Interview: Hendrix biographer Charles R. Cross

You may recognise his name, because you’ve probably read one of his brilliant books. From Led Zeppelin: Heaven and Hell, to the award winning Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, Charles R. Cross has written about some of rock music’s most important figures

Charles_Cross_23NOV13_178-2
Charles R. Cross

Charles was also the editor of music publication, The Rocket, from 1986-2000, so was right there, in the thick of it, for the golden years of grunge. But, what we’re most interested in is his brilliant Room Full of Mirrors: a biography of Jimi Hendrix. It encompasses a series of interviews with people close to the guitar legend, who had never really spoken about him or their relationship with him. Here, he gives us some insight into this month’s classic album and the man behind it…

Russell Cook (RC)
The Jimi Hendrix ‘Experience’ was barely three-years old by the time Electric Ladyland was released. However, it’s not only considered Hendrix’s – and the band’s – finest hour, it’s also widely regarded as a rock classic. What do you think the album’s legacy is? 

Charles R. Cross (CRC)
Electric Ladyland is Jimi’s finest record, but it’s also a record of immense ambition, and shows that he had so many different skills. It’s a maddening record in that way, because even with its greatness, it suggests greater things that could have followed.

As Jimi explores a sonic landscape that includes more African rhythms on some songs – almost jazz rock on others – and the same tight pop that was on his earlier records, he also is showing us how many different genres he could excel in. His cover of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ doesn’t even sound like it was made by the same artist who also cut ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp.’

ELECTRIC LADYLAND WAS JIMI’S RESPONSE TO THE BEATLES’ SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, A RECORD HE WAS GREATLY INFLUENCED BY

The contrast of ‘Voodoo Chile’ and ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ is playful, but also demonstrates Hendrix’s true guitar mastery. It’s a work of genius in Jimi’s wide artistic accomplishment, but it’s also a record that has so much that, with each new listen, it offers new interpretations. In this way, it was Jimi’s response to Sgt.Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band; a record he was greatly influenced by. He wanted this album to be one that couldn’t completely be contained as a mere collection of pop songs. And he achieved that, making a record that continues to offer meaning decades after it was produced.

RC 
Electric Ladyland was the only album produced by Hendrix himself. Why do you think he chose to go it alone on this record? Where was he at emotionally, do you think? And what was the impact of that choice, in your opinion?

CRC 
There was good and bad about Jimi and Chas Chandler (Jimi’s former producer) having a creative falling out. Chas’s instincts were pop oriented, with an emphasis on British radio. That’s why the first album is so taut. The entire length of the recording sessions for that first album lasted, in total, only 72 hours. Jimi took 100 times that to do Electric Ladyland! But that’s because Jimi wanted to produce it himself, as he wanted to follow his own artistic vision, and not anyone else’s. Some of this was instinct, but some of it was also him not wanting to have to focus on the commercial aspects of his creativity.

 

Machine Gun Photo Credit - Jan Blom
Jimi Hendrix performing live

In some ways, Electric Ladyland was also Jimi’s undoing. He spent so much time and money on the record that it drained him, and probably put him at greater risk for personal disaster, which of course later occurred. But it also allowed him to experiment and take risks. Chas never would have allowed songs that stretched-on for as long as those on this album. But, it’s in that length that Jimi found some of his greatest inspiration. The record is both his greatest artistic achievement, but also, in a way, something that destroyed him.

THE RECORD IS BOTH HIS GREATEST ARTISTIC ACHIEVEMENT, BUT ALSO, IN A WAY, SOMETHING THAT DESTROYED HIM

RC 
Finally, during your research for the book, were there any particularly surprising moments? Did you come across anything that really shaped, or re-shaped, your opinion of Jimi Hendrix and his music?

CRC
Well, yes. The book starts with the discovery of Jimi’s mother’s grave. I must say that is the most surprising thing that has ever happened to me as a biographer. She was poor when she died, without money for a proper headstone or memorial. Jimi’s father chose not to pay for her headstone or grave, which seems particularly cruel. She was consequently buried in a welfare grave marked only with a simple brick. Jimi never knew where that grave was. Quickly that brick had grass grow over it so no one in the family knew where she was buried. Ten years later Jimi was buried in the same graveyard. I forced the cemetery to dig through their old records to find where his mother’s grave was. Eventually a guy with a shovel started digging-in and uncovered her brick marker. It turned out that her grave wasn’t that far away from her famous son’s own resting place. When my book came out, several people – including some some famous rock stars – came forward and put money into a fund to buy Jimi’s mother a proper tombstone. I’m proud to say I helped with that effort. That said, the whole process was pretty eerie…

More on Charles

Book cover

Charles R. Cross is the author of nine books, including three New York Times’ bestsellers. His 2001 biography of Kurt Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven, won the ASCAP Timothy White Award, and has been published in dozens of countries. Cross was Editor of The Rocket, the Seattle music magazine, from 1986 through 2000, which helped launch and break the Grunge movement. As a journalist, he was written for hundreds of newspapers and magazines including Rolling Stone, Esquire, Spin, Spy, Entertainment Weekly, Guitar World, Us, Salon, The London Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Playboy. Q, Mojo, and many more.

You can purchase a copy of Charles’s fantastic book here

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