"He changed everything. What don't we owe Jimi Hendrix? For his monumental rebooting of guitar culture "standards of tone", technique, gear, signal processing, rhythm playing, soloing, stage presence, chord voicings, charisma, fashion, and composition?... He is guitar hero number one." – Guitar Player Magazine, May 2012

Everyone has a backstory. Each of us is a product of the series of events that occurred around us and the decisions we made in response to them. Some people are broken by their circumstances and make poor choices. Others, through insight, force of will, or Divine providence, manage to transcend what could easily have crushed them.

Rock legend Jimi Hendrix was one such hero who, as it happens, did it by becoming a guitar hero.

Tough upbringing

Hendrix had a tough upbringing. His father, after returning from the army, was unable to find steady work, which left the family impoverished. Both parents struggled with alcohol, and they often fought when drunk. The situation was volatile enough that young Jimi sometimes hid in a closet. He had a close relationship with his brother Leon but Leon was often in and out of foster care, so they lived with an almost constant threat of separation. Hendrix had three other siblings as well, all of whom were given up to foster care or adoption.

The family frequently moved, staying in cheap hotels and apartments around Seattle. Hendrix was a shy and sensitive boy and was deeply affected by his life experiences. In later years, he would confide to a girlfriend that a man in uniform had sexually abused him. When Hendrix was nine years old, his parents divorced.

His Guitar

Hendrix attended the Horace Mann Elementary School in Seattle during the mid-1950s. He often carried a broom with him to emulate a guitar, which caught the attention of the school's social worker. After observing him clinging to a broom like a security blanket for more than a year, the social worker wrote a letter requesting school funding intended for underprivileged children, insisting that leaving him without a guitar might result in psychological damage.

Ultimately, his guitar was his ladder out of the chaos of his life, a refuge, and the vehicle through which he discovered a better path, the path of love.

Before Hendrix was 19 years old, the police caught him riding in stolen cars. He was given a choice between prison or joining the Army, and chose the latter. He enlisted in the 101st Airborne division in May 1961, and his apparent obsession with the guitar caused him to neglect his duties. His peers would sometimes taunt him about it, and at least once hid his guitar until he begged for its return.

Ultimately, his guitar was his ladder out of the chaos of his life, a refuge, and the vehicle through which he discovered a better path, the path of love.

Castles Made of Sand

On his second album, Axis: Bold as Love, which was released after Hendrix had already become a full-fledged star, he wrote “Castles Made of Sand,” an original (and moving) semi-autobiographical song that recounted some of the travails of his youth. The song also noted the critical truth that evil has no permanent foothold in this world. Evil looks powerful and imposing, but its feet are made of clay. It is, as he said, a “castle made of sand.”

Down the street, you can hear her scream, "You're a disgrace"
As she slams the door in his drunken face
And now he stands outside
And all the neighbors start to gossip and drool

He cries, "Oh girl, you must be mad
What happened to the sweet love you and me had?"
Against the door he leans and starts a scene
And his tears fall and burn on the garden green

And so castles made of sand,
Fall in the sea. Eventually…

It’s a classic message: don’t build on a foundation that will not hold. Build on solid rock, not the shifting sands. And more than that, build the timeless, transcendent aspects of your life, the ones that cannot, and will not, “fall into the sea.”

Stevie Wonder makes a similar observation in his tune, “Overjoyed.” He says “Over time, I’ve been building my castle of love.” That’s the right idea, or as King David wrote in Psalm 62:

For the conductor of music
He is truly my rock and salvation
He is my fortress, I will never be shaken

That which is Infinite is the ultimate castle and the smartest place to invest. That which is eternal won’t end up at the bottom of the ocean.

Message to Love

Hendrix’s early years were challenging, but he managed to find himself in his guitar and music, and through them became – at least as evidenced in his lyrics – a deep and profound person. He was only on the world stage for such a short time – he went from nothing to headlining Woodstock in the span of three years – and yet, as noted in the quote from Guitar Player above, he changed the music scene.

At Woodstock, which many consider Hendrix’s most iconic performance, he opened the show with a song called, “Message to Love”, an amazing song that demonstrates both his ferocious musical prowess, as well as his dedication to a transcendent ideal:

Well I travel at the speed of a reborn man
I got a lot of love to give
From the mirrors of my hand

I sent a message of love
Don't you run away
Look at your heart baby
Come on along with me today

Well I am what I am thank God
Some people just don't understand
Help them God

Hendrix is considered one of the most important guitarists of all time, but as a person, he got there singing about love, and asking God to help others in their personal quests.

Despite his growth, Hendrix's problems didn't vanish and he died in 1970 at the young age of 27. Despite his tragic end, his music brought him to a much higher place, and helped him to transcend all the pain of his youth, transforming his Castles of Sand to a Message of Love.

Click here to listen to The Secret Chord Podcast Episode #55 (which includes the songs mentioned above).