When you hear the name “Jimi Hendrix,” a lot of words pop into mind.
Rock Legend. Guitar-God. Iconic figure of the Peace & Love movement. Poet. Pauper. Druggie. Fashionista.
But after reading this book, it’s easy to see that these words and phrases only scratch the surface of the enigmatic and magnetic man that was James Hendrix.
Following a meteoric rise to fame in less than a decade, this burning star was extinguished at the young age of 27. Ironically and tragically, the same age Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain were when they died.
Being a huge fan of Jimi since I was a kid, there are a lot of items in this book I found interesting, some parts were inspiring while other parts were abhorrent. The first hundred pages or so are the latter, illustrating his underprivileged and unstable childhood in the Northwest. With the volatility of alcoholic parents and poverty surrounding him, Jimi never had it easy. Most people don’t know that Jimi escaped this by going into the Army. Or rather, he was given a “choice:” go to jail for joyriding in a stolen car, or go into the service. He opted for the service and soon figured a way to make it out of the Army (which I’ll let you read to find out). Most people don’t know about his drug bust in Canada, or how exactly The Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed. This book answers all these enigmas and then some.
A Room Full Of Mirrors is a splendid synthesis of hundreds of interviews with family and friends, clips from music journals, and even some letters he wrote to his family. Rarely does a biography make you feel like you know the person. Not just the where’s and when’s of a life, but the how this person really was—their quirks, fears, mannerisms and eccentricities. In that respect, Cross is a genius, as many of his anecdotes make you feel like your right there with Jimi. From he and bassist Noel Redding being confused for clowns in an English pub, to Jimi partying with Leonard Nemoy- Yes, Leonard Nemoy—Spock from Star Trek, we get a feel for who Jimi was as a person. All the way from his naïve early days playing back-up guitar for Little Richard to his overnight success in England, we are with Jimi on his entire struggle for fame and recognition. Despite his antics on stage with blazing Stratocasters and epic guitar solos, he actually was an extremely shy man-something many pieces leave out. From his voracious sexual appetite and phone-book size list of conquests to his professions to his Aunt Delores about his disgust with fame and the limelight, every facet of his persona is fleshed out in under 400 pages.
What I really like about the book is the fact that Jimi’s prolific drug use isn’t played up and sensationalized like other pieces, but rather Cross aims to take us into Jimi’s mind. Within this “room full of mirrors” we see how Jimi viewed himself, cared for his family and lived like every day was his last. From his stellar performance at Woodstock (where he subsequently collapsed from exhaustion after leaving the stage, since he had been up for 3 days straight), to being booed offstage early in his career on the Chitlin’ Circuit, this book doesn’t highlight the controversial and leave out the mundane. It covers everything, going back to his father’s father in the first few pages. The family history part of the book is rather dull at points, but vital to understanding most of the story in the long run. In many ways, the novel pays homage to the notion that you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.
I could go on for days saying how intriguing and timeless Jimi’s life was and how tragic his death was in the end, but I figured I’d give you a few facts I walked away from the book with. Most people don’t know this, but Jimi is probably one of the most interconnected and dynamic people to come out of the music industry. He earned the love and respect of Eric Clapton and Cream, while literally having them scared shitless of playing a show with him for fear of being upstaged. The same sentiment was held by Mick Jagger and the Stones. Jimi also tried to date Keith Richards’ girlfriend, and the two legends almost had it out one night. He even, in a monumentally ballsy move, played his own covers from The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album with Lennon and McCartney in the crowd at the Monterey Music Festival only a few days after the album was released. McCartney came up to him and told him how solid his take on the song was. Even the legendary Bob Dylan loved Jimi’s rendition on “All Along The Watchtower,” and it is extremely hard for musicians to give credit to another musician for playing a cover. In a few short years, Jimi went from wearing loud, sequin suits behind Little Richard, to headlining Woodstock and being the highest paid musician in the world. And yes, boys and girls, Jimi’s junk was cast in plaster long before any other rock star, kick-starting the rock star debauchery way before Mötley Crüe was on the scene. And the biggest shock of all: Lemmy of Motorhead was a roadie for Hendrix at one point. Yes, Lemmy Kilmister used to haul Jimi’s gear.
Another interesting tidbit: Janis Joplin and Jimi were rumored to have banged it out at the Fillmore. And, even more badass, while Jim Morrison was heckling Jimi one night in the Village, Joplin smashed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s over The Doors front-man’s head. The raging irony is that these three superstars and brilliant musicians all ended up dying within a year of each other.
For the casual Hendrix fan, this book may not be a good choice, as it really gets detailed and in-depth, even mundane at some points. But for anyone who loves the music, culture, and times from when Jimi (and his contemporaries like Clapton, Jagger, Joplin, Lennon, McCartney and Morrison) came, you will absolutely devour this book. Cross paints a picture so clear, so unique, so detailed, that you feel as if you knew the Voodoo Child himself. From his rowdy early years as a child to his stint in the army to his stellar rise to the top of all things musical, this book leaves no stone unturned, no detail unmentioned, and no room for anything but awe of this brilliant man’s tragically short life.