Friends described him as a supremely confident talent onstage and a desperately insecure introvert off stage. Jimi Hendrix was one of the most important musicians of the 20st century and he left us an incomparable legacy in rock ‘n’ roll and music in general, with his innovative technique, refined yet raw and mature sound and his artistic destiny.
“Hear My Train A Comin,’” directed by Bob Smeaton, is a feature-length PBS American Masters documentary that chronicles the life and times of guitar genius Jimi Hendrix with never-before-seen footage, home movies and exclusive interviews with his sister Janie Hendrix, cousin Bob Hendrix and former band mates.
The documentary takes a close look at the matchless legacy of the iconic musical genius. Hendrix exploded on stage, and sometimes, the combustion was literal: He set his guitar on fire at the Monterey Music Festival in 1967.
“Here he was, throwing lighter fluid on his guitar and setting it on fire. I had never seen anything like this in my life,” recalled Michelle Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, who organized that pioneering music festival.
He’s an essential part of my rock ‘n’ roll education, and he will always be the face of the introverted artist off stage and the bold–as-love performer who could play the guitar with his teeth or behind his head.
The documentary samples various songs by Hendrix that had me running to my Spotify account to assemble a new compilation of his classics. His albums include Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland with hit singles “Purple Haze,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “Hey Joe.”
Hendrix gained his success in London and blew away top-charting acts including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. He was known as being a master interpreter of other people’s music.
Paul McCartney frequents the documentary with praiseworthy recollections of the guitarist including a live performance he attended where Hendrix played the recently released psychedelic Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“You never got the feeling that this guy was going to show off, until he got on stage,” said McCartney.
When Hendrix returned to America during the summer of love in 1967, he took the Jimi Hendrix Experience to a completely different level, galvanizing his distinctive sound from music festival to music festival. He became known for his extravagant performances and flamboyant costume, shocking audiences across the nation with his theatrical antics and beautifully destructive sound.
“When I’m on stage I’m a complete natural, more so than talking to a group of people,” said Hendrix on interview footage.
It’s a privileged look into the introverted guitarist’s life. Hendrix’s personality, when chatting with talk-show host Dick Cavett during a rare TV appearance, is very organic and inspiring compared to the modern-day rock star interview. This is before the dominating days of social media, when the only pipeline to true, raw talent of this magnitude was by word of mouth.
“I know I’m going to die before I’m 30 but that’s okay. The only thing I’m sorry about is that I have so much music left that I want to do,” Hendrix’ sister recalls her brother saying before he died.
After a short career, Jimi Hendrix died at the age of 27 from a drug overdose. It was no secret that the musician experimented with psychedelics and other drugs, yet the documentary seems to avoid that aspect of Hendrix’s lifestyle, focusing instead on his die-hard love for music and women.
Grounded in blues, Hendrix revolutionized the music industry doing things people had never done before. He’s the reason why you wanted a Fender Stratocaster, and tried to play left-handed on a right-handed guitar with reversed strings. Even if you’ve never picked up a guitar, it’s undeniable that Jimi Hendrix was truly an American master.
“Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’” airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings) and will be available at PBS.org on Nov. 6.