Hellhounds on my Trail
“Context is everything that isn’t physically contained in the grooves of the record. It includes your knowledge that everyone else says he’s great: that must modify the way you hear him. That he was a handsome and imposing man, a member of a romantic minority, that he played with Charlie Parker, that he spans generations, that he underwent various addictions, that he married Cicely Tyson, that he dressed well, that Jean-Luc Godard liked him, that he wore shades and was very cool, that he himself said little about his work, and so on. Surely all that affects how you hear him: I mean, could it possibly have felt the same if he’d been an overweight heating engineer from Oslo? When you listen to music, aren’t you also ‘listening’ to all the stuff around it, too?”—- Brian Eno
When I was thirteen and we had just come to America, I had never heard of drugs. I may have had some vague sense of them from the adult novels I read but they were very abstract. In Pakistan, in Israel, they just hadn’t been in my sphere of reference. I imagine my mother and stepfather smoked dope, it was the ’60s after all, but not around me.
A few months after I started in eighth grade, they showed us a black and white anti-drug film during morning assembly. The film began with the protagonist, a young Puerto Rican kid smoking some pot with his buddies on an abandoned car. Late he was introduced to coke, and finally to horse, smack, H, and became a junkie. He ODed twice, the final time in the shower.
That night I woke my mother and step father up at two a.m.
“I can’t sleep, I told them. Waking up my insomniac mother was about the most dangerous and forbidden thing I could do, but I was desperate.
“What is it?”
“I think I’m a junkie.”
“What?!” they both leaped at me, frothing.
My stepfather grabbed me. “Where did you get the stuff?”
“I don’t know!”
“Don’t lie to me, boy. Who’s your dealer?”
“I swear,” I started to cry.” I think I’m such a junkie, I don’t know it.”
I told them abut the film, and how my imagination had me convinced that I could be leading a split double life, one in which I was a nerdy hundred point bookworm with a faint moustache, the other in which I was a stone cold junkie.
“Go back to bed,” my stepfather said. Clearly I was going to get no sympathy.
All of which is a long way of telling you why I was sort of anxious when Russell, our guitar teacher, urged me to buy “Jimi Hendrix: Blues” to listen to with Jack. I have studiously avoided any sort of psychedelic, heavily distorted bluesy rock and roll classic rock for thirty years, ever since the scene in that black and white 16 mm. film in which the young Puerto Rican does coke for the first time. In the background, a portable gramophone is playing some sort of shrieking, wailing guitar track and that sound has been linked in my mind with the spiraling descent into oblivion ever since.
But the fact is, we are learning a lot of blues these days and Hendrix was the god so I had to check it out.
First off, the guy is unbelievably good. Once I had a beer and read the liner notes a few times, I steeled myself and hit play. Hendrix had enormous facility and seemed to know every sound the guitar could possibly make deep in his marrow. He’d been playing since he was five and had probably had the guitar in his hands most of the time since. His playing has incredible variety, eccentricity, and expression. I won’t try to explain here why but suffice it to say, though his playing is so far away from anything I can do, listening to that album was enormously inspiring and just made me want to play, any old way I can. More though, it made me want to draw, strangely enough, I pull out my dip pen and attack the page, drawing mad dogs. The dip pen seemed the most appropriate, the most out of control weapon to use to spray ink around, like a living thing in my hand, the stroke widening with my clutch, then backing off into spirally tendrils, squealing then whispering, throbbing and choking, like Jimi’s guitar.
I haven’t fully overcome my hard rock phobia. It is very deeply wired into me. But I am able to overcome that anxiety well enough to really listen to Hendrix and more importantly to feel it, to surrender to it and to be moved by it. Jimi said: “Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel.” Well, he made me feel it.
I don’t know if I’m ready for Hot Tuna or the Black Sabbath or Megadeath or all those other bands I ran from in my youth.But I did discover that in the end, Jimi is just a more joyous, exuberant, fuzzy and wah-wah version of Miles. And I dig Miles.
Overcoming your preconceptions is damned hard but it’s the only way to grow. I grew a little this morning. In fact, my pants are hard to button.