One challenge I always run into when researching historical works like Electric Ladyland has to do with the plethora of music critics, philosophers, sociologists and musicologists who attempt to connect the music to larger socio-cultural trends. Some seem to be searching for a Grand Unified Theory linking music and culture while others want to inflate the significance of the music that mattered to them when they were growing up. The more academic types (or at least those who like to present themselves as academics) carefully compile page after page of footnotes, knowing that most readers will take their word for it that the citations are both valid and relevant.
Fortunately or not, I’m one of those people equipped with a bullshit detector, and when I smell bullshit, I dig deeper to find out where the bullshit is coming from.
The gauge on my bullshit detector nearly exploded when I read the Jimi Hendrix segment in NPR music critic Ann Powers’ well-footnoted effort Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music (one of the most sexless books I’ve ever read, BTW, but what do you expect from NPR?):
Near the end of his life, Hendrix’s performances became strangely lackluster. Realizing that his audience was having trouble identifying with his polymorphous vision of lust and satiation as an aspect of a larger spiritual evolution—a very science-fiction scenario, reflecting Hendrix’s immersion in that genre—he retreated more and more into his Electric Lady Studios, where he could, as the historian Steve Waksman has observed, “enact his wildest fantasies of sound, and . . . work to exert the greatest amount of control.”
I decided to check this out with my dad, a lifelong Hendrix fan who saw his famous performance at Monterey Pop and (lucky bastard) a gig at the old Fillmore Auditorium where he shared the bill with John Mayall. I asked him to pop over for breakfast one morning to talk Hendrix and here’s how the conversation went (more or less):
ME: Dad, towards the end of Jimi Hendrix’s career, did you have any trouble identifying with his polymorphous vision of lust and satiation as an aspect of a larger spiritual evolution?
DAD: What? Hey, take it easy, Sunshine—I haven’t finished my coffee! (slurp, slurp) Say that again?
ME: (repeated the question)
DAD: Hold on . . . late 60’s, lust, spirituality . . . the answer is no. We all thought sex was a spiritual experience.
Bolstered by dad’s first-hand knowledge, I scoured Hendrix bios, online sources and common sense to confirm the scent of bovine manure in Ms. Powers’ contentions:
- “Near the end of his life, Hendrix’s performances became strangely lackluster.” That is such a dumb fucking statement that I can hardly get my head around it. Let me offer an analogous replacement: “Toward the end of their final U. S. tour, The Beatles’ performances became strangely lackluster.” The Beatles stopped touring because a.) they were tired of playing to audiences who couldn’t hear them and b.) they had expanded their musical palette and were unable to reproduce their new material in concert (the Candlestick concert setlist features a grand total of zero songs from Revolver, released just a few weeks before). There was nothing “strange” about The Beatles deciding that touring was a drag, especially when they were highly motivated to redefine the limits of rock ‘n’ roll in the confines of Abbey Road Studios. The same was true with Hendrix, who had taken a more active role in production with Electric Ladyland and was very upset he wasn’t given the time to perfect the final mix. “Pressured by Reprise for a finished product, he was forced to mix the record while out on tour with the Experience. ‘It’s very hard to concentrate on both,’ he lamented to Hullabaloo magazine, shortly after the album’s release. ‘So some of the mix came out muddy — not exactly muddy but with too much bass. We mixed it and produced it and all that mess, but when it came time for them to press it, quite naturally they screwed it up, because they didn’t know what we wanted.'” Both The Beatles and Hendrix wanted to spend more time in the studio than on the road because that’s where they felt they could manifest their creativity to the max; touring was a distraction, a break in the creative flow. Though Powers is guilty of misusing a quote to justify her ludicrous argument, Waksman was right: Hendrix wanted to “enact his wildest fantasies of sound and . . . work to exert the greatest amount of control.” Isn’t that what every musical artist wants to do?
- “Realizing that his audience was having trouble identifying with his polymorphous vision . . .” What audience was that? The audience that made Electric Ladyland Jimi’s first #1 album? Or the audience that made “All Along the Watchtower” the Experience’s sole top ten hit? Or the audience that pushed Band of Gypsys into the Top 10? Or the half-million who saw him at the Atlanta International Pop Festival a few months before his death?
- ” . . . he retreated more and more into his Electric Lady Studios . . .” I guess it depends on your definition of “more and more.” Hendrix first tried out his new playroom on June 15, 1970 and flew to the UK on August 25, 1970 to play at the Isle of Wight Festival, never to return to Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village, USA. Ten lousy weeks interrupted by two performances at pop festivals is a long way from Miss Havisham.
Ms. Powers concludes the paragraph by linking Jimi’s accidental overdose to a specific cause: “The man who had so nimbly moved through sexual stereotypes in hopes of rendering them obsolete had found the counterculture’s unceasing craving for them too much overcome.” Oh, for fuck’s sake. Jimi Hendrix died because he had problems with drugs and alcohol and did a dumb thing. I don’t think he was thinking about the obsolescence of sexual stereotypes when he popped those sleeping pills.
Most critics consider Electric Ladyland Jimi’s masterpiece. Given his disappointment in the mix, I don’t think he would have agreed. He died before he could transform the musical vision constantly spinning in his head into what he would have considered perfection. Electric Ladyland is far from perfect; there are some clear misses that might be attributable to poor mixing but a couple of tracks that even the most talented engineers couldn’t have saved (and that includes the 1997 remix by Eddie Kramer and the 2018 Deluxe Edition). Roger Mayer, the man who redesigned Jimi’s wah-wah pedal and served him in the role of electronic advisor on his first two albums called it “a patchwork quilt . . . As a body of work it didn’t resolve itself.” There were ongoing tensions with management and with the label; the tension between Hendrix and producer Chas Chandler rose to the point that Chandler walked out, leaving Jimi to take on the production role. I think it’s fair to say that Hendrix placed too much of a burden on himself during the recording of Electric Ladyland and at times it shows.
One of the most curious aspects of the history of Electric Ladyland has to do with why Chandler left Jimi holding the bag. Some sources say Chandler was sick and tired of Jimi’s perfectionism (50 takes of “Gypsy Eyes!”); others say he was pissed off about Jimi allowing a constant stream of musicians and hangers-on into the studio (some of them winding up in Chandler’s control room). Apparently, Chas wanted more of a balance between tight and loose and Hendrix wasn’t listening. To me, those competing forces may weaken Electric Ladyland in some respects, but also serve to strengthen the final product. Electric Ladyland has more than its fair share of virtuoso guitar performances, libido-tingling rhythms and exceptionally well-executed lead vocals (reflecting Jimi’s perfectionist streak), but the feel of the album is loose and sexy (reflecting the vibe of the period). Jimi Hendrix loved to jam; although he didn’t dabble all that much in jazz, he had the spirit of a jazz musician. And some of those folks who participated in those jams weren’t exactly incompetent layabouts. The credits include three members of Traffic (Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, Dave Mason), Jack Casady, Al Kooper and The Sweet Inspirations. It seems that Chas was all about the business of recording while Hendrix was all about translating the sounds he heard in his head into an artistic statement. Given that this was his first crack at producing, Electric Ladyland may fall short of masterpiece status but it still contains some of Jimi’s greatest moments.
Hendrix allegedly told an interviewer that he knew that “. . . ‘And the Gods Made Love’ was the track most people would bitch about so he placed it first in the track order to get it out of the way. This overture of sorts has been charitably referred to as a “sound painting,” touted for its “bold, new sonic colors” (in a Rolling Stone re-do of their original thumbs down review of Electric Ladyland). There were many such “sound paintings” during the psychedelic era, and while they may have sounded “trippy” at the time (particularly when listening while stoned), most were failed attempts to create a musical equivalent of abstract expressionism (and I doubt that half of the composers had ever heard of Pollock). The sole virtue of the piece is to remind you that you’re in the ’60s now and you’ll have to tolerate a few doomed flights of fancy.
p. s. For a guy whose catalog contains some of the sexiest stuff ever captured on disk . . . well, all I can say is if that’s how the gods make love, I never want to be a goddess. Sounds like anal without the lube.
Moving on to the more traditional thematic introduction, the title track “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” has been classified as “psychedelic soul” with Curtis Mayfield as the major influence. It’s actually a rather complex composition disguised by its laid-back feel. The first page of the sheet music lists fourteen different chords, not all of which are strictly complementary to the A major scale. Demonstrating the severe limits of musical notation, the sheet claims the piece is in 4/4 time but adds the note “freely” above the verse, indicating the transcriptionists threw their hands up when faced with the obviously truncated and extended measures. Mitch Mitchell demonstrates his intuitive ability to follow Jimi’s sense of rhythm by cutting out from time to time before dropping back into the mix at just the right moment. Jimi takes over for the frequently-absent Noel Redding on bass, reminding us that Noel was chosen more for his hair than his skill with the instrument. The song celebrates the joys of fucking women, one of Jimi’s favorite pastimes, bless his heart (some sources equate “electric ladies” to “Hendrix groupies”). The use of the term “electric” in describing female sexuality always throws me off, because in my experience (electric + sex = vibrator) . . . but the adjective “electric” had a fleshier erotic/spiritual connotation in the ’60s.
Hendrix finally gets around to the ass-kicking with “Crosstown Traffic,” featuring a tandem attack of guitar and comb-and-tissue-paper that qualifies as one of the most ingeniously effective pairings in rock history. The panning of the guitar/kazoo pairing and the Dave Mason-Noel Redding background vocals is really unnecessary and becomes a bit annoying after a while, but one could argue it mirrors the dodging traffic metaphor. Hendrix is trying to unload a broad who has been hanging on too long, and when she gives him the “but I need you and only you” plea (implied by Jimi’s response), he shuts her down with a reminder that he’s not the only one who likes to tiptoe through the tulips:
I’m not the only soul who’s accused of hit and run,
Tire tracks all across your back, uh-huh, I can see you had your fun.
Jimi’s vocal here is outstanding, displaying both his feel for rhythm and his intuitive grasp of the phrasing opportunities available in stop time.
The sounds of handclapping appear towards the end of the track, an effective bridge to “Voodoo Chile,” a fifteen-minute jam. . . no, not a jam . . . here’s Jack Casady from an interview with Uncut:
It wasn’t as simple as a jam, there was a full structure to the song, so it was an extended song that you able to improvise in. We took directions through the language of playing. Jimi was able to experiment with his ability and with effects in order to create an atmosphere. ‘Voodoo Chile’ has a really eerie sound that kind of places you in a different world.
Jack and I have different perspectives; what sounds eerie to him sounds positively erotic to me (maybe there’s something to all those vampire porn movies). This is one of my favorite songs to fuck to, a designation that I think Jimi would have found validating.
He starts out gently, gathering his musical thoughts or imagining how he’s going to probe the beautiful woman in his head. At this point, it’s just Jimi and his strat on a standard reverb setting, but oh my, what a gorgeous sound! After establishing the baseline slow blues rhythm with a classic riff, he gives Mitchell the signal to join in. Mitch Mitchell nearly always played harder and with greater intensity than one might expect, a noticeable feature of the Hendrix sound (hence the need for Buddy Miles on Band of Gypsys). Here it serves to inform the listening audience that “Yeah, it’s a slow blues, but it’s a slow blues drenched in hormones.” Strengthened even further by Casady’s steady bass, the beat creeps along stealthily like a Siamese cat in heat, giving Stevie Winwood a chance to test out a few licks on the organ. Hendrix delivers the first verse in an almost cautionary tone, warning any would-be squeeze that she’s not going to be humping your Average Joe. Taking Muddy Waters’ delightfully exaggerated machismo in “Hoochie Coochie Man” to the nth degree, Hendrix describes his the day of his birth as a parallel to Judgment Day, when “the moon turned a fire red.” His mother screams “the gypsy was right” and immediately drops dead. Have no fear, though—Jimi’s in good hands . . . er, paws and wings:
Well, mountain lions found me there waitin’
And set me on an eagle’s back
Well, mountain lions found me there
And set me on a eagle’s wing
(It’s the eagle’s wing, baby, what did I say?)
He took me past to the outskirts of infinity
And when he brought me back
He gave me a Venus witch’s ring
Hey, and he said “Fly on, fly on”
‘Cause I’m a voodoo chile, yeah, voodoo chile
After a very brief solo where Jimi’s notes seem to spring from the guitar and fly to the heavens, Jimi tells the babe of interest that he will indeed make love to her and assures her that “you’ll feel no pain.” Aww, come on, Jimi, not even a nipple pinch or a flick of your whip on my shapely bottom? Bummer, man! Well, he does give an explanation that might lead the lady to think, “I better not push this guy too hard, because this mother fucker has supernatural powers!
Because I’m a million miles away
And at the same time I’m right here in your picture frame
Jimi delays any further elucidation by inserting an instrumental break with guitar on the left channel and Winwood on the right. The interlude starts with both playing at maximum intensity; about a minute into the dialogue Jimi takes a step back and generously turns the lead over to Winwood, encouraging him with a heartfelt, “Yeah.” A few measures in, Winwood plays a phrase that Jimi immediately picks up on, leading to an extended call-and-response segment that validates Casady’s observation about communication through the “language of playing.” It’s an exciting passage that ends with the sound of a small crowd applauding the effort . . . and I have to say it absolutely killed me when I learned that the audience sounds were added post-performance.
Fuck. That’s the musical equivalent of canned laughter. Yes, yes, I know that they fuck around with most live albums post-production, but geez.
Jimi heaps on the sci-fi hyperbole in the next verse, claiming his “arrows are made of desire/From far away as Jupiter’s sulfur mines.” An extended instrumental passage follows, featuring the obligatory drum solo and Winwood shifting to a melody that sounds like something out of a bagpipe. We return to Earth in the final verse, where Jimi “floats in liquid gardens and Arizona new red sand.” I think the narrative (such as it is) weakens here with the loss of the phallic imagery—I want those arrows, dude! The loss is balanced by some excellent fretwork from Jack Casady as he moves between noiseless and fret-clicking slides. The grand finale features Jimi letting it all hang out (what a lovely period phrase!) with one of his more intense solos, one that inspires the rest to give it all they’ve got. “Voodoo Chile” may not be as popular as its abbreviated cousin, but it’s still a damned fine display of musicianship that calls to mind the words of Octavio Paz—“In every erotic encounter there is an invisible and ever-active participant: imagination, desire.”
Speaking of patchwork quilts, there is no better evidence to support Roger Mayer’s argument than “Little Miss Strange,” a Noel Redding offering that defines the phrase “bad fit.” It’s a lightweight pop song that has no business here or anywhere else in the known universe. In what was probably an attempt to make something out of nothing and avoid hurting Redding’s feelings, Jimi’s comparatively fiery guitar riffs wind up shining a bright light on the song’s inescapable thinness. It’s followed by the equally dreadful “Long Hot Summer Nights” with its laughably overdone background vocals and nonsensical narrative.
We get back on the rails with Jimi’s cover of Earl King’s “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll).” King was a pretty fair guitar picker himself, but Hendrix at hyperspeed is unbeatable—he plays this sucker at warp, handling both rhythm and lead and never missing a beat or a note. We really could have done without Mitch Mitchell here, who has a hard time keeping up (maybe that’s why they shoved his contribution to the back north forty of the mix). And apparently, fifty takes wasn’t enough for “Gypsy Eyes,” as the finished product lacks any tangible groove that makes you wanna shake your moneymaker.
Side 2 ends on a high note with “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” cited often as the song where Hendrix first used a wah-wah pedal. The song is overloaded with effects, making for a somewhat muddy sound, but the sincere anguish in Jimi’s voice as he contemplates the lonely life of the itinerant musician is quite compelling. His extraordinary level of engagement with music came with a heavy price—separation from normal time, the space where most live their lives and build relationships.
The morning is dead
And the day is, too
There’s nothing left here to meet me
But the velvet moon
All my loneliness I have felt today
It’s like a little more than enough
To make a man throw himself away
And I continue
To burn the midnight lamp
The song is certainly one of his most creative compositions and its complexity made for a challenging recording process. Unsatisfactory attempts were made during the recording of Axis: Bold As Love and the final version recorded months later took another thirty takes. Picking out a few notes on the harpsichord gave the song the necessary melancholy cast, and the addition of the gospel-like chorus courtesy of The Sweet Inspirations heightens the sense of internal struggle. What really blows me away is the chord structure, especially the stunning shift from the classic complementary F-Dm pair to a B minor-E major combination, a sequence that defies common practice but turns out to be the perfect choice to describe Jimi’s feeling that he’s unmoored from it all.
Side 3 opens with “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” a song that makes me laugh because it touches on something I had to un-learn in order to survive the years I spent in Seattle. Though the story about the song’s origin refers to a rained-out concert in Miami, that experience probably reminded Jimi of his childhood in the great, perpetually wet Pacific Northwest. In California, a little sprinkle ruins everyone’s day (except during droughts) and people grumpily stay inside bitching about the lousy weather messing up their barbecues or day at the beach. On my first rainy day stroll down the main drag in Queen Anne, I noticed that I was the only person using an umbrella. “What the fuck is the matter with these people?” I wondered. But I learned pretty quickly that a.) the rain isn’t going to kill you and b.) if you let something as harmless as falling water ruin your day, you’re going to go insane during the 6-8 months of continuous soaking. Next spring I joined the company softball team and we nearly always played in the rain—the one time the umpire tried to call a game, both sides howled in protest, screaming at the bastard as we followed his sissy ass to his car. In the meteorological reality of Seattle, Jimi’s advice is not only practical but a mental health PSA:
Rainy day, dream away
Let the sun take a holiday
Flowers bathe and see the children play
Lay back and groove on a rainy day
The song’s groove mirrors that advice in its laid-back comfortable beat, setting the stage for some marvelous back-and-forth between Jimi and saxman Freddie Smith.
“1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” can certainly befuddle the listener with its spacey soundscape and fanciful lyrics. I suggest looking at the song as a progressive rock version of “Apeman.” Both songs are escape fantasies, but while the more terrestrial Mr. Davies just wants to get the hell away from this crazy place and its crazy people, the more ethereal Mr. Hendrix sees escape into the sea as evolutionary progress. Obviously, Jimi had no way of knowing that the sea would become a dumping ground for plastics, but it’s equally obvious that he idealized the oceanic milieu, imagining a sort of underwater Olympics and marveling how “starfish and giant foams greet us with a smile.” Uh, what about the sharks, Jimi? And if he’s so confident he and his squeeze can survive underwater without scuba gear, why does he take the time for one last fuck they stroll into the deep?
While we can laugh at his proposed escape route, there’s no denying the angst and anger Jimi feels about the form of insanity known as war:
Oh say, can you see it’s really such a mess
Every inch of Earth is a fighting nest
Giant pencil and lipstick tube shaped things,
Continue to rain and cause screaming pain
“Oh say, can you see . . . ” Where have I heard that before? Something to do with baseball . . .
I think the most interesting aspect of the song is its progressive style. With Jimi’s grounding in blues and R&B, he might have changed the trajectory of progressive rock by keeping it grounded in its origins. So many possibilities . . . then again, the brief and completely uninteresting “Moon, Turn the Tides . . . Gently, Gently Away” also raises the possibility that had he gone progressive he would have bombed. Listening to someone fiddle around with spacey sounds while turning the panning knob isn’t progressive, it’s boring.
We find Jimi “Still Raining, Still Dreaming . . . ” in the opening track to Side 4, a funkier take on “Rainy Day, Dream Away” that confirms Jimi would have been better off had he cut the filler and made Electric Ladyland a single album. Confirming the wisdom of that perspective, “House Burning Down” could definitely have used a re-think. The core message to rioters (“Try to learn instead of burn”) is solid, and his intent to make the guitar sound like it was on fire is pretty much realized, but the arrangement is so choppy that the players never really find their groove.
But just when you think you’ve had enough, Jimi comes through with the piece that is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest covers ever, “All Along the Watchtower.” His perfectionist streak was on full display during the recording process, tweaking and re-recording the song for months, telling Eddie Kramer again and again, “I think I hear it a little bit differently.” The solo deservedly earns the lion’s share of attention, but I’m also drawn to Dave Mason’s haunting 12-string chords in deep background and Jimi’s commanding lead vocal. If I could name one artist who should have done an entire album of Dylan covers, it would be Jimi Hendrix. Based on the limited evidence (this one, “Like a Rolling Stone,” a scrap of “Drifter’s Escape), he seemed to connect well with Dylan’s style and certainly had no problem imbuing symbolist lyrics with passion.
You can find numerous how-to videos on how to play Jimi’s solo on “All Along the Watchtower” on the net, and in the process, you’ll learn a great deal about rising and declining bends. Many of the notes you hear (particularly in the intro) are bends, and you’ll never come close to duplicating Jimi’s performance without them. So, instead of “hitting the note” by putting your finger on say, the fifteenth fret, you approximate the note by bending the shit out of the string from the thirteenth fret. That’s a rising bend; to reverse it you start from the bent position on thirteen and ease it back down to stasis. As I’m giving you these instructions, I’m reminded of the Monty Python bit, “How to Do It,” and the segment on learning how to play the flute: “Well, you blow in one end and move your fingers up and down the outside.” It ain’t that simple.
Technique is obviously important, what makes a great guitar solo has more to do with feel . . . with fascination . . . with the self-expressive urge. It’s also important to remember that Hendrix was not only self-taught, but his self-teaching involved unusual challenges. His dad wouldn’t (or couldn’t) buy him a guitar, so he first learned on a one-string ukelele he found in the trash. He was left-handed and played right-handed guitars turned upside-down and restrung for left-hand playing. These factors mean that Jimi Hendrix approached music from a completely different paradigm than the typical musician, one built on ingenuity, improvisation, determination and an obsessive fascination with stringed instruments. So while I encourage guitarists to learn the solo, don’t be disappointed if you don’t sound like Jimi Hendrix. No one can and no one ever will.
To emphasize that point, Joe Satriani didn’t think “All Along the Watchtower” was Jimi’s greatest guitar moment, choosing his guitar work on “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” as the wannabe guitar master’s holy grail: “It’s just the greatest piece of electric guitar work ever recorded. In fact, the whole song could be considered the holy grail of guitar expression and technique. It is a beacon of humanity.” I never do “greatest” anything, but I don’t disagree with Satriani. The combination lead-rhythm guitar on this piece is absolutely mesmerizing, pure guitar power that stimulates hips and hormones. Initially recorded as an improv piece for an ABC documentary, it only took eight takes in the studio to satisfy Jimi’s always lofty expectations and turned out to be his first and only #1 single in the UK. Had he lived longer, perhaps Jimi could have learned something from this experience . . . something like “exactitude does not always equal perfection.” There have been a billion covers of the song, but my favorite remains the delightfully energetic performance by Angélique Kidjo on Oremi.
Taken as a whole, Electric Ladyland probably doesn’t qualify as a masterpiece and has probably earned that status because of his early death. Band of Gypsys clearly shows that he was in a transition period when he died; the clues on that album regarding future direction suggest he might have explored funk and R&B in more depth . . . then again, that might have been a natural result of playing with musicians who leaned in those directions. You run into too many ifs when speculating on Hendrix’s future to have any confidence in the prediction. If he would have gone progressive . . . if he would have made that recording with Miles Davis and Gil Evans and started exploring jazz . . . if he would have attempted to further refine his modern interpretation of the blues form . . . if he could have sworn off drugs and alcohol . . .
We’ll never know. One thing is certain: we can all be thankful that Jimi Hendrix never suffered a day of classical training. He was a true original, and his greatest legacy is his rare and beautiful originality.