Books

Psychedelic Fabulousness: 'Hendrix: The Illustrated Story'

More apt than Dr. Frankenstein, Gaar built a fairly smooth-running monster out of the many gray areas of Hendrix's life and work, cross-stitched with stuff mined from archival flotsam and jetsam of the Seattle scene, and coated it in the heavy-hitting velvet armor of a fabulous bit of cover art.

There are only three reasons anybody ponies up the cash for a coffee table book. The first reason is to just put it on the coffee table so people can walk by it and notice that you're the kind of person that has coffee table books. They make nice decorations for flat surfaces. The second thing you can do with a coffee table book is flip through it and look at the glossy pictures. The third thing you might want to do with a coffee table book is actually read it. Whatever the reason for your purchase, Gillian G. Gaar's new coffee table book, Hendrix: The Illustrated Story, is a delightful experience.


Hendrix: The Illustrated Story

Gillian G. Gaar

(Hal Leonard)

October 2017

The cover of the book is truly gorgeous. It lays out an illustration of Hendrix at the mic, right hand and guitar headstock in the foreground, using a series of neon yellow and orange mixed with acid blue and purple. It really pops, even at a distance. But when you get up close, you realize that the black space on the cover is actually velvet! In addition to the fine, lush hand feel of the velvet, it adds an eerie extra texture to the illustration itself, resulting in a pretty trippy three-dimensional effect. If you want to buy a book just because it looks good on the coffee table, you really can't do better than the stunning, psychedelic swirls and velvet on this Hendrix cover. I have plenty of coffee table books, and Gaar's cover art is simply unmatched; it immediately outshines any other book cover in its vicinity.

Something I've often admired about Gaar's approach to picking photography for these books—she's done others on Elvis, the Beatles, the Doors, and Springsteen—is that she never goes for the standard, iconic images that we've already seen on the covers of music magazines or documentaries about Woodstock. She tends to go for international or obscure images, like unusually striking posters from less hyped shows and old ticket subs or imported record covers with different track listings than the versions that were released stateside. Books about a rock star tend to feature mainly photographs of that artist being singularly front and center, but Gaar's approach allows us to see Hendrix in a variety of different scenes, including playing backup in his early bands or socializing with women at parties. The overall effect of these photos is a more completely human portrait of a superstar.

A lot of people forget, or perhaps never even knew, that Jimi Hendrix was a native of Seattle. Many of the photos of stuff around the Seattle scene were taken by Gaar herself, and this is also the thing that makes the text of her coffee table book worth reading. She's been documentin music in Seattle for decades, including especially strong contributions to the history of Nirvana. As a result, Gaar is able to paint a more complete picture of Hendrix's youth in Seattle, as well as book-ending his story—which most other biographies tend to convey as having taken place primarily in the United Kingdom—with analysis of how his estate and legacy have played out in the city of Seattle up to the present date. Gaar's instinct for the story of her city creates a compellingly distinct angle on Hendrix's history. She simply has greater access to primary resources regarding the beginning and the end of the musician's life, but even where accounts conflict, Gaar shines mainly by stepping out of the picture. She's happy to present without comment the variety of mythic things that have been alleged about Hendrix. Rather than strive for a label of "definitive", which is largely beyond the reach of any broad coffee table book about a rock star, she simply presents all sides and lets them lie.

Whether you just want to ogle the cover, or flip through the photos, or actually read about the life of Jimmy Hendrix, Gillian Gaar's new coffee table book, Hendrix: The Illustrated Story, has something to offer. You'll notice it's an illustrated "story", not a history. Many of the subtitles of her other books use "history" instead, but for such a short life, the actual facts of the thoughts or deeds of Hendrix remain remarkably vague. So much the greater, then, is Gaar's accomplishment here. More apt than Dr. Frankenstein, she's built a fairly smooth-running monster out of the many gray areas of Hendrix's life and work, cross-stitched with stuff mined from archival flotsam and jetsam of the Seattle scene, and coated it in the heavy-hitting velvet armor of a fabulous bit of cover art—just in time to reflect anew on what would've been Hendrix's 75th year on this planet.

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