Jimi Hendrix is dead and selling jeans in Britain.
Still selling records, too, 20 years after his death; still unmatched by all would-be imitators of his furious, blazing mastery of the electric guitar.
“The Hendrix phenomenon has never really gone away,” said George McManus, marketing executive at Polydor Records.
Two decades gone, Hendrix is a briskly moving product. Polydor’s “Cornerstones” album hit the Top 5 and will shortly go platinum in Britain. Wrangler adopted “Crosstown Traffic” for a jeans commercial.
Bass player Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, the survivors of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, each published books this year.
“Jimi’s death was the most lucrative act of his sad career,” according to Redding, whose book is partly a diatribe against the Hendrix estate.
The U.S. Army, which counts Hendrix as an alumnus, kicked off the year by including his “Voodoo Chile” as part of its amplified get-out-of-that-refuge concert in Panama for Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
The anniversary may be a melancholy event for anyone who remembers the first ear-boggling encounter with “Foxy Lady,” “Manic Depression” or “Purple Haze” from the “Are You Experienced?” LP in 1967.
Serious craziness was the Hendrix experience: a stoned banshee swathed in psychedelic foppery, caressing and bullying and battering his guitar; bending “The Star-Spangled Banner” into weird shapes at Woodstock; amazing the plaster casters; fleeing a concert in Denver in a cloud of tear gas; taking too many downers and choking to death on his own vomit.
Born in Seattle in 1942, Hendrix found fame in Britain, and Britain is where he died, in his London apartment Sept. 18, 1970.
His records have always sold well, but his impact wasn’t widely recognized until the Wrangler jeans company commissioned a survey into British teen-age musical tastes. Hendrix’s name ranked high alongside living rock stars.
Wrangler decided to feature Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” in what became a highly effective TV commercial. Filmed in New York, it showed a handsome young taxi driver who dumps his cab in the middle of Manhattan and takes off to Miami. Wrangler followed up with another commercial including footage of Hendrix in concert.
“His appeal is partly his rebel image and partly his short life, the James Dean factor,” Polydor’s McManus said. “But deeper than that, I believe it is because he is the source of so much of today’s music. People like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard will readily admit to the debt they owe him. You can hear 20 seconds of a guitar and know it is Jimi Hendrix. Very few people had that ability.”
The two men most closely related to Hendrix have contrasting stories to tell.
Redding, who was sacked from the band, emphasizes financial matters. His book, “Are You Experienced?” is about the millions of dollars worth of royalties he claims to be owed.
Mitchell’s book, “The Hendrix Experience,” is full of pictures and generally happier.
Hendrix, according to Mitchell, “was far from a tragic character. For one thing, he had a wicked sense of humor. That’s why the women, in particular, really liked him, because we’re talking about a man who was funny.”
One of Hendrix’s secrets as a guitar technician, Mitchell writes, were his thumbs, “nearly as long as his fingers.”
One important figure who has not written his memoirs is Chas Chandler, former bass player of The Animals who saw Hendrix in a Greenwich Village club, brought him to England and formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
“I considered writing a book now and again, but I never had the time, and anyway I enjoy books too much,” Chandler said in a rare interview.
“I do think there is a death cult around Jimi. There is something black about all this brooding over his death. He is typified as some sort of brooding genius. But when he was alive he was a very funny guy, full of laughter. He was quite a gentle lad, quiet but witty and a good mimic.
“You would have thought he went everywhere and burned his guitar. But he only did it twice.”
Chandler also believes that Hendrix’s appeal endures because of his imitators.
“Most of the riffs played by a lot of guitar bands have their origins in Hendrix.
“He was an originator of sounds, the greatest guitar player to have lived,” Chandler said.