Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child by Harvey Kubernik and Kenneth Kubernik

Harvey Kubernik and Kenneth Kubernik’s oral history of Jimi Hendrix’s life and career, featuring input from diverse musicians (Bobby Womack, Paul Kantner, Roger Daltrey, Dave Mason, Stephen Stills, members of the Doors and the Who, and others) and more than 100 music-industry insiders, acquaintances, and fans, is several things.

It is a reliving of a multitude of rehearsals, performances, and chance encounters. It is an astute social history of the 1960s. And it is an elegiac celebration of this most romantic, complex man, as superficially macho, sexual, and—in the words of one fan—“dangerous, dangerous,” as he was actually soft-spoken, vulnerable, humble, and, in the words of another, “almost effeminate.”

Born in Seattle, Jimi Hendrix played his mother’s broomstick until he had money for a real instrument. A dropout from the 101st Airborne Division, the guitar genius took on the counterculture as easily as he did the beads and jewels and fringe that came with it. Later, his wailing, revolutionary version of the national anthem would represent a pained objection to the conflict of which he was once an early defender.

Hendrix at Woodstock.

The Kuberniks’ account includes details that animate a life (during his Chitlin’ Circuit days, for instance, Hendrix was so broke he doused himself with Right Guard deodorant instead of showering, because he couldn’t afford a motel room) as well as never-before-heard facts (“Purple Haze,” it turns out, was taken from Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre”).

The authors also flesh out some of the best-known aspects of a major career. We learn that being brought to London in 1966 by the Animals’ bassist-turned-manager Chas Chandler “made” Hendrix in a way that staying in America never would have. “Clapton, Townshend—they knew what they were striving for was now fully realized in this audacious upstart,” says composer and flutist James Newton, in the context of only freshly undowdy London, whose scene-makers “had never seen or heard anything like him,” says John York, bassist for the Byrds, and whose white musicians worshipped Black blues far more than their American counterparts did.

Jimi Hendrix played his mother’s broomstick until he had money for a real instrument.

Though not always original, the Kuberniks’ assessments of the era work. Of 1967’s Monterey International Pop Festival, they write, “Music was now more than an entertainment; it was a prism through which society could reinvent itself in a more harmonious, peaceable direction.” And its famous moments are recalled authoritatively—Hendrix’s one-upping of Pete Townshend by way of his burning of his Fender Stratocaster is recalled by Townshend, Al Kooper, and others, as is its effect on Hendrix’s career. (It was his American homecoming writ large.)

Hendrix’s workaholism and discipline were impressive. Of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s second breakout album, Axis: Bold as Love, the Kuberniks write, “No matter how ‘far out’ the arrangement, Axis was a testament to concision, a formal discipline in a field that rarely viewed that as a virtue.”

Most beautiful, to me at least, are the plaintively searching opening lines of the title song of Hendrix’s third and final album, 1968’s Electric Ladyland. The Kuberniks say of it: “Ladyland was the culmination of their wild ride from precocious upstarts to unrivaled superstars. In just 18 months, Jimi had become this alluring, illusive visionary whose benign, ecumenical practice of Black Power was at odds with the disaffected outrage expressed by other young African Americans. Jimi’s message seeped into the listener’s consciousness with the hypnotic charge of a snake charmer. Because he resisted political affiliations, and because his audience was overwhelmingly white, he had a reach that was unmatched.”

Hendrix in his living room in London, 1967.

From gig to tour to tour to gig, Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child charts the days and weeks from his birth, in 1942, to his death, at just 27. Most of the responses are elegiac. Two of countless examples: “He was a force of nature, a Romantic Expressionist,” says Moby Grape’s John Etheridge. And from record producer Dan Kessel: “Jimi appeared like a prophet descending from the sacred mountain of another planet. The world was waiting for him even if the world didn’t know it yet.”

We watch him, at the end of his life, grow weary of his wily, avaricious manager, Mike Jeffery. His young niece Janie Hendrix, who is now his estate executor, worries as he slumps out of Seattle for the last time. The book ends with fans deeply mourning him after his September 18, 1970, drug overdose. (Or, as the Kuberniks put it, his “perish[ing] in an indiscriminate whisper … the stars his destination.”)

Nine years ago, I was researching an article about Hendrix’s true cause of death—there had been rumors swirling that his manager had had something to do with it—and, to my surprise, several sources were willing to talk to me.

“Jimi appeared like a prophet descending from the sacred mountain of another planet. The world was waiting for him even if the world didn’t know it yet.”

One of these was the doctor who had received Hendrix, still alive, in the emergency room of the London hospital the day he died. A white man with a thick, near-Cockney accent, he told me something to the effect of: “We didn’t know who he was. We were naïve; we thought he was just a regular Black man.”

The words of Moody Blues guitarist Justin Hayward may be less ornate than others’, but he speaks to the dichotomy Hendrix took with him to the grave. “I found him quiet, gentle, softly spoken, and very beautiful,” he says, “a kind of stranger in a strange land. To be surrounded constantly by adoring white people but suffering the trials every Black person faced, must sometimes have been terrifying.”

The Kuberniks’ book gives us Jimi Hendrix in the whole. And I’m grateful for it.

Sheila Weller is a journalist and the author of eight books, including, most recently, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge