Reading History: Crosstown Traffic

As I continue this series of posts on books that have been important in shaping me as a historian, writer and, frankly, a person, and I was scanning my shelves to consider what to write on next, I happened on my extremely battered copy of Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop. Originally publishd in 1989, my edition was published in 2001. I’ve read few books as many times – attested to by the fact that it is split completely in half down the spine, yellowed, dog-eared, blood-splotched in places and generally in dreadful condition. It remains, many years after first reading one of the best books on music that I own.

My battered copy of Crosstown Traffic.
My battered copy of Crosstown Traffic.

The thing about historians of course is that they don’t just read history books. I spent most of my teen years reading not various history books but instead books like this one by Murray. It was non-fiction, journalistic, but showed how to treat seriously a topic that might otherwise be easily trivialised. This is the books lasting value to me as a reader and now as a writer of history. But, scanning these battered pages once more, what strikes me as incredible about the book is the way in which it dissects its subject matter into a range of constituent parts. I had by the time I’d read this book, read several other fairly standard biograpghies of major music stars I’d taken an interest in. But this was no standard biography laying bare all the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll one associates with the myth of Hendrix. Instead this book, in the words of Greil Marcus review featured on the cover ‘goes so far inside the myth that it dissolves. What is left is a man pursuing his own destiny, piece by piece, day by day.’

We are provided with the social, economic and political context of Hendrix’s height of popularity in a chapter entitled ‘The We Decade’ which opens like so:

The passing of time flattens everything: the altered perspective thus created annihilates the sequence of events and replaces it with the illusion of simultaneity, an illusion reinforced by the convenient habit of slicing history into neat, decade-sized chunks. The notion of ‘the sixties’ as a clear-cut, homogeneous blob of time is an exceptionally persuasive one, creating as it does the myth of some strange, warped period – turn left at the end of ‘the fifties’ and emerge dazed, confused and peculiarly-dressed in time to turn right at the beginning of ‘the seventies’ – where Mersey-beat and Macmillan, the Vietcong and Vidal Sassoon, James Bond and David Frost, Martin Luther-King and Mandy Rice-Davies all somehow rub shoulders, fellow-guests at the longest cocktail party, fellow-extras in the ultimate rock video. (17)

Without hardly realising it as a fifteen year old reading this book for the first and then the second, third, fourth and fifth times, I was  absorbing a key lesson of historiography: the ultimate arbitrariness of periodization. As Murray himself notes almost immediately following this opening paragraph with this: ‘The correct response to the question ‘What really happened in the sixties?’ is ‘When in the sixties? And where?‘ Even the most widespread cultural phenomena… erupted in different settings at different times, and for vastly different reason.’ (17-18)

In this supremely well-written book that manages to comingle – in a way that few such books achieve – biography, history, musical analysis and cultural commentary, we see Murray tackle Hendrix from all sides. The facts of his life – the standard biographical stuff – are dispensed with in a single chapter. The rest of the book is devoted to exploring the nuances of those apparent facts. And so Hendrix is deconstructed across the rest of the book in terms of his relationship to the masculinity and free love of ‘the sixties’, the race relations of the period and especially in terms of the white appropriation of black musical forms, as well as the exoticism and apparent sexual precocity of black men in contrast to their white pretenders. Murray cuts through much of the fundamentally racist, misogynist nonsense that eventually came to encompass the Hendrix myth in an act of recovery that treats its subject and the sources for the prevailing wisdom about that subject, as all historians must do, with a good deal of circumspection and not a little originality of interpretation of Hendrix’s oeuvre which re-reading many years later still remains convincing.

As well as that. this book offers – and upon original reading offered to me – an introduction to the broader musical world from which Hendrix came. In Murray’s formulation of the man then, he was not some bizarre singularity but rather as an innovator working within a range of black American musical traditions and idioms from the country blues to its electrified urban successor, and the jazz guitar and virtuosity of Charlie Christian and the gospel tradition of the Black church in the United States. Rather than a ‘freak’, Hendrix was a product of his environment. His genius lay in his modulating of these forms.  Thus, writes Murray:

…the use to which Hendrix put the blues was as a continuing source of inspiration for his own explorations of the common ground between what had hitherto been considered different and discrete musics [rock ‘n’ roll and blues]. (179)

This book looks at Hendrix from practically all angles – assembling and dissembling his life, work and legacy through a range of thematic discussions. There’s even room for a look at Hendrix and the hardware that helped Hendrix expand the electric guitar’s sonic palette beyond what had been previously imaginable yet Murray sensibly remains, in concluding, skeptical of placing too much value on such things. Marshall amps and Strat guitars do not a Hendrix make. Murray ends the book with this invocation:

As in all aspects of life under late capitalism, you pay as much money as you can afford, and you takes as much choice as you can get. (266)

Aside from providing me with a proper way into Hendrix’s music, the book also opened me to musical realms which were previously closed off – without this book I’d never have developed my fascination with the blues, with American folk music, with jazz or any other of the cultural and musical legacies of late nineteenth and twentieth century American popular culture. I suspect I’d never have written the final year dissertation for my BA that I did on the transfer of American folk across the Atlantic ocean. Nor without the worlds this book opened up, would I use as I do so often, the musical output of the dispossessed to highlight their silence elsewhere in the historical record. And all because I once heard ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ being played one day by a friend’s older brother on the hi-fi and couldn’t get enough of it.

 

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