(First published May 2016)
Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to musical artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary body of work who made an enormous impact and have a compelling life story to tell. Some have careers that span many decades; others rocketed to stardom and then left us far too soon. In this essay, I take a closer look at a man who is perhaps the greatest instrumental genius in rock music history — Jimi Hendrix.
In the late 1960s, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, John Lennon, Keith Richards — the recognized elite of British rock guitarists — all were at the peak of their game. And they were all in agreement about one thing: There was no one better than Jimi Hendrix.
This visually arresting , flamboyantly dressed black man from the States had showed up in London in late 1966, playing the guitar left-handed, behind his back, with his teeth, with his feet, on the floor, but mostly producing an otherworldly yet beautiful sound, and nobody had ever seen or heard anything like him. He was intriguing, shocking, even vaguely threatening. He was, without a doubt, the real deal.
“The effect he had on English musicians – -not just guitarists, but all musicians — was just phenomenal,” said Townshend. “I, for one, was completely floored the first time I heard him. He was taking rock, blues, soul and jazz and mixing it with feedback and weird noises he seemed to pull out of the air. It was completely different, so outrageous, so revolutionary…and it was spectacular.”
In the 60-year history of rock music, you can count on one hand the number of musicians who have had the earthshaking impact that Hendrix had during his all too brief time in the public spotlight. He seemed to come out of nowhere to take first England and then the U.S. by storm, rewriting the book on what an electric guitar could sound like, both on record and in concert. And then, four years after his arrival, he was gone, dead at 27 from a tragic “misadventure” with drugs.
Hendrix was an enigmatic figure in a number of ways. His troubled upbringing and unstable family life in and around Seattle made it difficult for him to maintain the healthy relationships later in life he so desperately wanted. His mother was absent for most of his childhood and died when he was 16; his father raised him halfheartedly and was a far cry from a solid role model. Early run-ins with the law led him to enlist in the Army at 18 to avoid jail time.
Throughout his adolescence and young adulthood, however, Hendrix developed and nurtured a passion for the guitar, practicing every spare moment, and performing alone and in combos at dances, parties, clubs, road houses, every available opportunity. Upon discharge from the Army, he headed for Nashville and performed relentlessly on the “chitlin circuit” in bands fronted by Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and Curtis Knight as part of R&B and blues revues that featured stars like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke.
His desire for the limelight and the chance to grow led him to New Jersey and New York, where he assembled his own bands — “Jimmy James and the Blue Flames” — but continued to struggle until Chas Chandler, former bass player in the British blues band The Animals now interested in managing, saw him perform at Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. “I was looking for someone to represent, and I thought, someone must’ve already signed this guy, because he was just stunning,” Chandler recalled. “But no one was doing anything for him, so I persuaded him to come back to London with me to audition musicians for a new group.”
In short order, Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums were selected to be in the three-man band to be known as The Jimi Hendrix Experience. “I always liked that idea,” Hendrix wrote in his journal, “that seeing us and hearing us would be an experience.” Word quickly spread that there was an amazing new sensation making the rounds of the Soho clubs, and the trio’s debut single, “Hey Joe,” zoomed up the charts to #4, firmly establishing Hendrix as a force to be reckoned with. Chandler, knowing that songwriting royalties were where the money was, urged Hendrix to write his own material, but little did he know how astonishing those songs would be.
The release of the Experience’s debut album “Are You Experienced?” in May 1967 was, in its own way, as seismic an event as the release of The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper” LP a month later. Original material ranged from the cataclysmic “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady” to the tender “The Wind Cries Mary” and the psychedelic experiments of “Third Stone From the Sun” and the title song, and the overall effect was almost overwhelming. You could make the case that Hendrix’s LP has more relevance today than “Pepper,” at least in terms of influence on the musical artists in the decades that have followed.
Much has been written about Hendrix’s incendiary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, where the California musical elite and many thousands of concertgoers were present for America’s first Experience with Jimi. In hindsight, the attention-getting gimmicks — humping his amplifier, setting his guitar on fire, bashing it to pieces as he walked off stage — would come back to haunt him, as fans continued to clamor for such silliness long after Hendrix had tired of these things. Far more important was the fact that the debut album, and each subsequent LP released during his lifetime, went Top Five in the US and the UK, cementing his reputation as a genuine star.
I can’t write about Hendrix without mentioning one of the most bizarre moves in music promotion history. Following Monterey, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees had become so captivated with Hendrix that he pulled strings to get The Experience booked as the supporting act on a leg of The Monkees’ upcoming tour. At the time, they were the most popular act in the country, selling more units than The Beatles and Stones combined, but their audience couldn’t have been more different from Hendrix’s followers. “It was a lunatic idea, doomed from the start,” notes Mitchell. “We typically attracted the rebels, the hippies, the runaways looking for something radical and new. But these audiences were filled with inexperienced suburban 10-year-old girls and their parents, and they didn’t like us at all. It was a disaster, and we were soon released from the contract.”
Hendrix, meanwhile, was interested in stretching the boundaries, exploring new territory and melding different genres and elements in his music. As he wrote in his journals, “I liked to experiment with different instrumentation, keeping the basic trio but adding other musicians. I want to create new sounds, try to transmit my dreams to the audience. Music must always continue to expand further out, further away. Kids listen with open minds, and I don’t want to give them the same things all the time.”
Hendrix’s next LPs — “Axis: Bold as Love” and especially the double-album opus “Electric Ladyland” — were mind-benders of the first order, both musically and lyrically. Some critics found some of it self-indulgent and excessive, which it probably was — the 13-minute exploratory track “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” comes to mind. But he would soon evolve further, moving on to other avenues.
Engineer Eddie Kramer remembers Hendrix being captivated by the recording studio. “He became much more involved in the mixing process. I would show him about echo and compression, and panning and phasing, and he’d get so excited about the possibilities. There was nothing he wouldn’t try. To him, recording was fun.”
Hendrix often mentioned his frustration about the songs he had in his head that he couldn’t seem to translate to the guitar, and then to tape. Nevertheless, his songwriting became more nuanced and compelling, as shown in songs like “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “Room Full of Mirrors” and the beautiful “Little Wing,” which several people have recorded since, including Sting in 1987. “Most people remember his guitar playing, which was unforgettable, but his songwriting was surprisingly adept. I tried performing ‘Little Wing’ in a small club and it went really well, so I recorded it as a tribute to Jimi.”
Kathy Etchingham, Hendrix’s girlfriend at the time, recalls his admiration of and devotion to the music of Bob Dylan. “He loved Dylan’s music and always wished he could write songs of that caliber. He used to play them around the flat, and he thought about recording “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ from the ‘John Wesley Harding’ album, but he resisted, saying it was too personal a song. I persuaded him to take a stab at ‘All Along the Watchtower’ instead, which he did. And he totally enjoyed playing that one.” Hendrix’s radically different arrangement ended up being his only appearance on the US Top 40 singles chart, peaking at #20 in the fall of 1968.
The Experience toured the US and Europe relentlessly in 1968 and 1969, performing savage versions of blues songs like “Red House” and “Tax Free” and more concise tracks like “I Don’t Live Today” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” In August of 1969, he was the highest paid rock star in the world when he appeared as the final act on the three-day extravaganza at Woodstock, where his apocalyptic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” became one of the iconic moments of the counterculture’s anti-war movement.
His restlessness led to the eventual dismissal of Redding and, later, Mitchell, replacing them with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, known as his Band of Gypsys, who played gigs in 1969 and 1970, including a memorable New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden which was recorded for the live “Band of Gypsys” LP.
In between these tours, Hendrix literally lived in studios in New York and London, amassing hundreds and hundreds of hours of tapes of alternate takes, loose jam sessions, unfinished songs and, in a few instances, completed tracks that weren’t released until many years later. Two albums of this material — “The Cry of Love” and “Rainbow Bridge” — were released the year after his death, and the ambitious double album he’d been working on in 1970, “First Rays of the New Rising Sun,” didn’t see the light of day until 1997. Still more high-quality recordings have continued to trickle out posthumously, most notably “Valleys of Neptune” (2010) and “People, Hell and Angels” (2013).
An interesting, articulate, intelligent guy, Hendrix was also too naive and trusting. Although he appeared supremely confident on stage, he was often unsure of himself in relationships and business matters, which proved to be his undoing. He was embroiled in a number of lawsuits over contract disputes and other matters that weighed heavily on him emotionally, and he sometimes self-medicated to escape. Even worse, the sycophants, hangers-on and questionable lady friends he surrounded himself with took advantage of his innocent “free spirit” tendencies, pushing and pulling him in all directions, often working in conflict with his best interests.
Kramer added, “By the end, the recording studio had begun to lose its magic for him. He wanted to be taken much more seriously as a musician. He was growing as an artist and he felt his audience wasn’t growing along with him. It was a source of great frustration for him.”
Suffice it to say his death from asphyxiation following an ill-advised dosage of sleeping pills in September 1970 was not only avoidable but a regrettable waste of monumental talent and potential. His journals hint at his plans for the future: “My initial success was a step in the right direction, but it was only a step. Now I intend to get into many other things. In five years, I want to write some plays and some books. I want to write mythology stories set to music, based on a planetary thing and my own imagination. It wouldn’t be like classical music, but I’d use strings and harps, with extreme and opposite musical textures, with great contrasts.”
Although he left us some incredible recordings to enjoy (check out my picks on the Spotify playlist below), it’s clear that Jimi Hendrix had only scratched the surface. I can’t help but wonder what kind of music he would’ve been creating in the 1970s…or the 1980s…or beyond. Of all the rock stars who left us too soon, I think I’m most saddened about Jimi. Imagine what he might have accomplished…