From Jimmy to Jimi
An unearthed letter from the great guitarist gives some insight into the Woodstock generation.
11:00 PM, Jan 2, 2003 • By DAVID BROOKS
LAST SUNDAY, the New York Times magazine published a document so amazing, I assumed that it would set off a world-wide sensation, a great cacophony of breast-beating, disillusion, and internal crisis. It was a letter Jimmy Hendrix wrote to his father in August 1965. The letter describes the marketing strategy Hendrix planned to use to get rich. And yet the letter's publication in one of the most-read magazines in the nation has not stirred the hue and cry I anticipated.
When he wrote the letter, Hendrix was playing as a sideman for groups like the Isley Brothers. Hendrix complained that when "you are playing behind other people you're still not making a big name for yourself as you would if you were working for yourself." Nonetheless, he continued, it was useful to go on the road with these groups to "see how business is taken care of."
In the crucial part of the letter, Hendrix explained his business strategy: "Nowadays people don't want you to sing good. They want you to sing sloppy and have a good beat to your songs. That's what angle I'm going to shoot for. That's where the money is."
Hendrix, who was nothing if not a dutiful son, wanted to reassure his father not to worry if his musical skills seemed to deteriorate: "So just in case about three or four months from now you might hear a record by me which sounds terrible, don't feel ashamed, just wait until the money rolls in because every day people are singing worse and worse on purpose and the public buys more and more records."
At first blush this letter sounds like a cynical attempt to con a bunch of naive young teenagers. Craft some terrible music and watch all the alienated white young beats lap it up. Moreover, it sounds as if this formula is something Hendrix heard from some more experienced musician on the road and is passing along to his father to show he's wise to the game. That is to say, it was not only Hendrix perpetrating a con, it was the whole rock establishment.
Recall all the earnest young hippies who sat around in their drug-filled rooms delving into the supposedly raw authenticity of this black guitar master, Jimi Hendrix. Recall all the overwritten philosophizing from pretentious rock critics on the noble savagery of his style. And yet perhaps it was just Jimmy selling out and playing worse and worse so he could rake in the dough.
Perhaps the Woodstock movement wasn't corrupted as it aged. Perhaps it was conceived in a bed of cynicism. It was corrupt even before it existed, a beautiful and massive con worthy of P.T. Barnum.
But on second thought, I'm not sure this explanation really explains everything. Hendrix is trying to sound wise beyond his years. He's also trying to reassure his father that though it seems he has gone into an odd profession, he is actually approaching it in a sensible, bourgeois mode. Hendrix ends his letter on a plaintive note. "Tell everyone I said hello. Leon, Grandma, Ben, Ernie, Frank, Mary, Barbara and so forth. Please write soon. It's pretty lonely out here by myself. Best luck and happiness in the future. Love, your son, Jimmy."
This is not a kid rebelling against his father, or against the establishment. This is a kid desperate for his elder's approval.
Maybe what was phony about Woodstock was not the pretense that somehow it was above money and material things. Perhaps what was phony was the pretense it was being led by rebellious young people against a corrupt establishment. Perhaps most people at Woodstock, like Jimmy Hendrix, really were quite happy with their upbringing and loved their families. But when they got amongst each other and the rebellious pose became de rigeur, they began to convince themselves they felt more alienated than they actually had any cause to be. Then their behavior become unmoored from normal family-influenced constraints; Jimmy Hendrix lost control and became Jimi, and that ambitious boy who only set out to become rich and make his father proud, ended up dead.
David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.