A friend of mine opened a can of worms the other day by bringing up an old argument.
‘Hendrix wasn’t really much of a musician.’
Now, I’m letting him off the hook a bit right away—he didn’t say that himself. A musician he met online, someone who knows far more about music than either of us, had played with Hendrix a bit in the old days and apparently made a comment about him not really being much of a player outside of twelve-bar blues. So I’m getting this all thirdhand and if I knew all the details of what the original guy was saying, maybe I’d agree with him.
But, since I’m unburdened by facts here, I can just say what I want. That’s what a blog is for, right?
I’ve always had musician friends and this argument has gone on forever and I’ve never quite gotten it. It always seems beside the point to me. Pure ‘musicianship’ seems to be defined by the ability to fit yourself into any musical context and fit right in. Studio musicians are the ideal because they can play jazz, blues, rock, punk, ska, R&B—anything—and sound right. They’re malleable, flexible, endlessly adaptable.
In painting, you don’t hear this argument. Nobody suggests that the best painters are the guys who work for the ad agency just because they can simulate Escher in the morning and Rothko in the afternoon.
Van Gogh had five or six different styles as a painter but all of them started in his gut. He couldn’t have changed the style he was currently working in to save his life—literally. He was a narrow technical player, caught in something original and expressive.
Hunter Thompson could and did write straight journalism at a certain point in his career but, once he’d discovered the voice that came out of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, he wasn’t going back. Although the truth is, he wrote himself into a corner that I think did limit him in the end. Joseph Heller worked for Time, Inc. for many years and surely did a lot of writing in the terse, backassed type of prose that magazine used to specialize in but nobody has ever suggested that made him a better writer or better than Saul Bellow, who was similarly ‘limited’ (if you use the musicianship argument) by a very specific voice.
Let’s throw acting in for just a moment. Dustin Hoffman is the actorly equivalent of the studio musician—whoever you want him to play, he loses himself in the role. He’s a thousand times more versatile and fluid than Humphrey Bogart, who was trapped in as narrow a range as any actor that ever had a career. But there are certain roles that cry out for Bogart because what he did, he did more authentically (on-screen at least) than anyone else ever has.
So I think the musician argument is a mistake when it comes to Hendrix and most of the people I care about—because they’re artists and artists aren’t about technical mastery, they’re about conveying feeling and authenticity. You’ll notice the carefully-chosen word ‘conveying’—I’m not in any way suggesting these people were anything like their image or their art in daily life. That’s another essay…
Great musicians: Steve Gadd, Skunk Baxter, Jim Keltner, James Jamerson, Barney Kessel, Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine, etc.
Really primitive limited musicians: Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Roger McGuinn, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Jimi Hendrix (maybe).
I know which band I want to listen to.