No list of Great Guitarists is complete without Jimi Hendrix!
I feel sad for people who have to judge Jimi Hendrix on the basis of recordings and film alone; because in the flesh he was so extraordinary. He had a kind of alchemist’s ability; when he was on the stage, he changed. He physically changed. He became incredibly graceful and beautiful. It wasn’t just people taking LSD, though that was going on, there’s no question. But he had a power that almost sobered you up if you were on an acid trip. He was bigger than LSD.
What he played was loud but also incredibly lyrical and expert. He managed to build this bridge between true blues guitar — the kind that Eric Clapton had been battling with for years and years — and modern sounds, the kind of Syd Barrett-meets-Townshend sound, the wall of screaming guitar sound that U2 popularized. He brought the two together brilliantly. And it was supported by a visual magic that obviously you won’t get if you just listen to the music. He did this thing where he would play a chord, and then he would sweep his left hand through the air in a curve, and it would almost take you away from the idea that there was a guitar player here and that the music was actually coming out of the end of his fingers. And then people say, “Well, you were obviously on drugs.” But I wasn’t, and I wasn’t drunk, either. I can just remember being taken over by this, and the images he was producing or evoking were naturally psychedelic in tone because we were surrounded by psychedelic graphics. All of the images that were around us at the time had this kind of echoey, acidy quality to them. The lighting in all the clubs was psychedelic and drippy.
He was dusty — he had cobwebs and dust all over him. He was a very unremarkable-looking guy with an old military jacket on that was pretty dirty. It looked like he’d maybe slept in it a few nights running. When he would walk toward the stage, nobody would really take much notice of him. But when he walked off, I saw him walk up to some of the most covetable women in the world. Hendrix would snap his fingers, and they followed him. Onstage, he was very erotic as well. To a man watching, he was erotic like Mick Jagger is erotic. It wasn’t “You know, I’d like to take that guy in the bathroom and fuck him.” It was a high form of eroticism, almost spiritual in quality. There was a sense of wanting to possess him and wanting to be a part of him, to know how he did what he did because he was so powerfully affecting. Johnny Rotten did it, Kurt Cobain did it. As a man, you wanted to be a part of Johnny Rotten’s gang, you wanted to be a part of Kurt Cobain’s gang.
He was shy and kind and sweet, and he was fucked up and insecure. If you were as lucky as I was, you’d spend a few hours with him after a gig and watch him descend out of this incredibly colorful, energized face. There was also something quite sad about watching him. There was a hedonism about him. Toward the end of his life, he seemed to be having fun, but maybe a little bit too much. It was happening to a lot of people, but it was sad to see it happen to him.
With Jimi, I didn’t have any envy. I never had any sense that I could ever come close. I remember feeling quite sorry for Eric, who thought that he might actually be able to emulate Jimi. I also felt sorry that he should think that he needed to. Because I thought Eric was wonderful anyway. Perhaps I make assumptions here that I shouldn’t, but it’s true. Once — I think it was at a gig Jimi played at the Scotch of St. James [in London] — Eric and I found ourselves holding each other’s hands. You know, what we were watching was so profoundly powerful.
The third or fourth time that I saw him, he was supporting the Who at the Saville Theatre. That was the first time I saw him set his guitar on fire. It didn’t do very much. He poured lighter fluid over the guitar and set fire to it, and then the next day he would be playing with a guitar that was a little bit charred. In fact, I remember teasing him, saying, “That’s not good enough — you need a proper flamethrower, it needs to be completely destroyed.” We started getting into an argument about destroying your guitar — if you’re going to do it, you have to do it properly. You have to break every little piece of the guitar, and then you have to give it away so it can’t be rebuilt. Only that is proper breaking your guitar. He was looking at me like I was fucking mad.
Trying to work out how he affected me at my ground zero, the fact is that I felt like I was robbed. I felt the Who were in some ways quite a silly little group, that they were indeed my art-school installation. They were constructed ideas and images and some cool little pop songs. Some of the music was good, but a lot of what the Who did was very tongue-in-cheek, or we reserved the right to pretend it was tongue-in-cheek if the audience laughed at it. The Who would always look like we didn’t really mean it, like it didn’t really matter. You know, you smash a guitar, you walk off and go, “Fuck it all. It’s all a load of tripe anyway.” That really was the beginning of that punk consciousness. And Jimi arrived with proper music.
He made the electric guitar beautiful. It had always been dangerous, it had always been able to evoke anger. If you go right back to the beginning of it, John Lee Hooker shoving a microphone into his guitar back in the 1940s, it made his guitar sound angry, impetuous, and dangerous. The guitar players who worked through the Fifties and with the early rock artists — James Burton, who worked with Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers, Steve Cropper with Booker T. — these Nashville-influenced players had a steely, flick-knife sound, really kind of spiky compared to the beautiful sound of the six-string acoustic being played in the background. In those great early Elvis songs, you hear Elvis himself playing guitar on songs like “Hound Dog,” and then you hear an electric guitar come in, and it’s not a pleasant sound. Early blues players, too — Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Albert King — they did it to hurt your ears. Jimi made it beautiful and made it OK to make it beautiful.