The first black man in outer space: blaming Jimi Hendrix for the depraved, ridiculous guitar excesses of heavy metal is akin to blaming Christ for the Mormons, but a trail leads straight from Hendrix to Eddie Van Halen and Joe Satriani and back again, from Hendrix to every showboating spectacle of orgasmic-solo face-pulling, million-miles-a-minute fretboard contortions and onanistic whammy-bar-and-effects-pedal madness.
He changed how the guitar was played, he changed what playing the guitar meant - he initiated a guitar-solo arms race that filled stadiums, turned bedrooms into shrines and gave teenagers repetitive strain injury trying to follow him. He changed the world. He invented the rock virtuoso.
As rock critic Chuck Eddy (a Hendrix naysayer) wrote, he knew a million chords and insisted on displaying every last one of them. He wore a halo of backcombed black hair, he played his guitar behind his back, and he set his guitar on fire, crouching over it, urging the flames on. He used his mouth. His guitar could scream and moan - he lip-synched its noises - it could sound like smoke and lightning, like heavy metal thunder, like Vietnam attack helicopters, like napalm, like Armageddon. His records were patchy - half-baked psychedelic, funk sludge, souped-up blues - but he left a handful of classics behind: 'All Along the Watchtower', 'Voodoo Chile', 'Foxy Lady', 'Crosstown Traffic', 'Purple Haze'...
Hendrix came out of nowhere, but his appearances were perfectly planned. He arrived in England from the US in September 1966. He was 23. He had played behind Little Richard, BB King, Wilson Pickett, the Isley Brothers. But no one in England knew who this cat was. In those days, Erie Clapton was the pale god of the electric guitar. Hendrix approached Clapton's band Cream and asked if he could sit in with them. Clapton took the bait and Hendrix took the stage - London Polytechnic, October 1, 1966 - and it was cruel and fierce and unfair. It was curtains for Clapton. Recounting the story in the millennial issue of Mojo, Clapton says;
'He did 'Killing Floor', a Howlin' Wolf number I've always wanted to play, but which I've never really had the complete technique to do ... He just stole the show ... He did win. Hands down. It was phenomenal.'
He also had excellent management. Hendrix had been brought to England by Chas Chandler, who found him in Greenwich Village's Cafe Wha. He proposed the heavyweight bout with Clapton, knowing that Hendrix could never lose. He found him a competent band, the Experience - Noel Redding on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums. They played their first gig in Paris. They played their first single, 'Hey Joe', on the TV rock show Ready Steady Go.
In the summer of 1967, he took back the US playing the Monterey Festival, where flames destroyed his guitar. That year, he was the hottest thing in the world. He was thrown off a tour opening for the Monkees because his gig was too outrageous. In 1968, he was hotter still. He put a harem of naked women on the cover of Electric Ladyland. A rock encyclopedia cited his 'indefatigable use of the wah-wah pedal'. He was dead two years later.
It was about sex and it was about transcendence. Noise and electricity, sudden moments of ecstasy, stoned and immaculate - no matter that you had to wade through acres of garbage to get there. Hendrix was plugged into the socket, he blew fuses, he blew chunks, and he blew rock writer Ian Penman's tiny teenage mind. Penman is still grappling with it. How many other musicians provoke responses like this:
'Is there any more voluptuous, terrible, jouissant moment in rock guitar than that staggering lacuna just after the initial wah-wah greeting and just before the electrical storm of noise being the song proper of 'Voodoo Chile'? Like a transcription of electricity itself, that wah-wah intro sounds like a bouncing ball leading us into some spectral hieroglyphic beyond ... like a long ceremony that has reached its peak and the Other - in the feral shape of phantom ancestors, star visitors - will finally deign to speak in this other tongue ... Sound of technology stretched beyond mere function into the hot immanence of a new plan of space-time. Sound of something wrenched out of one state into another: pulled over to a dangerous, doomed, diabolic other side ...'