I began my acquaintance with Jimi Hendrix with a chip on my shoulder thanks to Lady Bird Johnson.
It all started one drizzly Sunday afternoon in San Francisco when I was eight years old. Like most little girls, I could be a whiny little bitch, so I spent all afternoon moaning that there was nothing to do and I hated the stupid rain and I’m tired of playing with my dollies and all the usual crap that support my life choice to never, ever have a fucking kid. My dad, desperately struggling for inspiration at this point, suddenly brightened up and said, “I know! Let’s watch a movie!” I didn’t really want to watch a movie, but I think I was getting pretty tired of my annoying little self by then, so I snuffled and said in a broken and manipulative little girl voice, “Okay.”
I don’t remember the name of the movie, but it was a second-feature noir film with Paul Douglas (or somebody who looked like Paul Douglas). I liked Paul Douglas because he was in “Angels in the Outfield,” a hokey baseball film that I considered the height of filmmaking at that period in my aesthetic development. Anyway, in this one scene, Paul Douglas is driving one of those bulbous old sedans down the filmed road shown in the rear window and reached over for his pack of cigarettes. He took one out, realized it was his last one and . . . crumpled the pack and threw it out the window!
I gasped! “Daddy, he’s littering!” I cried.
“Oh, people used to do that all the time until Lady Bird Johnson came along. She got all the people to stop littering.”
I didn’t know who the fuck Lady Bird Johnson was but I conjured up a picture of her as the good sorceress who could wave a wand and make the bad people good. I decided right then and there to devote the rest of my life to continuing her campaign against littering, becoming an annoying little trash Nazi for the rest of my childhood.
A couple of months later, my dad was in the living room listening to some music. I came in and asked, “Who’s that singing?” He said “It’s Jimi Hendrix.” “I don’t know who that is,” I grumbled, quite upset that there were still things I did not know. My dad proceeded to tell me all about Jimi Hendrix and then made an unfortunate decision to end his story with a flourish. “And at the end of his show at the Monterrey Pop Festival, he set his guitar on fire, then smashed it and threw all the pieces into the crowd!”
I was shocked. “But that’s littering!” I cried and stormed out of the room. From that moment on, I didn’t want anything to do with Jimi Hendrix.
A few years later, though, my titties started to grow, my pubes started to pop, weird fluids started to emanate from my sweet spot and just like magic I became a sex-obsessed teenager with bigger things on my mind than an anal obsession with litter. This is when I started to feel rock ‘n’ roll, and I wanted it hot, heavy and hungry. I began to see all of the artists who had graced our stereo in a completely different light, but none more dramatically than Jimi Hendrix, the wanton litterer. My go-to record for a Hendrix fix was and still is his amazing debut album, Are You Experienced?
It’s still a great album today. Hey, it opens with “Purple Haze!” Whaddya want fer chrissake? I don’t know how it was for the teenagers who first heard “Purple Haze” coming out of their transistor radios, but I hope they realized that they’d never heard anyone play an electric guitar like that. On his first breakthrough hit, Hendrix demonstrated such command of the ability to sustain and cut where you least expect it that the solo is always somewhat surprising, even after you’ve heard it a thousand times. Somehow, without formal musical training (or because he had no formal musical training), he knew how to find the right notes outside of the scale (I’d use the word “chromatic” but Hendrix didn’t care much for scales). Just when you think he’s going off into a musical cul-de-sac, he slips easily back into the main theme. Though I find boxing barbaric and senseless, I will get off my high horse to borrow a phrase from a pugilist and describe the Jimi Hendrix guitar approach as “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
This style is even more explicitly demonstrated in the next cut, “Manic Depression,” as Jimi dances all over that fretboard, sometimes in sync with the rhythm, sometimes ignoring it to create a tiny little universe of sound within the song. And though I prefer The Leaves’ version of “Hey, Joe,” with its jagged vocals and pure garage energy, Jimi’s guitar work is simply brilliant, alternating between tension-driven but steady support for the tune and some of the sweetest riffs you’ll ever hear on record. Jimi also does a fine job with the vocal on “Hey, Joe,” demonstrating another paradoxical talent he possessed: he’s not a great singer in the technical sense, but his vocals always sound right for the song.
“Love or Confusion” has a Haight-Ashbury feel to it, with a raga-like droning guitar taking the lead and lyrics too close to “Purple Haze” to make it any more than a B-side at best. “May This Be Love” introduces the Hendrix paradigm of defying those who laugh at his anti-establishment orientation, in this case, by daring to daydream instead of adhering to the Puritan work ethic. Both of these songs are diminished by the overaggressive panning of the guitar as it moves from left to right in the sound field without purpose. Why the producers or engineers (or even Hendrix himself) thought it advisable to “enhance” the “effect” of Jimi Hendrix is beyond me; if there’s any musician that doesn’t need recording engineer trickery, it’s Jimi Hendrix.
The engineers restrain themselves a bit on the next track, “I Don’t Live Today” (though they could have added some gain to Jimi’s solo). This song is an upbeat bluesy track with lyrics that could explain at least one motivation for Jimi’s decision to leave Seattle (“No sun comin’ through my windows/Feel like I’m livin’ at the bottom of a grave”). “I Don’t Live Today” clearly demonstrates why lead guitarist Jimi Hendrix never needed rhythm guitar support; he can easily and effortlessly fill both roles. Although his lead riffs are jaw-dropping, his rhythmic support is more along the lines of Count Basie: a little dink here, a little dink there. I described the Count Basie Effect in my review of The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys:
There’s a lesson here: sometimes the simplest combinations of sound can produce the greatest impact. I call this “The Count Basie Effect.” If you listen to enough Basie, sometimes The Count will have his band swinging and moving and jamming all over the place and at a certain perfect moment, he’ll throw in a single “dink” on the piano and it’s the greatest fucking thing you’ve ever heard.
Another greatest fucking thing I’ve ever heard is the next track, “The Wind Cries Mary,” featuring Hendrix at his disciplined best. This sounds like a song born of the trance guitar players experience when they pick up the axe without any motivation to play something specific; they just want to finger the fretboard for a while, perhaps to quiet emotions, perhaps to use the guitar as a security blanket. When a songwriter stumbles on that phrase or chord combination that captures whatever lies inside, it lifts him or her out of one trance and into another, this time into the creative trance. The opening phrase to “The Wind Cries Mary” sounds like it came from the trance. It is also an exquisite piece of musical poetry with such exceptional thematic unity that it takes one’s breath away to think that this came from someone who was a relative songwriting novice at the time. The imagery is remarkably vivid:
After all the 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
I could have chosen any of the verses from the song to demonstrate the sheer strength of the poetry. I can also tune out the vocal, focus exclusively on the subtlety of the guitar and experience complete satisfaction. “The Wind Cries Mary” is as good as it gets.
“Fire,” on the other hand, is pure heat. Supported by Mitch Mitchell’s best drum work on the album, Jimi delivers a vocal full of hot jive and sexy trash talk that can’t fail to get your juices flowing. My only wish is that they wouldn’t have followed the ecstatic experience of “Fire” with such a clunker as “Third Stone from the Sun,” a ridiculously long track with criminal use of unnecessary sound effects designed exclusively for stoners. Jimi has some great licks here, but the suffering induced by the trippy hippie lyrics makes the effort a waste of time.
Jimi comes down for the clouds for “Foxey Lady,” delivering this song without shame in his second chakra (that’s the sex chakra for those of you unfamiliar with such things). Between the two “hot songs” on this album, I’ve always preferred “Fire,” but I’m not complaining. The album ends with the backward and heavily processed guitar sounds that open “Are You Experienced,” one of the best examples of psychedelic rock art, featuring a wonderfully full guitar solo in the break.
Are You Experienced heralded the arrival of a major talent who seemed to influence everyone in the scene at the time; a few years later, that talent would be gone. I would have loved to hear a later manifestation of Hendrix, freed from psychedelic fads and drug obsession, taking his intuitive grasp of music to the max. Such a waste!
I tried to extend my fix by picking up the recent release of archival tracks, People, Hell and Angels, but it just wasn’t the same. It was great to hear his voice, and some of the tracks are interesting. I never really cared for the Band of Gypsys stuff he did with Buddy Miles (too crowded), and some of the tracks should have been left to collect dust.
Hendrix is gone and there are no secret masterpieces in the vault . . . only resource exploitation.