and neither does the future. The movie lives in the moment, just like Hendrix does, moving through a series of dark bars and small apartments as if the world outside each room is only a rumor — which, to a pure solipsist, it kind of is. In 1967, the outside world was very much a real thing, and yet in All Is by My Side, someone is always shutting down a conversation about what might be happening elsewhere. “There’s nothing down there,” Hendrix insists to his Harlem girlfriend Faye Pridgeon when she asks him about his life in the Village; later, when Keith asks him to show her Harlem, he says, “There’s nothing up there for you.” A groupie from Milwaukee shrugs off a question about her hometown by saying “There’s nothing to know,” and the girls in London don’t realize there’s a difference between the Washington where Hendrix’s native Seattle is and the one where the president lives. Hendrix tries to explain it, asking her, “You’ve heard of California, right?” In the context of this story, anywhere that Jimi isn’t might as well be Mars.