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Blazing a purple six-string trail

By John Lewis

Fifty years ago today I was standing in the driveway of a house under a watery-blue sky scudded with clouds in a little seaside town on the west coast of England.

I was in a silent circle of four teenage boys looking down and shuffling stones around with their feet as gulls wheeled overhead.

I could smell the tang of the sea and taste the nicotine of the Players No 6 I had just defiantly smoked.

All these details are etched in my mind like indelible tie-dye ink on a diaphanous cotton shirt, because it was the day that Hendrix died.

Jimi Hendrix was the guy that made a guitar sound like a burning Ferrari in a tunnel, an exploding jet plane, a screaming horse, and a crying baby all at the same time.

He could even play guitar with his teeth or behind his head. His fingers could do things to guitar strings that nobody had ever done before.

It would not have surprised me to find out that Jimi Hendrix could play guitar with boxing gloves on the moon.

He was black, but his skin colour was invisible to us. At 15 I had never met a coloured person. There were no coloured people in my seaside town. The only coloured person I knew was on my bedroom wall - and he had vermillion hair, a golden face and a disintegrating lavender pink guitar.

My father eventually tore the exploding Hendrix poster off my bedroom wall in a fit of rage because I refused to cut may hair and play piano.

But it was more than that. Hendrix was everything that was wrong with the world. He was a bloody show-off, he made noise that could not by any stretch of the sensible imagination be called music, he undoubtedly took drugs and on top that, he was black. He was a thoroughly bad role model.

My respect for Hendrix became boundless after my father's tantrum.

Today, it's difficult to imagine the effect that a wild man with a guitar could have on the middle class imagination.

Up until Hendrix, pop stars sang hummable tunes, danced in formation and plucked away nicely like medieval balladeers.

An article in The Age's Spectrum supplement last week quoted guitarist Tom Morello speaking about Hendrix in Rolling Stone magazine: "His riffs were a pre-metal funk bulldozer and his lead lines were an electric LSD trip down to the crossroads where he pimp-slapped the devil."

Exactly. That about sums it up for me.

The dreams of those four 15-year-old boys standing around under a faraway sky were all centred on rock music.

We played in a garage with no real instruments, just cheap imitations. Some of us played broomsticks and packing boxes. We had to have someone to show us the way and Hendrix was the man.

He was up there doing it for real. We put Purple Haze on the record player and jumped around like monkeys chewing on a power cable.

Now the exploding golden demi-god was gone. He flew too close to the sun.

He drank too much wine, took too many barbiturates and choked on his own vomit. So he was real after all.

I think that was the first time I realised just how simultaneously invincible and fragile people can be.

But Hendrix wasn't all exploding supernovas and disappearing space dust.

His comet has left a trail which still blazes across the musical sky.

For his VCE music performance exam, my son chose to play a gentle and melodic Hendrix song called Little Wing.

At 65 years old I'm still trying to master it.

That's the gauntlet Hendrix threw down 50 years ago today.