Ahh, a surprise – more Hendrix in the studio. Of late a lot of in-concert Hendrix has surfaced; the full-side each on the Woodstock sets, the Isle of Wight performance on Columbia's Rock Festivals set, the in-concert movie of Hendrix at Berkeley, as well as an English in-concert film with an accompanying soundtrack LP.
But Hendrix on stage and Hendrix in the studio are two animals of pretty divergent cellular structure. His later concerts involved a lot of extended instrumental jamming, as well as demonstrating his total mastery not only of the guitar, but of all its electronic accomplices like wah-wah pedals, fuzz tones, and reverb amps – he was able to recreate on stage most of the effects that were born in the studio. His knowledge of the electronic technology was amazing, and he utilized it to stretch the limits of sound experience – a tape-mixing console would definitely have to be listed as one of the instruments he was proficient on. He wasn't into effect for gimmick value alone – it was always a part of a larger tapestry, and many of the innovations he made early use of (like track-panning, where the guitar swoops back and forth from channel to channel) are now standard procedure in album mixing. So, a Hendrix studio album showcases more than just his music alone – it's his music in a special electronic frame, custom cut to size.
But, Rainbow Bridge (Reprise MS2040) is billed as a "sound track album," so the question arises, what is a sound track? Is it an aural footpath? A mere vibration trail? Or the coalesced imaginings of an astral projectionist? In most cases, sound track albums seem designed as take-home souvenirs of a media experience, relying on deja-vu and memory flashes to recreate visceral emotions in the privacy of your head; it serves as a psychic tap, reopening emotions planted by the original cinematic experience.
With this album, that's not how it is, but just in case you care, here's where you can drive the first piton in your attempt on the summit of the understanding of the place of this album in the cosmic scheme of things; it's the music heard in a movie that you may never ever see.
Rainbow Bridge has been billed as a "spiritual candy store" – it's a cinema verite-styled exploration of aspects of one woman's metaphysical searchings – which include scenes at the Rainbow Bridge Occult Center in Maui, as well as a Hendrix concert on the side of a volcano. Apparently, aside from the concert, Hendrix appears only briefly in the flick, doing a surreal rap, parts of which are reprinted with a high degree of illegibility on the inside of the jacket. At last report the film had been only shown once in England (reviewers were puzzled, to say the least), and as yet has no distributor – so it may not be seen for a long, long time. But that's cool, the album exists as an entity all by itself. My suggestion would be to listen to it and then make up your own movie – it'll probably be a lot more relevant to what you're up to anyway.
The album opens with "Dolly Dagger," a track that was billed as the next Hendrix single at the time of his death (it is now indeed a single). It's based on a typical Hendrix rhythm riff and sawtooth rising chorus – "She's so heavy she'll make you stagger . . . she drinks her blood from the jagged edge " – a tale of a warp-nine chick told with drive and morse-code pulsing guitar lines – what a groove this would be on the highway at 3 AM! "Earth Blues" features a chorus that includes the Ronettes (the Ronettes?) – they sing a descending line of "Love, love, love" as Hendrix weaves a spacy soul version of a "we-gotta-get-it-together" lyric – this has the sound of Electric Church music that Hendrix spoke of trying to build.
"Pali Gap" is a studio cut, despite the title – it features Hendrix's one-time mentor Juma Edwards on percussion. (Backing throughout the album is mostly just bass and drums, Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell respectively.) This is an instrumental that reflects the jazz-like explorations that Hendrix was getting into for awhile, when he was in Woodstock – it was cut July 1st, 1970, along with two other tracks included here. It flows in waves, rippling like wine running slowly down dusk-lit marble stones.
The next track, "Room Full Of Mirrors," was written around the time of Hendrix's Toronto bust and features Buddy Miles on drums. The overdubbed guitars swoop into glass-edged regions as Hendrix sings "I used to live in a room full of mirrors, now the whole world is there for me to see." The first side ends with a really majestic version of the "Star Spangled Banner." In concert this became a vehicle for commentary, as Hendrix's guitar created the sounds of sirens, bombs and guns (in the Berkeley movie his performance is inter-cut with shots of Berkeley riots). This is an early version, utilizing only guitars, overdubbed in three or four layers. It was cut in March, 1969, and though there is anger and chaos there, it hadn't yet become rage – this version is almost stately, you can't help but soar a bit with it, no matter what connotations the melody has placed on you.
Side two opens with "Look Over Yonder," the oldest track included here. Cut in October 1968, it features the original Experience backing of Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding – it's almost in the mode of the first album in feeling and execution. Hendrix lays down some squeaky chunks of solid rhythm before the ending growls to a swirling close.
The next track is the only live one, cut at the Memorial Day concert in Berkeley. It's "Hear My Train A Comin'," a number Hendrix frequently used in his last series of concerts. The chordal structure is like old blues, but Hendrix is a true Voodoo Chile, and his demons are more electric and schizophrenic than those of Robert Johnson, the great delta bluesman who in many ways can be considered Hendrix's spiritual father. Hendrix has gained most notoriety as a complex and spaced stylist, but you shouldn't lose sight of the fact that he was a motherfucker bluesman as well. (I remember a Midwest concert where he totally tranced out a non-blues audience with a long ballsy version of "Red House" – Hendrix plays Delta blues for sure – only the Delta may have been on Mars.)
"Hey Baby" is the final track. It's a riff that Hendrix explored a lot in concert – simple but evocative – and filled with a pure lonesome yearning and introspection that often got squeezed out in favor of things with more flash. Hendrix plays a few choruses, then asks, "Is the microphone on?" Getting an affirmative reply, he improvises some lyrics about a love-spreading chick crossing Jupiter's sands. It's a benediction and a hoping at once – and proves that though Hendrix deserves every bit of acclaim he got as a tripping companion, he was also a mood spinning, afternoon back porch sitter of the mind as well. And there, almost too soon, the album ends.
In many ways this is one of Hendrix's best albums – it's diverse, but not a goulash. His last official album, Cry Of Love, seemed somehow hollow, populated with skeletons of ideas – structures not quite fleshed out, in two dimensions only, wavering in and out of focus in the third plane. Here they are full, and full of spirit. Though there are technical drawbacks that might have precluded their release if Hendrix lived (ragged endings, out of tune choruses, etc.), they certainly don't detract from the essence. Hendrix was a stone perfectionist, and it's been rumored that there are enough tracks for at least several more albums in the can – but they will probably not be released, as Hendrix wasn't satisfied with them. There is an element of greed in all of us, and sure, I'd like to hear more – but I'd rather respect his wishes and take what he considered done enough to let go. This album falls into that category, I believe, and is a strong addition to his legacy – not like the various "Early Hendrix" ripoffs going around, where everybody who ever taped a jam session is issuing LPs.
This is also, by the way, a fine earphone album. Some records need rooms to reverberate in, this one (as are most of his) seems to be aimed directly at the inner ear – and earphones clarify and separate the levels of the structures into the component parts.
There may be a few more concert albums yet to come, but this is probably the last of Hendrix in a studio.
And it's late and raining, and the wine has wound its way down now – I just want to say Jimi that it's gotten pretty gray down here since you split . . . and there's a lot of Foxy Ladys lying lonely tonight. Drop in again sometime man, we all need all the help we can get.