Jimi Hendrix, Rock God
A Review of Crosstown
by Charles Shaar Murray
Charles Shaar Murray was born in 1952 in
London England. With no record of ever attending college,
Murray focused all his studies on British music, becoming an
English music journalist in 1970. Writing for magazines such
as Oz, International Times, and New Music Express, Murray
has gained global respect of music critics over the past 30
years with his multiple periodical publications and dozens
of reputable music journals.
Opening with a recollection of Jimi Hendrix’ most famous
performance of his career at Woodstock in 1969, Charles
Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic seeks to expose the truths
of the life of the infamous rocker most known as “that crazy
black man who played the guitar well and died
young.”1 During a time of turmoil and chaos
abroad, American youths searched for an idol to lead them to
a world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll; they found that
idol in Jimi Hendrix. But Hendrix surpassed the
classification of teen sensation and came to incorporate the
best of blues, jazz, rock, and soul into one mind-blowing
sound that unmistakably defined a generation.
Like all good biographies, Crosstown Traffic begins with a
chapter dedicated to the background of the life and times of
Jimi Hendrix. Before even discussing Hendrix himself, Murray
describes the social and pop culture scene in America and
Britain (Hendrix’ two places of prosperity) during the
1960s. Murray criticizes that the sixties are cynically
remembered as a time of, “naiveties, hypocrisies, and social
and political contradictions,” but there were in actuality
so many more positive events that the common conservative
historians simply gloss over.2 The sixties have
been described (by Murray and others) as “the we decade”;
there was a clearly defined tone of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.
However, according to the author, all of those included in
the ‘we’ actually had much less in common than they had
assumed.3 Murray then turns toward the typical
biographical “Facts in the Case of Jimi
Hendrix.”4 Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle
General Hospital on the 27th of November 1942 with the name
John Allen Hendrix. He found the guitar early in life,
quickly figuring out that it “completed him, gave him the
confidence and the strength to rock out, boogie down and
show off. To become somebody.”5 However, not
everyone appreciated the music and mood created by Hendrix.
Jimi was dropped from many of his early bands over disputes
with other band mates whose girlfriends liked Hendrix’ music
a little too much. Later joining the army by choice, Hendrix
still failed to receive the acceptance he was searching for,
often being patronized and ridiculed by his fellow soldiers.
Finally, when he was honorably discharged from the army and
was touring around Chicago with any band that would have
him, Hendrix was discovered by Chas Chandler—a popular music
manager of the time—and whisked away to London where he
achieved first real success. Undergoing a complete makeover
and getting much needed experience in London, Hendrix
polished his image and returned to the United States a rock
icon, going from a relative nobody in the mid-sixties to the
highest paid and anticipated act at Woodstock in 1969.
Hendrix became heavily into drugs, alcohol, and women.
Although some sources swear he was the kindest rock star and
did not support the “cock-rock” mentality of women as
objects, Hendrix was nevertheless, known to be surrounded by
a sea of different women everynight.6 This
lifestyle he endeared so highly, however, eventually caught
up with him. One night after taking too many of his
girlfriend’s sleeping pills, Hendrix slept for over
twenty-four hours. After being placed on his back in the
ambulance, Hendrix choked on his own vomit on September 18,
1969, only a few short months after his history-making
rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Hendrix
was fated to go down in history with the other Hollywood
greats who lived too fast and died too young.
Murray then takes a turn from the stereotypical path of a
biography and discusses the different types of music Hendrix
would learn from and incorporate into his own sound. Chapter
three in particular, entitled “I’m A Man (or at least I’m
trying to be)”, discusses the world of jazz, blues, and rock
in the sixties and its largely masculine
tendencies.7 While he didn’t draw much of his
personality characteristics from these jazz and blues
influences, he did draw much of his musical characteristics
from them. Hendrix was extremely close, even like a son, to
B.B. King and other great blues legends. He already had his
own unique sound, and amazing natural talent, but Hendrix
would use these artists as muses to incorporate new feelings
and moods into his sound. So, while the world of blues and
jazz was not particularly good for Hendrix’ character, it
had a monumental impact on his music. In chapter four,
entitled “Room Full of Mirrors: the Black artist and the
White audience,” Murray focuses solely on the simple
troubles and triumphs that black artists endured and
achieved throughout the 1960s. Hendrix managed to become
extremely popular with the young white audience of the
sixties—probably because he never really had a large black
audience—which managed to boost his record sales and concert
attendance like no other. He was not the only black artist
to achieve such nation-wide recognition for a certain music
genre during a largely discriminating time; Stevie Wonder
put Motown on the map, making it popular for all races; Bob
Marley popularized reggae; and Hendrix transformed rock.
But, even though these artists’ music was accepted, their
race was still not. Little Richard recalls that “ the white
teenagers would have to hide [his] album from their parents”
because the African American race was still not accepted as
equals among middle-class white society.8
Although the growing popularity of black music did not
abolish the race issue, it took African American society one
step closer to being accepted into white suburbia, partially
thanks to Jimi Hendrix.
Throughout chapters five and six, Murray shares the stories
of other talented young musicians who died before their
time, and culminates this section with an introduction to
how blues transformed Jimi Hendrix and how he transformed
the blues. While the general consensus among Americans is
that these celebrities who died young should be immortalized
in our minds forever, Murray maintains a slightly different,
and more pessimistic point of view. Murray believes that
“gifted people who die young invariably become the focus of
romantic necrophilia. They are adopted like
Christ-substitutes, dying for ‘our’ collective sins,
depicted as somehow too beautiful or too sensitive to live.
In real terms, they are either stupid or
unlucky.”9 America sees young deaths as tragic
wastes of potential, and they simply gloss over the fact
that the youth they are regarding so highly died from a drug
overdose or alcohol poisoning etcetera. But of all these
famous teens and young adults who died prematurely, it is
safe to say Hendrix accomplished the most and made the
largest impression on society in the short twenty-seven
years he had. Even the greats of blues recognize his talent
and credit him as a great American blues artist, looking
past his immaturity. As Howlin’ Wolf once noted, Jimi
Hendrix “started from the blues. He made his pull from the
blues. His most fundamental musical instincts were that of a
bluesman.”10 Although Hendrix’ music mixes the
most styles of any classic rocker, many concur that his
biggest strength, and his roots, stem from blues. Many
critics looked past his youth (which was normally a large
strike against an artist in a world full of musicians with
thirty or more years of experience) and acclaimed him as a
talent beyond his years. One critic was quoted as saying, “
Eric Clapton and Michael Bloomfield were gifted, precocious
boys; Hendrix was already a man.”11 But his high
praise achieved in the blues world, somehow hurt his strive
for personal identity; he had been trying to sell himself as
a black American artist, but with this strong grounding in
blues, it was hard to draw the line between the blues world
and the rock world. And if the struggle between these genres
wasn’t enough, Hendrix had yet to exhaust all his muses.
In chapters seven and eight, Murray discusses Hendrix’
relationship with the soul and jazz world. Hendrix was
largely drawn to these musical genres because, as Clapton
noted, “ it was always an individual. It was one man and his
guitar against the world. It wasn’t a company, or a band, or
a group; when it came down to it, it was one guy who was
completely alone and had no options, no alternatives other
than to sing and play to ease his pain.”12 With
this summarization of the blues and soul genres, it is easy
to make the connection as to why Hendrix was so drawn to
them; as a young man with a largely absent father, a dead
mother, and nowhere he was truly accepted, Hendrix often
found himself alone with nothing to protect him or comfort
him but his guitar. This side of his music showed Hendrix’
soft side, his true emotions that the world never got to
see. On the other hand, he still maintained a large jazz
influence in his music, which allowed him to show the world
his creative side. When Jimi Hendrix played jazz it was “the
sound of surprise”: it was loose; it flowed in a way no one
expected and few understood.13 This jazz side of
Hendrix, combined with his natural rock and roll sound, most
related to the youths and general social feeling of the
sixties. During the time of war, atomic bombs, and possible
death at any second from nuclear war, the teens of America
sought refuge in music—music that was free and
unstructured, without rules or regulations. It was Jimi
Hendrix’ unprecedented, completely unique sound that
summarized this generation, gave them something to listen
to, something to fight for, and something to live for.
All in all, Murray’s thesis is not necessarily to set
straight myths about Hendrix, or even to uncover little
known facts about the sixties; it is to correct popular
culture’s overly simplified categorization and
generalization of history. Murray believes, “ultimately, you
see what you want to see…what a writer thinks a book may be
about is ultimately not the point; what the reader thinks
it’s about is.”14 Throughout the book, Murray
seems to be somewhat irritated by the assumptions made and
accepted by the American public about the sixties, its
culture, its celebrities, and all historical events in
general. Murray believes that Americans epitomize what they
wish to epitomize and dismiss what they wish to dismiss.
Although Murray seems to carry around some assumptions and
generalizations himself, he completely groups the American
public into one common stupefied human being with no
individual thoughts or opinion forming abilities. As a
critic of overgeneralizations and misconceptions, Murray
seems to make many of these himself.
Most of the professional criticisms of Murray’s book give
nothing but positive feedback. The most obvious
characteristic of the book that sets it apart from all
others and is commented on time and time again by reviewers
is that it uses “ Hendrix (solely) as a focal point for a
freewheeling essay that discourses on politics, music, the
germination of rock and roll… race, politics
etc.”15 All reviews of the book appreciate the
fact that Murray immediately declares that this is not a
biography of Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Snider of the St.
Petersburg Times notes that Murray, “continues on to debunk
the boiled-down perception of Hendrix as the quintessential
spaced-out black hippie playing psychedelic
hard-rock.”16 The book as a whole hit all the
aspects of the musical transformation during the 1960s and
even managed to discuss the important political and social
events that induced these changes. The book—being written by
a liberal author in the largely conservative late
1980s—maintains a strong tone of positive remembrance of the
sixties: a time of freedom, love, and peace ruled by leftist
democracy. Like many authors, Murray wrote Crosstown Traffic
with an ulterior motive: to bring back memories, and even
encourage a return to the ways of a democrat ruled America.
Even though the book’s title implies a focus on Jimi
Hendrix, it is truly a book about the cultural, musical and
political changes that stemmed from the chaotic time known
as the sixties, with a common theme of Jimi Hendrix.
Among its very few weaknesses is the book’s tendency to
stray from the declared subject of Jimi Hendrix and the rock
and roll revolution of the sixties. Although Murray made it
very clear that this book is not a biography of Jimi
Hendrix, he also made it very clear that it is a book about
the changing music, lifestyle, and cultural scene of the
1960s. But, with this self-declared purpose, Murray still
tends to stray greatly from Hendrix and the culture and
music of the sixties to discuss classic musicians in great
detail. While some might validate these tangents by viewing
them as important background information to the topic at
hand, these offshoots tend to become greatly
over-embellished and take away rather than add to the
reader’s understanding of the era. This slight criticism is
not to discredit Murray’s book in any way. Doug Rice’s
comment in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Murray’s
“insights and critiques are powerful” is a vast
understatement.17 Murray’s biography encompasses
everything one could ever wish to know about this miraculous
time in history and goes even further as to relate how the
sixties era has molded the world into what it is today.
Sixties music as a whole marked a watershed in the American
cultural scene. Coming off the heels of the fifties, when
skirts reached down to the ground, shirts reached up to
one’s neck and no one discussed “inappropriate matters” in
public, sixties music (psychedelic rock especially) threw
America for a loop. Music of this era united people and
divided people; all the “freedom loving members of the ‘we’
generation” united against the “ conservative, war loving,
political generation” to create two very different and
unique social classes. This new style of music and its loyal
followers served one purpose—to shake things up: be loud, be
proud, and have fun. To a generation of people used to “easy
listening” music, or bee-bop bands that even their grandma
would approve of, this new era full of guitar straddling,
flame-throwing rock was a culture shock; but without this
change in style, American music would not be what it is
today. Would there be any great rock bands today if everyone
still listened to slow jazz and had never heard Hendrix,
Clapton, B.B. King, or Coltrane? Would black artists even
have had the door of equality opened to them if it weren’t
for musicians like Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder,
and Little Richard? These musical legends helped to change
the music America listens to and the society America lives
in, and without them, the world as we know it would be
Whether you’re a liberal or conservative, whether you like
rap, classical, rock or jazz, Crosstown Traffic presents
misconceptions of the sixties in a way that everyone can
sympathize with and understand. This book gives the reader a
complete three hundred and sixty degree view of the 1960s as
if they were there, covering all topics from British society
to the Vietnam War to psychedelic rock, with a strong focus
on Jimi Hendrix. As previously stated by Murray and various
other critics, an assortment of different people and musical
genres helped transform Hendrix, and in turn, Hendrix helped
transform American society.
review by Kathleen Whitlock
- Murray, Charles Shaar. Crosstown Traffic. New
York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989, 34.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 21.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 21.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 43.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 36.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 63.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 56.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 98.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 127.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 131.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 139.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 158.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 186.
- Murray, Charles Shaar 207.
- Snider, Eric. “Capturing the Soul of Jimi Hendrix.” St.
Petersburg Times 1990: 1.
- Snider, Eric 1.
- Rice, Doug. “Biography Makes Jimi Hendrix Touchstone of
the Times.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1990: 2.