I Am Electric Religion


Yesterday I met Jimi Hendrix. For real. And he turned out to be very different from the Jimi I thought I knew.

Considering how close we’d been. Hell, the first thing I ever learnt to play on my gittar (left-handed) was the bass line to Hey Joe. And it wasn’t till years later that I realised that someone called Bob Dylan had written All Along The Watch Tower.

I’d seen the movie Woodstock 26 times with my friend Mary Ellen, at Regal Theatre in Mumbai back in the summer of 1970, on break from high school. I could scream the Star Spangled Banner with fuzz and wah-wah effects to perfection. Every note.

I wept buckets when they changed the movie.

Jimi probably had no idea he had such a huge fan following in India. Girls who would have gladly given him their virginity, just like girls all over the globe, from England to Sweden to Germany to everywhere. But he never came to India.

So I married a guitar player with an almost-afro, partly because he could play screaming guitar both with his fingers and teeth. Just like Jimi.

I gobbled up the book Jimi Hendrix: Starting At Zero, which is a compilation of his letters, diaries, interviews, audio tapes, songs, scribblings, all painstakingly gathered, transcribed and timelined by Peter Neal, who doesn’t interrupt Jimi, or interject his own opinion, not once.

Neal brings Jimi back to life.

It was like listening to The Wind Cries Mary for the first time.
H e was born on November 27, 1942. His first memo ries are from the time he was very young (“small enough to fit into a clothes basket,“), and very poor son of a strict and unyielding sometimes-electrician, sometimes-gardener, who never made enough money . Jimi was once kicked out of Church for not having the proper shoes.

As he entered his teens, scrounging for this and that on the streets of Seattle, he and his friends would sometimes go out looking for trouble with the cops, not worried about getting thrown in jail because then at least they’d get a good meal.

The military seemed like the right choice for a young boy with no options and no high school diploma. He hated the Army until he discovered parachute jumping. Twenty-four jumps.
And then it was time to call it quits after an injury, not really serious, with about $400 in his pocket.

But he seems to have blown it all in one night, necessitating him to take up guitar as a means of survival.

How do you review an auto biography? It’s the story of someone’s life. It is what it is. Jimi’s staggering musical career spans only a machine-gun spray of four brief years. From age 24, when he began gigging as a sideman with the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, Curtis Knight and many others, until he was discovered by the bass player of the group The Animals (The House Of The Rising Sun), Chas Chandler, who whisked him off to England, into the arms of Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell and fame… until age 27, until September 18, 1970, when he was discovered dead.

It is still unclear what he died of.

Reading his own words, it seems unlikely that it was a drug overdose. He doesn’t speak of using drugs anywhere. Maybe a little pot, some booze, but no pills, no heroin, nothing like that.

But people can lie even in their dying declarations, and certainly in their diaries. But this book isn’t about the whole truth, just the truth according to Jimi.

For the record, he says that his famous song Purple Haze was written for a girl whom he believed put a spell on him. A voodoo-type spell he considered himself lucky to have broken.

In fact, most of his songs are beautiful, poetic, brilliantly scripted tributes to women, a

species he loved whole-heartedly and without prejudice.Jimi’s honesty and naïveté, his bravado and vulnerability are evident and touching in the first part of the book when he is insecure, hopeful and wanting to do the right thing, to make a difference. He writes to his father, “Nowadays people don’t want you to sing good. They want you to sing sloppy… So just in case you might hear a record by me which sounds terrible, don’t feel ashamed, just wait till the money rolls in.“

But as fame runs him over in the race to his death, you hear his frustration. Performing around the world non-stop for four years, almost every night to relentless managers and a demanding, adoring audience that insists on the same hit songs over and over again, you feel his pain. The applause, the cities, the girls, the meals, all blend into a white light that blinds him.

A short while before his death, he says, “I wrote Foxy Lady so long ago, by now she’s going to have three kids.“

There are many sides to Jimi, but you get the sense that he didn’t get the chance to give all of his creativity a proper chance.
His life appears to have burst at the seams.

“When I get up on stage and sing, that’s my whole life. That’s my religion. I am Electric Religion.“

I found this particular reply to a British journalist amusing. “Do the teachings of Mahesh Yogi appeal to you?“ he is asked.

Jimi’s replies, “I don’t really believe that his transcendental meditation is much more than day dreaming.“

JIMI HENDRIX STARTING AT ZERO: HIS OWN STORY compiled posthumously by Peter Neal Bloomsbury, Rs 499

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