When someone mentions a kazoo, I automatically think of those horrid tiny noisemakers that children blow into incessantly at birthday parties, grocery stores, movie theatres, funerals…
But Jimi Hendrix somehow made a kazoo sound amazing in “Crosstown Traffic,” one of the many unique hits on Electric Ladyland. While he was creating this song, Hendrix couldn’t get the sound that he was hoping for on the track. He asked people in the studio for a comb and cellophane. Sure enough, when he took a comb, put cellophane across it and blew through it, this kazoo made the perfect high pitched noise to coincide with his guitar and create what can only be described as the sound of the ‘60s.
Anyone that worked with Jimi Hendrix on this album tells the same story. He showed up late to the recording studio, hours after everyone else showed up. When he did arrive he’d bring in an entourage so large that the staff had difficulty getting around the control room. When it came to mixing a song Hendrix would play it 300 times over and over, not letting anyone else touch it, yet never being happy with the sound. He always wanted it to sound exactly how it sounded in his head, but Hendrix could never get there. It would force the staff to say in the studio for long hours every night of the week. By the time the album was finished, Jimi Hendrix lost his manager/producer and his bassist, both of whom said they couldn’t take it anymore.
It is a story we hear a lot, especially about musicians from the ‘60s and ‘70s: someone incredibly talented rose to fame in a short amount of time, but the music, fame, and drug addiction eventually drove them mad and consequently either ruined their career or took their life at too young an age. But I really can’t help but think about how young Jimi Hendrix was through his career, and yet how much he had been through beforehand. Instead of calling him a “musical madman” or something like it, can we acknowledge that this man probably had a lot of previous trauma and mental health issues in a time that mental health was not even a thing? And being shot into fame by his early 20s probably only worsened his mental health?
Hendrix was born into a stressful environment, with two alcoholic parents who fought so much it forced him to hide in the closet. As young as the age of 10, Hendrix used a broom as a guitar until his father bought him a real one. He played in high school bands, but Hendrix’s band mates at the time claimed that he was incredibly shy and had no stage presence; he was a “very average” musician. And when Hendrix went into the army at age 19, he called his father begging to send his guitar. Music was his lifeline and his support.
By 1969, at age 26, Jimi Hendrix was the highest paid rock ‘n’ roll musician in the world. The high demand for his music meant he’d usually be touring and recording simultaneously, while burnt out and exhausted. When he headlined Woodstock, Hendrix was supposed to play at midnight, but waited until eight the next morning out of anxiety of the crowd. He collapsed from exhaustion immediately after this performance.
Now when I read about his perfectionism, his inability to show up on time, and his need to bring friends with him wherever he went, I see it as someone who needed more support. Actual support. Not “Have a drink, relax! Now get on stage to perform and then get us your album immediately after.”
He is certainly not the only musician during this time period that was called out for being too obsessive with their music and having poor behavior during record sessions. But maybe it’s time to stop telling their stories as “a tragic musical genius who went too far” and start calling out this lifestyle of fame for being too unrealistic and detrimental for most people, especially those with unresolved mental health issues. There have been too many musicians who have died early from the demanding time and schedules they adhered to, but the blame is always on the musician that couldn’t handle it, not what they could have been with more time and self-care for themselves. They’re trained to believe they have it all; this is the life! The fame that everyone works toward! If you’re not happy, that’s on you.
I obviously did not know Jimi Hendrix, so I can’t vouch for any of this, but none of us can deny how incredible Electric Ladyland is. Even Bob Dylan said that Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” on this album was a “better version” of Dylan’s original. He claimed: “It overwhelmed me, really.” Hendrix insisted on collaborating consistently on this album with electric blues players and jam bands, then proceeded to melt it all together with psychedelic sounds to create an album unlike anything else. At least we all know this part of his story and his talent to be true.