Interview: Bob Smeaton, Director of the Jimi Hendrix Documentary ‘Hear My Train A Comin”
Jimi Hendrix recorded an huge amount of music during his short lifetime, and in the four decades since his passing, there have been a mind-boggling number of releases bearing his name, as well as films, magazine articles and books.
When the Jimi Hendrix Estate commissioned Bob Smeaton to direct Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’, a documentary set to air this week (November 5) as part of PBS’s American Masters series, he had a question for Experience Hendrix CEO/President Janie Hendrix (Jimi’s sister) and John McDermott (Hendrix biographer).
“I asked, ‘What’s gonna be different?’” he tells Radio.com. “John McDermott said, ‘I think we need to find out as much as we can about the man.’” That editorial direction led to a different kind of Hendrix documentary, one that dug a little deeper for unseen footage, and focused more on the man behind his backwards guitar.
Which is what Smeaton wanted. He’s done a number of Hendrix documentaries in the past (including Live At Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child and Band Of Gypsys) as well as The Beatles Anthology and a couple of episodes of the Classic Albums DVD series. He knew that this Hendrix documentary had to be different, if only to appeal to the PBS audience. It couldn’t just talk about his music, it had to also speak to the man himself.
He also knew he had to appeal to die-hard fans and those who aren’t as familiar with Hendrix’s entire catalog. “We found a lot of footage no one had seen,” said Smeaton, “and interviewed people who were never interviewed before, like some of the women in the film, his schoolfriends, his uncle.”
This marked a slight change from past Hendrix films, as former girlfriends hadn’t been included in projects commissioned by the Hendrix Estate. Janie Hendrix has been famously protective of her brother’s image, to the point of being accused of whitewashing his story of all sex and drugs, and sticking only with rock and roll.
Smeaton worked with her on his prior Hendrix projects.”She is protective, and that’s her call. It’s not a secret that she’s very protective of Jimi’s image.” To be fair, the other Hendrix films that Smeaton worked on centered on an event or an era, such as Live At Woodstock and Band Of Gypsys. Whereas Hear My Train A Comin’ is about the man’s life, and that story had to be told by the people who actually knew him.
Some of those women interviewed included Linda Keith (who introduced Jimi to future manager Chas Chandler), Faye Pridgeon (who “befriended” Hendrix in Harlem in the early 1960s) and Colette Mimram (one of the era’s most influential fashion trendsetters who helped Hendrix develop his “look”).
Smeaton points out, “If you’re going to interview the women from back then, Hendrix had relationships with these women. You don’t have to go into the details, but you cannot deny their attraction to Hendrix. Linda Keith knew him before he was famous. And she said even before he became famous, he had this magnetism. And I thought, ‘Well, she had the hots for the guy.’ But Faye Pridgeon said the exact same thing. She met him in Harlem in ’64, ’65, when he was just a struggling guy trying to make it. Anyone who gets famous becomes attractive to women. But Jimi had that magnetism before he was famous!”
The film doesn’t get too salacious — it is being produced for PBS, after all — and Smeaton says that his editorial direction was to talk to people who knew Hendrix, and let them tell their stories: “John McDermott said, ‘Look Bob, if there’s people who knew Jimi really well, and they want to say stuff, we won’t stop them from saying it. Or if [Jimi] says something on film, we will use it. But what we don’t want to do in this film is to get people who never met the guy paying lip service to what they read in books.”
The film does speak to some of the usual suspects from the Hendrix mythos: there are interviews with Chas Chandler, Hendrix’s producer Eddie Kramer and Band Of Gypsys bassist Billy Cox, plus archival interviews with late Experience members Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. There’s also mega-fans Vernon Reid of Living Colour and Dweezil Zappa, as well as Billy Gibbons, who opened for Hendrix in his pre-ZZ Top band the Moving Sidewalks.
Traffic members Steve Winwood and Dave Mason both appear in the film; Mason played acoustic guitar on “All Along The Watchtower,” while Winwood played organ on “Voodoo Chile.” But the big “get” that brings the film to the next level is Paul McCartney. He describes going to see Hendrix at a club, where Jimi performed the Beatles‘ then-new song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” just days after it was released. That’s cool in and of itself. Even better is the fact that viewers get to see footage, including the reaction of both McCartney and John Lennon who were in the audience. In his interview, McCartney talks extensively and candidly about Hendrix.
“The thing about Paul — I’ve worked with Paul on the Anthology projects — at the end of the day, he’s ‘Paul McCartney.’ He’s probably the biggest living pop star there is. We’ve been trying to get Paul (for a Hendrix film) for years. He’s a busy guy, he’s always working. We were in New York and John McDermott called me and said Paul would give us twenty minutes at his place on Monday. But I got the call on Saturday and I was in New York! I had to get on a plane and fly to the UK.” They ended up going a half hour over Paul’s promised twenty minutes. But Smeaton reports that Sir Paul had a lot to say.
“Because Paul is genuinely a Jimi fan! Paul helped Jimi to get the Monterey gig, and Linda took the photos for Electric Ladyland. Paul doesn’t do a lot of these sort of things. We could have run that interview for 50 minutes, but we didn’t want to turn it into ‘The Paul McCartney Show.’ If we waited longer, we probably would have gotten (Eric) Clapton also, but we had to get this film done.”
Even without Clapton, the film works out according to Smeaton’s plan: There’s interviews and footage that will be interesting to long-time fans, but it isn’t so insider-y that it would alienate people who haven’t studied Hendrix’s life and music. As Smeaton says, “It gives a good overview, it touches on each of the albums. If this makes kids who have a Jimi t-shirt go out and get the records, then we’ve done our job.”
Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’ airs as part of PBS’s American Masters series November 5, and an expanded version will be available the same day on DVD and Blu-ray. November 6 will also see the release of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Miami Pop Festival, recorded in May of 1968.