Book of the week- Jimi Hendrix, Starting at Zero

It was the most unexpected gift I received this past Christmas- both the nature of the gift and the identity of the givers.


Why the nature? Anyone who knows me well, knows how deeply immersed I was in the music of Jimi Hendrix throughout my teens and early twenties, but although I still love his music unreservedly, it’s been ages and ages since I last bought a Hendrix record or DVD. What’s more, for most of the last decade or so, “reading for fun” has been something of an aspiration rather than an avocation. It seems like it’s all I can do to keep on top of reading for work, and with so many unread novels and biographies sitting ignored on my bookshelf, friends and family have pretty well given up on giving me more books.


(A short extract of me playing a tune of mine called “One Time Lover,” recorded at an unrehearsed Blues Night jam session* at the Bluebird in Bloomington in July 1990. The influence of Jimi on the playing and the writing will be painfully obvious to anyone who knows his music)

And the identity of the givers? Well, let’s just say I don’t think that it exactly filled my parents’ hearts with joy when their cellist son’s interest in rock music began the progression from listening, to buying an electric guitar, to buying several more guitars, to joining any number of bands that seemed to gravitate towards the not-so-acoustically-insulated confines of their basement, to an undergraduate education wherein my focus was manifestly and painfully split between my cello studies and my guitar ob sessions. I’m sure it was a huge relief for them when the last band floundered and the guitar stopped showing up on visits home. I wouldn’t have expected my folks to be looking to put me back in a Hendrix state of mind.

Nonetheless, this past Christmas morning, I opened a copy of Starting at Zero, the life of Jimi Hendrix in his own words as compiled by Alan Douglas and Peter Neal.

This book is a treasure.

Hendrix was not just a great guitar player, a matchless songwriter or an iconic cultural figure. He was a genius. “Genius” is a word that is used far more often than it is understood. A real genius is not someone who can do what we all do faster and better. A genius is not defined by a photographic memory, perfect pitch and a creative spark. It’s not defined by how fast you can do the Sunday Times crossword, or whether you can analyze all the tone rows in Boulez in the time it takes your friends to make a pot of tea.

A real genius is almost a member of another species, tethered to the rest of humanity only through their vulnerability, mortality, their need for love and their personal fallibility. There is no explaining or rationalizing the connections and breakthroughs that a genius can make in their thinking. Folks who doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was actually the author of the Shakespeare canon (there are many of them), base this doubt primarily on the their scepticism that someone of his birth and education could possibility have possessed the breadth of knowledge needed to write those works. The fact is, the author of those works was a genius, and a genius like that comes from nowhere and flies under its own power. Shakespeare no more needed help from teachers and tutors than a blackbird needs flying lessons. Likewise, throughout Starting at Zero, you can see Hendrix making leaps and connections in his thinking that defy our expectations of what someone can learn or do or figure out or create in a given time.

Rock and pop is primarily a commercial entertainment business, but plenty of art, and plenty of great artists, have managed to slip past the accountants and the image makers and make enduringly compelling art. Sadly, the bean-counters have consolidated their power ruthlessly from year to year, and  the number of great artists (or even just artists) emerging from the great rotting plastic façade of pop culture has dropped geometrically from decade to decade, with more  iconic records being made in March 1968 than in all the 2000’s to date.

Of all of the giants and greats to emerge from the rock world since Elvis hit the scene, Hendrix is the greatest of them all, and the only real genius. Explaining why to someone who doesn’t see it is like explaining why Everest is higher than Pike’s Peak to someone who lives at the foot of Pike’s Peak. It’s nothing against Pike’s Peak.  It’s not just about the guitar playing- it’s about his originality of thought as expressed in his music, his world-view and his lyrics. It’s about his uncanny instincts for composition- there’s not a single unconvincing or trite chord change in any of his original songs. It’s about his incredible power of projection and connection as a soloist and singer. And, of course, it’s about stuff that’s over my head- he was a genius.

Really, though, the exact nature of genius is impossible to describe, and too big to measure.

This book, however is an important contribution to our understanding of who Jimi was and how he thought, learned and grew. Like most geniuses (and there aren’t many of them) there were many Jimi’s- he could speak in so many voices. There’s his public voice- the idealistic, dreamy flower-power prophet.

“I’d like everybody to see this type of festival, see how everybody mixes together in harmony and communication…

500,000 halos..OUTSHINED
We washed and drank in God’s tears of joy
And for once… and for everyone..
The truth was not a myster.

We came together… danced with
the pearls of rainy weather.
Riding the waves of music and space,

There’s the thoughtful man trying to make sense of and define his role in epochal political and social changes:

“One of the worst statements people are making is “No man is an island.” Every man is an island, and music is about the only way we can communicate. It’s a crusade, right.

“A lot of people in America are looking fo a leader in the music field. It’ll take somebody like us to get it together. We’ll be on a truth kick. We want to be completely honest and barefaced. We want to be respected after we’re dead. Who doesn’t want to be remembered in history? But regardless of whether it’s coing to be us, the feeling there, and that’s what counts. If I die tomorrow, the feeling is there. Forget about brand names. We put across the music. The idea is to do it as strongly as possible, to work out a certain physical change.

“The Beatles could do it. They could turn this world around or at least attempt to. The Beatls can be a positive force, and they could really get the people together. They’ve got power because they are performing for the masses. They should use their power. It might make them a little more uncomfortable in their position, but me, I don’t care about my position. I’m trying to use my power.

There’s the music geek, who had outgrown his times even at the beginning of his career:

“Freak-out, psychedelic and so on, that’s all pretty limited. I don’t want anybody to stick a psychedelic label around my neck. Sooner Bach and Beethoven. Don’t misunderstand me, I love Bach and Beethoven. I have many records by them, also by Gustav Mahler.

(I have to say, the moment I read this line was a pretty cosmic coming together of my musical interests in life)

And there’s the businessman. One of the most valuable documents in the book is a letter from Jimi to his manager, dated February 5th 1969. It’s too long to quote usefully here, but it shows a complete different side to Jimi- he comes across as shrewd, clear-headed and completely professional, with a sophisticated understanding of the business. Don’t be fooled by the purple shirts- behind the smiling public persona, there was an iron will and an incredible sense of purpose.

Throughout the book, that sense of purpose in Jimi- his sense of his musical and social destiny- is something that only seems to get clearer and stronger from page to page. Frankly, I’ve never really found it credible that someone with such focus and sense of duty could die such a pointless death as the result of his own carelessness. So many of the best of his generation were silenced before their work could be finished. It still smells to high heaven of the stinking dark hand of the deep state, but at  least they couldn’t silence the music.



* Personnel- Christopher “Chicken” Weise, drums, Tom Muller, bass, David Biller and Jon Heagle rhythm guitar (they both have solos earlier in the tune) and KW lead guitar and vocals (if vocals they be)

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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