Gaar has the perfect skill set to discuss the brief, brilliant career of Jimi Hendrix.
Forget about not judging a book by its cover; Gillian G. Gaar’s Hendrix: The Illustrated Story comes in stunning binding and its psychedelic and soulful packaging sets the tone for the sensitive and spectacular writing within. The cover, designed by Brad Norr, somehow manages to sidestep tackiness despite its tie-dyed print and velvet (yes, velvet) surface. This attentive design makes the book a real statement piece, and the book would make a fantastic addition to any coffee table.
Yet it is what is inside that truly matters, of course, and seasoned music writer Gaar has the perfect skill set to discuss the brief, brilliant career of Jimi Hendrix. And though Gaar is more than up to the task of digging into Hendrix, she wisely enlists the help of music writers Dave Hunter, Harvey Kubernick, Chris Salewicz and Jaan Uheslzki to further flesh out the complicated musician. Were the book a straight-up biography, this writer-by-committee approach would have been a bit off putting, as the tonal shifts between voices are significant. However, the addition of “supporting writers” only adds to the book’s scrapbook-style coverage of Hendrix and his career.
The volume is appropriately slim, as Hendrix’s career and life were woefully short. Yet, it also branches out in interesting directions, maintaining a focus on Hendrix’s art without concentrating solely on his fame. In fact, Gaar and Co. do a particularly good job framing the musician’s explosive worldwide fame within his own reaction to it. A particularly poignant anecdote relays Hendrix’s attempting to give a speech and leaving midway through, convinced that he was only able to communicate with his music.
One of the more refreshing aspects of Hendrix: The Illustrated Story is that Gaar isn’t afraid to be critical of Hendrix, the people in his life or his fans. This keeps the book from feeling like one of those fawning biographies that clog bargain-bins. She places Hendrix’s career within his own life story and also within the greater music scene at the time, which helps to explain his astronomical success. It’s particularly interesting because, though Hendrix is so often compared to other musicians who burned bright and fast, his career was unique to him and also uniquely massive. His legacy, though significant, doesn’t do enough to remind us of how significant Jimi Hendrix was while he was alive.
The aforementioned “scrapbook-style” approach is risky and it mostly works here. The real draws are the cover and Gaar’s writing. The additional pictures, which are abundant, add context and occasionally elicit laughs or tug the heartstrings, but they can also be a bit distracting. This has less to do with the content and more to do with the arrangement, which in tandem with the Scooby-Doo-style internal artwork can be jarring. It’s more good than it is bad, but it could have been tidier.
This may seem silly, but the fact that Gaar went to the trouble of assembling and including a list of selected live performances and a selected discography adds a lot of value to the book, as it feels like a reference volume in addition to a biography. It also serves to reinforce how simultaneously brief and global Hendrix’s career was. Despite its relative brevity, this book is packed with information and insights. It is curated rather than exhaustive.
Quality varies wildly in the music biography genre, particularly as publishers know that fans will buy anything about their favorite artists and put out cheap products to maximize profits. Hendrix: The Illustrated Story is not that kind of book. It is beautifully produced and thoughtfully written, with Gillian G. Gaar’s honest, thorough writing serving as an ideal way to deliver the full story of Jimi Hendrix’s colorful career. It is an iconic tribute to an icon, celebrating all of the things that made him such a legend rather than simply placing him on a pedestal.