I have been dredging the depths for weeks on this: Where did it begin? How did it go wrong? Why did I duck out of society to spend an entire summer researching Jimi Hendrix and slowly losing my mind? This all is ancient history—a lot of it whited out by booze or whatever else—and it took 'til now, this morning, to remember.
When the Mercury decided to run a guitar gods-themed music issue I knew Hendrix had to have his place in its pages. Enough has been written about the man's talents, about his history and his relevance to ours, so I decided to go personal. This is what I've divined from the memory junkyard: I was 17, living at home in Southern California, and there was this girl I liked. I don't remember her name or what she looked like, but I had it bad for her—and she had it bad for Jimi Hendrix.
All I knew at the time was Hendrix had played Woodstock and that he had an immaculate afro. This was back when I still wished I was black and wanted an afro more than anything (long story, also involving a girl), so I was mildly jealous of him. I was also jealous that this Hendrix girl was lukewarm to me, but all-out lusty for this weird hippie that had been dead for longer than I'd been alive.
So I bought a tape of Axis: Bold as Love and listened to it one night. It didn't thrill me that much—except for one song, "Castles Made of Sand." The thing blew my world apart—the somnolent, drawling, stoned spoken vocals, all the various sad stories of senseless death and love woes and life-change micro-condensed into a soul ballad.
Before I went to bed that night I sat up on my bedroom floor and transcribed the lyrics to this great song on a piece of notebook paper. (This was pre-Google search.)
Next morning I woke up and it was covered in yellow, dried bile. The family dog, which slept in my room, had puked violently on the floor while I slept, sparing everything besides the lyrics, which had taken me a good two hours to get down. "This" I told myself, "is a sign."
The first Jimi Hendrix biography I bought was a fine read. Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight talked about drugs and about sex and about endless hours alone in the studio, tweaking music to its psychedelic apex. The second biography, The Jimi Hendrix Story, told the same history, only a little different, better, and deeper into the music production. By then I had forgotten about the girl—who I didn't have a chance with in the first place. This didn't matter; I now had all Jimi's studio albums and was quietly becoming a real fan, pouring songs like the heavily tripped out "Third Stone from the Sun" and Electric Ladyland's aquatic suite into a headspace previously filled with mindless punk records and whatever my parents listened to.
I graduated high school shortly thereafter and soon after that most of my friends went back East to look at colleges. A few weeks later I found a row of books on Hendrix at the local library and went in deep, memorizing dates and events, taking copious notes, charting tours, drawing and painting pictures of the man. I stopped seeing my friends that were in town, stopped returning calls, stopped going outside except for the walk to the library, and bought nothing but Dr. Pepper (fuel) and endless live Hendrix bootlegs. His music was a strange and hyper-colored world where nothing anywhere made sense and you could get lost inside the space of an outro—and I did. His world wasn't for damn sure San Diego's bleached-out, conservative wasteland, and I was all for that. To hell with everything else, I decided—I wanted Hendrix's reality. Beyond escapism, I had one aim and one aim only—to understand Hendrix.
Solitude can do a number on you. Enough of it and you start to go strange. I went strange, and then I went obsessive. I read Hendrix. I listened to Hendrix. I also prayed to him—sort of—which is where this got unhealthy. At the time I decided to take up transcendental meditation, and using a book written by popular guru Sri Chinmoy, learned that you must have a focal image to center upon while cleansing and uncluttering your thoughts. It didn't need to be a god—which I didn't have anyway—all it needed to be was a symbol you felt balanced by. I chose Jimi. I cut a picture out of a book, made a shrine around it (razor clam shells, bird bones, acorns from the San Diego mountains, clipped rose thorns, candles, and orange seeds), and spent long, drowsy afternoons staring at Jimi (setting fire to his guitar) and "om"-ing off into the smog and stratosphere.
I don't remember when I finally broke out of this, but it involved the sun, and stepping outside into it one day, seeing my pale skin and feeling that great life-giving heat on it, and realizing—suddenly—that I wasn't living for myself anymore. I was living for—and in and through—Jimi Hendrix, and that wasn't a life.
I kept the studio records, sold the bootlegs, and returned the books. I peeled all the photos and drawings off my walls and wiped clean my room of all things fanatical; this was a good move.
I still listen to Jimi Hendrix—a lot actually—and still love his music, but I don't assign much mystic or spiritual importance to his guitar playing or deeper meaning to his lyrics (which can be an obtuse web at best.) Maybe someday I'll use the mountainous stratum of info I stacked into myself back then—maybe not. But still, here it is; there's the story. I can now be done with it.