Maybe it’s just my imagination, but the Jimi Hendrix section of my local record bin seems to have been growing at an astonishing pace lately. In recent weeks, we’ve been offered a bland semi-jam with Lonnie Youngblood (who?) on Maple Records, a collection of ancient tapes with the Isley Brothers (a product of Buddah, from whom it would have been nice to say that they should’ve known better), and a large assortment of bootlegs, all seemingly taken from the same series of Los Angeles Forum concerts.
But The Cry of Love is the genuine article, Hendrix’ final effort, and it is a beautiful, poignant testimonial, a fitting coda to the career of a man who was clearly the finest electric guitarist to be produced by the Sixties, bar none. This record seems more complete than the album Janis left for us, but like Pearl, it too seems strangely foreshortened, a venture caught in the process of becoming and suddenly halted. The fact that The Cry of Love is still as good as it is must serve as some sort of reminder as to just how large looms the shadow of its creator.
As a pure musician — and this is not even touching his grace as a performer, or his role as the first non-Top 40 superstar — Hendrix was strangely unique in a field bred on familiarity. He was an intense craftsman, of course, as one of his earliest sides, “Red House,” attested; a fluid-fingered picker who could ripple off runs with an unexpectedly perfect style, bursting out with phrases that filled up every loose chink in a song as if they had been especially inscribed for the occasion. But more than that, Hendrix was a master of special effects, a guitarist who used electricity in a way that was never as obvious as mere volume. He took his bag of toys the fuzz-tone, the wah-wah pedal, the stack of Marshalls and used them as a series of stepping-stones to create wave upon wave of intense energy, proper settings for a scene of wrath and somehow healing destruction. It was rock and roll that was both quite in tune with and yet far ahead of its time, and in a way, I’m not sure that we’ve ever really fully caught up.
Still, and it’s important to view The Cry of Love in this light, it seems that Hendrix found it hard to sustain his creativity once he had made his initial breakthrough. His first album, Are You Experienced?, was as near a total statement as he made, each cut caught in its prime and done in a way that allowed for no waste or superficiality, and try as he might, he was never able to come as close to that completeness on any of his subsequent releases. Indeed, the strengths that Hendrix displayed in his debut effort were to remain his strengths throughout his career. For one, he showed off an astonishing ability to construct a song: the opening lines to “Purple Haze” are not only remarkable in their dumb simplicity but for the fact that they set the stage for the mayhem which logically follows. For another, his music had an incongruous element of lyricism, a tender second side that could hardly be explained in the context of “Foxy Lady,” such things as “May This Be Love” or “The Wind Cries Mary.” And last, and probably most significant, he built a magnetizing presence, an overwhelming personality which totally dominated each cut, creating a flesh and blood image that had to stay with you long after you had left the record and gone home.
There were other things involved, of course, but they have more to do with the stream of rock and roll at that time rather than with Hendrix himself. The concept of the rock trio, for instance, was just beginning to strike gold, and it was bolstered by a dynamite combination of English decadence over Seattle black man that helped propel him towards success. In the end, though, even if that first album had arrived at your door in a plain blank cover, we would have known that here was something to be reckoned with, a massively exciting interstellar achievement.
But the question was, and remains, what can you do for an encore? Very early, it seemed that Hendrix had been almost captured by his audience, trapped by the totality of that first release, and he was never given room to grow. As in sports, every artist needs to work off a challenge, to have a spur in his side that makes him top himself, time after time after time. After Monterey, though, there was no challenge. At concerts, he was applauded for even the meagrest of performances, standing ovations at the most lackluster of guitar smashings, and as a result, he just didn’t try as hard. Perhaps if his supporting musicians had been stronger (and this is not to slight either Noel Redding or Mitch Mitchell, who backed Hendrix to the hilt during these early years) he might have been able to work off them and move onto some new and fresher ground. But Hendrix was a musical giant who never found anyone quite as tall as himself, and so, like all great men, he stood alone.
In actuality, Hendrix never made a bad record — his worst was usually far above most anyone else’s best — but increasingly, his albums began to break down into Good tracks and Not-So-Good tracks. Axis: Bold As Love never really lived up to the promise of its cover, composed as it was of refined explorations of some of the places “The Wind Cries Mary” had visited. Much of it was quite excellent — Hendrix was obviously looking toward moving into a new style — but it lacked the drive and kinetic force of Are You Experienced?, becoming an album to be reserved for late night listening. Electric Ladyland, which came out not too long a time after, showed that things were wearing thin. The best cut on the double-record set was, almost ironically, a sort of loose blues jam around “Voodoo Child,” and despite such silver-studded highlights as “All Along The Watchtower” and “Crosstown Traffic,” the album never really got itself together.
Why? More of the reason is tied up with Hendrix’ personality and artistic temperament than we’ll ever be able to guess. But the problem, as I see it, appears to have been one of material, rather than any disintegration in his style or approach to that material. Hendrix learned his chops in blues and rhythm and blues, where a musician is given a formalized, set structure to work with, and operates within that structure, embellishing and interpreting as he will. Hendrix, however, chose to make his stand in the dawning field of rock, which though it was easily as formalized a music, still carried a different set of traditions with it: for our purposes here, the two most important being that you write your own music and that, though it should always sound familiar, should never be note-for-note the same as something you did before. Where Hendrix could spend two years backing up Little Richard, who essentially did the same song in a variety of minutely different ways, he wasn’t about to be able to pull off the same thing on his own.
And so after the first album and parts of the second, where his creativity was able to function under the new ground rules, it was becoming clear by the time of Electric Ladyland that he couldn’t keep it up. In that sense, it’s interesting that when he took on other people’s material (such as “All Along the Watchtower”) he turned in a job that was nothing short of marvelous. But as for his own compositions, it was as if he had lost the touch. They sounded contrived, put together because he was bored with the old stuff and needed something new, and the consequent artificiality only caused him to fall back on his crowd-pleasing tricks, things that time had taught him would generate some kind of response.
After Electric Ladyland, Hendrix seemed to retreat back into his guitar. The Experience dissolved, there was talk of new bands, but nothing that amounted to much. He seemed to move away from areas that were troubling him, back to the things he knew best. In large part he gave up studio recording concentrating on live appearances and jamming instead. When he appeared with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox at the Fillmore on the New Year’s Eve spanning 1969-70, it was more with the intent to be a member of a band than a solo star. Buddy did a large part of the singing and clowning around, and Hendrix seemed content to move in the shadow, working his guitar with a flair that brought all his assets to the fore. He played his instrument better than anyone else I could dream of that night, and his best moments came not in his long solos, which tended to overextend themselves, but in his fills and punctuations, the little added extras in which he most seemed to delight.
This was the way he spent his last two years — playing around, building a new studio, everything, in fact, but recording a new album — and now, after the end, we have The Cry of Love. In the sense of a breakthrough, it’s not anything we might not have expected from Hendrix. Still, the songs are all uniquely his, stylized in his unique way, and after so long an absence, they are more than welcome. Because of the general excellence of the engineering and production, it’s hard to say just how complete the album was before his death, but it is clear that if these tracks were mostly finished and in the can, then the only thing holding up their release must have been Jimi himself. They are that good.
The album opens with “Freedom,” all flashes and exuberance, and it pointedly sets the tone for the record. The tune is one of Hendrix’ best, full of straining tensions and masterful releases, ripping along at a pace that is not to be believed, picking up speed as it goes. Hendrix always knew how to kick a band, and he is at his peak here. Mitch Mitchell follows him along perfectly, and shows a few of the reasons why he was always Hendrix’ greatest foundation.
If “Freedom” exemplifies one side of Hendrix, the next cut, “Drifting,” aptly show off his other. As a composer (though that word seems somewhat out of place in this setting), Hendrix had the uncanny knack of molding his music perfectly to his lyrics. “Manic Depression” is the obvious example here, though this quality tended to come through better on his slower, prettier material. “Drifting” is no exception. A beautiful guitar figure opens the track, soft and formless, and waits as the rest of the instruments slowly slide in, seemingly revolving one around the other. Hendrix’ vocal is right up front, almost studied, filled with lovely images of “Driftin’/On a sea of forgotten teardrops/On a lifeboat . . .” and floating off from there. It’s a ghostly cut, one of the most moving pieces Hendrix ever created, and it says much for the breadth and scope of his talent.
After these two opening classics, The Cry of Love seems to get down to business. “Ezy Rider” is a rocker, plain and simple, and Hendrix and Co. light into it with a fury. The guitar leads are short and to the point, and there isn’t a wasted moment. The cut fades at the end and then returns with a sudden lick, almost as an afterthought — a nice touch. “Night Bird Flying” starts sluggishly, as if most of the musicians’ weren’t quite sure what to do with it, but picks up a little as Hendrix begins to jam with his own guitar work on another track.
“My Friend,” with its tinkling glasses and nightclub noises, could just have been the usual end-of-side-one throwaway, except for a set of lyrics which Hendrix almost casually injects. The style is Dylanesque, circa “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: slightly surrealistic, a lot of friendly nonsense, and some very aware, deeply personal lines. “And, uh, sometimes it’s not so easy, specially when your only friend/Talks, sees, looks and feels like you/And you do just the same as him . . .” Not much. Just a little something to think about.
“Straight Ahead” greets you as you turn the album over to side two, and it’s not a particularly noteworthy way to begin. Hendrix plays a nice wah-wah guitar, but the song is dragged down by some fairly obvious Socially Significant lyrics and a lethargic reading. “Astro Man” is a whole different story, however. Of all the cuts on the album, this one has the most incomplete feel, with nobody really sure of where the song is heading. Yet building from the same science fiction chords that the Jefferson Airplane used to open “The House on Pooneil Corners,”it easily overcomes any of its deficiencies, loose limbed and rocking at every turn.
If whoever put together the pieces of The Cry of Love had a flair for the melodramatic. “Angel” might have been placed at the end of the record, its deathlike images of salvation and resurrection providing the final touch to a memorial album. But programmed as it is, side two, band three, it stands on its own merits, a beautiful piece of work. It moves nicely into a frantic “In From The Storm,” Hendrix shining at his most furious, changing the structure of the song three or four times until things finally run out of steam. The final touch is saved for “Belly Button Window,” a kind of slow and mellow blues which Hendrix performs accompanied only by his guitar, a sly smile on his face, a few light whistles as the fade comes in. You can almost see him waving as he moves in the distance.
So there you have it. If The Cry of Love had come out while Hendrix was alive, we probably would have said it was a good album, bought a million copies, and left it at that. But now that he’s gone, It has to become that much more precious, something to savor slowly because there’ll be no others. It does him justice — no mean feat — and I don’t think we could have ever wanted anything more than that.
I once knew a guitarist who could, upon request, imitate any and all of your favorites. Ask him for Danny Kalb and his fingers would fly so fast that they’d be a blur on the fretboard. Jeff Beck? He could play anything from Truth note for note, with or without the record. Request Eric Clapton, and you’d have “Spoonful,” complete even to the hint of a Jack Bruce bass line underneath. Jimmy Page? Alvin Lee? Jerry Garcia? He had them all down, one by one.
I asked him once upon a time to do Hendrix for me. He smiled a little bit, set up his fuzz-tone, hooked up an echo unit, threw a few switches here and there, and gave it a try. He couldn’t do it.
And neither, for that matter, could have anyone else. Whatever his secrets, Jimi Hendrix took them with him.