Maybe it's just my imagination, but the Jimi Hendrix section of my local record bin seems to have been growing at an astonishing pace lately. In recent weeks, we've been offered a bland semi-jam with Lonnie Youngblood (who?) on Maple Records, a collection of ancient tapes with the Isley Brothers (a product of Buddah, from whom it would have been nice to say that they should've known better), and a large assortment of bootlegs, all seemingly taken from the same series of Los Angeles Forum concerts.
But The Cry of Love is the genuine article, Hendrix' final effort, and it is a beautiful, poignant testimonial, a fitting coda to the career of a man who was clearly the finest electric guitarist to be produced by the Sixties, bar none. This record seems more complete than the album Janis left for us, but like Pearl, it too seems strangely foreshortened, a venture caught in the process of becoming and suddenly halted. The fact that The Cry of Love is still as good as it is must serve as some sort of reminder as to just how large looms the shadow of its creator.
As a pure musician — and this is not even touching his grace as a performer, or his role as the first non-Top 40 superstar — Hendrix was strangely unique in a field bred on familiarity. He was an intense craftsman, of course, as one of his earliest sides, "Red House," attested; a fluid-fingered picker who could ripple off runs with an unexpectedly perfect style, bursting out with phrases that filled up every loose chink in a song as if they had been especially inscribed for the occasion. But more than that, Hendrix was a master of special effects, a guitarist who used electricity in a way that was never as obvious as mere volume. He took his bag of toys the fuzz-tone, the wah-wah pedal, the stack of Marshalls and used them as a series of stepping-stones to create wave upon wave of intense energy, proper settings for a scene of wrath and somehow healing destruction. It was rock and roll that was both quite in tune with and yet far ahead of its time, and in a way, I'm not sure that we've ever really fully caught up.
Still, and it's important to view The Cry of Love in this light, it seems that Hendrix found it hard to sustain his creativity once he had made his initial breakthrough. His first album, Are You Experienced?, was as near a total statement as he made, each cut caught in its prime and done in a way that allowed for no waste or superficiality, and try as he might, he was never able to come as close to that completeness on any of his subsequent releases. Indeed, the strengths that Hendrix displayed in his debut effort were to remain his strengths throughout his career. For one, he showed off an astonishing ability to construct a song: the opening lines to "Purple Haze" are not only remarkable in their dumb simplicity but for the fact that they set the stage for the mayhem which logically follows. For another, his music had an incongruous element of lyricism, a tender second side that could hardly be explained in the context of "Foxy Lady," such things as "May This Be Love" or "The Wind Cries Mary." And last, and probably most significant, he built a magnetizing presence, an overwhelming personality which totally dominated each cut, creating a flesh and blood image that had to stay with you long after you had left the record and gone home.
There were other things involved, of course, but they have more to do with the stream of rock and roll at that time rather than with Hendrix himself. The concept of the rock trio, for instance, was just beginning to strike gold, and it was bolstered by a dynamite combination of English decadence over Seattle black man that helped propel him towards success. In the end, though, even if that first album had arrived at your door in a plain blank cover, we would have known that here was something to be reckoned with, a massively exciting interstellar achievement.
But the question was, and remains, what can you do for an encore? Very early, it seemed that Hendrix had been almost captured by his audience, trapped by the totality of that first release, and he was never given room to grow. As in sports, every artist needs to work off a challenge, to have a spur in his side that makes him top himself, time after time after time. After Monterey, though, there was no challenge. At concerts, he was applauded for even the meagrest of performances, standing ovations at the most lackluster of guitar smashings, and as a result, he just didn't try as hard. Perhaps if his supporting musicians had been stronger (and this is not to slight either Noel Redding or Mitch Mitchell, who backed Hendrix to the hilt during these early years) he might have been able to work off them and move onto some new and fresher ground. But Hendrix was a musical giant who never found anyone quite as tall as himself, and so, like all great men, he stood alone.
In actuality, Hendrix never made a bad record — his worst was usually far above most anyone else's best — but increasingly, his albums began to break down into Good tracks and Not-So-Good tracks. Axis: Bold As Love never really lived up to the promise of its cover, composed as it was of refined explorations of some of the places "The Wind Cries Mary" had visited. Much of it was quite excellent — Hendrix was obviously looking toward moving into a new style — but it lacked the drive and kinetic force of Are You Experienced?, becoming an album to be reserved for late night listening. Electric Ladyland, which came out not too long a time after, showed that things were wearing thin. The best cut on the double-record set was, almost ironically, a sort of loose blues jam around "Voodoo Child," and despite such silver-studded highlights as "All Along The Watchtower" and "Crosstown Traffic," the album never really got itself together.
Why? More of the reason is tied up with Hendrix' personality and artistic temperament than we'll ever be able to guess. But the problem, as I see it, appears to have been one of material, rather than any disintegration in his style or approach to that material. Hendrix learned his chops in blues and rhythm and blues, where a musician is given a formalized, set structure to work with, and operates within that structure, embellishing and interpreting as he will. Hendrix, however, chose to make his stand in the dawning field of rock, which though it was easily as formalized a music, still carried a different set of traditions with it: for our purposes here, the two most important being that you write your own music and that, though it should always sound familiar, should never be note-for-note the same as something you did before. Where Hendrix could spend two years backing up Little Richard, who essentially did the same song in a variety of minutely different ways, he wasn't about to be able to pull off the same thing on his own.
And so after the first album and parts of the second, where his creativity was able to function under the new ground rules, it was becoming clear by the time of Electric Ladyland that he couldn't keep it up. In that sense, it's interesting that when he took on other people's material (such as "All Along the Watchtower") he turned in a job that was nothing short of marvelous. But as for his own compositions, it was as if he had lost the touch. They sounded contrived, put together because he was bored with the old stuff and needed something new, and the consequent artificiality only caused him to fall back on his crowd-pleasing tricks, things that time had taught him would generate some kind of response.