I’m happy to say that Jimi Hendrix hated the cover of this album as much as I do.
Apparently there was miscommunication over the word “Indian.” Hendrix wanted something to celebrate his Native American heritage. Instead, he wound up with images of him and his mates slapped on a mass-produced poster honoring Vishnu, and joined the long list of human beings victimized by the geographical and cultural incompetence of Christopher Columbus.
I’m delighted to report that the music inside the wretched package is completely sitar-free and generally of high quality. Axis: Bold as Love may lack some of the fire of Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland, but this is still Jimi Hendrix in his too-brief prime. His vocals are exceptional, his guitar work typically superior . . . but what I love most about Axis: Bold as Love is the continuing development and diversification of his songwriting talent. It’s the quality of the songwriting that allows us to forgive Hendrix for leaving the master tapes of side one in the back of a London taxicab, requiring an emergency re-mix session to get the album out within the time limits of the recording contract. Perfectionist that he was, he probably experienced more anguish over the rushed re-mix than the putrid cover art, but the songs are so strong that the album has withstood the buffeting winds of misfortune.
That is the funniest fucking phrase I’ve ever written! “The buffeting winds of misfortune” is so awful, it’s beautiful! Wish I could say the same for the cover!
“EXP” is a suitably trippy opener for a psychedelic rock album, with Hendrix showcasing the many peculiar possibilities of guitar feedback through energetic panning. The piece starts with an interview of alien Paul Caruso on the existence of UFO’s, so the trippiness has a purpose in establishing the context for the first song, “Up from the Skies,” where Jimi plays the role of alien anthropologist. After listening to so many groove-less psychedelic records in the last few weeks, the easy groove of “Up from the Skies” made my twiddle diddle and elicited a “Fuck, yeah!” from one very happy reviewer. The rhythmic combination of Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell and Jimi on wah-wah is spot-on, and Jimi’s vocal is so street-smooth that it makes it hard to believe that he was so self-conscious about his vocals that he had the engineers build a privacy barrier in the studio so no one could see him singing. His Robert Johnson-esque approach to studio vocals may have seemed weird, but it allowed him to relax and let his natural expressive tendencies shine. His phrasing on “Up from the Skies” is a masterpiece of cool tongue-in cheek that works oh-so-well with the social and environmental criticism of the lyrics:
I just want to talk to you
I won’t do you no harm
I just want to know about your diff’rent lives
On this is here people farm
I heard some of you got your families
Living in cages tall and cold
And some just stay there and dust away
Past the age of old.
Is this true ?
Please let me talk to you.
I just wanna know about
The rooms behind your minds
Do I see a vacuum there
Or am I going blind ?
Or is it just remains of vibrations
And echoes long ago ?
Things like “Love the world” and
“Let your fancy flow”
Is this true ?
Please let me talk to you.
“Spanish Castle Magic” has nothing to do with Spain but with a dance hall in Des Moines, Washington, located a few miles down the I-5 freeway from Seattle where Jimi used to play in high school. Opening with a variation of the “Purple Haze” chord attack, the highlights in this song are Jimi’s energetic, free-flowing vocal and his heavily panned guitar solos that are as hot as flowing lava. Starved for groove, I am deeply thankful that they kept it going with “Wait Until Tomorrow.” Hendrix was the master of nifty little riffs and fills, and sometimes I’ll listen to this song and shift the balance to the right channel so I can marvel at his creativity and stunning dexterity. A definite ass-shaker, “Wait Until Tomorrow” is also a playfully gritty story of a midnight elopement complete with ladder-at-window-sill that ends with daddy shooting (and possibly killing) poor Romeo. Despite the downer ending, Jimi’s jive-peppered vocal keeps the song from becoming a drag. It’s followed by the off-beat rocker “Ain’t No Telling” featuring high-energy drumming from Mitch Mitchell and some nifty rhythmic variation.
“Little Wing” features Hendrix at his most melodic and poetic. The song is a tribute to his muse; the aspect of personality that Jung called the anima, the male expression of the feminine inner personality that serves as a source of creativity:
When I’m sad, she comes to me
With a thousand smiles, she gives to me free
It’s alright she says it’s alright
Take anything you want from me,
The ingenuity it took to produce this tiny piece of music was typical of the psychedelic era, one of the period’s most endearing (if sometimes regrettable) qualities. The guitar is channeled through the Leslie speaker that gave Lennon his Dalai Lama voice on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but the never-satisfied Hendrix also set his pickup selector to a non-standard setting to hollow out the sound and remove unwanted overtones. Stumbling across a glockenspiel in an adjacent studio, he instinctively threw it into the mix, adding a gentle touch of sweetness that reflects his perception of his muse. His vocal was also heavily processed to give it a more airy tone, but without diminishing the unique timbre of his voice. All these marvelous inspirations are melded together in such a way that you hardly notice the effort: “Little Wing” flows easily and naturally.
Hendrix becomes generational spokesperson in “If 6 Was 9,” clearly the most psychedelic track on the album. The loss of the master tape is most noticeable on this mix, as they were working from a recording Noel Redding had made of the original mix that become wrinkly and had to be ironed. I find the song’s message a bit on the silly side, particularly the declaration of the generation’s alleged commitment to individuality: “Got my own world to live through/And I ain’t gonna copy you.” While that may have been more true for Hendrix than others of the tuned-in generation, there were too many aspects of the movement that seemed designed to repress individuality. I confronted my father on this issue and he had to agree that the hippies were just as conformist as their parents. “Yes, we all grew our hair long, and when The Beatles came out with mustaches, all the dudes had to grow mustaches. People wore John Lennon glasses even if they had 20-20 vision . . . and if you didn’t smoke dope, you were seen as uncool, an outcast, maybe even a narc. Everyone’s politics were left-wing or indifferent, and everyone read the same books. We were just conforming to anti-conformity.” I like the stop-time passages in the beginning, but the dogma of the lyrics wear thin real quick. Not my favorite Hendrix track.
After a brief round of panned feedback, the band kicks in with “You Got Me Floatin’,” a pretty straightforward rock number where the panning on the lead solo is excessive and becomes a major distraction. Records from this era often suffer from the “break all the rules” mindset when it came to recording, and some of the best producers and engineers were guilty of overspinning the panning knob. Fortunately, there’s little anyone could have done to weaken “Castles in the Sand,” one of Jimi’s finest compositions and almost certainly his best set of lyrics. The structure of the song consists of three stories of people whose assumptions about the future are shattered. What’s striking, though, are the stories Hendrix chooses to tell. The first is of a drunken husband who assumes his wife will always be there, and is shocked when she finally has had enough and slams the door on that future. The second is a tale of a young Indian boy who dreams of becoming a fearless warrior but whose life ends in a surprise attack. The last is a mute girl in a wheel chair who is ready to fling her unresponsive body into the ocean when she envisions a “golden-winged ship” that fails to stop for her; we’re not sure if the girl has had hope restored or whether she proceeds with her suicidal plans. The line, “And so castles made of sand fall/melt/slip into the sea” closes each story. I’ve read that the song is partially autobiographical, but what’s more important is that Hendrix has transformed these diverse experiences into something accessible to all of us . . . for we all have our castles in the sand, and they can melt away at any time. We deny this because we become comfortable with “normal,” no matter what “normal” is, but eventually . . . all things come to an end. The arrangement mixes straight and backwards guitar, echoing the dream-reality dichotomy of the song. Definitely one of Jimi’s best.
Noel Redding gets a turn with “She’s So Fine,” a song that sounds more like a Move or early Hollies song than a Jimi Hendrix Experience production. Unfortunately for Noel, the best part is Jimi’s hoedown-style lead solo. The dream song, “One Rainy Wish” comes next, containing colorful and impressionistic imagery: “The sky was filled with a thousand stars/While the sun kissed the mountains blue.” The song has an unusual structure, pushing the boundaries of composition more than any other song on the album. In contrast to the daring experimentation on “One Rainy Wish,” “Little Miss Lover” seems positively pedestrian, and is further weakened by too much panning and an overuse of effects. Jimi even throws in a “sock it to me,” forever branding the song as dated. “Bold as Love” ends the album, its processional rhythms signifying that something important this way comes. While the music and the groove work, the lyrics suffer from Donovan-itis, as Jimi decides to choose a range of colors to describe various aspects of life and pretty much sticks to cliché connections: jealousy = green, war = red, yellow = cowardice. Although I rather like his show of vulnerability at the end (“And all these emotions of mine keep holding me from giving my life to a rainbow like you.”), and I love it when he tweaks Donovan (“My Yellow in this case is not so mellow”), this is hardly his best lyrical composition. I also think the complexity added to the basic structure at the end of the song was a game attempt to end the album on a high note but ends up sounding somewhat superfluous.
In considering Axis: Bold as Love in its totality, I think the album shines when Jimi plays to his strengths (groove, rhythm, guitar and his budding talent as a lyricist) and falls flat when he adopts some of the unconventional conventions of the period. The weaker songs are the hippie-tinged songs; the better songs are those where he either distances himself from society and takes the critical view, or where he is writing from deep personal experience. The flaws in the album hardly ruin it; if anything, they remind us that Hendrix was not some superbeing, but someone with incredible talent who was still in the process of discovering himself.
It’s too bad he never got to complete the full journey.