Jimi Hendrix died 40 years ago today, so I thought I’d reprint a post I wrote last year, shortly after Michael Jackson died, to compare and contrast how the deaths of famous pop musicians were recorded by “the first draft of history” — and what that coverage says about our culture, both then and now:
The boomer mythology of the 1960s essentially consists of the Mad Men/Rat Pack/JFK-era thin-lapel early 1960s, and then a hard cut from Oswald’s fatal shot to the summer of love and then straight on to Woodstock. But as James Lileks has noted on numerous occasions, you couldn’t have a counterculture in the 1960s, without having a dominant overculture.
But the overculture of the late 1960s has essentially been tossed down the memory hole. By 2004, Jimi Hendrix was considered so mainstream that one of the two presidential candidates used his music as aural campaign wallpaper, Lileks noted:
Heard a John Kerry speech today: ended with “Purple Haze,” I think. As a Hendrix tune for the campaign, it’s better than “Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire,” which would be the most inapt Kerry tune imaginable. He has no fire. He wouldn’t catch fire if you doused him in kerosene and shot Roman Candle balls at him. He’s a sopping-wet asbestos poncho. But it was the 60s music that made me shudder. It appears that in the middle of the new war we’re going to revisit the most important war ever, Vietnam.
God no. Please no. I think I speak for millions when I say that I am deathly sick of the counterculture sixties. The music, the war, the protests, all the hagiography – it’s not a reflection of the era’s importance but the self-importance of the generation who hung on the bus as it trundled along down the same old rutted road of history.. I’m tired of hearing about the boomers’ days of whine and neuroses; I’m weary of ritual genuflection to their musical icons; I’m utterly disinterested in most of the pop-cult trivia they hold so dear. We’ll probably be better off when that demographic pig has been excreted from the python so we can see the era clearly without choking on the smoke.
So what did the dominant culture of the era think of Hendrix while he was alive? The disdain and confusion in the ABC News report of his death in 1970 tells all:
Today we remember Hendrix as one of the giants of his era, and there’s no doubt the man was a musician of prodigious talents. But with the exception of the Beatles during Beatlemania (and here’s how little Newsweek thought of the Fab Four in ’64), very little of any of the music we now think of as Defining The Era meant much to those who were older than, say, 25, during the 1960s, other than occasionally bubbling up from the Ed Sullivan or the Smothers Brothers’ TV shows.
Or to put it another way, “Jack Webb reached more people than Jimi Hendrix every week”, to borrow from another Lileks riff on the boomers and the mythology they’ve crafted.