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Jimi's Last Ride

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In one of his final interviews, a couple of days before his Isle of Wight appearance, Hendrix told Britain's Melody Maker that he had nothing but the future on his mind. "I want a big band," he declared. "I don't mean three harps and 14 violins. I want a big band full of competent musicians that I can conduct and write for. And with the music we will paint pictures of Earth and space, so that the listener can be taken somewhere."

Hendrix also said he'd been "thinking that this era of music – sparked off by the Beatles – had come to an end. Something new has got to come, and Jimi Hendrix will be there."

He didn't make it. But Hendrix left behind a wealth of music that continues to astonish; pivotal and exciting, previously unheard recordings are still being unearthed four decades later. Hendrix's melodic, often elegant wrangling of feedback and distortion and his spiritual ambitions as a composer and producer – to make a music for new-world travel, fusing the sex and lament of electric blues with the spatial theater of the latest recording technology – were genuinely psychedelic yet remain vividly modern. "He was bigger than LSD," the Who's guitarist Pete Townshend wrote about Hendrix in this magazine in 2003. "What he played was fucking loud but also incredibly lyrical and expert. He managed to build this bridge between true blues guitar ... and modern sounds" – what Townshend described as "the wall of screaming guitar sound that U2 popularized."

Hendrix's three '67-68 albums all went Top Five in America – Electric Ladyland was Number One – and he still sells records like a living superstar. Since his death, there have been more than 50 official posthumous albums, including rarities collections, concert releases and greatest-hits sets. This year, Experience Hendrix – the company representing Hendrix's estate, founded in 1995 by his late father, Al, and run by Jimi's stepsister Janie – started a new worldwide licensing agreement with Sony Music. The first fruits of a decade-long plan of releases (see accompanying story) are Valleys of Neptune and deluxe reissues, with DVDs, of Hendrix's three original studio albums and First Rays of the New Rising Sun, the 1997 collection of songs he intended for the unfinished fourth.

The record business has changed dramatically since Experience Hendrix won full control of the guitarist's master recordings, after years of litigation. "Downloading didn't exist, CDs were still coming up," says Janie. "But this is still Jimi's music. He only made four albums but created much more music. Perhaps it wasn't quite ready to release. But we have it."

And Hendrix was in total charge of that music when he made it. Valleys of Neptune does not have anything from his months at Electric Lady. Instead, the 12 tracks run the gamut from the acid-garage Axis outtake "Mr. Bad Luck" to the dynamic title track – a composite of Hendrix's vocal from a '69 session and a feral instrumental track from May 1970 – and a surging guitar-choir instrumental, "Lullaby for the Summer," which Hendrix ultimately reworked into "Ezy Ryder."

But the rich pickings reflect the same consuming drive to innovate and succeed that dominated the last year of his life. From August 1969 until September 1970, Hendrix played some of the most important and memorable shows of his career: the closing set at Woodstock, with his classic immolation of "The Star-Spangled Banner"; the New Year's concerts at the Fillmore East with Cox and drummer Buddy Miles as Band of Gypsys; 1970 gigs with Cox and Mitchell at Berkeley and the Atlanta International Pop Festival. And there would be more than 70 documented recording sessions, two dozen of them at Electric Lady alone.

"Multitasking was a way of life for him," says Cox. "It wasn't a strain. He had a lot of things going on. But he knew where he wanted to go, how he wanted to get there." Cox remembers getting up one morning at the house in upstate New York where he was rehearsing with Hendrix for Woodstock: "We had amps set out on the patio. I was fiddling around, tuning up, and played 'Big Ben' [the famous melody of the chimes at the Houses of Parliament] right below Jimi's window. He stuck his head out – 'Keep playing that, don't stop!' He came down in his drawers, picked up his guitar and played this answering riff." Hendrix soon developed that into the opening sequence of "Dolly Dagger."

Hendrix joked about his work ethic to TV talk-show host Dick Cavett. "Do you consider yourself a disciplined guy?" Cavett asked in a July 1969 interview. "Do you get up every day and work?"

"I try to get up every day," Hendrix cracked. But he also spoke plainly of his determination. "I don't live on compliments. Matter of fact, it has a way of distracting me. A whole lotta musicians out there – they hear these compliments, and they think, 'Wow, it must have been really great.' So they get fat and satisfied and lost, and they forget about the actual talent that they have, and they start living in another world."

Tommy Erdelyi saw Hendrix's resolve in close-up. Erdelyi is better known as Tommy Ramone; he co-founded the Ramones in 1974 and was their original drummer. But in late 1969 and early 1970, he was an assistant engineer at the Rec­ord Plant in New York and worked on Hendrix's sessions there with Band of Gypsys. Songs recorded at those dates included early versions of the 1970 single "Izabella" and the guitar-firefight epic "Machine Gun."

"He wasn't verbal, but he didn't have any trouble explaining what he wanted," Erdelyi says of Hendrix. "He would do take after take, then want the gear moved around if he wasn't getting the right sound." Erdelyi recalls performances of songs like "Machine Gun" in which Hendrix's guitar, blowing at top volume through three stacks of Marshall speaker cabinets, shook the control-room window. "He could get incredible sustain, this deep tone, almost like a cello. It was beautiful stuff."

But Hendrix also "seemed insecure," Erdelyi adds. He was with Hendrix at the Record Plant one day while guitarist Leslie West recorded with his band Mountain in another room. "Jimi asked me, 'Do you think Leslie West is better than me?' I thought he was kidding." Erdelyi pauses, still shocked by the question. "Then I realized that he was serious."

"It also made me realize why he was a perfectionist," Erdelyi continues. "To me, Jimi Hendrix was a rock god. He didn't think of himself that way. He was competing with other musicians. He came to those sessions in a very serious way, to make the best records he possibly could."

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