Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age, by David Henderson
No month stated, 1978 Doubleday
I’ve gone through periodic bouts of obsession with the music and life of Jimi Hendrix, and it just so happens I’m in the midst of one right now. I tell ya, this guy’s music just gives and gives, which is crazy when you realize he was only 27 when he died and he was only in the public eye for less than four years! Yet to this day, almost 50 years after his death, “new” Jimi Hendrix albums are still being released…the guy practically lived in the studio, and there’s still tons of unreleased material in the vaults. And people are still buying his records.
In a previous such phase I read the paperback edition of this bio, published by Bantam in 1982 and retitled ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky; at one point it was pretty common, given that it was for a time the only extensive biography of Hendrix. However David Henderson’s book has fallen out of favor in recent years; folks don’t much like the mytho-poetic approach he’s taken to Jimi’s life, the way he sometimes dips into the thoughts of Jimi or other characters, the way he fictionalizes certain people and events, the occasional inaccuracy he presents as fact. In particular, they don’t like the way he tries to convey Jimi’s music through poetic word-painting.
But I friggin’ loved it – all of it! In fact I enjoyed it so much that, even though I first read the book back in the summer of 2001, parts of it still rolled around in my head. I decided recently to read it again…only to recall that the paperback edition was an abdridgement of this original hardcover. So of course, this time I had to get the hardcover, which is now scarce and overpriced on the collector’s market. But it was worth it; it was just what I wanted: a veritable doorstop of a book, 500+ pages of incredibly small, dense print, all about my man Jimi Hendrix, written in a super-hip, super-literary style. The book is very much of its time – and around here, in case you haven’t guessed it yet, that’s meant as a compliment.
Personally, I don’t want a rock bio that tells me that a recording session took place on such and such a date, and the umpteenth take of a particular track was recorded on that date, or that the musician was wearing red socks at the time. I could care less about that stuff. I want a book that captures the spirit of rock, and folks in my opinion Henderson has captured it perfectly. His book is very much in the mold of the New Journalism, as it was then called, as popularized in Rolling Stone and such; it reads like fiction (and some detractors would claim that’s because it is fiction!), like the greatest blockbuster ever about James Marshall Hendrix, aka the greatest figure in rock history. (Or at least he is to me!)
Henderson takes his time with the story. As evidence of this, the first hundred or so pages are devoted to Jimi’s history, from how his parents met to his hardscrabble childhood in Seattle, traded from one family to another, given how his dad was fighting WWII and his mother was either too sick or too drunk to care for him. One curious thing I found to be missing was why Jimi, or “Jimmy” as he was then known, was drawn to the guitar; Henderson tells us that he eventually took one up after playing other instruments, but leaves it at that. Luckily we have Jimi’s own words on this, as related in the pseudo-autobiography Starting At Zero (2013): Jimi claimed that he was more interested in pianos and such, but wanted an instrument he could easily carry around. And since guitars were plentiful, that’s what he ended up playing.
But it’s a testament to Henderson’s word-spinning that these initial hundred pages are still so gripping. I mean, like most I just wanted to get to the good stuff – the formation of the Experience, the recording of their first album, all that stuff. But I really enjoyed reading about Jimi hanging out with his childhood friend, getting involved with various bands in his hometown of Seattle. One wonders though how much of this, too, is anecdotal; it’s my understanding that Jimi’s father, Al Hendrix, was prone to spinning tall tales about Jimi’s youth, usually presenting himself in a flattering light. Again we know from Starting At Zero that, at least according to Jimi, Al would occasionally beat him, and was generally overbearing.
I also appreciate how Henderson foregoes all opportunities to sap things up, as would be mandatory in a book published in today’s touchy-feely, “movie moment” world. Like Jimi’s troubled relationship with his mother. She died when he was just a teenager, but Henderson doesn’t dwell much on the sad scene, and only relays that Jimi didn’t say much about it at the time. He only did later, through his music – years later he would record “Gypsy Eyes,” take after take after take of it, and what his increasingly-frustrated bandmates didn’t realize was that the song was inspired by his mom. Nor does Henderson sap up the admittedly-moving part where Al, returned finally from the war, takes a train to go pick up Jimi, whom he’s never even seen before.
Speaking of Al, one also gets the suspicion that Jimi’s brief Army career is a bit gussied up. We’re not told, for example, that teenaged Jimi was given a choice: Army or jail. This is due to the fact he was arrested for joyriding in a stolen car. (Jimi claimed he didn’t know the car was stolen.) But his dad was in the Army, and Jimi strives to retain the family name by going airborne. We know from Jimi’s own comments that he hated the Army, but Henderson doesn’t convey that as much, angling more for the idea that Jimi was really trying to make his dad proud. But meanwhile the other guys were hassling him because he was such a weirdo, playing his guitar all the time and even sleeping with it.
Jimi’s departure from the Army is also a little vague; I’ve read multiple stories, from him injuring himself to faking his way through psych eval tests so he could be discharged as a nutcase. At any rate, soon Jimi’s back to the hardscrabble life, slumming around the south and playing for a variety of R&B groups. Here he also meets funky bassist Billy Cox, who would factor heavily in Jimi’s later years – and in my estimation was the best bassist Jimi ever recorded with. I’d never had much interest in this early period of Jimi’s career before, but Henderson tells it with such enthusiasm that I was caught up in it neverthless. And one really gets to feel some sympathy for Jimi, being screwed over by unscrupulous band leaders and management companies.
Chief among the screwer-overs would be Ed Chaplin, who early on has Jimi sign a contract for a measly one dollar; this laughable contract would come back to haunt Jimi in his final years, his useless lawyers unable to free him from it. (Though we learn in the “Coda” that that this was handled posthumously, by lawyers who actually knew what they were doing – folks, Jimi just never got a clean break in his life.) Eventually he winds up in New York, living in Harlem but spending more time in the Village, where he discovers and becomes obsessed with the music of Bob Dylan. Jimi plays in dingy clubs, and here he is discovered by Animals member Chas Chandler.
Henderson doesn’t mention much about Jimi’s band at this time; one of them, we’re told, is Randy California, but Henderson doesn’t tell us this guy will eventually become a rock star himself (though not nearly as popular of one as Jimi), in the group Spirit. Instead, Jimi sorta coldly ditches his backing group and heads on over to England with Chas, taking him up on his promise to make him a superstar. We’re told that upon arrival in London it’s been decided that “Jimmy” will become “Jimi,” but we’re not told why this decision was made. My assumption is it must’ve been an idea of Chandler’s, as “Jimi” Hendrix does look a little cooler than “Jimmy” Hendrix.
Now we get to the good stuff. Jimi is feted by the English rock establishment, with the Stones and the Beatles following him around London. And we already know he’s been successful with the ladies, but here he goes into overdrive; Henderson has Kathy Etchingham as Jimi’s main squeeze in London, though she’ll gradually drop out of the text. (Henderson is more focused on making Devon Wilson Jimi’s sort-of soulmate, and one wonders if this is because Devon is black – more on which anon.) There’s no outright sleaze in the text, but we are aware that Jimi is quite the swordsman; we even get a report from the infamous Plaster Casters, ie the American gals who cast plaster statues of rockstar dicks. Jimi’s is recorded as being the biggest this particular Caster has ever seen.
But when it comes to the music Henderson really shines. He has a definite understanding of Jimi’s music and in addition to describing the sounds will often tell us the keys and the chords being played. That being said, he’s guilty of overusing the word “dubbing” in his frequent song descriptions (ie “Jimi dubbing the rhthym” and such). As mentioned a lot of online reviewers bitch about this excess of word painting, but I really enjoyed it. As an example, here’s Henderon’s breakdown of one of the tracks on the first album, Are You Experienced:
On “Love Or Confusion” the setup hook chord delineates the entire song. The strange harmony between the long sustained sitarlike chord and the overdriving Fuzz Face and Cry-Baby combination creates a tremolo that double-times against the 4/4 time, thus belonging to both the rhythm and the harmony. Jimi makes his guitar do a Sagittarian bow thrust, like the sound heard in cartoons when the Road Runner takes off. Mitch beats out a snare-in-the-round intro. In a fast 4/4 the funky hambone bass lines are joined by Jimi’s skipping rhythm work. The bass evokes cavernous underground insurgency in echo. Jimi gets an exotic sitar sound on one guitar track and a harmonizing sustain tremolo on another. The major chord drone dips into a lovely minor mode…
The Fuzz-Face-Cry-Baby combination is jacked to the upper registers where the looney distorted Cry-Baby peal takes over. Driving to a peak of oscillating intensity, it begins to solo as Jimi shouts, his voice integrated into the sound on an equal par with the rest of the instruments: Is it love! Baby, or just a confusion?
And by the way, “Sagittarian bow thrust” is used almost as frequently as “dubbing.” But it’s a cool phrase, so no big deal. Anyway maybe this little excerpt will give an idea of what I’m talking about. We get thorough rundowns of many of Jimi’s songs, with most focus placed on the first album. Surprisingly, Henderson doesn’t have much to say about Axis: Bold As Love, which is strange given that it’s one of Jimi’s more lyrical albums. He does appropriately spend some time on the title track, one of Hendrix’s best and most unsung, with a phased guitar coda that never fails to send shivers down the spine. Henderson gets a bit more in-depth with Electric Ladyland (Jimi’s masterpiece, in my opinion), in particular “Voodoo Chile” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” And I really appreciated his examination of “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be),” my favorite of all Jimi’s songs, and a damn revelation on headphones on the recent Sony Legacy 180 gram vinyl remaster (all analog, baby!).
Henderson ranks the material Jimi recorded in his final two years as his very best, and I tend to agree; over the past few decades I’ve found myself listening to these songs, slated for an album to either be titled First Rays Of The New Rising Sun or Straight Ahead (or something else – Jimi was always coming up with new titles), more than I’ve listened to his stuff with the Experience. Henderson and others often stress that this material was different than what came before, but relistening to these albums in sequence (again, on those awesome Sony Legacy vinyl remasters), it seemed to me that Jimi’s biggest artistic change occurred in the year between Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland. The former is heavy psychedelic rock, the latter is more organic (though still quite heavy at times). To me, this ’69-’70 material is really just a logical progression of Electric Ladyland; “Night Bird Flying,” for example, could’ve fit right on that album and not seemed out of place.
Another thing I dug about the book was that Henderson clearly understands that there was something of the “Other” about Hendrix – as former bandmate Buddy Miles once said of him, “It’s as if he went through something the rest of us haven’t,” or something to that effect. Jimi was a high school dropout who had an intuitive grasp of heavy concepts. He was in many ways a sort of rock ‘n’ roll shaman. And in case we don’t grasp this ourselves, there’s a character in the book who articulates it for us – that Jimi is the “Axis” as defined by Manly Hall in The Secret Teaching Of All Ages. This character is identified as Ray Warner, “a guitarist for the Chambers Brothers;” he is so inspired by Jimi upon meeting him in early ’68 that he forms his own group, called Axis.
Folks, I can find no info of any such person – Google searches of “Ray Warner” with “Chambers Brothers” just returns hits for this very book! Also no such group member is listed on discogs.com. I started to wonder if Warner was just a composite of other characters, or if Henderson was using him as a stand-in for himself. Especially given that Warner baldly states what Henderson implies about Jimi throughout the book – that there was something special about him, something alien:
Jimi would take the words from the songs on the Axis album and repeat them back to Ray and they would make a completely different story that was not as farfetched and odd as the album itself sounded. He was trying to say that he could take you to a place without even moving your body – and he wanted to do that. It was not about LSD or any hallucinogenic – he was the drug, he was the high. He had a way to work that was going to reach across the nation. And any extraterrestrial beings out there would have to pick up on it. It was a heavy communications thing. Jimi knew he could not tell a whole lot of people about where his head was at and what he wanted to do, but he could give little hints in interviews and some of it in the songs and all of it to a few. He saw the music in the sky. He saw his music as a living life form that had the potential to give people a direct feeling, a direct understanding – that would open their eyes to cosmic powers by simply directly experiencing his music. Ray Warner began getting the distinct feeling that Jimi Hendrix was not of this Earth.
I could be wrong, and there really was a Ray Warner of the Chambers Brothers who had these heavy talks with Jimi and started a band in tribute to him, but I do wonder if the character isn’t a creation of the author. I read somewhere that David Henderson wrote this book because he met Jimi in the late ‘60s and promised to write his bio someday, but this story is not related in Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age. Also, I know from other sources that Henderson himself is a guitarist – in fact, one so gifted that for some years a track of his was passed around the trading community as an actual Hendrix outtake. Instead it was a prank on Henderson’s part; apparently he was trying to fool Alan Douglas, the guy who at the time was in charge of the posthumous Hendrix albums, into believing it was a legitimate Jimi song. Somehow the track leaked out to the bootleg community. But anyway my argument is this – Henderson met Jimi and he was a guitarist in his own right, so perhaps he himself is “Ray Warner.”
At any rate this character only comes and goes in the text. Jimi has a lot of clingers-on, more and more of them as time goes on. This was one of the many things that drove him apart from Noel and Mitch. Eventually we’ll meet Vishwa, a “black cat into TM” who comes off as one of Jimi’s few friends not in the music biz (until that is Jimi coldly dumps him, a week or so before he dies), and also Finney, Miles Davis’s official hairdresser who, with Miles’s permission, also works on Jimi’s hair. But most focus is placed on Devon Wilson, Jimi’s sort-of girlfriend, sort-off secretary, sort-of housekeeper, sort-of pimp, full-time heroin addict. (Jimi himself never touched heroin, by the way – something the coroner made explicit, as there was no sign of needle damage on him.) At the expense of Kathy Etchingham, whom many would argue was “Jimi’s Yoko,” Devon is presented as Jimi’s soul sister in all but name, his star-crossed lover.
Henderson covers everything, from all the albums to most of the concerts to most of the TV apperances. There are some mistakes, of course, but unlike the diehards I didn’t let them bug me. Some of them are unintentionally humorous, mostly because they only made it into the book thanks to sloppy editing. For example, we’re told on one page that Noel Redding was hired for the Experience due to his frizzy afro. But on the very next page, we’re told that Noel had short, almost buzzed hair when he joined the group! There are also misspellings throughout the book, almost but not quite to the level of what you’d encounter in a Leisure Books publication of the era. Even names are wrong; Eric Burdon of War is consistently referred to as “Eric Burden.”
On a geekier level, Hendrix fanatics will instantly detect some mistakes. This ranges from major stuff – and Henderson states in the “Coda” that he willingly committed fallacies or fictionalizations in order to streamline the book, which is fine by me – to minor stuff, like when we’re told that Jimi writes a new piece he calls “Pali Gap.” In reality, “Pali Gap,” a wonderful instrumental in a Santana vein, only received its title posthumously, when the soundtrack for Rainbow Bridge (1972) was being put together; supposedly Mike Jeffrey, Jimi’s manager, named the track after a wind that blows in Maui, location of the film. Recently it’s been suspected that the track was actually titled “Electric Lady,” an otherwise mysterious song that only appears in Jimi’s handwritten tracklist for his never-finalized fourth studio album.
But obviously that’s not a big deal at all. Nor is stuff like the claim that Jimi was unhappy with the 1970 single “Izabella/Stepping Stone” because the label had recorded over Buddy Miles’s drums and replaced them with Mitch Mitchell’s. Actually, Buddy’s original drum track was on both sides of the single, which was quickly withdrawn (and is rare as hell today); not because of Jimi’s request, but because Capitol complained it was interfering with sales of the just-released Band Of Gypsys, out on Capitol (and not Jimi’s label Warner Reprise) due to that Chaplin lawsuit. Also, Mitch recorded his drum tracks at Jimi’s request, and Jimi was there to oversee the recording; one fan met Mitch many years later, and Mitch stated that he himself preferred Buddy’s original drums, but only did his takes because Jimi was unhappy with Buddy’s work.
Of course, it’s easy for me to be such a know-nothing know-it-all about this stuff because I’m writing this review in 2018; all the above info and more is available with just a few internet searches. In particular, the Steve Hoffman music forum is a treasure trove of Hendrix data; I’ve spent hours reading the various threads about his music. Henderson obviously was writing long before the internet era, so he had to do his own research, thus one can’t really fault him for a few minor goofs.
However what is kind of a bigger deal is that Henderson sort of implies throughout that Jimi never made it with black audiences because The Man was keeping him down. There’s a part where Jimi plays a concert in Harlem and Henderson has these black radio DJs apologizing to Jimi for never playing his music – it’s pretty much stated that the white bastards who run the station insist on only black music being played. This is an untruthitude of the highest order. The reality is, black audiences did not, for the most part, respond favorably to Jimi’s music or to Jimi himself. Indeed he was derogatorily referred to as a “Jim Crow” for playing with two white guys. (We live in an era where “racism” is always used to describe white-on-black hate, but folks – racism is universal.) It’s debatable if Jimi himself was overly hung up on not being a superstar among his “own people;” Jimi Hendrix had ascended far beyond race, and I’m not just saying that because he liked to sleep with white women. (And really, who doesn’t??) The other week, though, I saw a young black lady at the mall wearing a Jimi Hendrix shirt, so Jimi, you finally made it.
But Henderson is a little guilty of playing up Jimi’s blackness; we’re often told of how happy Jimi is to meet a “brother” when he’s out and about, and in this book at least he definitely wants to incur the support of black audiences. In this regard Jimi’s short-lived Band of Gypsys (Billy Cox on bass, Buddy Miles on drums and sometimes-egregious backing vocals) is given a lot of focus: the first black power trio, Henderson is sure to remind us. We’re also often reminded that Jimi’s management (aka white guy Mike Jefferey) doesn’t “get” the Band of Gypsys, doesn’t like this funkier, more soulful shit Jimi is playing, and just wants him to get back with the white boys in the Experience and make music for white audiences. And that bigger group of black musicians Jimi briefly formed before, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows (ie his Woodstock band), was even worse.
Given the era in which Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age was published, one really can’t blame Henderson, who himself is black, for trying to bring Jimi Hendrix back into the black community. Given the sort of black renaissance going on at the time, it’s likely Jimi would’ve been accepted as a superstar among black audiences if he’d lived. Some of his later music would’ve killed it on soul stations of the day, like the recently-unearthed master mix of “Power Of Soul,” inexplicably kept from release until it appeared on the compilation Both Sides Of The Sky (2018). In fact in his last interview Jimi immediately responded that Sly Stone was a performer he himself was knocked out by, so I suspect if Jimi had lived he would’ve found some way to bridge the divide between “white music” and “black music.”
The final pages do veer into what can only be deemed as fiction, though, mostly because Henderson for the most part relies on Monika Dannemann’s story of what happened in Jimi’s final hours, and also in how we’re informed jazz producer Alan Douglas befriended Jimi and was poised to take his career in a whole new direction. For the former, Monika was a chronic liar, at least about her relationship with Jimi (this isn’t my theory – it was proven in a court case which she lost in ’96, committing suicide immediately afterward), and for the latter, Douglas no doubt wanted to make himself seem as if he were important to Jimi when Jimi was still alive, instead of being the guy who plundered the vault recordings after Jimi was gone, wiped the backing musicians off the master tapes, and replaced them with his own session men. And credited himself as co-writer on a few of the resulting songs!
But the rundown of Jimi’s death is wholly fabrication – he wasn’t still alive when he was put into an ambulance, and the paramedics didn’t strap him into an upright position so that he choked on his own vomit. All this nonsense comes from Monika, who changed her story multiple times over the years. It’s unfortunate that Henderson didn’t track down the paramedics or the doctor or the coroner; in his “Coda” he states that he spent five years writing this book, meeting with multiple people who knew Jimi, so it’s a shame he didn’t get a chance to set this particular record straight. If he had, a generation wouldn’t have grown up incorrectly believing that Jimi died of a drug overdose, or that the most incompetent paramedics in history accidentally killed him. In reality, Jimi was long dead when the paramedics arrived, but I already went into too-much detail about this in my review of Jimi After Dark.
More interesting is the discussion of where Jimi’s music might have gone if he had lived. It’s universally agreed that he would’ve at least dabbled in jazz, and he did plan to record an album with jazz bandleader Gil Cohen. That sadly never happened, but Cohen released Plays The Music Of Jimi Hendrix in 1974, for the most part a pretty cool melding of big band, cosmic jazz-funk, and psychedelic rock that gives an indication of what the real thing with Jimi might’ve sounded like. But to get what I consider the truest indication of what “Jimi goes jazz” would’ve sounded like, look no further than Miles Davis’s live release Agharta (1975), one of the greatest albums in the history of music: a 2LP excursion into heavy psychedelic jazz and fuzzy electronics, recorded before a mind-blown audience in Japan, lead guitarist Pete Cosey channeling Jimi’s spirit throughout. Indeed, Jimi’s spirit loomed over Miles Davis’s entire ‘70s output; even the man’s wardrobe began to resemble Jimi’s.
As mentioned, Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age is too long (sort of like this review!), but I enjoyed every word of it. I really did. But I can see where some things could’ve been whittled out. Some of the contemporary reviews and interviews Henderson shoehorns into the text could’ve been tightened up or just plain removed. Some of this stuff is just far-out inexplicable, like an interminable stoned conversation Jimi, Eric Clapton, and assorted hangers-on have in a London club; somehow Henderson got hold of a tape of this “conversation,” and he transcribes the whole thing…even the parts where the tape cuts off and some of the words are lost. And it just goes on and on and on – and it’s about nothing! Jimi was super-awesome, super-talented, super-everything, but one thing I’ve noticed…when you listen to him talk in his interviews (or check out his “as himself” appearance in Rainbow Bridge), it quickly becomes clear that the dude enjoyed his booze and his drugs. I actually followed this whole conversation, trying desperately to divine some sort of meaning or even a thread, but failed miserably. It occurred to me that I wasn’t high or drunk enough to follow it.
I no longer have my paperback copy of the book, but as mentioned ’Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky was abridged. I’m assuming it’s this sort of stuff Henderson edited out. I don’t know much about Henderson’s most recent revision, now subtitled Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child, other than he now puts forward the notion that Jimi was murdered. This is a longstanding theory, but much of it revolves around the misinformation that Jimi was “drowned” in wine. In truth, only one person claimed this – the doctor who tried to revive Jimi’s dead body when it arrived in the hospital – but his comments were given decades later and it’s clear he was thinking of another patient. No one else, including the paramedics who first arrived on the scene, mentioned Jimi’s body being covered in wine. You can read more about Jimi’s last days here. But then I don’t even know if this is part of the theory Henderson puts forward in his latter revision.
So yeah, the book is long, perhaps inordinately so. But good grief did I enjoy it. I looked forward to reading it every day, and my enthusiasm never waned. In fact I intend to read it again someday. Now that I think of it, this would also make for a great “desert island book;” by the time you finished reading it, you’d be rescued!