After Electric Ladyland, Hendrix seemed to retreat back into his guitar. The Experience dissolved, there was talk of new bands, but nothing that amounted to much. He seemed to move away from areas that were troubling him, back to the things he knew best. In large part he gave up studio recording concentrating on live appearances and jamming instead. When he appeared with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox at the Fillmore on the New Year's Eve spanning 1969-70, it was more with the intent to be a member of a band than a solo star. Buddy did a large part of the singing and clowning around, and Hendrix seemed content to move in the shadow, working his guitar with a flair that brought all his assets to the fore. He played his instrument better than anyone else I could dream of that night, and his best moments came not in his long solos, which tended to overextend themselves, but in his fills and punctuations, the little added extras in which he most seemed to delight.
This was the way he spent his last two years — playing around, building a new studio, everything, in fact, but recording a new album — and now, after the end, we have The Cry of Love. In the sense of a breakthrough, it's not anything we might not have expected from Hendrix. Still, the songs are all uniquely his, stylized in his unique way, and after so long an absence, they are more than welcome. Because of the general excellence of the engineering and production, it's hard to say just how complete the album was before his death, but it is clear that if these tracks were mostly finished and in the can, then the only thing holding up their release must have been Jimi himself. They are that good.
The album opens with "Freedom," all flashes and exuberance, and it pointedly sets the tone for the record. The tune is one of Hendrix' best, full of straining tensions and masterful releases, ripping along at a pace that is not to be believed, picking up speed as it goes. Hendrix always knew how to kick a band, and he is at his peak here. Mitch Mitchell follows him along perfectly, and shows a few of the reasons why he was always Hendrix' greatest foundation.
If "Freedom" exemplifies one side of Hendrix, the next cut, "Drifting," aptly show off his other. As a composer (though that word seems somewhat out of place in this setting), Hendrix had the uncanny knack of molding his music perfectly to his lyrics. "Manic Depression" is the obvious example here, though this quality tended to come through better on his slower, prettier material. "Drifting" is no exception. A beautiful guitar figure opens the track, soft and formless, and waits as the rest of the instruments slowly slide in, seemingly revolving one around the other. Hendrix' vocal is right up front, almost studied, filled with lovely images of "Driftin'/On a sea of forgotten teardrops/On a lifeboat . . ." and floating off from there. It's a ghostly cut, one of the most moving pieces Hendrix ever created, and it says much for the breadth and scope of his talent.
After these two opening classics, The Cry of Love seems to get down to business. "Ezy Rider" is a rocker, plain and simple, and Hendrix and Co. light into it with a fury. The guitar leads are short and to the point, and there isn't a wasted moment. The cut fades at the end and then returns with a sudden lick, almost as an afterthought — a nice touch. "Night Bird Flying" starts sluggishly, as if most of the musicians' weren't quite sure what to do with it, but picks up a little as Hendrix begins to jam with his own guitar work on another track.
"My Friend," with its tinkling glasses and nightclub noises, could just have been the usual end-of-side-one throwaway, except for a set of lyrics which Hendrix almost casually injects. The style is Dylanesque, circa "Subterranean Homesick Blues": slightly surrealistic, a lot of friendly nonsense, and some very aware, deeply personal lines. "And, uh, sometimes it's not so easy, specially when your only friend/Talks, sees, looks and feels like you/And you do just the same as him . . ." Not much. Just a little something to think about.
"Straight Ahead" greets you as you turn the album over to side two, and it's not a particularly noteworthy way to begin. Hendrix plays a nice wah-wah guitar, but the song is dragged down by some fairly obvious Socially Significant lyrics and a lethargic reading. "Astro Man" is a whole different story, however. Of all the cuts on the album, this one has the most incomplete feel, with nobody really sure of where the song is heading. Yet building from the same science fiction chords that the Jefferson Airplane used to open "The House on Pooneil Corners,"it easily overcomes any of its deficiencies, loose limbed and rocking at every turn.
If whoever put together the pieces of The Cry of Love had a flair for the melodramatic. "Angel" might have been placed at the end of the record, its deathlike images of salvation and resurrection providing the final touch to a memorial album. But programmed as it is, side two, band three, it stands on its own merits, a beautiful piece of work. It moves nicely into a frantic "In From The Storm," Hendrix shining at his most furious, changing the structure of the song three or four times until things finally run out of steam. The final touch is saved for "Belly Button Window," a kind of slow and mellow blues which Hendrix performs accompanied only by his guitar, a sly smile on his face, a few light whistles as the fade comes in. You can almost see him waving as he moves in the distance.
So there you have it. If The Cry of Love had come out while Hendrix was alive, we probably would have said it was a good album, bought a million copies, and left it at that. But now that he's gone, It has to become that much more precious, something to savor slowly because there'll be no others. It does him justice — no mean feat — and I don't think we could have ever wanted anything more than that.
I once knew a guitarist who could, upon request, imitate any and all of your favorites. Ask him for Danny Kalb and his fingers would fly so fast that they'd be a blur on the fretboard. Jeff Beck? He could play anything from Truth note for note, with or without the record. Request Eric Clapton, and you'd have "Spoonful," complete even to the hint of a Jack Bruce bass line underneath. Jimmy Page? Alvin Lee? Jerry Garcia? He had them all down, one by one.
I asked him once upon a time to do Hendrix for me. He smiled a little bit, set up his fuzz-tone, hooked up an echo unit, threw a few switches here and there, and gave it a try. He couldn't do it.
And neither, for that matter, could have anyone else. Whatever his secrets, Jimi Hendrix took them with him.
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