Philip Norman – Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix

Book Review | Weidenfeld & Nicolson | Review by Liam Wilkinson

Philip Norman has steadily carved a niche for himself over the years.  Since the 1981 release of Shout!, his somewhat controversial book about The Beatles, Norman has provided us with the go-to biographies of such notable musicians as Elton John, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.  And whilst some might balk at his often opinionated and provocative style, Norman always guarantees a rattling read.

His latest offering considers the life and immortality of one Jimi Hendrix, an artist who continues to fascinate, puzzle and astonish his fans.  Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix tells the story of a musician whom, fifty years after his untimely death at the age of 27, we may feel we know inside out but will probably never truly know.  And that’s exactly what I loved most about this short but engaging biography, that it was peppered with small surprises and intriguing, though never earth-shattering, revelations about an artist I thought I was beginning to understand.

The first portion of the book takes a detailed look at Jimi’s youth, shedding light on his difficult upbringing and his time in the military, where he would dedicate most of his concentration to experimenting with a cheap guitar, even sleeping with it each night in his barracks.  We then follow his early outings with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, his fascination with Dylan and his life-changing meetings with Chas Chandler and Keith Richard.

The second portion of Norman’s biography takes us to London, where Jimi enchanted the cream of the British music scene with his unearthly talents and striking good looks, leading the likes of Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney to bow down before him.

Finally, the book explores Jimi’s third act, in which the drug-addled, hard-drinking, sex-obsessed global megastar defied the ongoing issues with his health, relationships and professional management to take the festival crowds by storm before dying, pitifully, of a sleeping pill overdose in a London townhouse.

Whilst the bones of the story we already know are very much there, it’s the treasure-encrusted asides and digressions that make this book a treat.  There are curiously long paragraphs on the subject of Jimi’s hair, for instance, as well as remarkable tales of the psychedelic god who preferred a bag of chips and a game of Monopoly backstage in Hull and Ilkley over the more common excesses of the rock star lifestyle.  There are also some remarkable glimpses behind the scenes of the major festivals such as Woodstock, where his Monday morning performance was impacted by scheduling problems, and the Isle of Wight, where another guitar legend by the name of Bert Jansch lay beneath the stage as Jimi’s monster vibrations shook the little island.  We’re also lucky to have, in this book, an extremely detailed catalogue of the events of Jimi’s final days, including an absorbing few pages on the subject of his last performance at the Open Air Love & Peace Festival on the Baltic island of Fehmarn.

Although the book has its flaws – there are, for example, too many references to a Netflix documentary about Hendrix which clearly provided Norman with much of his source material, as well as some irritating conjecture concerning Jimi’s death and his imagined survival – Wild Thing provides an alluring portrait of the man behind the legend without piercing the purple haze of the eternal enigma.