Wednesday, July 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Jimi Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight


In 1995, I was a 15 year old obsessed with playing my guitar whenever I could and listening to my idols at all times. Perhaps more so than any other year of my life, that year I ate, slept, and breathed all things Clapton, Page, Townshend, and Hendrix. Any available scrap of film I could watch or print I could read about these guys was eagerly devoured (remember, this is in the pre-internet days where it was much harder to find anything...not like today where it's a click away on the web). While working at my summer job as a short-order cook, one of the older guys I worked with told me, "hey, man, if you want to read a good book about Jimi, Setting the Record Straight is the best one." I took his advice and promptly went to a local bookstore and bought a copy, reading it in a matter of days. I ended up reading it a few more times after, but it had been quite some time, at least a dozen years since I last picked it up, so the following write-up is based on my re-reading of it for the purposes of this review.


Published in 1992, Setting the Record Straight endeavors to tell the true story of Jimi Hendrix' remarkable and short life and career via thorough research and firsthand accounts from the people who were knew him. Frustrated by the image of Hendrix that had been built up since his death as a clueless, albeit supremely talented,  drug-addled fool who squandered everything and died of a drug overdose, longtime Hendrix historian John McDermott and Hendrix' engineer and friend Eddie Kramer set out to tell his true story: a talented and serious musician who only wanted to make the best music he could. In order to do this, the authors not only drew from primary sources such as articles, interviews, and other books, but also new testimony from people who were there and who knew and dealt with Jimi. These included co-manager Chas Chandler, associates of his late co-manager (and man of mystery) Michael Jeffrey, controversial producer Alan Douglas, bandmates Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchel, Billy Cox, and Buddy Miles, various record company executives and studio personnel who worked with him, and fellow musicians including Paul McCartney, as well as his wife Linda, who was friends with Jimi and took numerous photographs of him.

Unlike the interesting new book, Starting At Zero, which I've recently reviewed and which is pieced together from various Hendrix quotes in order to present as close to an autobiography as we'll ever have, Setting the Record Straight is a straightforward biography of the man, but one that focuses entirely on the years when he was famous, 1966-1970. There is a very brisk and brief summation of his birth, childhood, and early years on the southern chitlin' circuit where he cut his teeth as a musician before we find Jimmy (as he was then known) struggling and literally starving trying to make a go of it as a musician in New York City's Greenwich Village during 1965 and 1966. First noticed by Keith Richards' then-girlfriend Linda Keith, Jimmy was shopped around to various record company A&R men (including Dick Rowe of Decca Records, who famously turned down the Beatles in 1962 and did the same to Hendrix in 1966) before coming to the attention of Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who took Jimi to England and set about managing and producing his career. Eventually, the hard work paid off and the Experience, comprising Hendrix, Mitchell, and Redding became one of the most successful and acclaimed UK bands of the decade alongside the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Kinks, Cream, and Traffic. However, after his phenomenal and meteoric success in 1967 and 1968, Hendrix began to get bogged down by a variety of factors, all of which the authors describe in objective detail: relentless touring, sycophantic hangers-on, succumbing to the trappings of fame (most notably, Hendrix' escalating drug use), and the ruthless management style of Michael Jeffrey. Jimi became unfocused, spending unbelievable amounts of time and money on studio sessions that produced very little finished music in the wake of his epic 1968 masterpiece, Electric Ladyland. The purchase and construction of his own recording studio in New York City, Electric Lady Studios, would take up the remainder of his short life and he would only get to utilize it, still in an unfinished state, for less than a year before his tragic and accidental death in September 1970. 

 

McDermott does an excellent job telling the story of Jimi Hendrix in an engaging, interesting, and exciting manner without sacrificing any detail or information. Even when the subject matter turns to the complicated machinations behind Jeffrey's schemes, from tax shelters to the myriad labyrinth of contracts he constructed to bind Hendrix to him, it's done in a way that is easy to follow; this gives the reader a better understanding of just how tied to his management Jimi (somewhat unwittingly) was. However, the point is made throughout the book that Jimi was far from the uninformed dupe who never saw it coming that he's been portrayed as since his death. In fact, it is revealed that he was far shrewder and aware of what was going on with his career than many knew. However, he also had a cavalier attitude toward certain business dealings that came back to haunt him and had very real professional and personal ramifications. A contract he signed as a sideman in 1965 with Ed Chalpin's PPX Records was invoked once he became an international star in 1967 and dogged him until he died. It is this contract and the shoddy product (where Hendrix is little more than a session player) that has resulted in innumerable releases, both during Jimi's life and since his death, where his name is prominently displayed on the cover only to trick consumers into purchasing a record that is not an Experience album at all. In fact, Hendrix' classic 1970 live album Band of Gypsys was conceived and released in order to satisfy the demands of the lawsuit that stipulated he owed Chalpin an album of new Hendrix originals. A final successful tour in the spring and summer of 1970 resulted in some of the most mature and accomplished concerts of Hendrix' career, but by the time he appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970, he was tired, ragged, and depressed. A further week of shows in Europe was played before the tour halted. Jimi decamped to London to rest, refocus, and plan his next move. Sadly, it wasn't meant to be and he was found dead on September 18, 1970 at the London flat he shared with one of his girlfriends. The remainder of the book deals with the sordid way in which his life and music have been treated in the wake of his passing through to 1992, when the book was published.


Setting the Record Straight does an admirable job in presenting the facts about Jimi's life and career in as fair and even-handed a manner as possible, and the authors make a point of keeping their focus mainly on the music, which they rightfully contend is Jimi's true legacy. They don't, however, shy away from writing candidly and openly about some of the more unsavory aspects of his life, including his 1969 drug bust in Toronto, the various substances he abused (and his sometimes unseemly behavior while under the influence), and his cavalier and careless approach to spending money and honoring contracts he'd signed. However, through it all, the picture is painted of a man that was supremely talented musically who also happened to be quite shy, reserved, and who hated conflict of any kind. The tragedy of Jimi Hendrix is that, upon achieving the fame and success he'd wanted so long and for which he'd worked so hard, he found himself trapped on a treadmill of demands, deadlines, and matters outside of his control and he didn't know how to cope with it. Having scaled the heights of the music world in the wake of 1968's Electric Ladyland and finishing the decade as the highest paid rock act in the world, Jimi foolishly jettisoned Chandler and Redding, setting in motion a chain of events that saw his career and personal life spiral out of control and made him vulnerable enough that he fell ever deeper into the clutches of Michael Jeffrey. And what of Jeffrey? Much has been made about his management style, his paranoia, his ties to organized crime, and his desire for an iron-like grip on Hendrix' career and the vast financial rewards that resulted. To their credit, McDermott and Kramer treat him as fairly as possible and do counter many of the outrageous stories (such as the rumor that he intentionally dosed Hendrix, thereby ruining the Band of Gypsys' final concert in late January 1970) by pointing out much of the good that he did for Hendrix.  However, the fact of the matter remains that on balance, in the end he had a negative effect on Hendrix' life and career, and the authors manage to get this across without overtly slagging Jeffrey...they let the facts speak for themselves. Finally, the book has a section in the middle with numerous photos, many of them from Linda McCartney's excellent collection, and appendices at the back with blueprint drawings of Electric Lady Studios, as well as correspondence between Hendrix and his office discussing his precarious financial situation throughout 1969 and 1970 during studio construction.

The only downside with this book is that, having been published in 1992, it's a bit dated; not in terms of the information contained therein, but in terms of the fact that Hendrix' family subsequently regained control of his music in the mid-1990s and embarked upon a rebooting of his musical legacy (with author John McDermott as their resident Hendrix historian) that on balance has been good, but has also met with some criticism from fans. However, in a way it's good that the book is from 1992, as in subsequent years Redding, Mitchell, Miles, Douglas, and Chandler have all passed away and had the book come out later, none of them would have been able to offer their invaluable contributions. In closing, while there are many good books on Jimi Hendrix, as far as biographies go this is still, more than twenty years after its release, the definitive book on the man.

MY RATING: 9/10

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