Author Mary Willix Explores The Early Years Of Jimi Hendrix.
By Jennifer Murphy
POST WWII ENGLAND was full of boys captivated by the sounds of American blues players like Howlin' Wolf, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, Ledbelly and Robert Johnson. Mostly working class kids, they listened with stern regard, played along, copped every note. Suddenly, music was about more than just getting chicks; knowing your chops mattered.
Some became famous--The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, the Kinks--largely due to superior songwriting talent. One British band, The Yardbirds, turned out three guitar virtuosos: Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton.
In September 1966, Jimmy Hendrix arrived in London. His British manager, former Animals bass player Chas Chandler, turned him into Jimi and hooked him up with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Word of the amazing American guitar player spread like an air-raid siren throughout London. Intimidated British guitar royalty lined the edge of the stage in slack-jawed wonder.
Where is this guy from?
In Voices From Home, author Mary Willix, who was friends with Hendrix when they both attended Garfield High School in Central Seattle, answers that question. Inspired by her son's interest in the guitarist and frustrated by how little has been documented about Hendrix's early years, Willix located and interviewed his family and friends--a seemingly daunting undertaking given the years since Hendrix's untimely death at the age of 27 in September 1970.
"Actually, it didn't take that long to track everyone down. There were two or three people who were hard to find, but the rest of them are mostly in Seattle. Because we were a fairly small class, it wasn't difficult to even get unlisted numbers. I know it would have been next to impossible for an outsider," Willix tells me long distance from her office in San Diego.
She began to tell Hendrix's story chronologically, tracing his path from childhood through his teen years, and found herself getting in the way of the storytellers. So Willix scrapped the original manuscript and started over, ultimately employing oral tradition, allowing everyone to speak directly to the reader. What emerges is an intimate portrait of the young artist and an assertion that the formative years are essential to the creative process.
"I chose the title Voices From Home because I did a major re-write about two years ago in the first person format. I felt that was the only true way to represent these people. I decided I didn't want to interpret anything and I think it came out much better."
"People think Jimi came from another planet--you hear that--or they think he came from New York or London and that his messages of freedom, unity and harmony came out of nowhere, or from his head or his heart. But it really did have a basis," Willix says in her soft voice.
Central Seattle was multi-cultural--Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Euro-Americans lived, worked and played together in a place named for a Native American, Chief Seattle. Distinctions were drawn by financial wealth, not race. Surprising, given the times.
"We really did grow up in a special time and place," Willix says. "We didn't realize that until many years later. Remember, this is Central Seattle we're talking about. In the outlying areas that were white, that kind of attitude did not exist. There are a number of quotes about race relations in the chapter 'Garfield High School.' I think that some of those are going to have a life of their own."
"I gave a workshop on the creative process three weeks ago, and there was an Hispanic woman who bought a copy of the book who commented to me that she didn't know who Jimi Hendrix was, but she was buying the book for the photographs and the multi-cultural aspect of it," Willix says with joy.
Great art is the language of dreams, and Hendrix captured it all. He played with rhythm and passion. He surpassed virtuoso status to become an innovator. While the talents of Clapton, Page, Beck and Vaughan cannot be underrated, Hendrix remains the only one to be recognized for having revolutionized rock guitar. No one has played with such intensity before or since.
After reading Voices From Home, Hendrix's lyrics seem less psychedelic and more spiritual. His guitar raged against the war in Vietnam; "Machine Gun" off the Band Of Gypsies album is the war in 12 minutes. His searing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock boldly claimed America for a generation reluctant to be served up as cannon fodder. Maybe it was the harmonious race relations of his childhood that gave him a clearer vision of us as one people.
"Where we come from has a strong impact on creative work, whether we're musicians or artists--or whatever field it is--I don't think the childhood can be denied. I know there are some critics who suppress the life experience and just look at the art itself. I don't think that's right," Willix says.
Former Tucson Weekly photographer Ken Matesich provided many of the book's images.
"Ken is from Tucson and took many of the portraits in the book," Willix says. "I had contacted him because he has what is called the 'Purple Haze' archives, which, when I began the project about 10 years ago, was the major one in the United States. He has a large Hendrix collection and the most complete Hendrix discography. Other Hendrix biographical researchers have used his materials. He is a real Hendrix expert."
Author Mary Willix and photographer Ken Matesich will be at The Book Mark, 5001 E. Speedway, from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 27, to answer questions about Jimi Hendrix and sign copies of Voices From Home, which has been selected by the San Diego Book Awards Association as a finalist in the biography category.
Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Cinema | Back Page | Forums | Search
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth