Standing in front of an exhibit containing the remains of the guitar that rock legend Jimi Hendrix destroyed at a music festival in 1967, I couldn’t help but wonder what urged one of the greatest guitarists of all time, to furiously smash and burn on stage, an instrument that he loved dearly. Scribbled on the guitar is a little poem: “May this be love or just confusion born out of frustration…my darling guitar…please rest in peace.”
Was this a mere stage gimmick or was there some kind of bottled up anger that led him to do that?
It was a cloudy day in Seattle and I was at the EMP Museum, which is right next to the Space Needle at the center of downtown Seattle. I looked up at the Space Needle and tried to take a full picture of the monument that rises 500 feet from the ground. One could get a 360 degree view of the city from the top, as well as panoramic views of the Waterfront.
I was intrigued by the Jimi Hendrix story. Born in Seattle in 1942, Jimi Hendrix allegedly committed suicide while in London at the age of 27; he suffered an overdose of drugs.
Jimi had a difficult childhood, his parents divorced when he was 9 years old, and his mother died when he was 16. Apparently his father refused to take him and his younger brother to their mother’s funeral. He gave them shots of whiskey instead and said this was how men were supposed to deal with loss.
At school, Jimi would carry a broom with him to emulate a guitar, this attracted a lot of attention, but his father would not buy him a guitar. Around the time when his mother died, Jimi acquired his first guitar. He would play that for hours every day. Later he formed several bands and played at various clubs, struggling to gain recognition.
His lucky break came when he was noticed by an influential lady who referred him to Chas Chandler, an English musician and record producer. Chas brought him to London in 1966.
Within a few months, Jimi had earned 3 of the top 10 hits in UK.
Despite his soaring popularity in Europe, Jimi was unknown in America until the summer of 1967. He didn’t have a single album in America before his first major public appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, which attracted a crowd of up to 90,000 people. Jimi wore exotic clothes at the show setting a high bar for the entertainers of that time. He performed several compositions at this show as well as hits such as “Hey Joe”, “Purple Haze”, “Rock Me Baby” and “Like a Rolling Stone”. The audience was completely mesmerized.
At the end of the performance, Jimi set fire to his guitar on stage. He called this act a loving sacrifice. Images of this scene became very famous and Jimi became an overnight star and a legend.
Later I read that there was a strong fad at that time to destroy one’s own art to make protests against the establishment. Auto-Destructive Art was a movement started by Gustav Metzger in the 60s, the followers of which would destroy their art to make a political statement. Pete Townshend a student of Gustav Metzger and the guitarist of English rock band “The Who” was perhaps the first famous artist to smash his guitar during a show. Keith Moon the drummer of the band exploded his drum loaded with explosives at the finale of a song, causing cuts in his arm with shrapnel. Their guests fainted, while the explosion set Pete Townshend’s hair on fire, and made him deaf!
Ironically, the destruction of the musical instruments is a "parallel" to the destruction of some of the artists themselves! Just before its destruction Jimi's guitar was the most priceless asset of the show, creating the most memorable music ever. And then it was burnt and blown to bits. Silent forever. Similarly, Jimi the ephemeral young celebrity flew high, touched the sky and then got wasted. Burnt out. The "human guitar" was dead and silent forever.
Jimi Hendrix died at the age of 27, starting what is known as an infamous and mythical “27 Club” consisting of famous musicians who all died at the age of 27.
The club includes Brian Jones, founder of the Rolling Stones who died in his swimming pool due to drug and alcohol abuse; Janis Joplin, lead singer of Big Brother also known as the Queen of Psychedelic Soul who died of drug overdose compounded by alcohol; Jim Morrison, lead singer of LA rock band The Doors who died of a drug overdose; Kurt Cobain, lead singer and guitarist of Nirvana who committed suicide while struggling with his addiction to drugs.
Most recently Amy Winehouse, the first British female to win 5 Grammys died 3 years ago, at the age of 27. She was abusing drugs and died of binge drinking.
What made all these artists turn to destroying themselves?
These were talented young people. They became rich and famous. But they did not know how to handle their success. They all died of drug and alcohol abuse. Perhaps they did not realize that humans, like stringed instruments need to be tuned back to their senses, every once in a while.