I have to be honest.
Before I saw the brightly colored picture book Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix at my local library, I knew very little about Jimi Hendrix.
If pressed, I might have said that he had lots of hair, wore bright colors and performed during the 1970s.
But now, thanks to author Gary Golio and illustrator Javaka Steptoe, I know a lot more. And learning it was a delightful experience.
The book, published by Clarion in 2010, focuses on Jimi’s love for sounds at an early age and how he heard music that others missed. Whether he was listening to rain falling on a roof or a truck backfiring, Jimi heard a song. And after he got his first $5 guitar, he spent all his free time playing those songs so others could hear them too. (And, of course, I recognized several of his songs once I saw the titles.)
What originally made me pick up the book were the beautiful illustrations. Javaka Steptoe made them by swirling vivid paints on recycled plywood from Seattle, Jimi’s hometown. The artwork is bold, captivating and — I have to say it — psychedelic.
Once I started reading, I was equally caught up in the beautiful language. The story itself was lovely and lyrical, and the thorough backmatter fills in the rest of Jimi’s life, including a discography and details of his drug-related death at age 27.
And now, I’m even smarter because Gary Golio has stopped by Read, Write, Repeat to talk about this beautiful book.
How did you get the idea to write a picture book about Jimi Hendrix?
I started reading about Hendrix back in 2002 (I love to play electric blues on the guitar), and was struck by what were—to me, at least—the surprising details of his childhood. There was a lot of tenderness and beauty amidst the poverty and tough times, and Jimi’s devotion to his craft, very early on, was inspiring. So I thought I’d share that sense of surprise with readers, and hopefully create a meld of words and images that Jimi himself could be proud of. With Javaka’s help, I think we did a pretty good job.
What type of research did you do? What was the most surprising thing you learned?
I did a lot of reading—adult bios of Jimi, old articles and interviews from the 60’s, extensive web-tributes—and immersed myself in recordings (CDs, old vinyl, archived and bootleg cuts) as well as movies of Jimi and his performances (thanks, YouTube!). And it was much more a spiraling kind of process than a linear one, going back to things I’d missed, re-reading and re-listening, and searching out clues to the young Jimi wherever I could. Good research is an adventure story in itself!
Did you listen to Jimi Hendrix music while you wrote the book? What songs especially inspired you?
I especially love to listen to Hendrix songs that are unusual and atypical—things like 1983 – A Merman I Should Turn to Be, One Rainy Wish, alternative takes on classics like Hey Joe or The Wind Cries Mary, and studio outtakes that reveal Jimi’s creative process. The last album he made while alive—Electric Ladyland—in particular, is mind-expanding to me, and if that’s not a 60s-style compliment, I don’t know what is!
You have other music-related picture books coming out soon. Did you plan these as a series or did they evolve separately?
When Bob Met Woody (Little, Brown), a story of the young Bob Dylan and his early meeting with mentor Woody Guthrie, is coming out in May. And in Fall ’12, my middle-grade, 48-page picture book on John Coltrane, Spirit Seeker (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is due out, as well. It just kind of worked out this way, with JIMI and BOB being my first two literary children. But in between those and the Coltrane book, I wrote others on Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau —books that reflect my other life as a visual artist—which I’m still trying to sell. So from a certain promotional point-of-view, the first three books being about musicians is probably good, though I’ve got many interests and lots of ideas for other subjects.
I’ve heard you play instruments when you speak at schools. What kind of a musician are you?
I’m in love with the electric guitar, and most enjoy playing blues or classic rock with a slight jazz tinge. For some of my booksignings and planned school visits, I use the Fender Stratocaster (Jimi’s signature guitar) to present a musical story of the young Jimi Hendrix, which complements the book with snippets of songs that influenced the young guitarmaster (B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley), and “sound effects” that mimic, à la Jimi, what he heard while living in Seattle (raindrops, train whistles, airplane engines up in the clouds, people talking out on the street, etc.). It’s a lot of fun for me, and beats just reading the book out loud. As for the Dylan book, I’ll switch over to acoustic guitar since it’s about his early folk period.
You’re also an artist. Was it hard turning the illustrations for the
book over to another artist? What was your first reaction when you saw the illustrations?
Interesting that you ask, because I’ve wanted to illustrate a book for several years. In fact, right now I’m doing just that, with a picture book text I’ve written about Charlie Chaplin. But as for Javaka’s amazing images—when I saw them the first time, I was speechless. (And that’s saying a lot for me, as my wife will attest!) Javaka did something visually which I never would have imagined, even while creating bold and multi-layered illustrations that go hand-in-hand with Jimi’s music. And I only see more things when I look over the spreads—there are subtle and somewhat hidden images in there, and for me it’s like a treasure hunt. It’s amazing what can be done with recycled plywood in the right hands.
What other projects do you have in the works?
There are some other fabulous subjects that I’m looking at right now. I’m forever interested in writing about the lives of artists, no matter what medium they work in.
This book has gotten a lot of buzz. Earlier today it was named to the Kirkus Best Children’s Books of the Year 2010 list. And there have been some wonderful reviews of it, including this one by author Mitali Perkins. It looks at Jimi’s multicultural approach to live and music.
If you’d like to learn more about Gary and his many interests, visit his website.
If you’d like to learn more about Javaka and other books he’s illustrated, visit his website.
And, finally, if you’d like to look at the biography of another rock legend for older readers, check out this interview with Ann Angel, author of Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing.