Scholars of Jimi Hendrix know two essential books exist on the guitar great: David Henderson's sprawling Scuse me While I Kiss the Sky and Charles Shaar Murray's Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Post-War Rock 'n Roll Revolution. Now, author and musician Greg Tate completes the trinity with Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience.
Tate, one of the most original and linguistically inventive cultural observers in print, is not one to shy away from a challenge.
Black cultural observers have long stumped for an Afro-Diasporic reading of the ultimate black rock star. At the least, it would be more interesting than another tired rehash comparing him to British bluesmen who learned from records. At the most, it would help bring Hendrix's pan cultural aesthetic into focus.
Standard readings of Hendrix allude to his Army Service, his years backing R&B bands and his standoffish relationship with the Black Panthers. Yet the books don't deal with the implications: How did Hendrix's time on tour and at a military base in the Deep South color his attitudes on race, for example? And, while his penchant for blondes scandalized Southern (and Northern) white men, how did black women feel about it?
While freeing Hendrix from the purgatory of classic rock is an admirable task, freeing him from mainstream black culture purgatory is one for the ages. Here was a world-famous black performer who could walk down 125th Street in Harlem unrecognized, a black performer who became a pop sensation before most African-Americans knew who he was, adored and accepted by white audiences who often disdained African-Americans en masse.
"Recognizing Hendrix as a major African American artist with thorny and extensive branches reaching all over-under across what we leftover '70s types tag The Black Experience can get ugly," Tate writes. "Going there has proven to be an indelicate task at best. Expect trunkloads of feather boas to be ruffled while small armies of Afro-Picks, Huey Newton posters, and blue suede shoes to get moshed on in the process."
Tate's text is part poststructuralist criticism, part journalism, part fiction. Midnight Lightning, to borrow a critical phrase, is Hendrixian in concept more than in detail (Hendrix novices might want to read either Henderson's or Murray's books for perspective). A primer whose aim is to introduce new ideas, broaden perspectives and spur discussions.
In essays like "Black Guitar Science, Invisibility Blues, The Black Woman's Guide to Jimi Hendrix," Tate raises questions, suggests avenues of discussion and makes pointed conceptual connections while spinning some marvelously head-whirling phraseology.
In "The Alternative and Prognosticative Histories of James Marshall Hendrix" Tate projects Hendrix as a fiction writer and filmmaker, providing "excerpts" from works titled after Hendrix songs. A series of interviews with Hendrix acquaintances and admirers seems like a sensationalist move. That is until you realize the "admirers" include people like Grammy-winning producer Craig Street (Cassandra Wilson, Norah Jones), whose Hendrix memories include some pointed observations about Hendrix use of sound.
Seattle artist Xenobia Bailey steals the first-person show. Bailey's colorful memory of Hendrix's neighborhood - their families were acquainted and Hendrix dropped by her house occasionally - provides a delicious glimpse into the cultural and musical environment that spawned the Voodoo Child, whom she says wasn't even the best guitarist in his neighborhood. Which means Hendrix was a late bloomer or the cream of the '60s rock guitar crowd might have been able to earn a decent rep on his block.
Perspective twisting moments like these are Tate's aim. Still plenty of Hendrix discussions will be had in the future, Tate writes. Hendrix's relation, he writes, to "the American race comedy gets curiouser and curiouser as time goes on." Ditto, hopefully, for Midnight Lightning, a book whose success will be judged by the number of retorts, arguments, essays and outside revisions it inspires.
- Tony Green writes frequently about music. His essay, "Ali, Foreman, Mailer, and Me," was included in a recently published anthology edited by Greg Tate, Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture.