The Wind Cries Mary
There’ll never be another Jimi Hendrix. But what made him so inimitable an artist?
There is no substitute for talent and no explanation for genius. Jimi Hendrix qualifies in both categories and since his biopic, written by the Oscar-winning Mequon native John Ridley, was recently released, this seems like a good time to marvel at that once-in-a-lifetime artist.
So much of what Jimi has wrought has become standard and tedious we sometimes forget how crazy fresh it was — a movement unto itself. There are a few artists who fracture the paradigm, the kind who force the world to pick up the pieces and rebuild it with their fingerprints visible everywhere. In the ‘60s Bob Dylan and The Beatles did just that that, giving birth to the words “Dylanish” and “Beatle-sque.” Hendrix came a few years after and, while nobody coined a word to describe what he did, you can hear it echoing through rock every time you turn on the radio.
What was Hendrix’s talent — is it even possible to discuss such a strange gift? There have been a lot of careers built on his style. Some artists sound like tribute bands, but with new and pretty much inferior material. One artist, Stevie Ray Vaughn, was probably capable of getting beyond his Jimi fixation, but his life ended early, so we’ll never know.
If you have read Roomful Of Mirrors, the insightful biography of Hendrix by Charles R. Cross, you’ve gotten a glimpse at the chaos and abject poverty that was his childhood in Seattle. His parents were in constant conflict, splitting up and coming back together. They moved constantly and there was little money and sometimes little food — young James used to hang out at the local drive-in at closing time, where a sympathetic fry cook sometimes slipped him a hamburger.
Jimi also had something many musical geniuses share — a neurological condition most musicians would consider a gift, called synthesia. Oliver Sacks, author of many books on brain science, has written about this condition in Musicophilia: Tales Of Music and the Brain. I recommend the book, but you have to get through some dry and very clinical passages. If you can motor through the case studies and technical jargon, there is much to learn about that jumble of neurons located between and stimulated by your earbuds.
People with synthesia experience a mingling of the senses. Some experience different musical pitches as specific colors — Hendrix was one of these. Most who have that type of synthesia also have perfect pitch, which makes it the ultra-deluxe model. When told others don’t see colors when they listen to music, they are often surprised. The list of musicians with this gift includes Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, Franz Liszt and Stevie Wonder. All of them game changers.
There have been giants in music who had happy childhoods. Dylan is said to have had a happy, middle class upbringing. I wonder if this could this be the difference between a career that spans six decades and one that ends abruptly and tragically at age twenty seven. Who knows? The cocktail of circumstance and wild gifts that was Jimi Hendrix didn’t seem to have been built for the long run. But it was all balanced perfectly for a while — when he produced some of the most beautiful and feral music heard on this battered orb.
My personal friend Wiki has this amazing revelation about the session that produced this track with possible the greatest solo in all of rock music: “Without the benefit of rehearsals, the band recorded the song in one take, to which Hendrix added several guitar overdubs; Chandler estimated that they spent approximately 20 minutes on the completed rhythm track.” Read it and weep — you can’t help but feel humble and ordinary when confronted with this kind of talent.
The Dylan fixation is obvious in the lyrics:
After all the jacks are in their boxes,
And the clowns have all gone to bed,
you can hear happiness staggering on down the street,
Footprints dressed in red.
And the wind whispers Mary.
A broom is drearily sweeping
Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life.
Somewhere a Queen is weeping,
Somewhere a King has no wife.
And the wind it cries Mary.
The traffic lights they turn blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed,
The tiny island sags downstream
‘Cos the life that they lived is dead.
And the wind screams Mary.
Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past,
And with this crutch, its old age and its wisdom
It whispers, “No, this will be the last.”
And the wind cries Mary
© Jimi Hendrix Warner Chappell Music
Yes there is a lot of that other paradigm smasher, Bob Dylan, in these lyrics. They became quite the mutual admiration society. In my own imaginary video, a little bit of Walt Disney creeps in, especially the broom that is drearily sweeping. The rest is pure Hendrix. There’s the constant reference to color you find throughout his work. This can’t be anything but a synthesia thing. It probably helped burnish his bona fides as a psychedelic icon, but the synthesia was there before the acid and other drugs. In other songs he displayed a wicked sense of humor and some sly surrealism. None of it rises to the level of literature, but then again, I have books for that. The amazing and transformative musical approach he showed the world is still rattling windows.
Right before he became the biggest thing ever, all the leading lights of British Rock made it to his London debut. Pete Townshend is said to have leaned over and whispered (I’m guessing it was between songs) in another rock star’s ear, “We’ll all be looking for new jobs soon.” I’m paraphrasing this famous story, as I can’t find the actual quote — but everyone in attendance knew that that the page had turned and the world would never look the same again. Shortly after that show Fender started selling Stratocasters like they were going out of style.