The cultural object that says the most to me about the vexed question of Jimi Hendrix’s place in the present is a T-shirt originally produced in 2008. The graphic on the shirt is a black-and-white portrait of Hendrix. He’s smoking, pensive, looking away from the camera. If you haven’t seen this particular picture a thousand times before, you’ve seen a thousand Hendrix pictures like it. Above his head, in all-caps Garamond, are the words “BOB MARLEY.” At first glance, it could pass for an inept foreign bootleg — the most epic of fails, the greatest thrift-store find of all time. You can imagine rival ironists fighting at the Goodwill rack over who saw it first. But it’s actually a boutique appropriation of the bootleg aesthetic: It was first designed as a band T-shirt by a short-lived Bristol, England, psychedelic-rock/comedy act called African Apparel, which morphed into an art-prankish streetwear label after the band dissolved. The line now includes other double-take-inducing designs, like a Beyoncé T-shirt identifying Sasha Fierce as “RU PAUL” and artist Christopher Wright’s repurposing of Joy Division’s iconic Unknown Pleasures album cover as a joke about morning wood.
Both of these shirts are funny, but that’s about all they are. The “John Marley” shirt (as it’s referred to on the African Apparel website, possibly to create a purple haze around the obvious likeness-rights issues) taps into something deeper. The more you look at it, the more it looks like a veiled protest — against consumer culture’s colonization of history, against the way pop remembrance sands the edges off of complex people, against rock’s ability to reabsorb and monetize even the most violent break with tradition. When you strip them of historical context, trim their legacies to three or four hit songs in a Jack-FM playlist, and slap their images on T-shirts to be sold to generations of collegiate stoners, is there really that much of a difference between Marley and Hendrix anymore? Between Hendrix and Jim Morrison? Between Morrison and Tupac? The more tragic the public figure, the more easily they lend themselves to souvenir-ification and commercialized mourning. It’s a paradox that Lana Del Rey nailed the only way Lana Del Rey can — quasi-inadvertently, absurdly, somehow perfectly — on “Hollywood’s Dead,” an unreleased song that leaked in 2011: “Hollywood’s dead / Elvis is crying / Marilyn’s sad / Hendrix is lying there,” she sings, guilelessly conflating all of these sexy dead stars like she’s arranging dolls at a tea party. It’s worth noting that when Hendrix first took acid, he looked in the mirror despite being urged not to do so, and the face he saw was Monroe’s. Maybe it was a premonition.