Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Jimi Hendrix - A Brother's Story" by Leon Hendrix with Adam Mitchell (2012)

This will be the closest thing you will ever read to an autobiography of Jimi Hendrix. His brother, Leon, has done a wonderful job of putting into words the experiences of the 2 boys while growing up in Seattle, Washington. Leon and Jimi were born to parents who were so much in love with one another that they couldn’t stand to be together for very long. There were also 3 other children born to the couple; one a stillbirth; along with two boys; one blind and the other clubfooted. They were put up for adoption as a result of financial hardship. His mother was dead by the age of 33, and their father took over from there, doing the best he could.

As a child, Jimi (born James, but called “Buster” by his family after Buster Crabbe of the Flash Gordon Series) was always interested in sounds. Although they lived in a rundown home before being shuttled from foster homes to relatives to live, Jimi had an ear for the magic of music from a very early age. He and Leon used to string wires between the posts of their metal bed, noticing how the sounds changed in pitch according to length.

Alone with Leon, Jimi used to lie on the ground, gazing up at the nighttime sky, telling his brother about the constellations, and making up stories, many of which would become famous as songs later in his life. Songs like “Castles In the Sand” and “The Wind Cried Mary” are autobiographical and were written in his head even before he learned to play guitar. Even “Spanish Magic Castle” is rooted in Jimi Hendrix youth, named, as it is, for the Spanish Castle Ballroom, which was about an hour from his home. In the song it is said to be “half a day away” because that’s how long it took to get there in in the broken down car they used to get there.

Jimi’s first instrument; aside from the bed; was an old ukulele which he was allowed to keep when cleaning out a garage with his father, who did landscaping and odd jobs. It may only have had one string on it, but that was enough to cement young Jimi’s interest in music forever.

His next instrument was an old broken down acoustic guitar which he acquired from a woman down the street. Although it wasn’t much of a guitar, Jimi soon mastered it, playing the melodies to anything he heard on the radio. By this time he had heard electric guitars on the radio and decided he needed to get technical.

He bought a kit to electrify the acoustic guitar, but lacked an amplifier. So, he created one by wiring a cord to the stylus of his father’s record player, which allowed him to play his electrified acoustic guitar. The sound was distorted due to the speaker’s limited capacity, but may have been the catalyst for the sound he was one day to create.

Jim left Seattle to join the Army, serving in the 101st Airborne. While in the service he played with several different buddies at the various service clubs on base.  After being Honorably Discharged he actually went on the road, playing the old Chitling’ Circuit; which was in its last days at the time; and even toured the Northwest, playing wherever he could, even with Tommy Chong in his band Tommy and The Vancouver’s; although it was Tommy Chong on lead guitar. You can listen to those records on You Tube.

He went on to play with Little Richard, but the arrangements were too tight for his agile mind; and as a result of conflicts with Little Richard; he left the band, headed for New York. His connection to Little Richard actually occurred several years before when Little Richard came to Washington to visit his Aunt, which was down the street from the Hendrix brothers and their Dad. Jimi was 17 at the time and still in high school, which he did not complete, withdrawing in his senior year.

By 1966, Chas Chandler, of the Animals, convinced Jimi to go to England with him, where he finally broke through with his innovative sound. It was there in 1967 that he recorded the iconic “Are You Experienced“ album which would catapult him to worldwide fame beyond his wildest dreams. Leon, and his Dad, first heard this album through the walls of their apartment one morning in May 1967. A neighbor was playing the record over and over. Leon, and his father were both dumbstruck. The music was unlike anything they had ever heard before.

After landing a job as an draftsman for Boeing, drawing the same nuts and bolts over and over again, Leon eventually joined his brother on the road in the late 1960’s, getting an education in life which was not available in school. He was also, when not on the road, becoming increasingly involved in the hustler’s lifestyle on the street, soon becoming acquainted with drugs; as well as dealing and stealing. A break in at a pharmaceutical plant landed him in jail with some of his friends. After bonding out, he returned home to accompany his brother on tour, as he awaited his trial for the robbery.

That trial never came when Leon’s lawyer advised him to join the Army in lieu of being sent to prison. It seemed like a good idea and he joined, knowing that he would be going to Vietnam. With his brother’s reputation shadowing him everywhere he went, the Army found him to be more trouble than he was worth. After enduring all the usual humiliations associated with boot camp; plus some extra “special treatment” for the crime of being Jimi Hendrix’ brother; Leon goes AWOL. This mistake eventually has him sent to prison for the violation of his plea agreement. It is while in prison that he learns of his brother’s death from other inmates who had heard it on the radio.

This is a very straight forward book which doesn’t shy away from the author’s own shortcomings, as well as deal with the issue of who was stealing his brother’s money.

Of great interest to me in this book, are the theories and plans which were underway by Jimi Hendrix at the time of his death. He had a theory about music, which was based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. That formula was E=mc squared. Hendrix’ formula for the relationship between light, color and sound was called Energy Sound Color Dynamics, and he expressed it in a formula, similar to Einstein’s; E=sc squared. We will never know where his musical ambitions would have taken us.

The book even delves into the financial struggles over Jimi’s estate, not only with the record companies, but within his own family. This is an excellent book, which shies away from nothing, and dispels many myths about the famed guitarist. Written with a love for his brother that the reader can actually feel, this may be the best and most personable biographies of Jimi Hendrix to date. Well done, Leon!

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