The first time I ever saw Jimi was in London in a Carnaby Street boutique called “I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet.” I had been reading in the local papers, in Disc and Music Echo and Melody Maker and the New Musical Express, about this wild man from Borneo with all the hair and the guitar-eating act. He looked pretty scary in pictures but in the shop he was very subdued and very gentle. That was a big summer for Carnaby Street and he was wearing and buying what were then new and very English clothes – velvet jackets, floral frilled shirts, tight, tight pants with belled cuffs. He was the first black man to dress like an English fob and an eighteenth-century dandy. Too much.
The English, to whom black men were still a novelty and wildly erotic and somehow tied up with the whole rock explosion, went quietly beserk. The Americans, for whom black faces were commonplace, thought it was the gear, tied as it was to The Beatles and English groups, that was the novelty and erotic. Maybe, though, it was the combination that demolished them all. Who knows? I know Jimi couldn’t have done it in a silk suit and a process, not the same way, any more than Janis could have done it in a sequined sheath and a blonde Peggy Lee wig. With the soft velour hats and the feathers and the silk shawls, the rings and the scarves and the brooches, Jimi was already starting to look like the other side of Janis. She never had the copyright on finery.
What turned me on was that in the same way that Janis crashed the uncrashable so did Jimi. A huge abyss had sprung up between whites and blacks (even young whites and young blacks) in the few years before he came along. When rock happened, even though it came straight out of black music, it and The Beatles and Carnaby Street and swinging London were still a basically white experience. Jimi walked into that phenomenon wearing the white man’s clothes as a kind of peace offering and gesture of friendship. His Carnaby Street shirts were like an extended hand. Then he promptly made the clothes his so that after that, all the extravagance on whites began to look like just another black imitation. Today young black men have almost completely taken over the look and I’m not even talking about the hair and how Jimi made it possible for black men to have, symbolically anyway, long hair; and not only black men but all the white men whose hair was too curly to grow suddenly took courage from him and grew dandelion heads of their own. So much so that now we have as the sex symbol of our generation Elliot Gould of all people, a fine actor and a nice Jewish boy who owes it all – come on Elliott, you can admit it – to bushy Jimi Hendrix hair and moustache. Jimi Hendrix set the style for the new sort of black man who was then beginning to emerge – that black hippie. Just as there were girls who wanted to be like Janis before Janis, so there were black men who wanted to be like Jimi before Jimi. (And white men too. Why do you think Eric Clapton had his hair permed into a Hendrix?)
So whether they like it or not, Jimi liberated them and gave them their place in the Woodstock nation and bought them ringside seats for the party. That’s going to mean a lot in the next few years. I think of that and of Jimi whenever I see the Chambers Brothers in their Garbo hats and Sly in his Apache fringe doing his impersonation of a black man impersonating a white man impersonating an American Indian.
Written by: Lillian Roxon 1971
photo: style and the city
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