ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS A Biography of Jimi Hendrix
By Charles R. Cross
356 pages. $24.95 Hyperion Books. Reviewed by Janet Maslin
Charles R. Cross's "Room Full of Mirrors" is a good, solid, surprisingly touching version of Hendrix's story. Its ideal reader is someone who doesn't know or remember all the minutiae of Hendrix's career (there have been many other books for that) but would like to see an insightful omnibus version. Cross conducted more than 300 interviews, many with Hendrix's fellow musicians. His diligence casts light on poignant, little-known parts of the Hendrix family history, too.
"Room Full of Mirrors" is the perfect nostalgia item for anyone ready to be reminded that paying too much bread (it once meant money) for a sky-high concert ticket (they once cost $5.50) was ever cause for protest (from a newspaper in San Diego). But it works equally well for readers who need to be told why Time magazine did a "Swinging London" cover story in 1966.
Cross's book makes it clear why little Buster Hendrix (as he was first known) of Seattle was so needy. His lineage was complicated and bizarre. His father had 12 fingers; one brother was born with double rows of teeth. His family was so fractured that he was not united with both his parents, Al and Lucille, until he was 3.
Though the couple had six children and signed away parental rights to four of them, Lucille still disappeared from Jimi's life during his boyhood. He and his father moved constantly, but Jimi was more often farmed out to those friends and relatives who would feed him. "His early childhood scarcity issues," as Cross puts it in a rare jargon-heavy moment, were extreme.
"He would play that broom so hard, he would lose all the straw," said one of the many adults who were part of this "never-ending shuffle" for food and shelter. But it was a long time before the shy, polite Jimi got his hands on an actual guitar, even a one- stringed instrument. Meanwhile, he flunked out of high school and developed the sense of detachment that would make him a permanent drifter, coupled with the eagerness to please that made him welcome anywhere. When he moved to Nashville to become a back-up musician (and to encounter racial prejudice that was new to him after multicultural Seattle), he made himself endlessly adaptable. He played with such a weird range of performers that he had a musical biography that nobody would have believed. Weirdest of all: Jayne Mansfield.
Cross, who also investigates his subject's stint in the army and thinks that he feigned homosexuality and various health problems to be discharged from the service, does a fine job of illustrating how this range of musical influences made Hendrix so uncategorizable and so experienced. With his eventual wild-man melange of borrowed tricks (he took the gimmick of playing guitar behind his back from T- Bone Walker), he had a style that would have looked ridiculous in either Nashville or Harlem (where he also spent some apprentice time). But then he got to Greenwich Village in New York City and began wowing white kids from Long Island.
By 1966, he was ready for London, where his audience suddenly included a Who's Who of (by Cross's reckoning) often catty and envious white rock royalty, with whom he had little in common. "That was hard work," Hendrix said after socializing with Eric Clapton. And he was catnip for the groupies who kept him constantly cheating on one girlfriend or another. Once he had asked a high school sweetheart: "Do you really think I'll have fans?" Now, caught with a fan in a women's bathroom, he tried out a priceless excuse: "She wanted my autograph."
The least interesting part of "Room Full of Mirrors" comes after Hendrix reached his pinnacle of stardom. Much of this has been described elsewhere, if sometimes in embarrassingly racist and dated terms. (Rolling Stone labeled him a "psychedelic superspade.") Drug use made him blurry and rambling, with an increasingly weird affinity for science fiction. An overloaded touring schedule left him exhausted. When he died at 27 after taking too many sleeping pills (accidentally, Cross argues), he was buried in a flannel logger's shirt, the ultimate affront to his gypsy flamboyance.
The choice of outfit was strange, but the book's coda becomes even stranger, with internecine family fights that led to the 2002 disinterment of both Jimi and his father in the dead of night. While some of the closest Hendrix relatives remain impoverished, the $280 million shrine called the Experience Music Project became one of Seattle's most unlikely tourist attractions.
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