Jimi: The Man and the Music

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"The first two albums are tremendous landmarks, but Electric Ladyland is more of a complete statement," said engineer Eddie Kramer, who was Hendrix's studio soul mate from Axis on. Actually, taken together, Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland are a comprehensive expression of the sounds and feelings that Hendrix fought to express not only during his R&B road-warrior days but even amid his success. Weighed down by the stage image of Cock-Rock Guitar God, Hendrix liberated himself on record, while blazing new trails of possibility for the guitar and for the recording studio as an instrument.

But the Experience was growing frayed at the edges, exhausted after two years of nonstop work. Redding and Mitchell were also dissatisfied with the financial sleight of hand of comanager Mike Jeffrey. The band broke up in mid-1969, and Hendrix embarked on his next recording venture, a projected double album entitled First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Beset by his own difficulties with Jeffrey, other contractual tangles and continuing demands by his audience for nightly reprises of his old wild-man stunts, Hendrix spent most of 1969 and 1970 looking for new collaborators and testing new musical directions.

There were spectacular high points – the guitar fireworks treatment of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, a vivid blast of rage and pain for a nation torn asunder by the Vietnam War; the fiery Fillmore East shows by his short-lived Band of Gypsys, a hard-funk trio featuring Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. One of the last songs he recorded in 1970 was the haunting ballad "Angel," written two years earlier after he had a dream about his late mother.

Hendrix also pursued his longtime interest in jazz, jamming with guitarist John McLaughlin and multireed maestro Roland Kirk. Portions of 1969 sessions featuring organist Larry Young and bassist Dave Holland were issued in 1980 on Nine to the Universe. Over the years, Hendrix had formed a mutual-admiration society with Miles Davis, with occasional talk of collaboration. But that never came to fruition, nor did a planned big-band project featuring Hendrix with legendary jazz arranger and Davis cohort Gil Evans.

In 1970 the escalating costs of constructing his dream studio, Electric Lady, in New York forced Hendrix back on tour. With Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell back on drums, Hendrix was on the road from the late spring through the summer. The day after the official opening of Electric Lady in August, Hendrix had to leave for a European tour. He never returned.

On September 18th, 1970, Jimi Hendrix was rushed by ambulance from his London hotel to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Over the years, friends and associates of Hendrix have continued to offer conflicting accounts of how and why he died. But with no evidence to suggest either foul play or suicide, the coroner returned an open verdict and listed the cause of death as "inhalation of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication." Hendrix was twenty-seven years old.

Jimi Hendrix was a brilliant musician but an appallingly poor businessman. At the time of his death, his estate was in hopeless disarray, a legal and accounting nightmare that has never been fully resolved or explained. Posthumous album releases bearing his name still flood record stores. Many are cheap cash-ins, some with only nominal Hendrix involvement. Even his label, Warner Bros., has been guilty of some appalling travesties: the studio-leftovers compilation War Heroes; the 1970s albums Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning, on which producer Alan Douglas replaced the original backing tracks with stiff rerecorded arrangements.

But there have been "new" Hendrix records of considerable historical and musical worth. The tracks featured on the 1971 albums The Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge together constitute much of the planned First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Radio One is an essential collection of the Experience's recordings for BBC Radio. The recent four-CD collection Stages features four entire Hendrix performances from 1967 through 1970.

More importantly, the Hendrix legacy continues to mushroom. Every hard-rock and heavy-metal band from Anthrax to ZZ Top owes great debts of inspiration and often direct influence to the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Echoes of Hendrix's blues power resonate in the playing of recent innovators like Robert Cray and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Likewise, his absorption of jazz concepts and rhythm ideas into his own music later bore fruit in the jazz-fusion movement of the Seventies (most vividly in the post-Bitches Brew work of Miles Davis) as well as in the harmolodic movement captained by Ornette Coleman and the scorching jazz-funk of Coleman disciples Ronald Shannon Jackson and James "Blood" Ulmer.

The Seventies funk sound popularized by Parliament-Funkadelic, the Ohio Players and his old bosses the Isley Brothers was a direct product of Hendrix's controversial marriage of glitzy, suggestive showmanship and freaky down-home soul. Prince has since put his own stamp on that marriage, right down to his flashy sartorial style. His songwriting, like Hendrix's, is a vibrant tug of war between the spiritual and the sassy, and the orgasmic scream of his guitar is unapologetically Hendrixian.

The burgeoning black – rock movement spearheaded by Living Colour has taken great inspiration from Hendrix's pivotal achievements. The Black Rock Coalition was founded in 1985 to confront the same problems that plagued Hendrix during his career: racial prejudice, musical pigeonholing, the lack of contractual as well as artistic control in business dealings, the reclamation of rock & roll as black music. Hendrix rarely spoke about his music in purely racial terms, but there was nothing colorblind about the way he could tear into Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" or Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."

Hendrix has also endured as a songwriter. His rockers and ballads alike have been covered by artists running the gamut from Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton (with Derek and the Dominos) to the Pretenders and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Kronos Quartet put an avant-classical spin on "Purple Haze," and although Hendrix and Gil Evans never got to work together, Hendrix compositions like "Little Wing" and "Up From the Skies" were staples of Evans's stage and studio repertoire in the Seventies and Eighties.

Not long after the Monterey show, Hendrix told Newsweek about his plans for the future. "In five years, I want to write some plays. And some books. I want to sit on an island – my island – and listen to my beard grow. And then I'll come back and start all over again as a bee-a king bee."

He never really left. And he'll always be a king.

This story is from the February 6th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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