Wednesday, September 15

Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow

A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix 
by Gary Golio 
illustrated by Javaka Steptoe
Clarion  2010


A picture book storyography of the 60's icon's early years told with an unusual objective that isn't obtrusive or moralistic. Or is it?  

Okay, a picture book about Jimi makes me wonder two things before I even open the book: how do you convey the sense of person who would come to change the way rock and roll was approached, and how do you deal with the fact that he died from an overdose.  On the musical front the one thing I find myself thinking is that no book is ever going to be able to fully convey the music, and this is true of jazz and country and any other genre of popular music.  And I presumed that the point of focusing on Jimi's early days was a way around dealing with, what the British might have called back then "death by misadventure."  

From and early age Jimi has got the music in him.  He's pucking out a rhythm against the rain, he's playing the mouth trumpet to amuse his friends, he's rockin' a mean air guitar to Chuck Berry and Elvis.  It's only a matter of time and fate that would land Jimi and his peripatetic father in a boarding house where the landlady's son will part with his worn guitar for five bucks.  Soon Jimi's playing songs on the radio note for note, then getting a job with bands, and finally hooking up with a low-end electric guitar and learning how to bend notes and pitch feedback.  We leave Jimi at the crest of his creative wave, ready to shower the world with his rainbow of music... then onto the back matter. 

It was while soaking in this book that the phrase bait-and-switch came to mind.  The current trend in picture book bibliographies (or storyographies, those books that don't tell a whole life but instead lean on creating a narrative tone poem) is to cover the stories that would most appeal to a young reader and then cover the bases with more complete info in the back, either to inform more curious readers or to give the adults a chance to weigh what is worth sharing to the children in their charge.  For some of these books, this back matter is a sort of "out" for playing fast and loose with the subject's story, an opportunity to lay down the facts in a straightforward if not exciting way.  But in some books, and Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow being one of them, this back matter offers an interesting perspective on the subject that underscore the purpose of the narrative's approach.  

First, we get a "More about Jimi Hendrix" spread that does the traditional birth-to-death overview that speaks in the specifics the storyography didn't cover.  Golio chooses to paint a picture of Jimi's childhood as a carefree series of musical encounters that spill over with color and sound, often making slight references to some of Jimi's lyrics.  There's almost a subliminal quality to the phrasing, as I imagine an impressionable reader one day hearing Jimi for the first time having a light bulb moment without realizing where it came from.  Then, as mentioned, the back matter that covers the bases in terms of where and when. 

But then Golio does an interesting thing with the author's note.  He dedicates this space to discussing Jimi's accidental overdose at the age of 27, mentioning the experimental drug use of the day, following it up with a sympathetic entreaty the problems of alcohol and substance abuse, including websites and reference books for further exploration.  Suddenly I find myself going back and seeing the narrative with new eyes.  Golio wasn't putting a gloss over the darker moments in Jimi's life, or deliberately sheltering readers from a harsh reality, he's showing readers that Jimi lived for the music and didn't hide within it.  There may be a presupposition that Jimi was abusing drugs at a time when there was widespread experimentation, and that the "emotional abuse, and depression of childhood poverty" was at play in Jimi's life, so while I applaud the frank and direct discussion of Jimi's death I'm a little put off at the thought of adults using this book as channel for opening up conversations about substance abuse.  Especially given that none of this emotional turmoil or depression are even hinted at in the narrative. 

And don't think that just because Jimi wrote a song called "Manic Depression" that he was writing autobiographically.  The phrase was given to him by his manager during a press conference and Jimi introduced the song as being about a guy who was frustrated because he wanted to make love to music.  Well, maybe that was Jimi a little bit, but he wasn't clinically depressed as far as anyone can tell. 

On the illustrations, Steptoe decides to go with collages made from layered plywood.  Yes, plywood.  In looking for a material that would mirror Jimi's music he went with wood, the same material used in the guitars Jimi manipulated for his art.  Chunky at times, rough-hewn and weathered-looking, I'm not quite sure it best conveys either the essence of Jimi or his music, but then I think there's always a problem in trying to show or express what is generally best left heard.

In the end, as Elvis Costello said (or Martin Mull, they're both credited but neither one is owning up to it) "writing about music is like dancing about architecture."  I think books about musicians ought to include music, especially so for kids.  You can't see Jimi's rainbow, you have to hear it.  Or as Jimi might have insisted, you'd have to experience it.
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