Jimi Hendrix, Rock God

A Review of Crosstown Traffic
by Charles Shaar Murray

Author Biography

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 rather different.

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

  1. Murray, Charles Shaar. Crosstown Traffic. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989, 34.
  2. Murray, Charles Shaar 21.
  3. Murray, Charles Shaar 21.
  4. Murray, Charles Shaar 43.
  5. Murray, Charles Shaar 36.
  6. Murray, Charles Shaar 63.
  7. Murray, Charles Shaar 56.
  8. Murray, Charles Shaar 98.
  9. Murray, Charles Shaar 127.
  10. Murray, Charles Shaar 131.
  11. Murray, Charles Shaar 139.
  12. Murray, Charles Shaar 158.
  13. Murray, Charles Shaar 186.
  14. Murray, Charles Shaar 207.
  15. Snider, Eric. “Capturing the Soul of Jimi Hendrix.” St. Petersburg Times 1990: 1.
  16. Snider, Eric 1.
  17. Rice, Doug. “Biography Makes Jimi Hendrix Touchstone of the Times.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1990: 2.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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