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20 September 2020 08:31

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  • Hendrix, as Paul Gilroy has observed, was always defined by “transgressions of redundant musical and racial rules”.

Hendrix, as Paul Gilroy has observed, was always defined by “transgressions of redundant musical and racial rules”.

It's a defining moment in the story both of rock and of black expression. Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock 1969, finishing his set by deconstructing The Star-Spangled Banner. A black man on stage, claiming the anthem as his own, stripping it of its reverence and, against the backdrop of the Vietnam war – in the midst of the song Hendrix recreated the sound of gunfire and falling bombs – and of civil rights protests, infusing it with fury and pride. Hendrix, as Paul Gilroy has observed, was always defined by "transgressions of redundant musical and racial rules". It's 50 years ago last week that Hendrix died in a London hotel room, having overdosed on barbiturates.

Hendrix was born in Seattle in 1942, and his talent was quickly recognised. But in the segregated, boxed-in world of 60s America, he never quite fitted in – his music was too "white" for R&B, too "black" for rock. So he came to London. With bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and, in the space of four years, created an extraordinary new soundscape, stretching the blues with dissonance and distortion into something that was in equal measure soulful and disturbing, discordant and sublime. He was to rock as John Coltrane was to jazz – conjuring up a sound not previously imagined. The story goes that one night, shortly after Hendrix had arrived in London, Eric Clapton, then with Cream, and feted as "God" for his virtuosity, invited him to jam on stage. Hendrix showed God how to play. A furious Clapton confronted Hendrix's manager, Chas Chandler, after the gig: "You never told me he was that fucking good." As he sang on Purple Haze, "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky". • Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist