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 slick 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 had become wrinkled 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 wears 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 if 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.
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 really 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 really care about 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 on 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 a 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 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 make 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 backwards and heavily processed guitar sounds that open “Are You Experienced,” one of the best examples of the 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.