The Story Of The Book:
The Autobiography That Was Banished Into Exile
There’s a story behind every book, but few can match that of Starting At Zero — a compelling enactment of Jimi Hendrix’s autobiography that was banished into exile, but has now returned accompanied by an extraordinary film of the same name.
In late 1995, rights to the Jimi Hendrix estate passed to his family, bringing the twenty-year tenure of Leo Branton and Alan Douglas to an end. Douglas, a noted record producer, had began his stewardship with the controversial Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning from 1975 — albums that divided opinion at the time of their release, but are now regarded as essential. During the two decades he was in charge, Hendrix’s legacy continued to grow both financially and artistically. Highlights of his reign include compilations like The Ultimate Experience, Blues and Voodoo Soup; signature reissues of Hendrix’s classic studio albums and a masterful edit of Jimi’s Woodstock performance.
Two projects telling Jimi’s story using his own words were still in production as the transfer took place. Both were originally known as Room Full Of Mirrors, but would later be re-titled Starting At Zero. The hearing to determine their fate took place on June 17th 1994 at the US District Court in Seattle. Whilst the book was virtually finished, Judge Thomas L. Zilly accepted that the film — which he deemed “a unique undertaking” — could not have been completed before the trial due to the complex and time-consuming nature of its production. He then commended Alan Douglas for having been “strongly committed to the artistic legacy of Jimi Hendrix,” whilst exonerating him of any wrongdoing or neglect relating to the Hendrix Estate.
In his summary, Judge Zilly ruled that neither Douglas nor the Hendrix family (now trading as “Experience Hendrix”) could finish and release the book and film without mutual co-operation, or produce anything “similar in form and substance.” Rough edits were sent to Experience Hendrix, who declined both projects. The result was stalemate. Experience Hendrix held all of the intellectual property rights, and yet they weren’t able to exploit these same ideas without Douglas’ involvement.
Two years after the initial court case, both parties signed a revised Settlement Agreement which added the caveat that “if at some time in the future the Hendrix Parties desire to exploit Room Full Of Mirrors in its current form or a version similar to the existing format, they shall so notify the District Court and Douglas parties in writing.”
In 2010, Experience Hendrix released a documentary called Voodoo Child that appeared to violate this Agreement. During the resulting court action held in Seattle on June 26th 2012, Judicial Arbitrator Ricardo S. Martinez found Voodoo Child similar “in both form and substance” to Room Full Of Mirrors, and remarked how the similarities “were remarkable.” By way of summary, he awarded the Douglas parties permission to complete the book and the film with royalty-free use of Jimi’s music and any other archive material they required.
First came the book, which had largely been compiled and then edited by British filmmaker Peter Neal, who also directed the film. Although compiled posthumously, Starting At Zero is the closest we’ll ever get to Jimi Hendrix’s own autobiography and reads like it, since it’s constructed entirely from Jimi’s own words. Alive with revelations and a sense of wonder, much like his playing, it tells his story from the beginning.
“I was born in Seattle, Washington USA on November 27th 1942 at the age of zero…”
More than 250 pages long, it’s a compelling account of Hendrix’s rise to fame, and provides invaluable insights into how he viewed his music and surroundings.
The idea for it arose from a film project, after Alan Douglas had suggested Neal look at ways they might dramatise a short story by Michael Moorcock called A Dead Singer (taken from Moorcock’s Book Of Martyrs), which has Hendrix as its central character. Peter had made the first-ever film about Hendrix — called Experience (later renamed See My Music Talking) — in 1967/68. It was notable not only for superb live performances by the original Experience, but also footage of Jimi playing a 12-string acoustic guitar, which the filmmaker had loaned him for the occasion. Peter had worked on several film projects with Alan before being asked to look at A Dead Singer. They were kindred spirits in truth. Both men shared the belief that Hendrix was one of the 20th Century’s greatest-ever musicians, and that his legacy should be handled with the utmost care and consideration.
“We didn’t want to see Jimi played by anybody else, or to have words put into his mouth,” says Peter. “We agreed that anything coming out of Jimi’s mouth should be things he’d actually said and that’s when I started collecting all the quotes from Jimi that I could find. I had a lot of magazines and books and started work on a script based around things that Jimi said from there. “At first I was trying different formats and different ways of telling the story. In the meantime Alan decided that he wanted to do something he called Lifelines. I wasn’t involved at the inception of that because he’d got two other people to do a video of Jimi’s songs, with illustrations. They’d been working on this for some time without success so Alan asked if I would have a look at it and then I took it over basically. There weren’t any words used, it was just the music. I’d been asked to put some heart and soul in these videos and make them work in terms of what Jimi intended the music to do, and how he perceived the world around him. That was my brief, so I worked on a suite of four or five songs on a VHS editing suite, went over to Los Angeles and showed it to Alan who said, “right, we’re going to do a film now.”
“My first reaction was that I’d done my Hendrix film and had nothing else to say. I’d been off round the world and was more interested in making films about poverty and other things I felt people should know about but Alan knew he’d get me in the end, by saying I had to do it for Jimi. It was always about the music for Alan and I liked that. That’s where his focus was – on the fact that Jimi was an amazing musician and composer, and so that always determined the choices he made.
“It was Alan’s job to keep Jimi in people’s consciousness and so he was always looking for ways of bringing people’s attention to Jimi Hendrix that were fresh and exciting, like that wonderful travelling exhibition he came up with. He was way ahead in terms of creating new audiences for Jimi and letting people see new sides of him, because he didn’t have an endless supply of music to work with – not finished tracks anyway.”
Peter worked on the Lifelines project from September 1989 to February 1990. It was at this point Alan commissioned the film that’ll come to be known as Room Full Of Mirrors (and ultimately Starting At Zero). The two had already decided that the film should be self-narrated, using Jimi’s own words.
“I don’t use voice-over commentaries in my films,” Peter explains. “They’re all self-narrated in some way or another, either by observation or the actual person telling their own story. The idea of just using Jimi’s own words predates Room Full Of Mirrors but here’s his autobiography and how are we going to narrate it? Answer, ‘we’re not, we’re going to let Jimi narrate it.’ That’s when Alan commissioned Michael Fairchild to start feeding me with material and when I saw all these incredible letters, poems and quotes coming in, we made the decision to put aside the film for a while and work on a book. You can’t say it’s the book of the film or the film of the book because they’re the same thing — they’re parallel events. In a book you can’t see him or hear his music, whereas in a film you can’t go into too much personal detail which can then trigger your own imagination, so they bounce off each other really.”
Fairchild had sent Alan an unpublished manuscript called A Touch Of Hendrix in 1988, and the Rochester-based author will contribute rare writing ability, unparalleled research and unrivalled knowledge to various Hendrix projects initiated by Alan Douglas over the next seven years.
“In October 1989, Alan Douglas, creative director of Are You Experienced Ltd asked me to begin work on a book that’s come to be called A Room Full Of Mirrors — the autobiography of Jimi Hendrix,” he wrote during the early nineties. “The first step was to compile and catalogue all known Hendrix quotes from all sources: audio, video and print. At present, 325 pages are filled with Jimi’s words, gathered from over 500 sources. The quotes were then broken down by topic…”
“We were just collecting as many quotes as we could, thinking that it would inevitably become valuable for us, as well as provide material for the film,” adds Alan Douglas. “We weren’t sure what we were going to do exactly at that point. We were just loosely working with it, trying to find a shape and a form and a direction for it. I don’t know who said it but Peter and I decided that we had an autobiography if we deal with it properly and so that’s when we decided, ‘Let’s do a book.’ It was easier to lay out a book narrative because we only had to deal with the printed word. That’s why we dealt with the book first, although Peter was also working on the film at the same time.”
In 1990, Voodoo Chile magazine reported that Michael was helping research a book co-ordinated by Peter Neal and tentatively entitled Jimi Hendrix In His Own Words. Later that same year, reams of Jimi’s original handwritings were auctioned in New York. Michael Fairchild called it “the most amazing archaeological find since the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Like emotions frozen on paper, the nooks and crannies of Jimi’s psyche stared back at us from beneath the ice.”
Jimi had written the majority of this treasure trove on scraps of paper and hotel stationery during the last four years of his life. Peter incorporated some of this extraordinary material in his book, and completed a first draft in March 1991.
“It took me just over a year of really intense work,” he recalls. “Michael would send me these brown paper packages and inside would be stacks of typed or photocopied sheets… This was before computers so I’d clear the floor and start grouping quotes under different categories like childhood, school, musical influences and that sort of thing… It was exciting because I’m a huge Hendrix fan. From when I first met him I felt this connection with him and his music, because Jimi was incredibly intelligent and aware. There are some people you feel have been around many times on this planet and Jimi was like that. He was an old soul if you like, and expressed himself very well. I always enjoyed reading his interviews. He’d often come out with something unexpected and make it sound natural. I think it’s beautiful, the way he answered questions.”
Jimi once announced that, “true feelings are really the only qualities worth listening for in a voice.” His own truth sparkles from every page of Starting At Zero, but then every quote was rigorously vetted. Michael Fairchild rejected anything attributed to Jimi by others and if he thought certain words and phrases didn’t feel right or he couldn’t imagine Jimi saying them, they were left out.
Everything in the book had to be one hundred percent Hendrix, which is why the narrative rings so true. It feels like the real Jimi Hendrix is speaking to us yet critics will accuse Peter of rearranging the guitarist’s quotes in a way he never intended. The important thing to remember is that he’s remained faithful to Hendrix’s own words, and not altered them in any way.
“No, I haven’t rewritten anything but then I determined very early on that I wasn’t going to interfere with Jimi’s sentences or thought patterns. There wasn’t a problem in understanding what he was saying, as Jimi was very eloquent. It was more a case of ensuring we kept the meaning of what he was saying. I did try my utmost not to interfere with Jimi’s message and that’s all I can say because you have to edit your material… There’s no such thing as a wholly objective book or film. That whole process is manipulation, and you can’t avoid it. But you have to treat what you’re doing with integrity, and without stamping your own agenda onto it. You have to try and get the material to reveal its own truth and whilst I’ve changed tense here and there where it didn’t make sense, they’re all Jimi’s own words.”
We’ve grown accustomed to seeing and hearing things remixed, sampled and reapplied in some other way. Everything is a work in progress these days, and it’s hard to imagine some won’t be entranced as Jimi Hendrix talks about his music, his early influences and hopes for the future.
“When I started work on the book it was as if Jimi was writing it, and he was sanctioning what we were doing,” Peter enthuses. “It felt like he was there, and we were helping him to write it.” Peter then returned to work on the film in early 1991 after completing what he describes as ‘a working draft.’
“We had a comprehensive book by then. It told Jimi’s story and was very readable. That’s why I left it to concentrate on the film but then in November 1993 I returned to the book and spent three months polishing off that first draft, because the film had acquired its shape by that point. Yes we could have put the book out earlier but Alan and I always thought of the two projects as being one and the same, and it was always our intention to release the film and the book at the same time.”
Two other books appeared during this interim period: In His Own Words by Tony Brown (who’d been a consultant on Room Full Of Mirrors) and Cherokee Mist: The Lost Writings, which compiled material that had come to light during those Sotheby auctions. Michael Fairchild was among the co-authors and inspired by what he’d read in Peter Neal’s draft, pieced together quotes relating to Hendrix’s approach to song writing that made it seem as if Jimi was speaking at length.
“That’s something he did for himself,” says Peter. “It’s not the same as what’s in the book even though it’s from the same source material. When I began to rearrange the quotations I was concerned that Michael, being a collector, would say, ‘you can’t do that’ but he didn’t. He really got into it and he loved the book, which is why he did that short piece in Cherokee Mist.” “We cannot know how Jimi would react to this publication,” wrote Charles Blass in the preface of that book. “Perfectionism challenged him to continual revision. Self-critical, self-conscious and self indulgent, his output is extremely private.”
As already mentioned, Room Full Of Mirrors was later re-titled Starting At Zero to avoid confusion with another book on Hendrix published in 2006. Both the book and film now share that title and nearly twenty years after their conception, the vision and creativity behind these projects not only remains undimmed, but is also enhanced. The book has undergone further edits and features illustrations by renowned graphic novel artist Bill Sienkiewicz, creator of Voodoo Child: The Illustrated Legend Of Jimi Hendrix. Elsewhere, Jimi’s words and expressions now leap from the page thanks to David Costa’s inspired layout. The text talks to us whilst the actual contents seem ever more insightful and revelatory.
We can only imagine the impact this book would have caused had it been published in 1995 as planned, accompanied by a film that’s majestic in its portrayal of Jimi’s life and times. Much has changed subsequently but in the case of Starting At Zero, it’s an idea and expression whose time has finally come. Audiences are now better informed and innovators such as Hendrix more highly prized than ever. There’s a surfeit of information about him, but nothing quite like this. This is the Jimi Hendrix that his friends and closest associates knew, and it tells us a great deal about how he viewed his life, his work and the world around him. It’s an intimate self-portrait by one of the sixties’ most revered cultural figureheads, and a musician whose genius continues to defy every passing trend.
Buy the Book
Starting at Zero
available now from all
good retailers & online