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Book Reviews

Jimi Hendrix: The Making of an Icon

By Published: March 8, 2004

When Are You Experienced came out in May of 1967, it met excitement and confusion among British listeners who had never heard this kind of color and intensity from a rock band. Experience shows were incendiary, Hendrix developing a stage persona that was overtly sexual and unflinchingly emotional. Later, Hendrix took it over the top at the Monterey Pop Festival. A coin flip decided who would lead off, and the (still-unknown) Who took the lead. The Grateful Dead filled in as a spacer, and then the Experience took the stage. The rest is history.

Egan handles the many ins and outs of this story with relative fluidity. The author invested a more-than-diligent effort to interview everyone he could find, including rock stars, industry people, and personal friends. His thoroughness pays off throughout the book, with an abundance of direct quotes explaining the situation. When sources disagree, Egan generally takes sides, which helps a lot in putting together some semblance of consistency in the story. Chandler, for example, has a tendency to embellish his version of the early Experience days; Egan indulges him but draws the line where necessary. Perhaps most revealing is the regular commentary from Kathy Etchingham, whose no-nonsense explanations reveal more than the flip excitement of her contemporaries. Listeners curious about the personal relationship behind tunes like "The Wind Cries Mary" will learn exactly what went down.

Since Are You Experienced was assembled in such an erratic, piecemeal fashion, the intimate details of its construction are labyrinthine indeed. Egan takes no prisoners when he gets down and dirty on the studio sessions, resolving what tracks were recorded when and where and under what circumstances. He describes the essential roles of Jim Marshall (amp designer of eternal Marshall stack fame), Eddie Kramer (an engineer uniquely attuned to Hendrix's loud idiosyncrasies), and Roger Mayer (inventor of various fuzzboxes and the Octavia). He reveals the Experience as more than a platform for Hendrix's wild extravagances. Since Mitchell's drumming owed significant debts to the jazz tradition and Noel Redding's bass playing came right out of rock and roll, Hendrix was positioned to expand his blues experience in a context where experimentation and improvisation had the support they needed.

After the basic storyline is laid down, the excitement of this book subsides a bit. Egan is absolutely fixated on what tracks were recorded on what days, and what overdubs were used on the final record. These details work well as reference material but they make for painful reading. I suppose it all depends on your angle, and what inspires you to read this book. Studio niggling is not the sort of thing that gets this reader excited.

But in the end Egan takes this project very seriously, and he deserves forgiveness for being such a rabid completist. There are, after all, a zillion books on Hendrix. Sean Egan has carved out a place at the very beginning, and his efforts render unique relevance for this documentary. Take some time to check out the extended liner notes of the '95 MCA reissue and you'll see exactly how thorough Egan's approach is.

And let's make it absolutely clear, with no equivocation: Hendrix was a real man, with real problems and real talent. Around the time London grafitti artists were painting "Clapton is God" all over the place, Hendrix was coming of age. There's no need to translate the maxim.

Jimi Hendrix was most definitely not God.

Note: this book represents the second installment in A Capella's Vinyl Frontier series, after Revolution: The Making of the Beatles' White Album. Expect more to come.

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