Sceptre, 2005

While each biography - like each life contained within its pages - is a challenge and unique unto itself, Charles R Cross was undoubtedly working with the strongest sense of deja vu during the four years it took him to complete 'Room Full of Mirrors'. Cross' last book was 'Heavier than Heaven', his fascinating biography of Kurt Cobain, and the similarities between both men's lives are, at times, eerie.

Both were natives of Washington state; both were the products of broken homes; both were artistic, dreamers and something of outsiders from an early age; both were left-handed guitarists; both would create a startling body of work and achieve global stardom in just a few years; and both would die at 27.

But while Cobain made up stories about living underneath a bridge, Hendrix's formative years really were harrowingly destitute and it is here, in the early chapters of his book, that Cross paints the most vivid and moving picture of Hendrix's life and the experiences that were to shape him. "When you've been penniless," Hendrix told a girlfriend, "you never forget it" and Cross' descriptions of boarding houses, hunger, an alcoholic mother, an explosive and heavy drinking father and siblings in care remain in the mind far longer than his chronicle of Hendrix's success.

What emerges is that Hendrix never properly came to terms with what he had endured growing up in Seattle and that even when money, acclaim and scores of women came calling, Hendrix was still trying to deal with the wreckage he had crawled out of. On concert dates in his hometown the guitarist would travel around his rundown old haunts and one of his greatest, unfulfilled wishes was to play a concert for the students at his former high school.

Despite the making of some of classic records, appearances by many famous musicians and the social and political whirlwind Hendrix found himself working within, the latter sections of Cross' book aren't as engaging as what has preceded them. Perhaps this is because the first half of the book is the story least heard by the masses and much of the music scene of the second has been so well-documented.

Whatever the reason, Cross is always readable, but his depiction of Hendrix's final year lacks the power and the ever-growing sense of dread which characterised his writing on Cobain's. The latter's story is more recent in younger music fans' minds, so this is in some way understandable yet again the circumstances are so similar - pressure, drugs, a feeling of being trapped - that you find yourself constantly comparing the two books.

In a genre littered with music biographies, 'Room Full of Mirrors' is a must read for any fan of the man concert promoter Bill Graham described as "a combination of the ultimate trickster and the ultimate technician, with great emotional ability". Cross, who says he's been writing the book in his mind since his first visit to Hendrix's grave in the 1970s, does a good job with the familiar and an excellent one with the forgotten. And just like his previous work, he achieves the most important objective of all: steering his readers (back) in the direction of some timeless albums. 

Harry Guerin