I'm not sure whether he saved me or damned me, but I wouldn't be the man I am today if it weren't for Jimi Hendrix.
The Music in Me
Am I Experienced?
[9 November 2005]
I'm not sure whether he saved me or damned me, but I wouldn't be the man I am today if it weren't for Jimi Hendrix.
by David Marchese
I was eight or nine years old when Night Court changed my life. It wasn't the snide dealings of Assistant DA Dan Fielding or one of Judge Harry T. Stone's sleight-of-hand tricks that did it; it was just an offhand aside, a throwaway line. The no-nonsense bailiff, a burly black woman, said that she wouldn't mind going to heaven if Jimi Hendrix were there. For whatever reason, the name lingered.
The name didn't have any meaning to me. It's not as if I was some precocious music kid. I owned two tapes at the time: The Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack and an album of songs by the stars of the WWF. But in the time since, those two albums have grown to something like two thousand and Jimi's the reason why.
I'll grant that it's possible I'd heard the name before, but it's unlikely I'd heard the music. The speakers at my dad's house vibrated with the sound of classical or opera -- Italian, of course. My mom would play Whitney Houston or the Dirty Dancing soundtrack during car rides. Those were the sounds I heard with any regularity. I don't think I would have heard of Jimi through any schoolmates either -- New Kids on the Block and Vanilla Ice were the popular choices among the elementary school tastemakers. My fascination with Jimi came out of the blue. It almost seems too strange, too magical, to think that I would have sought out Jimi's music solely because I heard his name mentioned on a mediocre sitcom but I don't know how else to explain it. The world can be funny that way; somehow, someway, people often end up finding what they need when they need it
Not long after I'd seen that fateful Night Court episode, I ended up going with my Dad to a music store not far from the place he was renting at the time. I looked through the rows of tapes and found a copy of Jimi Hendrix's Smash Hits. A greatest hits album was probably the obvious choice, but the cover certainly played a part as well. Gold, green, and purple lettering spelled out the title - Jimi Hendrix Experience -- Smash Hits. Experience. That was an important word -- less the name of a band and more like a promise. What was this strangely dressed black man, his hand extended, offering me? Whatever it was, I wanted it. I didn't know much at that age, but I knew that in order to gain experience things had to happen to you -- and I knew things had happened to me. What I didn't know was how to deal with them them. Jimi looked like he knew how to deal.
I was too young when my parents divorced to have a clear memory of events that led to their decision. Rather than a sense of progression, I have a series of mental snapshots: My dad coming home to read to me before my bedtime and then leaving. Going with my brother to some nice lady's office and reading books about divorce. Seeing a condom in the washroom of my dad's new apartment and being told it was a balloon. Not knowing what it meant when my dad said my mother was protected by the "shell of her ego". I didn't know what the hell most of it really meant -- especially that last one.
I can recall moments where the family was together, but they're scattered. The two clearest memories are of sitting in my dad's lap in the living room while we read stories together and a strange episode where my dad saved a kid from having rocks pelted at him and then bringing him to our home -- where my mother cleaned the blood from his face.
I don't remember seeing any animosity between my parents. All the memories of my parents losing their temper come from after the divorce. I don't even have any memories of my dad moving out. I just remember all of a sudden being in a situation where I'd spend one night at my mom's place and then the next night at my dad's -- with alternating weekends.
Being so young when they divorced was a blessing and a curse. A blessing because my lack of understanding and the selective information I received meant I never registered the events as traumatic. There was no sudden shock or singular moment of pain. A curse because I was left with only a foggy notion of why things were the way they were. People would say that things would be okay, but a part of me wishes that someone had just sat me down and said, "Listen, kid, your mom and dad don't live together because they don't love each other anymore." I doubt I would have understood things any better, but it might've helped to know that things weren't going to go back to the way they were - ever. Instead I felt like I'd lost my legs and everyone was pretending I'd be able to walk.
None of this is to say I was a profoundly unhappy child. I had lots of friends, I enjoyed school, and I always had a fun birthday party. But signs of anger and pain would seep through. I'd throw temper tantrums if I lost at something. I'd get caught telling lies and then be quick to anger when people didn't accept my attempts to explain them. I remember going on an overnight trip and calling home crying, saying it was because my bunkmate was snoring loudly when it was really because I didn't like to be away from my mom. I did a project where I invented a city that had its citizens living in filth, surrounded by blood and vomit. That's pretty much how it went, normalcy suffused with sadness. Then one day I watched Night Court, heard the name Jimi Hendrix, and got my dad to buy me a tape. Soon after, I realized that normal didn't have to be so normal any more.
It's hard to remember exactly what I must have felt the first time I heard "Purple Haze" coming through the stereo of my Dad's Cadillac. I was used to teen pop, Hulk Hogan, and "Axel F". That was all burned away in two minutes and fifty-two seconds of electric lightning. There was no way a kid like me could have been prepared for those sounds. I'd never even really noticed an electric guitar before, and now this! So long, black and white; hello, Technicolor.
The song begins with a grinding intro, the guitar sounding like a beast taking slow steps toward its cornered prey. Then the main riff comes slicing its way in -- Jimi chopping down my world with the edge of his hand. The solos: wobbly and out of tune. Ooh! Ahh! Tongue clicks, a guitar freakout and the voice of God. Purple Haze? Purple Haze. Purple Haze! Tuning into Jimi turned me on. I'd soon use him to drop out.
Hearing those bursts of psychedelic soul, I'd get lost, enveloped in the sound of something so alien and different. It's easy enough to understand how the fiery guitars of "Foxy Lady" and "Manic Depression" could send a frustrated, pre-pubescent mind into orbit, but even the slower, softer tracks like "The Wind Cries Mary" and "Hey Joe" had an intensity that was utterly transporting. The fact that Jimi seemed so out of this world certainly helped the lift-off. That I soon learned he was dead only amplified my conception of him as some kind of cosmic superhero. Who but a comic book character would set his hair on fire? (As my mom told me he did). Since when did black dudes play the guitar? I'd only known one black person before then and he was the adopted son of a fat white lady who belonged to the church my dad started taking us to after the divorce. I lost touch with the kid, Rodney, after my brother and I were allowed to wait in the car rather than join our dad at Mass. Going to Mass felt too weird, especially since we never went before the divorce -- what with us being Jewish and all.
Unlike me, it was impossible to think of Jimi as ever being afraid or uncertain. It's not that he never played off-key or always sung in tune, but it was all done with such unrepentant rebel flair. Jimi's music felt like the way I wanted to act -- carefree and at ease with what it was. "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky"? He wasn't really apologizing. He was just giving you advance warning. You only had to choose if you were going to get in line or get out of the way.
That kind of confidence was like a long drink for a dry throat. Where Jimi was unstoppable, I was unmoored and edgy. I bet Jimi never accepted being an object of pity. I bet he never had to fumble for an answer when other kids asked why his parents didn't live together. Shit, I bet he had one house where everyone lived together. On my own I was just a sad and angry little kid. Jimi became my protector. Much later I would learn that Jimi's parents had also divorced when he was a child.
Hearing Jimi made me realize that what I had was not all there was. I didn't have to accept things as they were. I could run away without leaving my room. When I felt like crap, I would escape into those Martian blues soundscapes and let everything else melt away. I fell into his world of sex, sass, ecstasy, and poetry -- and all those unclassifiable things his guitar expressed. The world I lived in didn't have to exist when Smash Hits was playing. I preferred Jimi's world anyway, even if it wasn't all billowing smoke and daisies. I knew The Wind Cries Mary was a sad song. But it was Jimi's sadness, not my own. Rather then cry or scream -- two things I desperately needed to do -- I let his guitar do it for me. I'd figured it out. Music was it.
Since getting that tape, I've estimated that through various means -- buying, downloading, stealing (there was a phase in high school), copying from others, etc. -- I've acquired an average of three new albums a week. I've slowed down in the last couple of years, but always, in the back of mind I'm thinking about some album that I need to get, because, it might be the one that'll take me away the way Jimi used to.
For a long time, I was too naïïve to realize that burying myself in music couldn't solve my problems, it could only offer a temporary respite. I'd get lucky sometimes and hear something that expressed things in a new way or gave me comfort by saying the things I thought I felt (the Beatles, Coltrane, Prince), but solidarity is not a solution. I could fool myself into thinking that my compulsion was actually catharsis, but I was still using music the same way I did when I was a child. Always looking for escape, for a way to feel good by letting other people feel for me.
That's not to say that I don't get real pleasure from music; I do. It's just that I struggle with the narcotic comfort I get from it. At this point, my relationship with music may exacerbate my problems as much as it soothes them. I'd probably have more, healthier relationships if I spent less energy thinking about albums to get and songs to hear. I'll stay at home with headphones on when the rest of my friends are out on the town. I've been dumb enough to spend dates with lovely, intelligent women commenting on the songs playing in the cafés and bars rather than, you know, talking to them. They usually didn't call back.
It's a compulsion I'm as of yet unable or unwilling to conquer. I've got more music than I'll ever be able to properly listen to, but I keep digging, looking to bury my head between my headphones. You'd think I have enough to listen to by now, but I don't, because a part of me still worries that people won't like who I am or the way I look, or that they will get mad at me. They're the same worries of a little kid who isn't sure why his parents split up and can't help but think that maybe he had something to do with it. What's the solution? Pump up the volume.
I have a good life, full of laughter and friendship. I have a step-father who's changed my life and I'm thankful for all that. But I sometimes wonder how much different things would be if I'd had the guts to attack the world, rather than score it for a soundtrack. I'm a young man now and supposed to be blazing a trail of danger and women, not listening to Mick Jagger tell me about it. The only thing that's changed about my youthful tool for escapism is that it's turned into a less youthful one.
I do think I'm getting better, though. I'm more willing to take chances and put myself out there. I still get cold feet before dates sometimes and think about bailing for the comfort of a record store, but I don't actually go so far as to do it anymore. But there's still a long way to go before I'm willing to do my rightful share of the emotional heavy lifting required to really rip into the night. I'm still apt to listen to other people doing it on vinyl.
I recently moved to New York from my home in Toronto. In preparation I sold off the dregs of my album collection. That was a big deal for me; it felt like a step in the right direction. I haven't bought a new album in over two weeks (although I'm jonesing for one), and it's been a long while since I listened to Jimi. Maybe the fact that I've started seeing a girl who I think is great has something to do with that. I really should dig out that old Smash Hits tape and listen to it. I think I might hear something I've never heard before.