Fifty years ago, Hendrix combined his longtime love of sci-fi with his guitar-shredding abilities on "Purple Haze," blasting him into the stratosphere of superstardom.
Illustration by Rob Dobi
The boy insisted on being called "Buster." It wasn't his real name. That didn't matter. He idolized Buster Crabbe, the dashing, square-jawed actor who portrayed the interplanetary hero Flash Gordon in the Universal Studios serial of the same name. In them, Flash travels to the planet Mongo in a rocketship, where he encounters alien races, rights wrongs, and dazzles the camera with his suave, blond-haired good looks.
The boy named Buster was not blond. He was African-American with a branch of Cherokee in his family tree, possessing of kinky hair, a toothy grin, and wise-beyond-his-years eyes. His poverty-stricken family lived a less-than-dashing existence in Seattle in the 1950s. His mother and father were alcoholics. They fought violently and often. Buster would sometimes hide in the closet during his parents' rows, wishing he could somehow escape to Planet Mongo. There he could battle the villainous Ming the Merciless and rescue the swooning Dale Arden, earning the heroic virtue of his namesake, far from the squalor and broken bottles of home.
One night, Buster and his brother Leon witnessed something that would change their young lives. Outside their bedroom window, a disc-shaped UFO—like something straight out of Flash Gordon—hovered in their backyard. It floated there only a minute, but it was long enough to sear itself into Buster's tender young brain.
The next day, he began filling pages upon pages of notebook paper with drawings of spaceships and colorful cosmic phenomenon, even as he kept Leon rapt by spinning long, complicated stories about "ice ages, burning planets, and the creation of the universe," according to Tor's Adam Mitchell. In Buster's tumultuous, underprivileged environment, his imagination became his refuge. That imagination soon latched onto other heroes, those who played a raucous, rocketship-like noise called rock 'n' roll. He even began carrying a broom to school every day, pretending it was a guitar; like Flash Gordon's spaceship, it was a machine that he hoped might someday transport and transform him.
James Marshall Hendrix eventually outgrew the self-bestowed nickname of Buster. But he never outgrew science fiction. In 1966, he no longer carried around a broom; after a brief stint as a paratrooper in the Army, he'd began playing the guitar professionally, mostly as a sideman for R&B artists such as The Isley Brothers and Little Richard. He'd decided to go solo under the name Jimi Hendrix, though, after meeting Chas Chandler, the bassist of the successful British Invasion band The Animals, then moving to London in 1966 at the age of 23. There he stayed with Chandler, who also turned out to be a lifelong science fiction fan. Chandler began loaning Hendrix books from his extensive selection of sci-fi—stories that were far more edgy and sophisticated than his beloved Buster Crabbe space serials of yesteryear.
"I had dozens of science fiction books at home," Chandler says in Ultimate Hendrix by John McDermott and Eddie Kramer. "The first one Jimi read was [by George Stewart's] Earth Abides." The novel, published in 1949, imagines a post-apocalyptic scenario where America is reduced to pre-technological tribalism. As Chandler noted, "It wasn't a Flash Gordon type. It's an end-of-the-world, new-beginning, disaster-type story. He started reading through them all."
Hendrix's love of science fiction was rekindled. Other sci-fi stories from Chandler's library that he devoured soon after he arrived in London included Ward Moore's 1953 short story "Lot," a harrowing account of a family trying to survive in a post-nuclear wasteland (which became the basis of the 1962 film Panic in Year Zero!). With the Cold War raging, the Vietnam War proliferating, and the entire world seemingly teetering on the brink, these apocalyptic sci-fi tales took up residence in Hendrix's mind alongside the psychedelic sounds and styles of Swinging London in which he became quickly immersed.
The most powerful of these tales was a 1957 novel by Philip José Farmer titled Night of Light. Years before the use of LSD became widespread, Farmer conjured the most psychedelic of sci-fi conceits: Once every seven years, a planet orbiting a distant sun is inundated in a mysterious radiation that causes the fabric of reality to morph and distort. Statues come to life. People turn into trees. Perception becomes a frightening, chaotic kaleidoscope. At one point in the story, the sunspots visible from an alien planet are described as having a "purplish haze." The turn of phrase stuck with Hendrix. Before long it would inspire not only his breakthrough song, but the genesis of a revolutionary pairing of science fiction and rock music.
The night of December 26, 1966, was a lonely yet exciting one for Hendrix. He sat in the dressing room of the Upper Cut Club in Forest Gate, London; as shy offstage as he was incendiary onstage, he was steeling himself—likely with the assistance of a brain-altering substance or two—for one of his first shows with his new trio, The Experience. It was the night after Christmas. He was half a world away from Seattle. Would he ever see it again? With the world seemingly heading toward a precipice, there was no way of knowing.
Steeped in a pensive mood and stewing in all the cataclysmic sci-fi stories he'd been reading, Hendrix picked up a piece of paper. The lyrics came in a torrent. One page was filled, then another, and another—just as if he were the boy named Buster, crowding pages of his notebook with scribbled pictures of UFOs. Before long, a thousand words had appeared. Hendrix took that ramble of poetry, chopped it down to a manageable length, and used those words as the seed of a new song. The poem's original sci-fi content—including, among other things, "the history of the wars on Neptune," noted Steven Roby in Black Gold: The Lost Archives of Jimi Hendrix—were left on the cutting-room floor. But the song's title retained that vivid, two-word phrase that had jumped out at Hendrix while reading Farmer's Night of Light. Hendrix called the song "Purple Haze."
"Purple Haze"—released as a single 50 years ago this week, on March 17, 1967—launched Hendrix into stardom. And it was only the first of a handful of Hendrix songs influenced by science fiction. As Chandler remembers, the novel Earth Abides is "where [the Hendrix songs] 'Third Stone from the Sun' and 'Up from the Skies' came from." In these two songs—released later in 1967, as David Bowie was unveiling his first sci-fi song, "We Are Hungry Men," and passing Jimi Hendrix in the streets of London—aliens visit Earth, only to be bemused by what they see. "Third Stone from the Sun" ends with the frustrated alien obliterating the planet; "Up from the Skies" concludes on a more resigned, forlorn note. The alien of that song visited Earth long ago, and he's distraught to discover the current state of the planet: "I have lived here before, the days of ice / And of course this is why I'm so concerned / And I come back to find the stars misplaced / And the smell of a world that has burned."
Coincidentally, Hendrix's "Third Stone from the Sun" begins with a spoken-word narrator, much in the same way that Bowie's "We Are Hungry Men" does. Then again, a common construction in science fiction, then and now, is the information dump, or infodump for short—a passage of exposition meant to quickly catch the reader up on the bizarre settings and premises at hand. Hendrix had absorbed the tropes, voice, and structures of sci-fi and had begun to apply them to the rock music.
Up to that point, science fiction references in popular music had been mostly of the novelty variety. The 50s and early 60s abound with silly sci-fi songs like Billy Lee Riley's "Flyin' Saucers Rock and Roll" and The Byrds' country-esque "Mr. Spaceman" (although Roger McGuinn and David Crosby were destined to make their own marks in serious sci-fi music in the late 60s with "C.T.A.-102" and "Space Odyssey" by The Byrds and "Wooden Ships" by Crosby, Stills & Nash). Even Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy capitalized on his sudden fame with novelty albums such as 1967's Mr. Spock's Music from Outer Space.
Those songs, as fun as they are, had little actual engagement with the depth of science fiction; they may as well have been about hot rods or doing The Twist. Hendrix, by taking inspiration directly from specific works of sci-fi, was at the forefront of a spontaneous new musical movement—one that drew profoundly from the anxieties, aspirations, and imagination of science fiction.
As Hendrix's star rose in the wake of "Purple Haze," so did his output of sci-fi music. In his virtuosic hands, songs about space and aliens assumed a new dimension. The lyrics to "The Stars That Play with Laughing Sam's Dice"—the phrase "Laughing Sam's Dice" was assumed at the time to be a nod to LSD as blatant as The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"—may be a stream-of-consciousness hodgepodge, but they also erupt into overt sci-fi: "The Milky Way Express is loaded, all aboard," Hendrix sings before depicting a blood-chilling accident in space: "If you look to your right you'll see Saturn / If you look to your left you'll see Mars / Hey, look out! / Look out for that door / Don't open that door!"
In "EXP," the drummer of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Mitch Mitchell, portrays an interviewer asking questions of an alien visitor who's played, naturally, by Hendrix himself. And on the elegiac "1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)," a nuclear holocaust unleashes "giant pencil- and lipstick-tube-shaped things" that "continue to rain and cause screaming pain" upon the Earth. The devastated narrator uses a machine to transform himself into an amphibian lifeform; from there he walks into the sea, abandoning the surface and its spiteful inhabitants—members of a species to which he no longer belongs—to their fate.
Using layers of studio manipulation, innovative effects, and trailblazing methods of wringing atmospheric noise from an amplified guitar, Hendrix's music itself took on an eerie, otherworldy aura. In Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop, critic Charles Shaar Murray referred to "1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)," as "rock's premier work of science fiction." Listening to the song's groundbreaking evocation of apocalyptic desolation, social isolation, and mythic rebirth through technology, it's hard to argue otherwise. In the 50s, Isaac Asimov coined the term "social science fiction" to describe sci-fi that used the genre tropes of advance technology to illuminate social issues. Hendrix didn't write literature—but his music couldn't have fit Asimov's term better.
Hendrix's drug-related death in 1970—at the tragically young age of 27—meant he never lived to see the subsequent explosion in sci-fi music, similarly sparked by Bowie's 1969 anthem "Space Oddity." One of Hendrix's roadies in London, Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister, joined the band Hawkwind in 1971; they would go on to become one of the leading practitioners of sci-fi rock in the 70s, a subgenre that's gone on to include the likes of Rush, Iron Maiden, and Coheed and Cambria. Hendrix also never got to enjoy the way his unique collision of sci-fi, sonic technology, and the blues-derived form of rock 'n' roll helped inform Afrofuturism; he may not have played a central role in that movement as did artists such as Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic—mostly because his career was cut short before he could fully develop his singular fusion of Black music and science fiction—but his alchemy of myth, technology, and eschatology stands as a milestone in Afrofuturist evolution. From Afrika Bambaataa to Deltron 3030 to Janelle Monaé, echoes of Hendrix's psychedelic Black futurism have continued through the decades.
Hendrix recorded his final sci-fi song, "House Burning Down," for his 1968 album Electric Ladyland. Along with all its myriad images of trippy, fiery Armageddon—in harmony with Farmer's "purplish haze"—is a ghostly mention of a "giant boat from space" that has "taken all the dead away." One can only imagine a boy named Buster sailing into the cosmos on it.
Jason Heller is on Twitter - @jason_m_heller