Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix By Philip Norman
400 pp., $28.95, Liverlight Publications
When veteran music journalist Philip Norman turns his attention to a musician, the word “definitive” is not an understatement. For while many of his subjects are themselves subjects of dozens—even hundreds—of tomes about their music and lives, Norman’s efforts tend to end up being the go-to one volume work. As he’s done with Buddy Holly, Elton John, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Eric Clapton.
And his 1981 Beatles bio Shout! – while not the most in-depth work on the Fabs, was the first serious look at their career in which the band themselves were not directly involved. Norman continues his higher calling streak with this work, likely the “definitive” look at perhaps the greatest guitarist in rock history.
Part of that is Norman’s very natural storytelling ability and just way he makes words flow. Whether uncovering new information via his own interviews, or retelling familiar tales, Norman writing skills are evident. When he’s describing how a young Jimi’s first instrument at the age of 12 was a one-stringed ukulele that his father found in a garbage pile, the reader can visualize the pleading on the boy’s face.
The book also goes into detail about Hendrix’s complicated relationships with his absent mother (who died early), and a stern, ego-driven father who seemed unfazed and unimpressed by his boy’s worldwide success. Despite Jimi’s every attempt to please him.
One head-scratching aspect of Hendrix’s pre-fame career Norman details is just how easily he would move from job to job seemingly without a care – even when he was fired. As a backing guitarist, he played with everyone from Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding to Solomon Burke, Chuck Jackson, and even Joey Dee and the Starliters. His tenure would always start out great, but eventually his tardiness, sloppiness in dress onstage, and showboating would make his employers sour on him.
As Norman notes, his tenure with Redding’s group ended when he was literally left on the side of the road in between gigs as the bus pulled away. Also interesting is how often he would be without a guitar, having hocked it, but always finding a way to have a bandmate or—more often—a sympathetic woman or girlfriend (and that term was a very loose one to Hendrix), pay to get it out for him.
“I still have my guitar and amp,” Jimi wrote in one letter to his father from the road. “And as long as I have that, no fool can stop me living.” And what he did with that guitar would be first appreciated by English audiences, leaving fellow players awestruck. Norman describes one scene at an early Hendrix rock show where in the wings Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton were “holding hands like awestruck toddlers at a fireworks display.”
It took Hendrix’s iconic performances at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival to ignite his career back in his native U.S., and then the world. Though even while his star was burning brightest, it didn’t shield him from both casual and flagrant encounters with racism from how he was described by some to those who took issue with his many white girlfriends.
The book is also filled with women who jump in and out of these pages as they did in Hendrix’s bed. That the guitar god would often use them to fulfill his own sexual and career needs, then drop them, and maybe come back does not paint him in the best light, but they all kept coming back.
His personal charm seemed to go a long way. And the one consistent of any Hendrix book is how the amplifier-humping, guitar-smashing, flamboyantly-dressed and flailing wildman onstage belied an offstage persona that was actually shy, soft-spoken, and surprisingly unsure of himself.
That personality type also led many to take advantage of Hendrix – first and foremost manager Mike Jeffery, the book’s designated villain. That’s not including the countless, hangers-on, groupies, sycophants and drug pushers Hendrix would eagerly surround himself with, then bemoan their presence.
Of course, Jimi Hendrix met an untimely end. Part of the “27 Club,” he died at that age in September 1970 from what varying has been described as a drug overdose and/or choking on his own vomit. The exact details of Hendrix’s death and how he spent his last 24 hours of earth will likely never be known given that the woman he was with at the time – girlfriend Monika Dannemann – changed her story and the extent of her involvement many times over the years.
The casualness with which the investigation happened would be unimaginable for a star even half as famous as Hendrix was in today’s climate. But with new interviews, Norman pieces together what is likely an as accurate as possible chain of events. And of course, wonders what kind of music the ever inquisitive and forward-moving musician could have made.
Wild Thing does have one weak point in that Norman seems to rush past how large Jimi Hendrix still looms in the rock and pop culture consciousness in the 50 years since his death. And the amount text on the struggles and battles involving his estate and his family members could have been fleshed out a bit more, as well as a look at his discography.
Nevertheless, Philip Norman has once again managed to write what history may look at as the most complete word on his subject, and Wild Thing deserves a place on the top tier of the Jimi Hendrix bookshelf.
This review originally appeared at HoustonPress.com