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Taking a joy ride with Jimi

David French wrote the liner notes for BMG's recording "Benny Goodman: The Centennial Collection" and is at work on a biography of swing-era trumpet star Ziggy Elman.

JIMI HENDRIX rocketed to popularity in 1967 with one of the most remarkable debut albums in rock history. The string of hits on “Are You Experienced?” -- a groovy and explosive combination of Bob Dylan-esque lyrics, blues, hard rock, R&B; and guitar freak-out -- sounded unlike anything that came before. Almost more impressive was Hendrix himself, a gorgeous and outrageous character who intimidated established rock stars and worried the FBI. He became a symbol of personal and cultural liberation for members of a new generation attempting to remake themselves and the world they lived in. After his death from a drug overdose in 1970, though, Hendrix gradually devolved into a head-shop icon, the symbol of a few turbulent years and the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that went with them.

Charles R. Cross’ highly readable “Room Full of Mirrors” is, he writes, an “effort to ... turn that black-light poster image into a portrait of a man,” and he has done that well. Grounded in Seattle, where Hendrix grew up and where the author writes about music, this disarmingly affecting biography of “Buster,” as the guitarist was known as a boy, is a revelation. Cross shows us in heartbreaking detail a dreamy, sensitive kid buffeted by poverty, abuse and loss. Stories of Hendrix being beaten by his father and carrying cardboard to cover the holes in his shoes underscore how far he eventually traveled.

The guitar was Hendrix’s escape. He never put it down; he wore it on his back to school and slept with it at night. By the time he was 17, he was playing regularly with local bands and dreaming of fame. But when he was arrested twice for riding in stolen cars, a judge drastically narrowed his options -- jail or the Army.

The military took him from Seattle and his alcoholic father. Hendrix was stationed in Kentucky, where he met other musicians and formed a group that played in nearby Nashville. Before long, the Army was the only impediment to his music career and Cross for the first time explains the ruse Hendrix used to get discharged.

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Hendrix claimed he was released from service because he’d broken an ankle in a parachute jump. Cross says Army medical records reveal that Hendrix, who would become infamous for his womanizing, met often in 1962 with a base psychiatrist at Fort Campbell, saying he was addicted to masturbation and in love with a squad mate. He was caught masturbating in the barracks, which Cross says was probably intentional, intended to boost his “desperate gambit” to quit the 101st Airborne Division. He was finally recommended for discharge for “homosexual tendencies.”

For the next three years, Hendrix played the Chitlin Circuit, the string of Southern venues where black entertainers played to black audiences. He became a professional, mastered the blues and began to form his own identity. He also learned that no matter how good you were as a musician, audiences could be equally impressed by attention-grabbing clothes and flashy tricks like playing the guitar behind your back.

Hendrix backed big names like Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. Often, he was fired for playing or dressing with too much flare and upstaging the stars. By the time he arrived in New York in 1964, the 21-year-old guitarist was growing tired of wearing band uniforms and playing other people’s music.

Although he played in Harlem with R&B; bands, Hendrix found that he fit in better with the predominantly white crowds in Greenwich Village clubs than with the African American musicians and audiences. He had eclectic musical tastes and was inspired by a new hero who did not translate uptown, Dylan. Hendrix began to make a reputation for himself with a regular gig at the basement club Cafe Wha?, creating the music and the persona we know. It was there, in 1966, that the Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler saw Hendrix and asked him to come to London to make a record.

Cross’ story is rich with tales about Hendrix making connections in swinging London, donning the military tunic he was often photographed in and beginning to play with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the band Chandler formed around him. Encouraged to write his own material, songs poured from Hendrix. His flamboyant playing and charisma wowed English audiences and musicians. Armed with just a few singles and some canny marketing, he was soon on his way to stardom. Less than a year after he left America, Hendrix made a triumphant return, appearing at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival as his first album was about to be released.

After the initial thrill of success, the story becomes more familiar and less enjoyable. Fame -- what Hendrix called the “room full of mirrors” -- brought a chaotic lifestyle. It is almost fatiguing to read of Hendrix bumping along, touring constantly and eating handfuls of pills. Behind the cocky, cool persona, he was becoming increasingly unhappy, run ragged by the demands of fame. He lived like a man trying to outrun his demons, along the way helping to create the cliches of rock star self-destruction -- drug busts, car crashes, hotel room rampages, onstage collapse and premonitions of death. Some who knew Hendrix at the end of his life believed he was making major changes -- trying to distance himself from drugs, making new music and planning to change managers. Whether that was wishful thinking or not, he would be swallowed up by the claustrophobic haze that he had allowed his life to become.

Cross, author of “Heavier Than Heaven,” a biography of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, tells a compelling story, but by focusing on the life of excess that killed Hendrix rather than the music he lived for, he risks shortchanging his subject. More than any other star of the era, Hendrix was a musician’s musician, always ready to jam and constantly seeking new musical territory. Offering a fuller account of Hendrix’s musical journey -- from three-chord rock ‘n’ roll to jamming with Miles Davis -- would have been illuminating, especially to readers familiar only with the hits.

Nonetheless, the book is an excellent portrait, probably unbeatable both for its moving depiction of his youth and thrilling rise to fame and for its myth-busting finality, the result of extensive interviews and research. By re-creating Hendrix’s life, and death, in impressive detail, Cross makes him human, makes us care and wonder how the artist would have evolved if he hadn’t died of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills at 27. In the end, one senses Cross’ frustration at the careless waste of a remarkable life.


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