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Jimi Hendrix: An Appreciation

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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.

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