Skip to main content
john doyle

Following the death of Lou Reed recently, many of the assessments of his work included surprise that he had survived long enough to live past 70. And we were reminded by those assessments that Reed left a true body of work – solo recordings and collaborations over several decades.

Such was not the case with Jimi Hendrix. He arrived, soared and was gone. American Masters: Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train a Comin' (PBS, 9 p.m.) is a terrific look at Hendrix's short life and brief career. The upshot is that he was a guitar genius and a nice, shy guy. But the journey to that conclusion is truly fascinating.

The first thing we hear is this: "Jimi Hendrix is one if the most important American musicians of the 20th century. He revolutionized the electric guitar." And someone else says, "When he was playing he was supremely confident. When he wasn't, he was desperately unsure." Those are the twin themes and deftly coaxed from the narrative.

There is much else too. Hendrix as a rare example of a black rock guitarist. Hendrix as an emanation of the London music scene of the mid-sixties. Hendrix as a style icon. Hendrix as representative of an era and a generation that was naive about drug use.

The documentary begins with his performance at the Monterey Festival in 1967, playing a stunning version of Wild Thing. Then it goes back to Seattle in 1942 and his birth. His father explains that he was in the army when Jimi was born and when he returned he found that Jimi's mother had given him to another couple to raise. His dad found him and began creating a stable home and environment for the boy. Throughout the doc there are examples of Jimi's letters and postcards to his dad and they are deeply charming. He liked and admired his father. When he was in London and got his first recording contract, he called and said, "Well Daddy, I think I'm on my way to the big time."

Much of his early life was conventional for a young black man of the time – he listened to his dad's blues albums and absorbed everything; he was given a guitar and mastered it; he joined the army (he was in the 101st Airborne), he joined a band and began making a living playing in other people's bands. Some recognized his early genius, but most other musicians wanted him in the background, supporting them.

It was London, in 1966, that turned him into a pop star. He'd hung around New York and gained attention but nobody really knew what to make of him. Besides, he was shy and simply drifted from one girlfriend's apartment to another's. It was Chas Chandler, then with the Animals on their final tour, who saw Hendrix, brought him to London and helped make him a star. There is copious coverage of that period here, including reminiscences from Paul McCartney, who still exudes the awe with which Hendrix was viewed in London.

There are others, especially in the United States, who remember the bafflement that greeted Hendrix. Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas says she was "appalled" the first time she saw Hendrix destroy his guitar at the end of a performance. Indeed the doc is a feast for people who brood on the music of the sixties and seventies. Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton are among those who talk about Hendrix.

Throughout, the various women who knew him well appear and speak with profound affection for him. No matter how much he womanized or wandered, he was loved, believed to be without guile, and a generous man. He was only 27 when he died after taking too many sleeping pills in a hotel room in London. As a Rolling Stone writer says in the program, Hendrix didn't adapt well to the celebrity that engulfed him. Things were different then. He didn't have the managerial and financial support he needed. He'd forged ahead, trying to control his career, having his own lavish recording studio, but he was surrounded by people more interested in money than the guitar genius.

What we can take away from the program is sadness that he never managed to create a true body of work. He was here and gone. Also that he was liked by so many people who recognized his gentleness and innocence.

Hendrix was dead before I was old enough to appreciate rock music, and there was a time when I was dismissive of the sixties and the aura that surrounded so much of the music and popular culture from the era. Watching this, we should all be reminded that while it is easy to sneer at boomer nostalgia, there was a time when pop music was about a figure such as Hendrix and not creations by faceless committees of songwriters crafting ear candy.

All times ET. Check local listings.