An Irishman's Diary

 

November 27th, 1967 is an important date for Irish fans of Jimi Hendrix. On this date, 40 years ago tomorrow, he made his sole appearance on the island of Ireland when he headlined a concert at the Whitla Hall in Queen's University, Belfast. On the same bill were Pink Floyd, Rick Emerson, The Move, and Henry McCullough's band Eire Apparent. Not a bad line-up for a Monday night in Belfast, writes Kevin Stevens

That concert also happened to fall on Hendrix's 25th birthday - which means that tomorrow he would have turned 65. For anyone who grew up with his music and image, Hendrix at retirement age is a challenging concept.

The Rolling Stones notwithstanding, the musical explosion of the 1960s does not sit well with advancing age. And more than anyone, Hendrix embodied that decade's youthful questing and in-your-face iconoclasm - in his dress, his lifestyle and, most of all, in his music.

Like Elvis, Hendrix played black musical forms with a vision and originality that earned him a worldwide following. And like Elvis he did it in style, with virtuoso guitar-playing, a provocative stage presence, and clothes that defined an era - fringed jackets, tie-dyed robes, and Trilby hats decorated with angled feathers and silver bangles.

Of course, the crucial difference is that Hendrix was black. He emerged from within the tradition, and like jazz musicians of an earlier era he learned his craft barnstorming from town to town, playing high-energy blues and R&B to all-black audiences on the "chitlin' circuit," a string of segregated clubs in the American South where the great names of African-American music honed their musical chops - James Brown, Little Richard, Solomon Burke and many others.

Hendrix was the right man for the time. His music was a powerful blend of subversion and showmanship. Though apolitical by nature, his background gave him an instinct for repression, and he found subtle ways of expressing his opposition to racism and war.

In August 1969, as the war in Vietnam raged on, Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, simulating the sounds of rockets firing and bombs exploding on solo guitar with carefully controlled distortion. This implied link between violence and patriotism, a defining musical and political statement at the time, continues to reverberate.

When asked on the Dick Cavett Show about this controversial version of the American national anthem, Hendrix flashed a peace sign and pointed out that he had been a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. What he didn't say was that his stint in the army was in lieu of a jail sentence, and that after a year of service he was recommended for discharge for "behaviour problems". It's not surprising that Hendrix had a problem with authority. But he also had an ambiguous relationship with his predominantly white audience. In the jazz world, Miles Davis often turned his back on the audience; Hendrix seduced and taunted, bringing the sexually charged antics of underground blues performance to the stages of the San Diego Sports Arena and the Royal Albert Hall.

But behind the imagery and politics was a musician of rare talent, and it is his music that remains most powerful years later. His wild live playing, a storm of squalling feedback and electronic effects, is usually highlighted, but careful listeners put greater emphasis on his touch and tone, his sense of rhythm and unique chord progressions, his innovative harmonies.

Pete Townshend called him the Charlie Parker of the electric guitar and, like Parker, Hendrix created a whole new way of playing that nevertheless sounded effortless and entirely logical. Also like Parker, he was steeped in the blues, and his most famous songs - Voodoo Chile, Purple Haze, Manic Depression - are blues updated, given an original twist that keeps them rooted in the tradition while exploring new horizons.

In 1970, Hendrix died in mysterious circumstances in a basement flat in London. His early death enhanced his iconic status, and his influence on guitarists and rock music has remained strong across the decades.

That influence crosses all boundaries. My guitar-playing brother, born two years after Hendrix's death, spent his adolescence in the west of Ireland, where he and his friends listened closely to Jimi's music. Their idolatry was intensified by the proximity of Noel Redding, bass player in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who had moved to West Cork in 1972, switched to guitar, his original instrument, and formed a band that played regularly in Connolly's of Leap.

My brother's friend Mike Grimes, also a bass player, attended the Connolly's gig religiously. The day before his first Leaving Cert exam, Mike got a call from the manager at Connolly's, saying that Redding's bassist had called in sick. Could Mike fill in? He grabbed his bass and headed for the door, only to be confronted by his mother.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Noel Redding needs a bass player. In Connolly's. He's asked me to play."

"You've study to do."

"Mom, you don't understand - Noel Redding asked me. He played with Jimi Hendrix!"

Mrs Grimes crossed her arms and stood her ground. "You only do the Leaving once, young man - you've the rest of your life to play with Jimi Hendrix."