By Steven Wishnia
From the October 3, 2008
A review of 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky By David Henderson
Updated Edition. Atria, 2008
I Have Fun Everywhere I Go By Mike Edison
Faber and Faber, 2008
Nostalgia gets on my nerves. I've been to too many punk-rock shows
where kids walk around in the T-shirts of bands that broke up before
they were born, recycling costumes and musical formulas that were
very well worn 20 years ago. You can never relive history, but you
can buy all the artifacts and refine the poses.
On the other hand, you need to know your history, which brings me to
two recent rock 'n' roll books. One is David Henderson's reissued
Jimi Hendrix biography 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky. It traces
Hendrix's life from his childhood in Seattle through backing Little
Richard and the Isley Brothers on the chitlin' circuit, scuffling for
freedom in the coffeehouses of the protohippie Village, going to
England in 1966, and international psychedelic stardom until his death in 1970.
Henderson, a Lower East Side poet, knows how to flow, vividly trying
to approximate the feel of the music in words "the clave chord
kicks off the guitar battery again. Sounding like the rhythms of
several African congas, the electronic metallic overdriving
oscillating Stratocaster keeps the rhythm throb close to the
pulsations of a red emergency light." And he knows Hendrix's world,
the Afro-American side of the 1960s counterculture, intimately.
The new introduction, however, is the most dubious part. Henderson
argues that Hendrix did not die of a drug overdose, but was murdered.
The ambulance drivers who picked him up said he was covered in
puked-up red wine, from which Henderson concludes, "he was drowned."
A far more plausible scenario, in all accounts cited by Henderson, is
that Hendrix was severely stressed and depressed in the last few
months of his life. "After a while your bullets don't even cause me
pain," he'd sung on "Machine Gun." A manager who'd signed him for a
dollar in 1965 had sued him and won the rights to the Band of Gypsys
live album, Hendrix's then current and most political record.
(Hendrix's personal politics mixed commitment to nonviolence with
support for the Black Panthers.) The last show he did, a week and a
half before he died, was at a German rock festival where three people
were murdered and a roadie shot in the leg. They then cancelled the
tour because bassist Billy Cox, Hendrix's oldest and steadiest
friend, had suffered a nervous breakdown after being dosed with LSD.
And the night of his death, he'd gone to a party and had a screaming
match with his girlfriend. She told investigators he'd taken up to
nine sleeping pills when he got home.
So would it not be more likely that Hendrix came home drunk,
swallowed a bunch of pills, and then puked up the lot and choked to
death? The ambulance drivers quoted by Henderson say no one was there
when they arrived, which implies a different damning scenario: that
most of Hendrix's entourage, including his girlfriend, were more
concerned about keeping themselves out of trouble than they were
about getting him medical help.
Methinks Henderson doth protest too much. He's got the noble aim of
trying to assert Jimi Hendrix's credibility as a musical genius, not
just another dead dopefiend. But no one who knows anything about
electric guitar questions Hendrix's genius. He played with a unique
fusion of psychedelic abandon, technical skill, and deep blues roots;
pioneered the sonic vocabulary of guitar distortion; and did things
no guitarist has yet duplicated. His influence stretches from metal
to PFunk to Nas. If he'd lived, he would have likely collaborated
with Miles Davis, who was then cutting landmarks of electric jazz.
And although Hendrix's drug intake was considerable, he wasn't a
heroin addict or alcoholic like Hank Williams, Billie Holiday or
Charlie Parker, all of whom have secure places in the pantheon of
20th century American musical geniuses.
Mike Edison's memoir, I Have Fun Everywhere I Go, isn't exclusively a
rock 'n' roll book, but it's close enough. Edison was the drummer for
the bluesy garage-punk of New York's Raunch Hands and Spain's
Pleasure Fuckers and did a stint with shit-on-stage shock-rocker G.G.
Allin, who he says was smarter than people knew. For money and other
thrills, he worked at some of "the world's most notorious magazines,"
including High Times, Screw, Heeb, and various porn, wrestling, and
Written with the bravado of a bad-guy wrestler, I Have Fun is
self-aggrandizing as fuck and not 100 percent accurate, but it's a
highly entertaining read. Edison skewers nearly everyone on the High
Times staff, from the viciously stingy business manager to the
conspiracy-nut editor-in-chief, who had "hideously morphed" from a
visionary idealist into a sanctimonious bully who "would babble on
incoherently about CIA plots, stoner reality shows he was going to
make millions from, and his dream of moving the High Times office to
Woodstock." (I worked there too. He says I looked "like some sort of
mad scientist who had blown himself up in a failed chemistry
experiment" but often got drowned out because I "didn't share the
pot-fueled delusions of grandeur the other editors were infected
with." Fair enough.)
Like I said, it sometimes has more ego than fact. Edison casts
himself as the hero trying to be rebellious and outrageous and still
make money, but he was far from immune to the power trips that
afflicted the High Times hierarchy. He mocks the news staff for
complaining when ads bumped their "updates on Michigan hemp
activists" but those Michigan hemp activists were Tom Crosslin and
Rollie Rohm, killed by the FBI and state police in September 2001
after a long feud with the local Christianright prosecutor.
I got along with Edison a lot better after he was no longer my boss,
and we could bond over our tastes for cheap old guitars and raw
blues. Hey, Mike, if you're reading this, you still got my Live on
Maxwell Street CD?