Becoming Jimi Hendrix by Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber: a review

The authors put a lot of work into this book, and produced a worthwhile read. Actually, it looks like Roby did the research and interviews, as his acknowledgements make it pretty clear that Schreiber’s role was to make the result readable. The result is readable, though often unfocused; the biography’s organization is not-quite-relentlessly chronological, with occasional unexpected excursions which are harmless but disorienting.

Becoming Jimi Hendrix mostly explores Jimi’s life as a professional sideman, from his 1962 Army stint until his move to London and great fame in late 1966. An introduction covers his life to that point, and an epilogue touches on his career as a bandleader. There are approximately three recurring themes in the book’s main section: Jimi’s poverty, his contacts with some of the 1960s best popular musicians, and his women. While the poverty’s mentioned constantly, the authors don’t make it particularly real. In contrast, his musical odyssey is covered very well, with both his experiences as a professional sideman and his (relatively) casual contacts with famous musicians are recorded with some excellence. And there are constant mentions of frequent sexual encounters–though the book also offers fine and sympathetic portraits of the half-dozen or so women with whom he had relatively stable relationships.

Hendrix comes across here as naive, engaging, stubborn, and remarkably intelligent. That nuanced portrait fully justifies the book.

On the other hand, the book is afflicted with unnecessary foreshadowing, occasional catty remarks about the blindness of other musicians to Hendrix’ talent, and some unfocused speculation about his death.

One of the book’s themes–the unrelenting poverty of the sideman musician–would itself have made a worthwhile book. There are lots of hooks in this text that another author might have built into something differently valuable. I realize this subject was outside the authors’ main interest, but it’s fascinating enough even in their sketchy presentation. For many fine musicians, that was, and is, their life’s prospect.

A good and interesting book. Would the authors were stronger writers.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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