Earlier this week we spent an evening watching PBS, back-to-back documentaries on Jimi Hendrix and the Kennedy assassination. Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’ is definitely worth your time. JFK: One PM Central Standard Time is less essential. (After 50 years, there’s not much left to see or say about the events in Dallas, although that particular program included an interview with the guy who pulled the first bulletin off the wire at CBS.) Watching the two back-to-back, it occurred to me that popular history has not served either Jimi or JFK particularly well. Both have been reduced to a handful of symbols.
If your local classic-rock station plays anything other than “Purple Haze,” “Foxy Lady,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” it’s a rare one. Those three songs, plus Jimi lighting his guitar on fire, playing the National Anthem, and dying in London are the popular shorthand for the man’s entire life. Those, and the perception that he was a drug-addled space cadet. Even accounting for the fact that Hear My Train A Comin’ was made with the cooperation and approval of Hendrix’s sister and glosses over his drug and alcohol use and his arrest record, the film makes clear that Jimi Hendrix was a serious artist, intent on pushing his music further and further, in a way that reminds me of John Coltrane. His growth as an artist over two years is pretty impressive; what struck me the other night is how much he improved as a singer—compare “Dolly Dagger” to anything on Are You Experienced?, for an example.
For JFK, it’s “ask not what your country can do for you,” Camelot, “ich bin ein Berliner,” Cuban Missile Crisis, hot wife, Marilyn Monroe, murdered in Dallas. The reality of him is far more subtle. His actions as president were often constrained by the knowledge that he’d just barely won in 1960—he’s said to have carried in his pocket a piece of paper with the number of votes by which he’d prevailed—and by anticipation of a tough reelection fight in 1964. He was slow on civil rights because he did not want to alienate Southerners. He bungled his early foreign policy maneuvers out of inexperience, yet in the most severe crisis of his presidency, he found precisely the right combination of firmness and flexibility to keep the missiles of October from igniting World War III. (And not just during October; it’s a popular misconception that the Cuban Missile Crisis ended neatly on October 28, 1962, but diplomatic maneuvers continued for months afterward, with great concern that the situation might flare again.) We’ll never know how we would have handled the escalating war in Vietnam, whether it would have swallowed him whole like it did LBJ, or if he’d have found a way to finesse it just as he finessed the Russians over Cuba. And then he went to Dallas.
But Kennedy-as-symbol is pretty important, too. Although he didn’t live to see the baby boomers take over the world, he was their avatar. The vast cultural changes that were unleashed in the years following his death were all implicit in his rise. Not only were the 1950s over, so was the dominance of people born in the 19th century, as JFK himself noted in his inaugural address.
It seems to me that we mourn Kennedy’s potential less than we used to. Fifty years of spiraling weirdness will do that. As for the potential of Hendrix, it would take a smarter person, one more versed in Jimi’s work than I am, to tell you what a Hendrix album of 1976, 1989, or 2001 might have sounded like. If he had continued to push the boundaries of his work, it’s possible that he may have ended up where Coltrane did—critically acclaimed, but also in a place where some former fans could not follow. That didn’t happen, however, and so we’re left with Hendrix-as-symbol: a man who took a handful of mid-century musical forms (blues, R&B, rock) and synthesized them into something new, a signal of the vast remix American culture would eventually become.
Your opinions and/or speculations about Jimi and JFK are welcome below.