Jimi Hendrix: An Appreciation

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

Jimi Hendrix
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Jimi Hendrix
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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!

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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.

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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.

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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,
Eventually

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.

Sly Stone and Aretha Franklin have reached the rock and roll audience through soul music, the lattermost extension of black music. But rock and roll is not soul music. It is a hybrid, assembled for white listeners, from the most accessible elements of rhythm and blues and Country & Western and (in a distantly related way) show music. Hendrix was the first black performer to take on white rock and roll head on and win. Though he played a number of licks that came out of his earlier blues band experience – though Mitch Mitchell, his drummer, was mightily inclined to cartwheel out into the orbit of Elvin Jones, John Coltrane's percussionist – though the three-man Experience would sometimes push so hard that it came out pure white sound – still, Jimi Hendrix was essentially a funky-ass, stomping, high energy rock and roll player. The Experience was only three men, but, because of the incredible banks of amps and speakers and the wah-wah and fuzz paraphernalia Hendrix presided over (running all the buttons and levers and knobs and compartments affixed to his guitar to create the sounds of a hundred cellos at war with a thousand banshees, Hendrix was a true child of the 20th Century technology), they sounded like a much larger band. They sounded like ten or fifteen or twenty men. This was largely due to Jimi's orchestral way of playing, where he would mount enormous blocks of chords (somehow) against one strong clear solo voice (somehow) against a propulsive whocka-whocka choked-strum sound (somehow) against the sounds of hummingbirds and distant thunder. All at the same time, or so it seemed. This is no time to mince words, despite the truly tragic (for us) circumstances of his death: Jimi Hendrix made powerful magic dope music.

His "Machine Gun" solo on the otherwise luckluster Band of Gypsys LP (Hendrix was often great, but sometimes not in live performance) is a masterpiece, not so much for his simulation of sirens and bombs and churning violent chaos – which is a feat in itself – as for the way he welds all this pure sound into one long, flowing solo line that is as funky as Blind Willie McTell and as inventive as Ornette Coleman.

Hendrix played with such power that the music assumed almost physical dimension. The side-effect rhythm patterns of his fingers popping and snapping off the frets rivalled Mitchell's drumming. Pouring out from the speakers, the sounds alternately bashed and cuddled the audience.

The stage Presence verged on the mysterious. When he would come out to the mike and say a string of words of introduction so fast and soft as to be unhearable, a Fillmore audience would frequently respond in whoops, as if they were cheering a divine crazy. Was it for effect or was this what Jimi Hendrix was really like? That added to the mystery. But he seemed little-boy shy sometimes. That was his apparent mood when he told the Woodstock masses:

"You can leave if you want to. We're just jammin', that's all."

There follows, of course, the legendary "Star Spangled Banner" treatment (the sound of the rocket's red glare, as interpreted by Jimi Hendrix, is as violent as any in contemporary music, and so is the long, keening, descending note he plays at the end of the phrase "land of the freeeeeee-e-e-e-e-e-eeeeeeee" – like a scream of black rage), and then a taste of "Purple Haze," and then a quick shift to a lonely, intensely dignified closing statement, Hendrix playing with great tenderness and romanticism and strength, like a 1969 Django Reinhardt. It ends on a hushed note. There is an instant's pause. Hendrix, laconically, tells Woodstock: "Thank You." And Woodstock, gathering the breath Hendrix has taken from them, begins to mount a rolling gust of cheering applause, "more more moremoremoremoremoremore MOREMOREMOREMORE MOREMOREMORE . . . " Abruptly, after 53 seconds, the cheering is cut off, leaving a sense of calm and void, as the record ends.

No more from Jimi Hendrix.

On "Voodoo Child," Hendrix sang: "If I don't meet you no more in this world, I'll meet you in the next one – don't be late . . . "

There will never be another like him.

From The Archives Issue 68: October 15, 1970
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