The History of Rock and Roll in 1 Song

In his new book, Greil Marcus brings us The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs. But rock only needs one—Jimi Hendrix's 1968 “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”
Wikimedia Commons

The great Greil Marcus, whose rock-critical illuminations—in books like Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces—sent stroboscopic shafts into the black forest of my early manhood, is about to publish a volume titled The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs.

So naturally my first thought was: I bet I can do it in five.

And my next thought was: Nah. Five songs is too many. And also too few. Five is a clutter, a randomness, a gallimaufry.  If it’s not going to be 10, it’s got to be one. The history of rock 'n' roll in one song.

And if you want a song that does it all—that includes tradition, the future, outer space, electricity, armageddon, death/rebirth and the first stirrings of music itself—then there really is only one song: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

To write about the sound of Jimi Hendrix, the actual noise of him? Wow. There’s a theme to beggar your lexicon and freeze you at the frontiers of sense. Still, what’s writing for, if not to fling itself at the unwriteable? So here we go. It’s axiomatic, really: All art aspires to the condition of music, and all music aspires to the condition of Jimi Hendrix.

Plucked out of New York by manager/impresario Chas Chandler, he arrives in London in September 1966, lone guitarist, lanky acid popinjay, sci-fi African-American with Irish-Cherokee blood, his manners almost courtly, his speech a sing-song sequence of half-groans, groovy hesitations, delicate chuckles, fond suggestions and trailing colors, a kind of elasticized stammer. His physical presence is dramatic but somehow only partially materialized—at his edges he seemed to blur into fumes, mental incense. Behind him, for a rhythm section, Chandler puts two Brits: pasty Noel Redding, pudding-faced Mitch Mitchell. An incongruity, a mis-Mitch? Miraculously, not at all. Redding, a lapsed guitarist, is a beautiful primal bore on bass: his earth-snooze, his rooted elemental buzz, will be at the heart of this (new term) “power trio.” Mitchell, meanwhile, is jazz-demented, Elvin Jones-worshipping, breeding polyrhythms in a cymbal-wash of teenbeat frenzy—perhaps the only drummer in England capable of tracking his singer/guitarist into the Hendrixian sound-world.

And that sound-world, as it touches down in Swinging London, is already fully formed. Blues-ghosts electrically summoned, interstellar turbulence; fringed-with-incineration flights and passages of liquid gentleness; a technique that combines towering phallic exhibition with an uncanny, almost ego-less surrender to the possibilities of his instrument. These possibilities converge in the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Having stroked and pelvically jostled his guitar to a state of glimmering, agonized sensitivity, he sculpts the resulting feedback with his shoulders and extra-large hands—while Noel drones massively and nods his Afro and Mitch swarms across his tom-toms. His solos can be astral dramas or inside jokes. At his feet the pale cohort of London guitar heroes—Beck, Page, Townshend—turns paler still. Eric Clapton’s hand, as he lights his cigarette after a Hendrix show, is shaking. (Apocryphal story. But beautiful, and therefore true.) Technology is Hendrix’s medium: amplification, overdrive, the latest gear, the only-just-invented. Roger Mayer, who will design for him the Fuzz Face and Octavia effects pedals, has a background in naval intelligence, testing underwater acoustics. We'll hold hands and then we'll watch the sunrise/ From the bottom of the sea. (“Are You Experienced?”)

Hendrix writes whooshing, crazily orchestrated hippie rock with spikes of Dylanoid sense-reversal, but what he is, fundamentally, is a bluesman. As an itinerant R&B guitar-slinger in the early ‘60s he freelanced for (among others) Little Richard and Curtis Knight, acquiring road sweats, road smarts, screaming showmanship, existential momentum. The blues are his school and his laboratory, the spine of his wildness. And he doesn’t just play the blues, Jimi Hendrix has the blues: On at least a portion of his prismatic personality the blues are clanging down all day, a hail of Bibles and grand pianos. It’s one of the more lethal ironies of his art—that in the midst of multicolored stormings, and from an apparent zenith of creativity, he continually confesses his numbness, his down-ness, his separation from himself. My heart burns with feeling, oh but my mind is cold and reeling ... No sun coming through my window, feel like I’m living at the bottom of a grave ... Manic depression has captured my soul ... Because he’s a bluesman, his pain is a historical burden. At a show at Berkeley in 1970 he acknowledges the Black Panthers and then dedicates “I Don’t Live Today”—existing, nothing but existing—to “all the cats that are trying to struggle, that are going to make it anyway.” But his pain is also private. His childhood was rank with neglect; motherless Seattle winters that turned the infant Hendrix blue with cold. “I don’t think they [critics] understand my songs,” he tells a (possibly rather startled) interviewer in 1968. “They live in a different world. My world—that’s hunger, it’s the slums, raging race hatred, and happiness you can hold in your hand, nothing more!”

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

Adults Who Live In Treehouses

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Entertainment

Just In