Jimi Hendrix, born Johnny Allen Hendrix on this day (November 27) in 1942 would have turned 70 years old this week! That thought alone boggles the mind, because for those of us who came of age with him and his music, Jimi will forever be in his 20's -- hot, alive, defiant and "kissing the sky" as he fell to the ground.
And for guys like me who heard his songs in Vietnam, Hendrix's music became part of our lifeblood and left an indelible mark on our war experiences. It's not just because "Purple Haze" and "Machine Gun" and "The Star Spangled Banner" have such definite Vietnam War overtones, but it was because Jimi Hendrix sounded like the war, he seemed as pissed as we were, he thumbed his finger at the guys who were giving the orders and putting us in harm's way. Jimi Hendrix's guitar was our voice, our anger and our despair. There was more of Vietnam in him than anyone else we heard while over there.
That's just my opinion, of course. And the real story of Hendrix and his relationship with the military and the war is a lot more complicated, as it is with every Vietnam story, or myth.
Hendrix left home to enlist in the United States Army in 1961, probably, like a lot of guys during that time, to avoid being sent to jail. He earned the "Screaming Eagles" patch by November 1962 for the 101st Airborne's paratroop division. Stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Jimi teamed up bassist Billy Cox, a fellow GI, and formed a group called The King Casuals. But while his musical career was beginning to take off, Jimi's military career was over, the circumstances surrounding his "discharge under honorable conditions" still a mystery.
Also still a mystery are the evolution of Hendrix's views on Communism, the Domino Theory, the U. S. war in Vietnam and everything else that young people his age were grappling with in the 1960s. I mention all this because I think it adds to the resonance of his music and his guitar playing, and helps to explain how his use of "fuzz" (distortion), effect pedals like the Octavia and the wah-wah and electronic feedback gave him the unique ability to convey emotion through the notes of his electric guitar.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in "Purple Haze," one of the songs most mentioned by scores of Vietnam vets whom my colleague Craig Werner and I have interviewed for our book about music and the Vietnam War experience. Listeners will argue over the lyrics and their meaning until the end of time, but you can't dispute the sound -- so raucous, so different, and so electric.
Hendrix himself stated that the electric sound was extremely important to him as a musician. Once asked what the difference was between "the old blues and the new," Hendrix replied simply, "Electricity."
In his later years, Jimi's concept of the "electric church" filled his interviews and discussions. His electric church broke psychological barriers, it transcended age and race and gender and, well, almost everything. Which is maybe why it stays with us, especially us Vietnam vets.
Jimi Hendrix at 70? "Tomorrow or just the end of time?"
WATCH: Jimi Hendrix Performs "Purple Haze"