Wild Thing - The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix
by Philip Norman
publ. 2020, 390 pp
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
According to his bio on his agent’s website, Philip Norman was born in London and brought up on the Isle of Wight. He joined the Sunday Times at the age of twenty-two, soon gaining a reputation as Atticus columnist and for his profiles of figures as diverse as Elizabeth Taylor, P. G. Wodehouse, Little Richard and Colonel Gaddafi. In 1981 he published Shout! – a biography of the Beatles that became a bestseller in both Britain and the US. He has also written the definitive lives of Elton John, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. His biography of Eric Clapton was published in 2018 by Orion in the UK and Little Brown in the US. The present book, Wild Thing, is his biography of Jimi Hendrix, which was published in August 2020.
James Marshall "Jimi" Hendrix, born Johnny Allen Hendrix on 27th November 1942 led an intense, compelling but brief life. He died, short of his 28th birthday on 18th September 1970 in sad, strangely obscure circumstances, as Philip Norman states in the introduction to his book, “…he [Hendrix] met a lonely, squalid death in a west London hotel, so creating pop music’s greatest unsolved mystery.”
Musician, singer, songwriter and an extraordinary guitarist, Jimi Hendrix’s mainstream career lasted only four years. He is considered one of the most influential electric guitarists of all time and one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. Many considered him a genius and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame it is stated that he was “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music”. There are many examples of his innovative style with the electric guitar, his dexterity and uniqueness but perhaps the most iconic is his rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock on 18th August 1969.
Hendrix had a difficult childhood and adolescence. His parents, especially his father, weren’t exactly caring or loving. Jimi taught himself to play the guitar when young. In 1961 he enlisted in the US Army but left the following year. He began playing gigs on the Chitlin' Circuit (a collection of performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper Midwest areas of the United States, providing commercial and cultural acceptance for African American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers during the peak of racial segregation in the US throughout the 1960s). Jimi was noticed and earned a place in the Isley Brothers' backing band and later with Little Richard. He also played with Curtis Knight and the Squires before moving to England in late 1966, after bassist Chas Chandler of the Animals became his manager. Within months, Hendrix had three UK top ten hits with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Fame in the US came after his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. In 1968 his third studio album, Electric Ladyland, reached number one in the US. In 1969 he headed the Woodstock Festival. Finally, in 1970, shortly before his death, he was top bill at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Hendrix was apparently inspired by American rock and roll and electric blues, preferring overdriven amplifiers with high volume and gain. He was key in promoting previously undesirable sounds, such as feedback, caused by guitar amplifier. He was also one of the first guitarists to extensively use tone-altering effects units or effects pedals in mainstream rock. Additionally, in recordings, he was the first rock musician to adopt phasing (a composing technique in which the same part – a repetitive phrase – is played on two musical instruments in steady but not identical tempi). Holly George-Warren of Rolling Stone commented that "Hendrix pioneered the use of the instrument as an electronic sound source. Players before him had experimented with feedback and distortion, but Hendrix turned those effects and others into a controlled, fluid vocabulary every bit as personal as the blues with which he began."
Jimi Hendrix received several music awards during his lifetime, as well as posthumously. His death came too early, at the height of his fame, and has since been an unsolved mystery. With his book Philip Norman tackles this issue as well as Jimi’s personal life. Norman had access to Jimi’s brother Leo who provided insightful contributions into understanding the musician and the man behind the legend that was Jimi Hendrix.
Wild Thing is an absorbing book due to Jimi’s ‘better than fiction’, enthralling life and untimely, tragic death but also to Philip Norman’s writing. His research is impeccably detailed and accurate, revealing many unknow aspects of Jimi’s life, artistry and relationships. He writes in a vivid, articulate and dramatic style where passion and admiration for his subject come easily across. His use of metaphors is excellent, creating some lovely images when describing Jimi, his music and the way he liked to dress. The language is varied, bright and slick. And Jimi’s story flows from the page as a well-written, suspenseful thriller. It is also carefully and exceptionally well edited with great attention to detail. While Hendrix and his music were never my kind of thing, I found his story mesmerising and thoroughly enjoyed the book. In fact, I couldn’t put it down.
Wild Thing is available as hardback, paperback, audio and e-book. I read the hardback edition, which is rather beautiful. The jacket displays a colourful, attractive photograph of Hendrix looking rather handsome in some of his eccentric clothing. The story is enriched by a good number of photographs – some in colour; some in black and white – of Jimi performing or with friends and family, as well as the women he had relationships with.
Effectively structured into logical chronological chapters, with flawless research and superior writing, Philip Norman’s biography of Jimi Hendrix is a real page turner. Insightful, intelligent, perceptive and sharply written, this is an exceptionally good book. Whether you enjoy reading is irrelevant. If you are a fan of Hendrix, then this biography is a must. If you are not, you should still read it; if for nothing else at least for the first-rate, historical information it provides. It is a fabulous story of a remarkable artist who lived a rather short but incredibly fascinating life. What’s not to like?
(Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at