Room Full of Mirrors

Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix (hyperion)

by Charles R. Cross

When we remember Jimi Hendrix -- certainly when we listen to his music -- the image tends to be that of a sexual maestro, kneeling over his flaming guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival, or perhaps the six-string magician, turning The Star-Spangled Banner into a rock anthem at Woodstock. So to read A Room Full of Mirrors, Charles Cross' 2005 biography of Hendrix, is to pull the proverbial curtain back on a rock-and-roll demigod, mythologized by his death at the tender age of 27. The revelations are startling in the way Cross' subject becomes so vulnerable, indeed so very human.

Hendrix was the son of impoverished, alcoholic parents who couldn't tolerate one another beyond their mutual physical attraction (end result: six children, four of them with birth defects). Without direction and but one true interest -- playing the guitar -- Hendrix enlisted in the Army, only to find a creative means for gaining a discharge well before his three-year commitment was honored. From there, Hendrix toiled as a backing artist from the Chitlin' Circuit to Harlem, all the while observing and adopting the styles of his six-string heroes (including a short but meaningful visit with Steve Cropper at Stax). Once his own style was established, though, Jimi Hendrix became all but immortal.

Cross writes in a reverent, even loving tone, having grown up with Hendrix posters on his bedroom wall, Electric Ladyland on his turntable. The provocative details Cross provides -- at times, a daily account of Hendrix' rise to fame -- are the result of exhaustive research that, according to the author, included 325 interviews. The gift to his reader is a walk through 1966 London alongside Hendrix as Europe becomes the launching pad for, well, an Experience unlike any popular music had witnessed before.

The saddest part of the Hendrix story is how cliché his downfall has become: a rock star destroyed by the excesses of money, women, and drugs. But what profound -- well nigh glorious -- excess. Hendrix partied with McCartney. He slept with Bardot. And the flames of Monterey had nothing on what Hendrix did to a guitar when he commanded a stage or recording studio.

Was Hendrix "the black Elvis?" Does he belong in the guitar-god pantheon of contemporaries like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Pete Townshend? Answer those questions on your own, but take Cross at his word. Whatever category of legend we give Jimi Hendrix, there will never be another.

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