In 2003, Julius Davis, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s director of educational programming, was fired for showing a group of fifth-graders a video of Jimi Hendrix serenading a partially topless girl with an explosive rendition of “Foxey Lady." Many were upset that the drug abusing, high school dropout was being put forward as a role model by the Hall of Fame, but any serious discussion as to the fitness of exposing young people to the revolutionary Hendrix was trumped by that naked breast.
Now, six years later, a more interesting side of that debate has been picked up off of the table by Carlos Garcia, a San Francisco superintendent, whose new district guidebook features images of Hendrix and challenges its educators to revolutionize education the same way Hendrix revolutionized music:
“Garcia told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was simply trying to ‘revolutionize’ the district and felt comfortable with Hendrix’s controversial image because, ‘Hey, we’re in San Francisco.’”
Nevertheless, forty or so years later, Jimi Hendrix as role model is still dicey territory. Yes, even in San Francisco. Obviously, Paul Allen is free to spend his own money on as many Hendrix shrines as he’d like, but when it comes to public funding, is Hendrix age appropriate?
I’ve always been personally fascinated by the subject of Rock and Roll and education. Do they mix? Should they mix? After all, the very thing that drew me to the music as a teen was that the music and its leading personalities were by their very nature subversive and rebellious.
I always thought that the battle line would form around the Beatles. The group’s catalog is universally beloved by both young and old. Surely, kids are much better off singing “Yellow Submarine” and “All Together Now” than whatever tripe Raffi and the Disney Channel are peddling. I was of the opinion that it was impossible to tell the story of the Beatles without acknowledging the fact that drug use was at the very core of their life and work, but I was wrong. Due to the fact that none of the Beatles perished due to their drug use (and, after all, what more benign lifetime drug user exists than Paul McCartney?), society has seemingly been able to embrace the group’s message of love and leave the more complicated subjects to experimentations of the college years.
That doesn’t appear to be possible when the subject is Jimi Hendrix.
I graduated from high school in 1984. It was the middle of the Ronald Reagan era. Nostradamus had nothing on George Orwell, who couldn’t have picked a better icon to mark the year of his predicted reckoning than “the great communicator.”
I was a math guy. Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe? No interest – none. But then inspiration came to me from a most unusual and unexpected place, Danny Sugerman and Jerry Hopkin’s biography on Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive. Out of nowhere, there was a huge resurgence in Morrison interest, culminating in a Rolling Stone cover that boasted, “Jim Morrison: He’s hot, he’s sexy, and he’s dead."
I’m not going to lie. The reason that I and my friends enjoyed that book wasn’t for Morrison’s love of Rimbaud. It was for the shadier, fun stuff. Jim skipping school for a few weeks after telling his teachers that he had a brain tumor. Jim ignoring Ed Sullivan’s demand that he change a lyric in “Light my Fire.” Jim possibly exposing himself in Miami. Jim having sex with a woman who liked to bring the drinking of her own blood into the equation.
That book was the greatest episode of Behind the Music, arriving at least 15 years before VH1 came up with the concept. But you know what? I came for the trash and stayed for the art. That book introduced me to Rock and Roll.
Whether Morrison was a poet on the level of Shakespeare or Poe was beside the point. He was cool, and he made the crazy notion of wanting to be a poet just as cool. I was soon reading about Bob Dylan and John Lennon. I fell in love with the work of Ray Davies, and then miraculously enough it led me back to all that tripe that they'd tried to introduce me to in English class. John Mendelsohn called Davies a modern day Miniver Cheevy, and I went back and reread the Edwin Arlington Robinson original. Suddenly, I noticed that the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society was very reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.
Jim Morrison may have been a drunken buffoon, but he was nevertheless a very well-read drunken buffoon; and he was the one that convinced me how wonderful it was to create something out of nothing. If Thomas Edison hadn’t invented the light bulb, someone else surely would have figured it out, but indeed no one but John Lennon could have written “All You Need is Love.”
Was Morrison a great poet? It doesn’t matter. He was the spark that legitimized art for me.
As for drinking and drugs, I’d been exposed to them for years, and despite the fact that I went through a phase of Jim Morrison worship, I wasn’t particularly interested in either of them. Both Morrison and Hendrix died at 27, and I wasn’t oblivious to that part of the story.
It’s my contention that you can use anything to educate children, especially teens, as long as it’s interesting and the truth. And the truth is where government abstinence programs like those trippy Above the Influence commercials fall short.
The truth is that Jimi Hendrix drank and used drugs. The truth is that Jimi Hendrix probably had a lot of fun drinking and using drugs, and there is a high probability that his drinking and drug use influenced and enhanced his music the same way drinking and drug use influenced the works of hundreds of writers and poets like Edgar Allen Poe and James Joyce. It also left him dead at 27, asphyxiated by his own vomit.
The reason the work of William Shakespeare is so omnipresent in our educational system isn’t necessarily the greatness of his work. It’s the fact that when it comes to Shakespeare, we know almost nothing about him, but his work. Did he drink or use drugs? Was he happy or depressed? Who knows? Teaching Shakespeare is easy for that very reason. There are no difficult lifestyle issues to broach there. Unfortunately, kids don’t grasp onto art in a void. When you hear a great song or read a great book, you want to know about the life of the man or woman who created it.
The very thing that educators too often miss is that it doesn’t matter if those lives are flawed or filled with debauchery. The world is a complicated place, and the best way to educate our youth is to acknowledge it and to be honest about it.
In the hands of a qualified educator, the lives of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Charlie Parker, William Burroughs, and anyone else who mixed chemicals with their art can be both an inspiration to creativity and a lesson of the downside of substance abuse.
The one sure way to irresponsibly attract teens to a subversive life of drinking and drug abuse is by ignoring it, demonizing it, and sweeping the lives of those who fell in its wake under the carpet. Teach kids about Jimi Hendrix because of his drug use! Like the smart parents used to say about sex, “It’s better that they learn it here from me than out on the street.”