Out of a Purple Haze
JIMI HENDRIX: The Man, The Magic, The Truth
By Sharon Lawrence
HarperCollins. 352 pp. $24.95
Who is Sharon Lawrence, and why did she wait so long to write this new memoir/biography of Jimi Hendrix, who died at the age of 27 in 1970, but still topped Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time"? A bit of Internet browsing piques one's curiosity. Two years ago in London, Hendrix's address book, "listing several of his numerous girlfriends, such as Linda Keith and Sharon Lawrence," was presented for auction. Two empty packs of Salem cigarettes smoked by Hendrix, taken "from the collection of Sharon Lawrence," sold for $331.51 last November. And another Web site shows a transcript of Lawrence's testimony on behalf of Hendrix when he was tried for possession of heroin and hashish in Toronto, Canada, in December 1969.
In fact, Lawrence was not one of Hendrix's girlfriends. Rather, as a young UPI entertainment reporter, she was introduced to the hot new star in 1968 by his publicist, Leslie Perrin, before a sold-out show at the Anaheim Convention Center. Familiar with his "somewhat terrifying image" from the British music press, she was surprised to find him "a shy, polite human being." After chatting with him for several minutes, she went out front to take in his show, and "the subdued fellow I'd just met [turned] into the most lascivious, outrageous, spectacular performer" she'd ever seen. Afterward Perrin told Lawrence, "I hope you'll get to know Hendrix. He could use a friend."
Hendrix phoned her a week later, and Lawrence became "a confidante, a sounding board, an actual friend who wasn't involved in his career," someone who "felt that it was important to remember everything he said about his troubled formative years, his disappointments, his dreams, his goals, and his joy in and passion for music." She waited for years to write this book, thinking that time and experience might make her "see Jimi from a different point of view," but found instead that her sense of who he was remained the same.
Lawrence's insightful rendering of Jimi Hendrix the human being is the first written by someone whom Hendrix apparently trusted with his deepest thoughts and feelings -- about his music, family and career. Her Hendrix laughs, worries, shouts, cries, smokes, shares cherished photographs, talks about problems with his family, irons a shirt, flings furniture. One wonders about the empty, Hendrix-touched cigarette packs Lawrence may have put up for auction, but her intent does not seem -- in this book, at least -- to make herself look good; rather, she seeks to shed light on Hendrix's states of mind as his genius begat idolatry, and on the confusion surrounding the ongoing battle for control of his legacy.
Lawrence, who later became a consultant for several major record companies and movie studios, is her own key source. As such, her portrait of Hendrix is hardly objective, even though her tone is mostly journalistic. She also reports what she knows or has learned from more than 250 other named and unnamed sources and has so much inside information about -- and passion for -- her subject that she sounds convincingly authoritative.
Lawrence sometimes can't help but break her usually measured tone. When Monika Dannemann suggested meeting for tea in 1991, Lawrence writes, "I sooner would have stuck my head in the oven." Dannemann, after all, had been with the stoned Hendrix the night he died from choking on his own vomit; she stalled instead of calling immediately for an ambulance and falsely claimed to be his fiancée. Lawrence also rolls her eyeballs at Hendrix's manager, Michael Jeffery, whom she considers unscrupulous. But her loyalty to Hendrix and these people's troubling relationships with him, which have been discussed in other books as well, make these distracting breaks in tone forgivable.
Lawrence is a witness here for Hendrix's defense -- as she was during his trial in Toronto, when her testimony helped lead to his acquittal. Her book also speaks up for the deceased over his embattled estate; Lawrence angrily describes what she sees as Hendrix's betrayal by his adopted stepsister, Janie Hendrix. Jimi barely knew her, Lawrence reports, but she presented herself as his sister and obtained control of his estate when his father became infirm, even having the audacity to claim that Jimi's younger brother, Leon, wasn't his father's natural son.
Some of the book's saddest pages relate to Hendrix's unstable, poverty-stricken childhood. Lawrence discovered some things about Hendrix's background that not even he knew -- most notably that the foster family who had cared for him when he was 2, whom he remembered fondly, had wanted to adopt him before his father returned from military service and retrieved him. She also reports on Hendrix's Swedish son, James Henrik Daniel Sundquist, and his daughter, Tamika Laurice James, both of whom were born out of wedlock -- and were acknowledged by Hendrix but shunned by his estate. Still, perhaps the most surprising part of the book is Lawrence's conviction that the overdose of barbiturates that led to Hendrix's death was not unintentional but a calculated risk.
In a just world, an artist so loved and respected would have been survived by a dignified legacy, not one of greed, contention and dishonesty. Jimi Hendrix doesn't seem to have been fortunate in family or business, and although he had many lovers, he wasn't lucky in love, either. But in being able to count on Lawrence's friendship to illuminate for his fans the real from the fake, he was blessed. ·
Mary Ishimoto Morris is Book World's editorial assistant and a columnist for Music Monthly.