Jimi Hendrix: An Appreciation

"Hendrix played with such power that the music assumed almost physical dimension"

Jimi Hendrix
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
October 15, 1970

It was at the Monterey Pop Festival that Jimi Hendrix first appeared before an American audience – he even burned a guitar, a heavy routine during those innocent days of 1967 – and, in one of those terrible ironies Warner Brothers Records must dread, the LP (with Otis Redding on the flip side) was released just a week before Jimi's death. The worst of it was the poster that came along with this historic Monterey recording: it showed photos of both Redding (who died a few months after Monterey) and Hendrix with the line "AT LAST" underneath. Ominous?

It was a touch that probably would have given – or maybe is giving – the voodoo child a smile. An enigmatic smile.

In 1967, Hendrix burst onto the rock and roll scene not initially because of his music – sure, it was far out, but the most significant thing was the Hendrix Presence. The sexual savage electric dandy rock and roll nigger Presence! The voodoo child run wild in electric ladyland!

Jimi Hendrix: 1942 - 1970

Fully aware that this would be Jimi's best starting image, his first LP and singles were heavy on Presence, light on his (ultimately) strongest facet. It was through live performances and the later recordings that the rock and roll audience was to discover his greatly more astounding side: he was perhaps the master virtuoso of electric guitar. It was Jimi Hendrix, more than any other guitarist, who brought the full range of sound from all the reaches of serious electronic music – a wider palette of sound than any other performing instrumentalist in the history of music ever had at his fingertips – plus the fullest tradition of black music – from Charley Patton and Louis Armstrong all the way to John Coltrane and Sun Ra – to rock and roll. Nobody could doubt that Jimi Hendrix was a rock and roll musician, yet, to jazz musicians and jazz fans, he was also a jazz performer. When Jimi Hendrix took a solo, it had everything in it.

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix

It is only three years and three months since his Monterey performance. Most master musicians are granted a good deal more time to make their statement. (Charlie Parker lived 35 years.) The amazing thing is how rich a musical legacy Hendrix has left in so short a time.

Certainly there is a place in the chapter on rock and roll lyrics (in the Whole History of Rock and Roll, to be published a few years hence, when the whole trip is dead) for Jimi. It's not just that he was adept at slinging the words together. But clearly Hendrix has got to be viewed as the father of Narcotic Fantasia imagery. This was his role as a lyricist at the start of his career. It was important to the voodoo child image that his songs came off as far out as possible, and how are you going to come off farther out than by asking your listeners to " 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky . . . don't know if I'm comin' up or down . . . "? What about "Queen Jealousy, Envy, waits behind him, waits behind him, her fiery green gown sneers at the grassy ground"?

There was a much more direct side to Jimi's poetry. "I'm not the only soul who's accused of hit and run," he sang to his old lady on "Crosstown Traffic," "Tire tracks all across your back – I can see you had your fun." This was as earthy and solid as the best of the master blues singers. And when he told his foxey lady – "Here I come baby – I'm comin' to gitcha!" – he was even earthier.

Photos: Jimi Hendrix Through the Years

Hendrix told interviewers that he had been scared to sing for a long time because he thought his voice wasn't up to it. Then he heard Dylan and dug what Dylan was doing and figured, what the hell, if that cat can do that much with no more voice than he's got, what's holding me back? In fact, he was a great singer, as distinctive as Leon Thomas or Neil Young, and a harder wailer (swinger, mover) than either of them. It was a light but rich voice, perfectly suited to the laughter-from-the-shadows insinuations, the purrs and gurgles and the high crooning shouts that were his means to a super-expressive style. He was as great an interpreter as we have seen in American popular music, both with his own songs and with other people's ("All Along the Watchtower," on which he surpassed the performance of the song's composer, being a prime example). In somebody else's hand, most of his songs would lose everything ("Foxey Lady," for instance, or "Crosstown Traffic"). They require Hendrix's own patented doubletime passionate chant delivery, high and nasty against his dark spiralling guitar. Fortunately, we have recordings.

It wasn't a voice in the usual sense, but who needs a voice? Armstrong? Billie Holiday? Bob Dylan? Jimi Hendrix?

The very best of his lyrics fall some place between outerspace imagery and the directness of the blues. One of these is "Castles Are Made of Sand," a small taste of classic Hendrix, also highlighting the variety of his guitar playing. It begins with a luscious unaccompanied guitar intro, Hendrix funking prettily, like a Delta Wes Montgomery. Then into the song, telling of human aspirations slipping away like sand castles. Then a backward guitar solo – it sounds as if the tape is run backwards, creating a wah-wah sitar effect. (This is another area where Hendrix led all other improvising rock and roll and jazz-men: he was the first, and remains the most effective, at manipulating tape to give his recorded solos added levels of expression.) And then the final lyric, with its lovely spaced fairy tale ending, about the girl who was going to commit suicide at the beach, when:

'Look, a golden winged ship is passing my way'
And it really didn't have to stop . . . it just kept on going
And so castles made of sand slip into the seas,

And Hendrix closes with his again unaccompanied guitar disappearing in the recesses of the speakers like a large and awkward bird tottering across the skies in a series of metallic whoops.

At the time Axis: Bold As Love was released, the closing touches on "If 6 Was 9" seemed almost childishly paranoid. "White collared conservative flashing down the street, pointing their plastic finger at me. They're hoping soon my kind will drop and die. But I'm gonna wave my freak flag high, high." But in those two and a half years, a more fear-some repression has loomed in our lives, and Hendrix's lyric, in its naivete, assumes a definite poignance in light of what has happened to all of us, and especially Jimi.

Like Louis Armstrong, Hendrix found it necessary to play the Exotic Black Man in order to get his music across to white audiences. Like Louis Armstrong, it is his music (and not the image) for which he will be remembered.

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