Jimi: The Man and the Music

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Up through the first half of 1966, Hendrix continued his sideman odyssey, working with Little Richard, King Curtis and Curtis Knight. A live recording made with Knight in late December 1965 at a club in Hackensack, New Jersey, shows just how far Hendrix's sound and stage act had evolved. Given room to roam in "Drivin' South," Hendrix coaxes serrated sustain from his instrument, twists his meaty riffing into bluesy pretzel logic and fires off spiky high notes shivering with vibrato. At one point, you can also hear Knight yell, "Eat that guitar! Eat it! Eat it!" It's only a one-chord jam, and the recording is of the two-Dixie-cups-and-a-thread variety, with clumsy overdubs added later when it was issued in the early Seventies as Early Jimi Hendrix. Nevertheless, "Drivin' South" is a rough but revealing glimpse of what Hendrix would later do with the blues.

In the fall of 1965, Hendrix signed a three-year recording contract with Knight's manager and producer, Ed Chalpin, for a one-dollar advance, a deal that would come back to haunt him later. But the deal that really mattered came in the summer of 1966, when bassist Chas Chandler of the Animals caught Hendrix playing with his own group Jimmy James and the Blue Flames at the Cafe Wha?, in New York's Greenwich Village. Chandler, on the lookout for management and production opportunities, was knocked out by Hendrix's fierce sound, outrageous look and gymnastic stage presence.

On September 23rd, 1966, under Chandler's aegis, Hendrix flew to England to pursue stardom in earnest. A flurry of auditions in London yielded bassist Noel Redding – who had actually turned up to try out for a guitar seat in the Animals – and drummer John "Mitch" Mitchell, a former child actor who had played with Screaming Lord Sutch, the Riot Squad and Georgie Fame. The Jimi Hendrix Experience (the exotic spelling was Chandler's idea) was born.

In Redding and Mitchell, Hendrix found the perfect accomplices for his guitar attack. The fact that Redding had never played the bass before joining the Experience was, in fact, a plus; Hendrix knew just what he wanted from the instrument, and Redding proved a malleable learner. His sturdy, anchoring bass work freed Mitchell, a proficient drummer adept at both jazz and rhythm & blues, to fly all over the kit. Together, they complemented the rhythmic idiosyncrasies of Hendrix's songs and playing style with their own turbulent blend of hardy soul dynamics and breathtaking acid-jazz breakaways. The sound was fluid enough for open-ended jamming yet free of excess instrumental baggage, tight and heavy in the hard-rock clutches.

In concert, Hendrix often chose to go with the flow, taking his melodies and riff ideas out on distended solo detours, leaving Mitchell to strike his own parallel rhythm path while Redding usually maintained a steady course. But on record, especially in the tightly focused three- and four-minute performances on Are You Experienced?, you can hear the form and force of the Experience in pummeling microcosm. In "Manic Depression," Mitchell generates a tidal drum wave under Hendrix's agitated riffing and Redding's echoing bass, fueling the cork-screw-waltz rhythm with convulsive Elvin Jones-style patterns. On "Hey Joe," the group's comparatively tame debut single, the song's simple folk-blues structure cracks at the end under the strain of Hendrix's choppy chording and Mitchell's impatient accenting. Hendrix later experimented with other lineups and expanded instrumentation, but he always returned to the power-trio concept epitomized by the Experience.

The furor Hendrix created upon his arrival on the London pop scene was unprecedented. Here was a young American black man who did not conform to British fantasies of sharp-dressing soul belters and grizzled old bluesmen, who played rock & roll guitar with a physically aggressive, avant-garde edge. Hendrix quickly became the darling of the music and tabloid presses; the leading lights of British pop – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Eric Clapton – were among his most ardent fans. According to Clapton, Cream's biggest hit, "Sunshine of Your Love," was a de facto hymn to Hendrix, actually inspired by an Experience show at London's Saville Theater. (Hendrix returned the compliment by frequently making the song a feature of his own shows.)

For Hendrix, Redding and Mitchell, the last months of 1966 and the whole of 1967 were a crush of interviews, promotional activities, punishing concert tours and frenzied studio activity. Yet those hectic recording sessions, Hendrix's first as a leader, were arguably his most productive. In fourteen months, Hendrix and the Experience recorded not only the classic singles "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze" and "Burning of the Midnight Lamp," but all of Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love. In addition, the band cut a knockout series of live-in-the-studio tracks for broadcast on BBC Radio (released in 1989 as Radio One).

Collectively, that wealth of material captures Hendrix's genius in its first full flowering. The early singles and Are You Experienced?, in particular, provide a striking summation of the lyric dreams and musical schemes that had boiled inside Hendrix during his journeyman years. In his trademark blues "Red House" (featured on the original U.K. edition of Experienced?), he reaffirmed his pride in his black roots with a celebratory vengeance. He also cooked up a volcanic freak beat with the propulsive riffing and head-spinning guitar effects of "Stone Free" (the flip side of "Hey Joe") and "Love or Confusion," reveling in the errant six-string behavior that earlier had made him the bane of conservative R&B bandleaders.

In enduring ballads like "The Wind Cries Mary" and "May This Be Love," Hendrix demonstrated a depth of feeling and ambition often eclipsed by the assaultive force of "Purple Haze" and "Foxey Lady." Combining pastoral melodicism and aqueous electronic effects, he created a music of otherworldly beauty and poignance, coding his deeper torment in introspective dream-speak. The result was a kind of blues in orbit, musically spacious ruminations on loneliness and loss. "The Wind Cries Mary," actually released in its original demo form (Mitchell later claimed subsequent studio versions sounded too sterile), has a lush, inviting quality, like a classic Curtis Mayfield ballad that belies its bittersweet premise: "The traffic lights they burn blue tomorrow/And shine their emptiness down on my bed."

"Burning of the Midnight Lamp" is also a song of startling melancholy, the confessions of a man long separated from his home and family and now left rootless and battered by the pressures of sudden transatlantic fame and the demands of salesmen. Hendrix wrote the song in midair, on a flight from Los Angeles to New York during his first flush of American success in the fall of 1967: "And soon enough the time will tell/About the circus in the wishing well/And someone who will buy and sell for me/Someone who will toll my bell/And I continue to burn the same old lamp, alone."

At its core, Hendrix's music was all about the blues. The true power of his genius lay in his musical and lyrical candor. For many of his British admirers, like Clapton, Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend, the blues was a religion, an object of worship and aspiration. For Hendrix it was the substance of life. When he immigrated to England, the career he left behind was distinguished mostly by misunderstanding and rejection. He had been exiled from the R&B mainstream, chastised for being too far out, and as a rocker he was so far underground – playing chump-change gigs in Greenwich Village coffeehouses – that he was unknown even in the evolving psychedelic community.

Stardom allowed Hendrix the freedom, onstage but more importantly in the studio, to give free rein to his troubled muse. The energy and sexual vigor in his music certainly spoke volumes about the joys of his new life. The confusion and desperation so often voiced in his lyrics and lacerating guitar work also testified not only to the lingering pains of his childhood and sideman years but to the wants and fears – physical, emotional, musical – that would dog him for the rest of his life.

Hendrix often felt unequal to the task of getting onto tape everything he heard in his head and felt in his heart. "Most of the time I can't get it on the guitar, you know?" he said with characteristic modesty in Rolling Stone in early 1970. "Most of the time I'm just laying around daydreaming and hearing all this music ... If you go to the guitar and and try to play it, it spoils the whole thing ... I just can't play the guitar that well, to get all this musk together."

Widely considered a minor masterpiece compared with Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love – released in the U.S. less than six months after its predecessor – suffered in the circumstances of the recording. It was done between May and October 1967, one of the busiest periods of Hendrix's entire career, and there was friction between Hendrix and Chas Chandler over the production. The original mix of the album was lost; because of release deadlines, Hendrix, Chandler and engineer Eddie Kramer were forced to remix the whole record in just eleven hours.

In spite of all this, Axis makes up in adventuresome songwriting what it lacks in sonic theater. The anger, angst and raw sex that charged Experienced? give way to flashes of humor in the droll Mose Allison-style swing of "Up From the Skies" and the trippy nostalgia in the driving "Spanish Castle Magic," which partly salutes the Spanish Castle in Seattle, a black music club that was one of Hendrix's teenage haunts. Axis also features Hendrix's finest ballad, "Little Wing," a compact beauty (less than two and a half minutes) with a fatherly lullaby vocal and a gorgeous, spidery guitar solo in the fade-out.

"I wanted to make it a double LP," Hendrix once said of Axis, "which would be almost impossible ... The record producers and companies don't want to do that. I'm willing to spend every single penny on it, if I thought it was good enough."

With Electric Ladyland, issued in the U.S. in the fall of 1968, Hendrix finally had the time, money and opportunity to indulge himself in the studio. The only album released in his lifetime over which he had complete artistic and conceptual control, it is a sprawling but compelling self-portrait of the young artist as a seeker. The deep-space soul suite – "Rainy Day, Dream Away," "1983 ... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)," "Moon, Turn the Tides ... gently gently away" – which took up all of side three, reflected his obsessions with symphonic guitar effects and underwater dreams (the whooshing sound known as phasing is drenched over almost everything on the record). He also framed his roots in radical new contexts, taking the blues to Mars with the dark, elastic jamming on "Voodoo Chile" and the psychedelic romp through "Come On (Part 1)," an R&B nugget by New Orleans guitarist Earl King.

There was plenty of vintage Experience fire on tap – "Crosstown Traffic," "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" – but Hendrix made no secret of his growing desire to play with other kindred souls, expanding the group to include guest musicians like Steve Winwood, Al Kooper and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. Hendrix also paid homage to one of his favorite songwriters, Bob Dylan, with a howling, locomotive interpretation of "All Along the Watchtower" that jacked up the steely irony of Dylan's original reading into feverish desperation.

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