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William Jelani Cobb really goes to extraordinary lengths to pursue a racial agenda in his CD review and revisionist history of Jimi Hendrix (“Voodoo Unto Others,” 4/9). This is on the occasion of the re-release of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, a live recording from New Year’s Eve/Day of ’69-’70 at the Fillmore East in New York City. Cobb submits the opinion that Hendrix’s technical expertise on the guitar was “overshadowed by the image of a guitar-playing wildman with an Afro. And, truth to tell, Hendrix was both victim and perpetrator of his public legend—setting the guitars on fire, humping his ax like a manic porn stud—made for the public’s perception of him as a nigger Dionysus, the ultimate chocolate exotica.”

“Nigger Dionysus”? Really? So any gregarious black man who happens to have a sizable white audience is now a nigger Dionysus? For busting up a few guitars and amps? Back in the day, everybody was doing that schtick: the Who, Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5, to name a few. Stage destruction was all the rage for a little over a year, and then it stopped as quickly as it started for a simple reason: It cost too much money. Hendrix did not include it in his act after mid-1968, a full two years before he died. By the time we get to the Electric Ladyland period of his career, he had already settled into the more familiar stage routine of a rock star. That was more than enough in his case. Those of us who fell in love with his music did so for one reason: He was the best. Period. For my money—and I spent a lot of it on his records—he was better than Clapton, Townshend, Richards, or any of the other guitar heroes—white guitar heroes—of the day. We didn’t need a nigger Dionysus to recognize the virtuosity of Hendrix.

Cobb seems to follow the elitist thinking that the “masses are asses”—that it just isn’t possible that a mostly white audience of rock ‘n’ rollers could have understood the higher art and true calling of Hendrix. He ignores the continued high-level Hendrix CD sales that continue years after Hendrix’s death—to people who never saw the nigger Dionysus live, never saw a video, never saw the old Hendrix documentary movies that haven’t been shown in years. These are the people who know Hendrix only through the thing that matters most: his music.

Cobb continues his agenda with his description of Hendrix’s background as a musician. He correctly points out Hendrix’s upbringing in the blues and R&B scenes, which makes up the earliest part of Hendrix’s musical education and performing experience. The glaring ommissions are of Hendrix’s participation in the New York club rock scene in the mid-’60s and, especially, his total devotion to the music of Bob Dylan. Every single musician, friend, and associate who spent any time at all with Hendrix and was quoted for the record said that Hendrix was thoroughly devoted to Dylan’s music and immersed himself in it all the time, that he carried a book of Dylan’s lyrics around with him as if it were a Bible. Furthermore, until the end of his career, Dylan songs like “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” were Hendrix staples both on radio and in concert. Cobb evidently wants to ethnically cleanse Hendrix of any whiteness that he may have ever indulged in. It is, at best, an ignorant portrayal of Hendrix; at worst, it is a dishonest manipulation of the memory of one of our greatest musicians.

The historical revisionism continues with Cobb’s description of Hendrix’s concert tours in the final year of his life: “It is no coincidence that Hendrix consciously set out to cultivate a black audience at this point, ultimately performing at the legendary Harlem venue Small’s Paradise and doing free open-air gigs on 138th Street.” That is only part of the truth, at best. Cobb ignores the fact that two of Hendrix’s major concerts in his final year were the mammoth Atlanta International Pop Festival and the Isle of Wight Festival in England. Those crowds were mostly a bunch of English and Southern-fried hippies, not the Million Man March.

As for Hendrix’s trying to cultivate a black audience, he didn’t wait until the last year of his life to do it. “House Burning Down,” a song about the riots of 1968, appeared on Electric Ladyland. The producers of the record said in a recent PBS documentary that the song contains references to the Black Panther Party. “Crosstown Traffic” was a major hit for Hendrix long before 1970; it contained the sounds of black urban contemporary music. Cobb makes a big deal out of the fact that Hendrix had been playing in jam sessions with black musicians like Miles Davis…and completely ignores the well-known fact that he was planning to record with the white jazz artist Gil Evans, right before he died. Why the omission? You see, Hendrix made music for everybody, played music for everybody, was influenced by musicians of every kind of background, and was completely open-minded as to sources of musical inspiration. It is fitting that one of his last records was a soundtrack to the movie Rainbow Bridge, a semidocumentary about a hippie commune that Hendrix played himself in. Hendrix was about rainbows. He understood his own blackness well enough and at the same time understood diversity more than the Cobbs of this world ever will. Anyone who goes out of his way to claim Hendrix’s memory for himself is only revealing his own racial insecurities.

It is a shame that we will never know exactly what direction Hendrix might have gone had he lived. I have no doubt that it would have been a direction above and beyond that of those who want to play games with race.

Capitol Hill

via the Internet