The Jimi Hendrix Paradox An Interview With Charles R. Cross
Room Full of Mirrors by Charles R. Cross is the latest biography to attempt to uncover the mystery behind the short yet timeless career of Jimi Hendrix. Cross is no stranger to difficult subject matter as he is also the best-selling author of Heavier Than Heaven, the Kurt Cobain biography. The Nirvana leader’s bio was a natural segue because Cross was the editor of _The Rocket_the Northwest music and entertainment magazine that was the source for the legendary Seattle music scene of the 1980s and 90s. Cross hits the literary mark again with the Rosebud’-like aura that surrounds the impossible talents of Hendrix. He conducted more than 300 interviews over four years and a poignant impression emerged similar to the fictional biographers in the Orson Welles film, Citizen Kane. Hendrix sinks into the mind as a singular man cloaked in genius, yearning for stability, yielding confusion.
We sat down with the author and discovered that the more one looks at the Hendrix imagery, the more one finds new questions. His book is a fascinating read and a unique tome, at thatno other Hendrix biography ponders a more accurate theory about the man behind the guitar. Cross is also the co-author of Led Zeppelin: Heaven and Hell, arguably one of the best collections of photographs, essays, interviews and live material on the hallowed rock gods. As you will read, Cross is a wealth of music knowledge from 1940s Seattle R&B to Elvis to Dylan to the White Stripes.
RR- _Led Zeppelin: Heaven and Hell_to my mind, hands down, best Zep book to capture their mystique.
CC- Thank you so much. The book industry is a very weird industry. I was very proud of that Zeppelin bookit’s more of an encyclopedia than a biography because, of course, there had been a number of biographies. I tracked down and got a number of stunning photographs. I think it’s a great book but it’s completely out of print. People contact me every week saying: “Can a get a copy?” and I say: “No.” That’s the book industry. It has never come out in paperback.
RR- I practically wear gloves when I look through my hardbound copy and the pristine pages. Best cover for a music book. The picture of Jimmy Page is rock.
CC- Thanks for saying that. I can’t tell you how long I worked on the cover. I’m a graphic designer, too. There’s a particular look that I wanted on that cover and I think we got it. Zeppelin was such a visual band, too. That was a big part of it. It’s been nice; since that book came outnot that my book had anything to do with it Zeppelin’s star has risen. How The West Was Won was by far the best release of 2003.
One of the titles I considered for the Jimi Hendrix book was named after a wonderful unreleased Hendrix track called “Heaven Has No Sorrow.” There are still five or six gems that are unreleased and that is one of them. One Hendrix fan I know kept calling me up and saying: “When’s Heaven Has No Sorrow coming out?” I would say that I can’t have three books with the word Heaven’ in them. Great title, great song; but, I can’t do it.
RR- Parallel connections between Hendrix and Cobain. How did you get involved with the project and did you see all of these connections between the two? Both from Seattle. Both had a unique melodic gift. Both akin towards heroin (three books now with a main character chained to that drug; although, Jimmy Page beat the dragon). Both misunderstood and self-destructive.
CC- Absolutely. Apart from the fact that they’re both left-handed guitar players who died at 27 is pretty remarkable. They both in some ways came from disenfranchised segments of society. With Hendrix, race is something that you really can’t escape when talking about his career. One of my favorite stories in the bookand it’s only a line but it says so much in my opinionis when Hendrix, who by then is a huge superstar in England, comes back to America to play the Monterey Pop Festival and stops over for a layover in New York and, within the first hour, is mistaken for a bellhop by a woman in a hotelpurely based on the color of his skin. That’s just a great example of how Jimi was perceived in America as an African-American put great limits on it; however, in England he was able to shine without that limit. Obviously, Hendrix and Cobain have that difference. Cobain was from the disenfranchised poverty of the white lower class and that, ultimately, was not that different from the world of Hendrix.
RR- When did you decide that your next project would be Hendrix? Was it on the back burner for quite a while?
CC- It had actually been in the back of my brain for years and years. Always thoughtyou know I kind of jokingly state in the introduction of the book that Hendrix is the sort of character that awaits any Northwestern rock journalist just as an aspiring actor knows that Shakespeare’s canon awaits. I always knew that there was sort of a great Jimi Hendrix bookcertainly talking about his Northwest rootsthat had not been written. I began working on this book before the Cobain book was even out. It just made a lot of sense. Many of the people that I interviewed for the book I had known for years. The history of the secret R&B scene in Seattle, which has not been documented, is a very colorful and wonderful story. I wish I could write a whole book on that.
RR: What era was that?
CC- 1940s through about 1965. Seattle just had this thing. We sort of heard it later when we heard The Wailers and The Sonicsgreat Seattle bands that I think were hugely influential and you heard them in other bands. Also, those bands were sort of influenced by this dirty R&B sound that came out of the Northwest. It partially came because we did have ethnic diversity up here. Blacks and whites were in the same club. There wasn’t as strict a color line. There were many places that blacks were not welcome and there were places that whites weren’t welcome but at least with youth culture, there was more diversity. I think that effected the sound of Jimi Hendrix and I think that effected the sound of The White Stripes, you know, years later, if you want to trace them back through time. And, certainly, Nirvana. SoI always knew I wanted to write this book and thought I’d write it a lot quicker than I did. (laughs) I didn’t think it would be such a monumental task. I found a remarkable story that, parts of it, I didn’t even know existed.
RR- You’re the only writer that talks about Hendrix’s longing for a traditional family while his activities diverted him from this goal. However, the man is at the musical summit. When asked who is the best, the correct answer is still Hendrix. How does the book explain his superhuman talent?
CC- Interesting. I generally don’t read the reviews but other people do and tell me about themlike it or not. This book has gotten some incredible reviews. Then, there are one or two negative reviews that say that I don’t explain Jimi’s genius. To me, it’s just(laughs) how do you explain it? I spent four years researching the guy’s life and I can’t tell you why he was this good. I can tell you what it wasn’t throughit wasn’t through training. The guy never took a lesson in his life. I can tell you the other things that Jimi gave up to put all of this creative energy into the guitar but, to actually explain why he was so good, I don’t think it’s possible. I describe Jimi in the book as a musical cannibal. He was able to take these musical influences, Elmore James, B.B. King and T-Bone Walkera myriad of African-American blues greatsand he was able to mix that with his love of rock, his love of folk, and his love of Bob Dylanwho I think was his single greatest influence on his career.
RR- Physically and musically.
CC- Yeah. Dylan was the artist that allowed Hendrix to re-imagine himself and that was more important than any of the other guitarists. Without that, Jimi Hendrix is just a blues player in a backup band in a Y. Dylan gave him the sense to create himself as a solo artist. Explaining this is impossible to sayeven to this day. Obviously, I’ve listened to a lot of Hendrix over my lifetimecertainly, a lot over the last four years. I’m still amazed. My five year old son pretty much forces me to play “All Along the Watchtower” whenever we get in the car and drive anything over 50 yards. He insists on playing that opening guitar riff very loud. Where did Jimi get the sense that he could re-create a song that was so patented by Bob Dylan and, yet, capture so much of the melody with simply his guitar? He basically tells the whole emotional story of that song in the first guitar riff. That was his great key.
RR- Dylan said that he no longer sees “All Along the Watchtower” as his song.
CC- I think that’s the best compliment that Dylan’s given anyone. I don’t think he’s ever complimented anyone like that when they’ve covered his songs.“All Along the Watchtower” is quite an accomplishment. Hendrix’s fascination of DylanI knew of that going in but I didn’t realize the depth of it. I recounted a story in the book of Hendrix meeting Dylan across the street. I love that story because of the way it was related to me by Jimi’s friend, Deering Howe, who is a billionaire hotel heir and he’s not impressed by fame and celebrity. Jimi saw Dylan across the street and dashed over and said: “There’s BOB DYLANlet’s go talk to him!!”just like a crazed fan might chase after a celebrity today.” And Deering described Dylan’s look on his face as Jimi dashed across the street. First, it was a look of alarm: “There’s a large black man charging me, screaming my name.” Dylan didn’t immediately recognize him. Of course, Dylan was more than just super famous, at that point. The instant he realized it was Jimi Hendrix, he was at great ease and complimented Jimi.
Jimi always told the story that they had met earlier and that just didn’t smell right to me. Jimi was just a complete unknown. What would Bob Dylan say to an unknown guitar player who had really played nowhere? This story makes much more sense as the first time they met. Deering Howe is convinced that from Dylan’s reaction and Jimi had said they had never met him before and I want to meet him and that this was the first time they had met. Jimi was just on Cloud Nine that Bob Dylan even knew who he was.
I also relate a story in the book and, I don’t know if I went into as much detail as I knew but, Dylan, sort of secretly behind the scenes, began funneling these songs to Jimi. He wanted Jimi to cover these songs. Some of that was a financial consideration. Bob would make far more money off of publishing if Jimi would make some of these into a hit. The other thing is that you had Mike Jeffrey and Chas Chandler not wanting Jimi to cover somebody else’s songs. You may not have heard those. There are some great versions of Jimi covering some of the songs on The Basement Tapes that have never come out.
RR- You just touched upon a point that I’d like to elaborate upon. As a historian, you made me present in the moment so I could feel what Hendrix was going throughthe enormous pressure and the constant demands on his life and schedule.
CC- My goal as a biographer is not to judge my characters but to try to give you a context to the back story to their life. I think that much rock biography is sort of Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll’ and that has an emphasis on what was said on stage, what was played on stage. I’m far less interested in what Jimi played on stage but, what motivated him to take to the stage in the first place and what motivated him to not play. The example you cite of Seattlethat’s very much something I was attempting to do with this book. Some of the other Hendrix books give equal weight to what Jimi played in San Diego as what he did or played in Seattle. For me, going to my high school reunion [Hendrix in Seattle] is far more important than the day going to the Teriyaki stand down the street. There were certain days in Jimi’s life that were the highlight and that’s what I tried to get to the heart of as a biographer. Clearly, that story of going back to a high school that he had dropped out of and coming back as a superstar but, once again, he leaves without getting the sweet justice of revenge he had to have hoped he would get. It’s, as you said, the demands of a performing musician who goes on the road. It’s a miracle that Jimi could stay awake to play these shows, much less do the magical music.
RR- Far more than any other Hendrix biography, I think you did a solid job of illustrating Jimi Hendrix’s daily life. I’ve seen a ton of old talk shows where Hendrix is just sitting there next to the host and he’s barely coherent, desperately trying to be polite and communicative.
CC- Yeah, even while writing about it, I saw a list of all the shows they played. I started talking with Noel Redding, who I interviewed extensively, and he said that not only were they playing a lot of shows, but they played two shows a night, which nobody does today. The White Stripes don’t play two shows a night. They don’t play more than three or four shows a week. Not only were they playing two shows a night but, they were traveling by car, by station wagon on that first tour, between city to city. And their tours had these wacky routings: they’d play San Diego, California, one day, Seattle, Washington, the next; then, they’d be in Santa Barbara, California, the day after. It was nuts.
RR- Some glorious concert bills in those daysthe hodgepodge of 60s bands that would play together on the same bill like the Walker Brothers, Engelbert Humperdink and, oh yeah, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
CC- Yeah, it was great to see that or, the idea of Jimi Hendrix and The Monkees. That ends up as a question in a Trivial Pursuit game. It seems like it’s a joke but, it is true. Jimi’s whole story is like that. The whole story is stranger than fiction. You can’t make this stuff up. The guy knew The Beatles, had his penis molded in plaster, played Woodstock; yet, at the same time, as you sort of mentioned and alluded to earlier, like anybody else he wanted stability in his life but, was unable to find it in any place. I don’t know about you but, for me, my whole understanding of the world changed when I had a kid. I sort of said, “Oh, this is the deal.” Everybody, regardless of their race or class or financial status, all anybody really wants is a better life for their kids than they had. That’s clearly what Jimi’s parents wanted but, for a variety of reasons, they were, sort of, unable to be present as parents. That’s probably one of the hardest parts of Jimi’s personalityto look at how little involvement he had with the, at least, two children that he fathered.
RR- Similar to Jack Kerouac and his relationship with his daughter, Jan.
CC: Yeah. Yeah. Jan Kerouac’s autobiography is pretty darn heartbreaking. I’m a huge Kerouac fan, too, and, you know, there is a downside to this kind of lifestyle. It is also possible that this kind of creativity has a darkness to it that it, you know, comes with
RR- You’re finding a balance so, you’re a role model for all of us writers. (laughter)
CC- I’m letting my kid watch a video, right now. Years from now, he’ll write an autobiography about how his father conducted interviews on the phone while he watched T.V. or someone watched him so I could do a television interview.
RR- Let’s talk about your reputation as the Research King.
CC- One of my techniques is that I don’t want to interview someone that’s important once. I want to interview them twelve times and I want to go back and say: “What about this story?” That’s the genesis of the prologue that begins the book. The fact that Jimi and Noel went into a club in Liverpool and weren’t servedthat’s been in a couple of these Hendrix list’ books and concert file books and I’d read that and said: “that sounds unusual.” So, I went back and talked to Noel and he said: “Oh, they thought we were clowns.” What do you mean? So, a couple of times, I went back and asked him because this was such an amazing story. What I do is try to take some of the existing history and find the emotional highpoints where I can track down the back story. My books are sort of the back story of rock history. It’s not that Jimi played “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. What’s important to me is that he wanted to go onstage with an acoustic guitar and the promoters discouraged him from that. That to me is far more interesting than the fact that he did play “The Star Spangled Banner.” What’s also interesting is that he was not a rabid anti-war guy. He felt that the Red Chinese were a threat and that’s very much in contrast to the analysis that pundits put on his performance at Woodstock.
RR: The bit about how Hendrix got out of the Army is getting press right now.
CC- Yeah, that’s kind of been a news storyon Fox News on the ticker tape: “Hendrix used gay ruse to get out of Nam.” Now, it is true that 101st Airborne was eventually sent to Nam and, maybe, Jimi could see that on the horizon. He clearly wanted out of the Army but he wasn’t the only guy, for cryin’ out loud, there were a lot of people. I sort of jokingly called him the Corporal Klinger of the 101st AirborneI mean, he tried everything to get out.
RR- How did that make you feel to see that item on the Fox News ticker tape?
CC- In some ways, that’s the reason I write the booksthe exaggeration, the quick little bit on the ticker tape parade is not the true story. You need to understand the whole context of that and you also need to understand why Jimi went into the Army. He was caught riding in two stolen cars in one week and as an African-American male he faced up to five years in prison. If he’d been white, they’d probably just slap his hand and send him home. He couldn’t just quit the Army, he’d go to jail; so, he had to find a way out. Obviously, being gay was one of the few ways he could get out. There was a potential for that to backfire, you know. His squad mates could have beat the crap out of him, which wasn’t uncommon in that day and time.
RR- He’s hardly the most prominent American who had to sidestep some duties during that decade.
CC- Oh, absolutely. He’s so identified with being the heterosexual stud but, within the African-American community, Jimi’s hairdresser was gaywho was also Miles Davis’s hairdresser. He did Jimi’s ’do and Miles liked it and it’s almost like the beginning of the movie Barber Shop.
RR- Hendrix seemed to be the right person with the right equipment at the right time. I’ve been fascinated with the concept of serendipity lately. How much did that play a role?
CC- As you write about rock over decades like I have, you meet a lot of people in your personal life who are incredible musicians and you wonder why isn’t this man or woman more well known and you meet them and they’re great. You begin to realize that fame is a very tricky thing and serendipity plays a huge role in it. It did in the life of Kurt Cobain. It did in the life of Jimi Hendrix and it did in the life of The Doors and Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead and it certainly did in the life of Elvis Presley. Elvis just so happens to stop by Sun Records to cut a record for his mother’s birthday present when Marion Keister was there and took an interest in him. If she had been sick that day, rock history would have been re-written. I think the same could be said of Jimi Hendrix. If Linda Keith had not bumped into Chas Chandler, Jimi’s career would have gone in a very different direction.
RR- I liked how you portrayed Linda Keith in the book. I’ve read about her as Keith Richards’ ex-girlfriend in various books about the Rolling Stones.
CC- Yeah, she is one of the heroes of Hendrix’s story. She championed him when there was no reason, no personal gain for her and a lot to lose. It took a lot of effort on her part to get someone to listen to this guy, Jimi Hendrixto get what she was getting. You knowbless her heart.
RR- How important was longtime girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham to Hendrix’s development?
CC: Extremely important. In some ways, there is a great parallel between Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love.
RR- I was thinking that.
CC: The early girlfriends are, sadly, the ones that are left behind after becoming famous. Etchingham was very outgoing and knew everybody and had a few rock star boyfriends, already. She was kind of one of the queens of the London rock scene. Hendrix meeting and hooking up with her had a major positive direction for him.
RR- Speaking ofdid you have Courtney Love’s involvement during the writing of the Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven?
CC- For all of the nasty things that are said about Courtney, she is smart enough to understand to respect the freedom of the press. I went to her and said I was going to write this book and, whether you like it or not, you need to cooperate with meor not. She said, “I’m not going to cooperate with you but, I’m not going to fuck with you, either.” Ultimately, she ended up cooperating with me because I knew more about her husband than she did. I don’t know your domestic situation but, as a writer, I spend my life writing about this. Imagine if you could find this much information about someone close to youit would be fascinating; so, there got to be a point where I knew more about Kurt than she would ever know. Our conversations became way more two-way at that point. Nowwhen the book came out, there were some things she did not like and she said: “Take that stuff out.” And I said: “I can’t. The book is already out [in stores].” She did not read my manuscript in advance and, in fact, she gave me permission to quote from Kurt’s writings and lyrics without a suggestion of her in control.
RR- Let’s talk about The Rocket and the Seattle scene in the 80s and 90s. At the time, did you know you were part of something big?
CC- Of course not and anyone that claims that they knew that history was being changed when you were in the basement of a crummy club in Seattle, Washington, drinking three beers for a dollar and seeing a band and there was, you know, twenty people in the roomanybody that claims that they could see that change is, again, telling a story that’s apocryphal, that’s not true. Of course, you had no idea but The Rocket played a role. We championed bands when there was no other place to find an audience. At its height, The Rocket had a circulation of 125,000. There are not too many city weeklies that have that kind of readership. What was more important was the people that read it: people like Kurt Cobain, Mark Arm, Stone Gossard and Chris Cornell who went on to become famous. They really cared about what we said about them. Over the course of my career, I’ve interviewed thousands of musicians and it always still feels good to talk to guys with platinum records on the wall and they say: “You know what really made me feel like I made it was when I was on the cover of The Rocket.” There’s a crass, commercial part of me that says, “wouldn’t it have meant more when you got your first million-selling record?” What really matters to people is what people in their hometown think about them. That’s why a lot of musicians even pick up a guitar in the first place.
RR- I think you’ve maintained a street credibility because you always seem to remember that these are people first and musicians second. Would that be true?
CC: Yeah, that’s definitively, yeahtalking about some of the criticism of the Hendrix book and the Cobain bookI’m not out to psychoanalyze these people. I remember, first and foremost, that they’re human beings and that they existed as real people. That fact is not lost on me when I’m writing these books. I try to write biographies that are sympathetic to some degree but, I want to tell the story first and, I don’t want to get in the way as a writer. There’s one point when I finished the book and sent a copy to an editor at a major guitar magazine who I was very concerned what he would think because I wanted to make sure that gear freaks got something out of this book. He called me on my cell phone as I was in the International District in Seattle and on my way to a Mariners’ baseball game. He’s one of the Hendrix freaks and he said that there was so much there in the book that he didn’t know. It was great to get that response but, as I was sitting there, I realized that the hotel that I was sitting in front ofwhere I was going to get my free parking before the gamewas the hotel that Jimi Hendrix and his mother had lived. That emotional context to remember that these are real people is really at the core of the work I want to create. I don’t want to ever forget that.