November 26, 2017, by Darren Clarke
“Private Hendrix plays a musical instrument during his off duty hours, or so he says. This is one of his faults, because his mind apparently cannot function while performing duties and thinking about his guitar.”
Sgt. Louis Hoekstra, in a report recommending Jimi’s discharge from the US Army
In the film Love Actually Alan Rickman’s character comments to his wife played by Emma Thompson, “I can’t believe you still listen to Joni Mitchell.” His wife replies sincerely, “I love her. And true love lasts a lifetime. Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.”
True love does last a lifetime.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience came into my life when I was a teenager whose favourite band was Manitoba’s Harlequin. Harlequin. As a teen I spent the greatest amount of my time playing hockey and baseball. It was pretty much sports all day every day. But I also read as much as I could and I dreamed. I let my imagination roam freely, conjuring beautiful things- people, places, worlds.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience introduced me to the idea that imagination wasn’t limited to being realized in books and and paintings, it could also be brought to life in sound. And in introducing me to this previously unimagined world they indicated that the canvas for creation was practically boundless .
More than just teaching a naive Canadian lad how to feel, The Jimi Hendrix Experience showed me we were built of mercurial stuff. That we could touch the sky, we could touch the heavens, that we were capable of brute force and deep tenderness. It showed me that the earth, the stars, me, when you get right down to it at a fundamental level, we are all made of the same stuff.
“Everybody else just screwed it up, and thought wailing away is the answer. But it ain’t; you’ve got to be a Jimi to do that, you’ve got to be one of the special cats.”
I had initially been reluctant to do a 90 Minutes to Love about Hendrix as everybody knows Hendrix right? Everybody has heard Jimi Hendrix. What made made decide to share this is the fact I think that the common cultural introduction to The Jimi Hendrix Experience is always through the most ostentatious aspects of his existence: The drugs, the sex, the burning guitars, the playing the guitar with his teeth and behind his back, the hippy stuff, Woodstock.
And there is so much more.
Instead of entering the world of Jimi Hendrix via Purple Haze, groupies and headbands laced with LCD lets enter via Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)-
“Have you ever been, have you ever been, to El-ec-tric Lady-land?”
When I was in Grade Ten I read ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: Life of Jimi Hendrix by David Henderson. I read it over and over and yet can remember little now. The things that really stuck out to me at the time was the more dramatic narratives. Stories to tell. If the German ambulance hadn’t have forced his head back he might not have choked on his vomit and died! He slept with his guitar! He hated Mick Jagger!
What I thought about in revisiting Hendrix’s music was the story of him finishing recording vocals for the brilliant song Little Wing off the Axis: Bold as Love album. Hendrix had always been told by his father that he couldn’t sing and despite the success of his first album was still in 1968 self-concsious about his voice to the point he recorded his vocals behind a curtain. After finishing the vocals for Little Wing Hendrix emerged from behind the curtain, jumping up and down saying, “I can sing! I can sing!”
That’s the Jim Hendrix you should know. That’s the Jimi Hendrix that has stood the test of time for me. The one who aspired to create beautiful things and did. The Jimi Hendrix that could sing.
It needs to be mentioned at this point that The Jimi Hendrix Experience was more than just the otherworldly genius of Jimi Hendrix, it was also drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding, a rhythm section for the ages that ensured that the wonder of Jimi Hendrix was enhanced by the genius around him. More than just being able to hold a beat The Experience afforded Jimi Hendrix the kind of adventurous accompaniment and creative manoeuvrability that would allow him to explore and grow creatively.
After you are welcomed to the playlist with Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)’s, languid, tumbling, falsetto’s, Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower is transformed into a tale for the ages via the warm, acoustic, gallop, of Hendrix’s guitar strumming and the giddyup, hyperactive, punctuation of Mitch Mitchell’s drumming. The greatness of this song resides in the fact that while it overflows with enthusiasm and energy there is so much muscle flexed in restraint. Restraint that is unfettered in the next tune, Voodoo Child (Slight Return) which begins with some funky guitar scratching, transitions to exotic, warbling guitar, mirrored by Mitchell’s primal kick drum, and then unleashes itself with all the beauty and terror of nature on the warpath. This, this is the stuff hurricanes are made of, this is the stuff that generates tidal waves. And there, in the eye of the hurricane, Hendrix steps up and tells you exactly who he is and what he does, “Well I stand up next to a mountain, and I chop it down with the edge of my hand.”
Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) is so potent that it can withstand even the most hyperbolic hype job, for instance I can tell you, before you listen to the song, please consider this is going to be one of the greatest things you have ever heard in your life and be confident that it can still slay you.
Rainy Day, Dream Away follows to allow everybody to come back into orbit and, “sit back and groove on a rainy day.” People wonder what would have happened had Hendrix lived, I think you can hear that here. Horns and keyboards deliciously add nuance to Hendrix’s songcraft. Again, we witness Hendrix more than willing to share space with the people he is creating music with and the songs profit from this humility.
The groove continues with Wait Until Tomorrow and then the, “Butterflies and zebras and moonbeams, And fairytales…” candy coated world of Little Wing makes you feel cured of everything that could ail you.
Bold as Love follows, opening abruptly with Hendrix clearly marking out vast territory with a few definitive guitar licks before getting down to utilizing all that space by vividly painting the scene,
“Blue are the life-giving waters taken for granted,
They quietly understand
Once happy turquoise armies lay opposite ready,
But wonder why the fight is on
But they’re all bold as love, yeah, they’re all bold as love
Yeah, they’re all bold as love
Just ask the axis.”
Bold as Love ends with the guitar taking off into the heavens as Hendrix enters into evidence again that which really set his playing apart- His tender, loving, feel for the guitar.
Nobody played or plays the guitar like Jimi Hendrix. I have always loved digging into the creations of the great players and for my ears absolutely nobody touches Hendrix. Nobody lays a finger on him. I think the biggest reason for Hendrix’s unique brilliance is that is that his playing not only had soul it had soil, it was not just filled with feeling it was rooted in the kind of fertile soil that gives birth to good and true and beautiful things. Sure Jimi Hendrix could touch the stars but at his core was something simple and relatable, something organic and real, that blossoms into more complex flourishes in a manner that draws you in and allows your relationship to grow over repeated listenings.
True love does last a lifetime.
May This Be Love finds Hendrix yearning to transform his guitar into the many manifestations of water beginning with a gently tumbling stream that finds life in Mitch Mitchell’s steady rhythmic accompaniment. We see more of that DIY element of Hendrix that makes him great here in this song off the first Jimi Hendrix Experience album.
Hendrix’s willingness to forgo convention and art and craft his way into new worlds was at the heart of an argument I had one night at a good friend’s wedding at the Merritton Legion. The mostly amicable argument was with the guitar player/singer Leroy Emmanuel from a somewhat infamous local blues band, the LMT Connection who were playing the wedding.
Unlike my friends I was never a big fan of the LMT Connection (In fairness, at times when I am faced with everybody liking something I sometimes feel it my responsibility to not like that thing). My issue with them began with the drum solo. They might have had a bass solo when I saw them the first time as well. Drum/bass solos and being surrounded by girls who danced like the last few movements of refrigerator being put in place while holding their beer up in the air, closing their eyes and yelling, “Woooooooooo!!!!!!” these are things I will hold against people.
I have no idea how we started talking at the wedding but late in the evening with things winding down we stood for some time on the dim periphery of the empty Legion dance floor talking about Jimi Hendrix. Basically the conversation amounted to Leroy saying Jimi Hendrix was massively overrated and that there were way better players out there and me telling him that he was crazy.
In fairness to Mr. Emmanuel I have to admit I don’t exactly recall his rationale for suggesting Hendrix was overrated but I believe it mostly focused on Hendrix’s tendency to be unconventional in his playing. My contention was that his willingness to abandon technical proficiency was a prominent part of what made him spectacular.
The technically proficient and only technically proficient can tend to play only in the known world. Hendrix sailed off the edges of the map. Hendrix soared into the unknown and the messages he sent back weren’t simply noise or anarchy, they were beautiful, they infected your imagination, it let you get there, right there, with him. There are a lot of guitar players who can impressively noodle all day but they ain’t getting out of the yard with their playing, while Hendrix, in cutting his own trail, managed to get out of the Universe.
Which brings us to the combo of Are You Experienced? and Third Stone from the Sun. These two songs have the band toying with planet building, with defying gravity, with rhythmically shutter stopping time. These two tunes, which I never separate on any playlist, take me back to driving around late at night in my parents Ford LTD listening to the Are You Experienced? cassette tape (which would have been the second cassette tape I had of that album owing to the fact the first cassette taught me the lesson of not leaving a plastic cassette tape on the front seat of the car, in the sun, on a blindingly hot summer day). Something about driving into the darkness, about emptiness and forgotten time, that accompanies these two tracks perfectly.
Crosstown Traffic brings things back down to Earth and talks to us in a language we can all understand- infectious rock and roll, “You’re-just-like, Cross-town TRA-ffic!” while Castles Made of Sand manages to, “melt into the sea, eventually…” as Hendrix’s guitar, largely hovers and floats above the early morning, sidewalk stroll, rhythm created by Mitchell and Redding. It’s a beautiful song about mortality and UFO’s and aren’t all songs about exactly that?
Hey Joe, Foxey Lady. Hey Joe being a classic jarring Blues theme of somebody fooling around on somebody else causing that somebody else to think about taking lives. It’s not the sweetest sentiment ever expressed but the song plays on like it doesn’t matter, the words are more about sound than meaning, Hendrix’s voice worldlier than his years, the tune worldlier than the band who jam it like they’ve seen it all and know that while meaning is limited, feel is forever.
Foxey Lady quickly warms up and and boils over with Hendrix chucking the maximum musical cheekiness out into the world and winning nonetheless. It’s the stuff of so much great rock’n roll. Pure, unadulterated, shameless, desire for the opposite sex. It’s libido first, second, third and fourth. And if I’m wrong AC/DC is wrong. And AC/DC ain’t wrong. They can’t be.
If 6 Was 9 is Hendrix letting his, “freak flag fly,” but making it clear that it his particular lifestyle was not about rebelling against something as much as it was about seeking his own destiny, “‘cuz I got my own world to look through and I ain’t gonna copy you.” Many people, then and now, have wanted Hendrix to be against something. Reactionaries are always easier to define, to capture philosophically given there is always a known point of reference. But Hendrix was about the pursuit of mining the magical stuff within. Hendrix was about the music inside.
And when we are talking about who Hendrix was it’s important to note that he died at age twenty-seven. Twenty-Seven. The journey had really only begun.
“Fall mountains, just don’t fall on me.”
Come On (Let the Good Times Roll), is more, pure, fun, stop and start, rock’n roll that could be from any era until Hendrix gets into his guitar ship and bobs out into the Milky Way overtop Mitch Mitchell’s brilliantly manic percussion.
Next is the Wind Cries Mary wherein Hendrix conjures more sweet sadness for us to be immersed in,
“After all jacks are in their boxes
And the clowns have all gone to bed
You can hear happiness staggering on down the street
Footprints dressed in red
And the Wind whispers Mary…”
This is such a timeless track. The melancholy lyrics just gorgeous. The man could sing, he could write, he could set a scene. Hendrix’s lyrics and scene setting are part sci-fi fantasy, part random, re-purposed, hippie souvenirs, part the hard truth of the blues, all cobbled together and filtered through his genuine, partly boyish, part timeless, whimsy.
Burning of the Midnight Lamp begins with Hendrix on harpsichord. Something he’d never played before this recording. The guitar channeled through a wah-wah pedal accompanies the harpsichord and the song, primarily written by Hendrix on a flight between Los Angeles and New York city, takes flight. The harpsichord and wah-wah pedal translate Hendrix’s loneliness, his separation from the Earth below, and their discordance from standard pop song formula communicates what is at the heart of Hendrix’s loneliness, what is at the heart of all our loneliness- All men are islands. Few things remind a person of this as much as flying alone.
Hendrix’s rendition of The Star Spangled Banner (minus The Experience) is infamous. The Woodstock version of the song jolts us out of Hendrix’s carefully constructed studio world and into a more tenuous, public, experience. Hendrix in the studio worked hard to cultivate non-reactionary artistic pursuits but at Woodstock we can witness Jimi Hendrix responding to his nation, a nation that then as now was struggling to reconcile high minded ideology with its’ racist and violent urges, a nation that he, for many understandable reasons, struggled to appreciate his place in. I’ll defer to Jennifer Liu’s article in the Medium from October 2014 at this point-
“Though Hendrix ultimately succumbed to the excesses of the drug culture at the golden age of 27, his influence on the counterculture and on rock music as a whole is preserved in the Woodstock documentary, in the culmination of the era that is epitomized in his rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Hendrix’s deliverance of the national anthem tells a bittersweet story of war, internal and external conflicts, destruction, and possibly hope for a better future.”
The next track is Wild Thing from the Monterey Pop Festival show in 1967. Monterey was Hendrix’s return to America after forming The Jimi Hendrix Experience in England and recording Are You Experienced. You’ve seen the burning and smashing of his guitar at this show but there’s way more here to sink your teeth into. First, while not included on the track, it’s important to know where it begins.
Wild Thing begins after Hendrix had just finished playing Purple Haze. It begins with Hendrix good naturedly advising the audience that, “…everybody thinks our feets too big and we’ve got fat mattresses and we wear golden underwear… ain’t no scene like that brother…” continuing on to say that while he really wishes he could physically (and quite intimately) embrace the whole audience he clearly can’t do that and instead as means to say thanks, would play a combined version of the American and British national anthems.
The crowd is audibly quite reluctant to embrace the concept of the combined anthems causing Hendrix to say in his big, affable, “aw shucks,” voice, “… don’t get mad, don’t get mad…” before sincerely adding, “I want everybody to join in alright?” What follows bears no resemblance to any anthem of any country ever (and certainly not something anybody could join). Hendrix mostly grips the body of his Fender Strat-o-caster on either side of its’ body, tilting and shaking it, holding it up to the pale stage lights, searching for and finding invisible electric currents to elicit waves of feedback that rumble about the stadium, rummaging through the night like a massive bird, giant wings flailing about, struggling to take flight. The feedback ebbs and flows and ends in complete silence with the crowd lost as to what just happened and what to do. Then, against that blank canvas, a thin, distant, beed of feedback suddenly appears on the horizon and begins to slide towards the stage. The beed increases in volume as it approaches, as if being reeled into into Hendrix’s gorgeously crouched form. When the beed of feedback finally seems to arrive it is for a fraction of a moment silent again as Hendrix winds his lithe figure up, holding his guitar and a world full of possibilities in his hands, before he then he lets all those possibilities loose.
Suddenly, in place of the uncertainty created by the abstract tension of the combined anthems rushed the full on, straightforward, infectiousness, three-chord rock’n roll, perfection of The Troggs Wild Thing. And it’s awesome to behold. Even when unleashing a torrent of deliciously reckless rock’n roll Jimi Hendrix still had an elegance about how he held and played his guitar and it was on full display as he dug into Wild Thing. Through all the over the top, absurdity of playing the guitar with his elbow, behind his back, sexually grinding it up against a set of speakers, through backwards somersaults, to setting down to the difficult business of lighting his guitar on fire, Hendrix cradles the guitar with a Preying Mantis type calm and poise that could come from only the deepest love.In a Rolling Stone interview in 1968 Eric Clapton suggested that Hendrix’s stage theatrics were indicative of his contempt for the audience. But let me tell you about 1968 Eric Clapton- he was bit of a dick. Don’t listen to him. Hendrix at Monterey was the art of playful flirtation while guiding you into the unknown. Wild Thing was his way of saying thank you for joining him on a ride you might not have always understood by giving you an absolutely thrilling spectacle. Hendrix shows were half absurd, half serious, and fully un-fucking believable.
But back to setting the guitar on fire.
After some furtive fire starting the Fender Strat is on fire, Mitchell and Redding, both knowing exactly what to in case of a fire, play on as Hendrix’s guitar fills the stadium with pained moaning. The flames don’t amount to much before Hendrix wildly swings the guitar around and goes about decimating it on the stage. After what seemed like such an angry display a non-chalent Hendrix tosses guitar pieces into the crowd and the camera filming the event settles upon an absolutely stunning woman in the crowd. Her face is silhouetted by the night, her youthful features cupped by coral light. She seems at once transfixed, amazed and confused. And that is our portal to that time, into 1967.
There you are in San Fransisco, it’s a Sunday night in June, you go to a rock show that includes the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, the Who and suddenly discover that the world has Jimi Hendrix in it.
Here’s Robert Christgo from the Village Voice on Hendrix’s performance at Monterey,
“Music was a given for a Hendrix stuck with topping the Who’s guitar-smashing tour de force. It’s great sport to watch this outrageous scene-stealer wiggle his tongue, pick with his teeth, and set his axe on fire, but the showboating does distract from the history made that night—the dawning of an instrumental technique so effortlessly fecund and febrile that rock has yet to equal it, though hundreds of metal bands have gotten rich trying. Admittedly, nowhere else will you witness a Hendrix still uncertain of his divinity.”
Maybe Hendrix’s performance was as much about not believing the music alone would be enough, maybe he just felt like mixing the gratuitous with the profound and seeing what the hell happened. Commentary fades, performances remain.
The playlist ends with maximum wah-wah pedal on Still Raining, Still Dreaming a great, easy, groove, another frolicking jam fromm Electric Ladyland that gets us back to the studio Hendrix this time having a blast and advising us to, “lay back and groove on a rainy day.”
For the most part the playlist ended up being made up of songs from albums released in Hendrix’s lifetime: Are You Experienced? Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland. There are a zillion albums out there from Mr. Hendrix’s short time on this planet but these are the three that provide the reasons I fell in love with him in the first place and the reason I find his music as compelling now as I did when I first laid ears on it- Great, magical, tunes, crafted by one of the most uniquely gifted human beings to walk and play guitar on the planet along with two dudes who knew what to do when the guitar was on fire.
Great bands, great songs, great people, last a lifetime.