Are You Experienced? (Reprise, 1967)
Axis: Bold as Love (Reprise, 1967)
Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 1967)
Smash Hits (Reprise, 1969)
Band of Gypsys (Capitol, 1970)
The Ultimate Experience (MCA, 1993)
Woodstock (MCA, 1994)
Blues (MCA, 1994)
First Rays of the New Rising Sun (MCA, 1997)
South Saturn Delta (MCA, 1997)
Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix (MCA, 1998)
BBC Sessions (MCA, 1998)
Live at the Fillmore East (MCA, 1999)
Live at Woodstock (MCA, 1999)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience (MCA, 2000)
Voodoo Child: The Jimi Hendrix Collection (MCA, 2001)
Blue Wild Angel: Live at the Isle of Wight (MCA, 2002)
Live at Berkeley (MCA, 2003)
Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Jimi Hendrix (MCA, 2003)
Live at Monterey (Experience Hendrix, 2007)
Jimi Hendrix is the quintessential rock guitarist, as much as Bob Dylan is the quintessential singer/songwriter and the Beatles are the ultimate rock band. As only classical or jazz players had done before him, Hendrix defined his music's instrument: Expanding the possibilities of the amplified six-string, he confirmed beyond question its status as rock's essential vehicle. A psychic successor to Elvis Presley, Hendrix also embodied the politics of rock & roll as a black-white fusion—the twin pillars of his music were the earthiness of the blues and the ethereality of jazz, but his primary contemporary audience was white rock fans and the psychedelic subgenre that provided the context for his particular triumph was a white one. Finally, through lyrics heavily influenced by Bob Dylan, he delivered a message of universal emancipation. A personality large enough to thrive on apparently contradictory impulses, he was both the painstaking artist and the unabashed cock-rocker, a showman whose act presaged the melodrama both of glitter and of punk, a player explosive enough to influence equally jazz perfectionists and heavy-metal thunderers, an erotic liberator and a spiritual force. Sly Stone and Prince obviously learned much from Hendrix; so did Pete Townshend, Gil Evans, and Bob Marley.
The Seattle-born ex-paratrooper began his career, with mythic appropriateness, backing up such originators as B.B. King and Little Richard. Significantly, however, he only hit his stride in Britain—where someone who possessed both Hendrix's looks and talent could pass for an exotic god; Animals bassist Chas Chandler hooked him up with bassist Noel Redding (a former lead guitarist whose playing would sub-sequently, and felicitously, betray its grounding in melody) and jazz-styled drummer Mitch Mitchell. The interracial Jimi Hendrix Experience was born—ready to come on like psychedelic supermen (already Jimi sometimes soloed with his teeth, and the band's freak-out garb was an acidhead's dream). Are You Experienced? was the Summer of Love debut, and it sounded like divine madness—"Purple Haze," "I Don't Live Today," "Manic Depression," and "Fire" were all feedback finesse and arrogant virtuosity wrapped around lyrics sprung from primal wondering, lust, and fear.
Axis: Bold as Love plunged deeper. Ballads ("Little Wing") met mind-warp blues—the songs blurred together, metaphorically implying the fact of Hendrix's creative impatience (and prefiguring his later ventures into jazz freedom). Psychedelia's triumph came next: a double-album manifesto featuring contributions from Steve Winwood, Buddy Miles, and Jack Casady, Electric Ladyland showed Hendrix serving notice of his unstoppable ambition. The chord progressions of "Burning of the Midnight Lamp" echoed Bach (and featured perhaps the only example of a wah-wah pedal employed elegantly); "Crosstown Traffic" was the Experience at its most rocking; "All Along the Watchtower" became Hendrix's classic Dylan cover; and, with "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)," the songwriter reached back into gris-gris mythology to fashion a mock-cosmic persona. Like the sounding of a gigantic gong, the album reverberated across the airwaves; it also sounded the death knell for the Experience.
Mitchell held on long enough to join Jimi and new bassist Billy Cox for an appearance at Newport, but the legendary Woodstock gig (including the famous, fiery "Star Spangled Banner") was performed by an ad hoc group called the Electric Sky Church, and by the time of the live Band of Gypsys, the drummer's post had been taken by the bombastic Buddy Miles. For once playing with a black band, Hendrix tackled funk. "Machine Gun" and "Message of Love" were the fearsome highlights of Gypsys, yet while the power trio achieved the essence of force, it lacked melody—and aesthetic fullness suffered as a result.
Hendrix died in 1970, choking on vomit following barbiturate and alcohol intoxication, at a period of seeming creative transition. He'd been moving further away from rock, alternately returning to blues, delving deeper into funk, and studying jazz fusion. The Cry of Love (1971), however, showed the master, playing with Cox and Mitchell, at his most confident: "Ezy Rider" and "Angel" are the tough and tender faces of the genius at his most appealing.
A deluge of posthumous albums then began. Of the live work, BBC Sessions and Live at Winterland are the most exciting. Live at Monterey captures the moment when America first met Hendrix. The last decade has seen the Hendrix estate reclaim the guitarist's catalogue from the hands of producer Alan Douglas, who had for years been clogging record-store shelves with albums such as Crash Landing and The Cry of Love, which combined unreleased Hendrix recordings with new overdubs and production. If you want to hear unreleased Hendrix material, go to the estate's First Rays of the New Rising Sun and South Saturn Delta—both of these Nineties compilations were remastered by Hendrix's original engineer, Eddie Kramer, and feature some blazing material. The fine four-CD Jimi Hendrix Experience box also collects some worthwhile unreleased music. And the recently reissued Smash Hits best-of is still the tightest collection of killer Hendrix.
Deluxe reissues of Are You Experienced? , Axis, and Electric Ladyland are due out in 2010.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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