With a soft voice and a downward gaze, Jimi Hendrix seemed to shrink in his pastel blue kimono-like shirt as talk show host Dick Cavett called him one of the best guitarists in the world in 1969.
After all, his friends and family said, Hendrix was shy and insecure. When he was performing, however, he was anything but, laying it all out for audiences that couldn’t quite absorb the innovation unfolding before their eyes and in their ears.
“On stage there was a magical transformation, like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” said his recording sound engineer Eddie Kramer. “He was quite the star performer on stage, quite sexual and very animalistic, but in complete control.”
That Hendrix paradox is at the heart of Jimi Hendrix — Hear My Train A Comin’ a documentary in the American Masters series that airs on PBS on Tuesday.
The two-hour documentary takes the viewer from Hendrix’s humble childhood in Seattle and his deep dive into the blues to his four years at the pinnacle of rock music in the late 1960s to his death at age 27 from an overdose of sleeping pills. It features previously unseen performance footage and home movies.
The first chords in the film come from the US debut of the band Jimi Hendrix Experience at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival where he played Wild Thing and simulated sex with his guitar before lighting it on fire and breaking it into pieces. Some in the audience look bewildered, some appalled.
“Now you look at it and you have kind of seen it,” the documentary’s director Bob Smeaton told Reuters. “But imagine looking at that for the first time. Imagine seeing Jimi Hendrix at Monterey in 1967 playing like that.”
That landmark performance might not have happened if not for a recommendation to festival organizers from Paul McCartney, who is featured in the film and whose Beatles were one of the biggest bands when Hendrix landed in London in 1966. Hendrix absorbed influences from the Brits, fusing them with his blues roots to create a unique sound that remains unmatched nearly a half century later.
The result was his first album Are You Experienced in 1967 which featured hit songs like Hey Joe, The Wind Cries Mary, Foxy Lady and Purple Haze and helped usher in the psychedelic music age.
Back in the US, Hendrix became an icon of the counterculture movement. At the Woodstock Festival in 1969, he tapped into young Americans’ view of their country with a controversial but now famous rendition of the The Star-Spangled Banner, the notes to the national anthem strung out and distorted through his white guitar.
Woodstock proved to be a turning point for Hendrix, who was keen on taking his music in new and more complex directions after a few years of phenomenal success, according to interviews with Hendrix himself, his band mates, producers and critics.
His death in 1970 came as a shock to them all. Smeaton said that in making the documentary he found no close associates who believe Hendrix committed suicide in London and that Hendrix had told his friends he was yearning to get back to his studio in New York to work on recordings.
“That was not a guy that was thinking about killing himself,” Smeaton said. “He was just reckless. Hendrix lived in a reckless time. He took sleeping tablets because he had to sleep and he drank red wine. That is not a great mix. It’s just very sad that he died at such a young age, at 27.”