Following his definitive biography of Kurt Cobain, ill-starred leading light of Nirvana, Charles R Cross now turns to Jimi Hendrix. That indicates that he seems to have cornered the market in hugely influential left-handed Seattle guitarist-songwriters with druggy reputations, who died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 27.
Three and a half decades after his death in London, the astonishing impact Hendrix made in a career lasting only four years leaves him permanently installed in the upper echelons of rock's official pantheon. As trailblazing instrumentalist and composer; charismatic Sixties icon and human crossroads between rock's black roots and white blooms, he was, and is, a uniquely fascinating figure, as well as the subject of several previous biographies. The existing benchmark works are David Henderson's 'Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky, outstanding for its empathy, imagination and insistence on the primacy of an African-American perspective; and Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebeek's Electric Gypsy, qualifying as the heavyweight reference biography by sheer thoroughness.
Now Cross shoulders his way into the front rank. He cannot match Henderson's depth of understanding for his subject's life and work (let alone his prose style), or Shapiro and Glebeek's solidity and density of detail. And he adds little to existing accounts of what happened to Hendrix after his Greenwich Village 'discovery' and subsequent success, except one delightful anecdote: Hendrix being refused service in a Liverpool pub in 1967. Was it because he was black, Hendrix wondered, or a hippie rock musician? Neither: the circus was in town and it was the pub's policy to ban clowns in costume.
The real strength of Cross's book lies in its exploration of Hendrix's family history and early life. His research stretches back through several generations of a complex melange of African, European and Native American ancestry, as well as the tempestuous, poverty-racked, alcohol-soaked, hard-scrabble existence of the Hendrix household. …