Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Jimi Hendrix on PBS 'American Masters': Taking a rock legend seriously

The venerable PBS series American Masters — deep-dish documentary portraits of American artists — has a tradition of healthy eclecticism, incorporating select figures from popular culture into its generally highbrow mix. In the years since the series began in 1985, its subjects have included such diverse pop giants as Woody Allen, the Doors, Clint Eastwood, Annie Leibovitz, Marvin Gaye, Jeff Bridges, and Johnny Carson. (Just last night, the series re-broadcast Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ marvelous 1998 documentary about Lou Reed.) That said, the notion of American Masters devoting an episode to Jimi Hendrix, the guitar visionary of purple blues-rock psychedelia, has an almost mischievously counterintuitive ring. What next, Metallica? Iggy Pop? (I say why not: IfInside the Actors Studio can feature the cast of Arrested Development, then surely American Masters can do Iggy.) Yes, Jimi Hendrix was a genius — arguably the most brilliant and influential electric guitar player of the last half century. Yet his legend is drenched in ’60s sensationalism: the drugs, the noise, the royal Carnaby Street pimp clothes, the whole grand quest for a kind of aural annihilation.
The fascination of Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’, which premieres tonight at 9:00 p.m. on PBS, is that it takes in all that stuff (at a distant glance), but it also looks past it to take Jimi Hendrix deadly seriously as an artist. The reason the documentary gets away with its refined, earnest, sober approach is that Hendrix, as it reveals, took himself that seriously. He was always, on the one hand, a baroque showman, playing on stage not just as if he were “making love to his guitar” but really fornicating with it, his body movements sinuous and imperial. Where most rock-god guitar wizards turned the instrument into a phallic symbol, Hendrix went beyond them by treating the guitar as a partner to be tamed. (He seemed to be grabbing it by the scruff of its neck.) Yet Hendrix’ whole relationship with the guitar was obsessive and perfectionistic. He would carry the instrument with him all day long, putting it on in the morning, say, to go into the kitchen, always noodling and practicing. Hear My Train A Comin’ documents Hendrix’ infamous shyness, but it’s not that he was some painfully reticent wallflower — it’s that he didn’t trust words the way he did music. He was suspicious of them. The guitar became his voice.

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