Friday, July 3, 2015

Applied Sexual Semiotics and the Deconstruction of Traditional Gender Roles by the Strategic Deployment of Technological Ambisexuality; or, Jimi Plays Monterey

A generation or so ago, when the Texas flood of critical theory reached its academic high water mark, a book was published under the subtitle Deconstruction in America. It dealt, unsurprisingly, with the so-called 'Yale critics' (a phrase that, definite-articled, served as the book's title): De Man, Hartman, Miller, et al.--the usual New Haven faculty meeting circa 1979. But the true face of deconstruction in America is not to be found in a Yale faculty guide, and the true sound of deconstruction is not to be heard from a small group of oracular literary critics few people read and even fewer understand. Authentic deconstruction in America is James Marshall Hendrix taking the stage at Woodstock and playing a "Star-Spangled Banner" that becomes, as if by natural growth, a feedback-drenched, dive-bombing, sirening, squealing screaming, napalm strike of a song, a pure noise anthem for a nation that was bombing Southeast Asia far beyond the hell of Dante's dreams. Hendrix leaped into Joni Mitchell's garden, that peaceful Eden of 20th-century American pastoral, and forced the hippies to listen as he showed them what American power sounded like to those on its receiving end. Neither William Gaddis nor even William Burroughs ever produced a more dramatic and gut-punching deconstruction of America's sacred song. Jimi was our Great Deconstructor, and we don't even need the Woodstock movie to prove this, for Hendrix was already theatrically subverting the hegemonic discourses of American society two years earlier when he fucked and rode and set aflame his electric guitar at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival.

Last night I began watching the Criterion Collection 3-disc boxed set of D. A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop, an important work of American art and a beautiful time capsule of a cultural moment so positive and open and mellow, so fucking utopian and pregnant with possibility, that when you watch it in the dark world of 2015 it almost makes you cry. I had only seen the movie once before, about two decades ago--and cut up for commercials on a basic cable channel--and much of it had blurred in my memory, so I was genuinely shocked, surprised and delighted to be reminded of the full scope of Jimi Hendrix's stage-exiting performance. Everyone remembers Jimi on his knees setting fire to his Stratocaster, but I had forgotten that Hendrix begins this portion of the performance by walking back to his amplification system, a towering Marshall stack, turning his back on the audience, and proceeding to fuck his guitar against the amp. Hendrix stands tall and plays the phallocratic patriarch, forcing his screaming guitar into a submissive, traditionally feminine role as he humps it against the stack as though it's a woman backed up to a wall. The high art overtones of this guitar-as-woman rhetoric (recall the curvy 'female' guitars in paintings by Picasso and Braque, and also the not entirely irrelevant fact that the word 'guitar' is feminine in French, la guitare) should not distract us from the more germane bluesman's tradition of giving guitars female names (e.g., the late great B. B. King's 'Lucille'), which is certainly the more obvious object of Hendrix's spontaneous sexual satire. This might have been enough of a prank for any other performer, but Jimi is driven to take us further. So he immediately blurs the gender roles he has just constructed by placing the guitar flat on the stage and kneeling to ride it like a rodeo bull. The guitar is now as masculine as can be, and Hendrix for a few seconds becomes a cowboy, waving one arm as he rides the Strat in anachronistic imitation of the mechanical bull-riding bar patrons in Urban Cowboy. (The mechanical / technological form of the bull-guitar foregrounds that old theoretical chestnut, the constructed nature of reified gender roles; 'masculine' and 'feminine,' 'male' and 'female,' are historical concepts as obviously constructed as the stringy, wiry, bolty, wooden assemblage that is the Fender electric guitar.)  And then something truly amazing happens. As Hendrix 'rides' the guitar, his motions become suddenly feminine; he becomes a woman riding a man's cock in female superior position. The cowboy goes cowgirl. Then he takes hold of the Strat's phallic whammy bar and wanks it like a penis, creating a complex semiotic ambiguity in which his action can be read as a male Jimi jacking off and a female Jimi wanking her lover and a transsexual / ambi-gendered Jimi caressing his/her constructed cock and probably a host of other perverse possibilities even I can't imagine. Like Walt Whitman and America, Jimi is large, he contains multitudes. And like Emily Dickinson (as Camille Paglia teaches us to read her), he can play the sexual sadist when he so desires. For the play now turns dark as our freakflag-waving ringmaster ushers us inside his personal theater of cruelty. (Hold on to your hat, Antonin Artaud.) Hendrix produces a can of lighter fluid and, holding it near his crotch, squirts it on the guitar in a gesture that reads more as urination than ejaculation. Jimi may be coming too, giving the guitar a porny bodyshot, but primarily he's pissing on it, insulting it, inscribing it within the order of abjection. (Who needs Julia Kristeva when we have Monterey Pop?) His guitar is a worthless piece of shit, and Jimi is the Judge with the Power to judge us all likewise. Judge Jimi will put us in our places--and make sure we stay there. He is the reifier-in-chief. His transformation back to phallocrat is (temporarily) complete. And then, like every knowledgeable deconstructor, he shows us how the text subverts itself. When he tosses a match and sets fire to his guitar, he pushes the hard fascism of pissing phallocracy to its farthest edge of destructive nihilism. The guitar bursting into flame is like Berlin under bombardment, an image of the ugly, death-drenched void that's the only issue of absolute power. Jimi, though, is not done yet; he won't leave us staring despairingly into these hopeless flames consuming the source of sonic joy. Now he kneels again, leaves the symbolism of fascist power behind, and fans / beckons the flames like a pagan priestess, a Zoroastrian priest, a vestal virgin worshipping the sacred fire. Come to Jimi, baby, his gesture reads. Show me the magic. But apparently no intelligible message is received from the flames, for Hendrix's final act is a Pete Townshend-like smashing of the guitar (an action that also efficiently extinguishes the very minor lighter fluid fire). Midcentury Fenders were workingman's guitars, built to take a beating, so Jimi must repeatedly slam the Strat against the stage before the body breaks in two and separates from the neck. This can be read as both rage at an oracle unreceived and a decidedly unsubtle mockery of The Who's increasingly stage-y and ridiculous displays of adolescent rage. In direct contrast to The Who, Hendrix's last act on the Monterey stage is not the histrionically pissed-off fuck you posing of a Pete Townshend stomping out of the lights or throwing the pieces of his guitar weapon-like into the crowd. No, Jimi tosses the broken guitar pieces toward the audience in a gesture of gift-giving, Here it is, he seems to say. It's not a demon or a god or a machine gun or anything else but a few pounds of wood and wire fashioned into a instrument and then beaten back to parts again. That's all. And he himself is not a fascist or a priestess or a man or a woman or a phallocrat or a vaginasoph or anything else but just Jimi, just James Marshall Hendrix from Seattle by way of London and points intergalactically Beyond. End of performance. And oh, by the way, these closing minutes of sociopolitical theater ask the audience more profoundly than Roger Daltrey ever did, Who the fuck are you?

Hendrix's performance effectively turns the spotlight around and shines it on the audience, illuminating the socially-approved roles we play and the dark motives underneath. Was the message received? Not by everyone, probably only by a few... but that's not the point. The gift was given. That's the important thing. And the gift still gives.

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