A couple of months ago, CBS News broadcast a Friday night special about the year 1968. But the network’s representation of the pop music of that era served only to confirm my impression that they’ll never catch on: according to this version, the dominant sound ten years ago was exemplified by Hair. There was barely a mention of anything that these aging ears recall as authentic. Somehow, though, late in the program, a snippet of reality did intrude, in the form of a segment of D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, a documentary of the first rock festival (which, incidentally, took place in 1967), featuring that memorable weekend’s three most important artistic debuts: Janis Joplin, the Who and Jimi Hendrix.
On a program where the big news was the network’s belated conclusion that government agents had at least partially stage-managed the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago that year (information that’s at least five years old), these performers still felt like news and Jimi Hendrix was unquestionably the lead story. His careening, guitar-burning “Wild Thing” finale was an announcement that there was something Other in the world. It impressed me with a force stronger than reminiscence, for in many ways everyone else is still trying to catch up to what Hendrix had to offer.
A few days later, I attempted to explain what it was like to hear Hendrix for the first time to my fourteen-year-old friend Andre and one of his cronies. Andre is a good subject for such lore, it would seem: he plays drums in a Kiss-style rock band and knows about Jimi only because “Purple Haze” is a golden oldie. But the only evidence I had at hand was the new Warner Bros, anthology, The Essential Jimi Hendrix, which is so inadequate to the task that at the end of its first side I was informed that Hendrix was actually rather reminiscent of Mahogany Rush.
Was I crushed? Did I run out and buy a cassette of Smash Hits? You bet. After all, one of the reasons Jimi Hendrix was born was to teach teenagers that rock & roll holds secrets of greater dimension than Gene Simmons’ tongue. To call a record that is insufficient Essential is absurd.
The blame belongs squarely on the shoulders of producer Alan Douglas, who programmed it. A couple of years ago, Douglas looked like a hero for uncovering a trove of unreleased Hendrix tapes. But he is apparently determined to do for Hendrix what Norman Petty did for Buddy Holly. Petty, you may recall, is the producer who added voices and instrumentation to unreleased tapes after Holly’s death. Douglas did the same on a pair of Hendrix LPs, Midnight Lightning and Crash Landing and on a couple of songs even added another guitarist.
The new retrospective never challenges the stereotype of Hendrix as a performer who is chiefly interesting as a technician – both with the guitar and in the studio. The selection includes psychedelic relics like “Third Stone from the Sun,” but omits such emotionally powerful material as “I Don’t Live Today,” one of rock’s few mature attempts to deal with death; “The Wind Cries Mary,” Jimi’s great Dylanesque love song; “Red House,” the devastating twelve-bar blues that serves as a sort of historical climax to the bedeviled blues tradition founded by Robert Johnson; “Fire,” which does something similar for soul clichés; or anything from Band of Gypsys, which is so progressive that it might have been made by a contemporary black rock band, such as the Commodores.
Douglas’ album also lacks any perspective on Hendrix’ most popular material. “Purple Haze” and “All Along the Watchtower” are included, but “Foxy Lady,” an immediate bar-band classic, is missing, as are all of Hendrix’ live recordings: the Monterey versions of “Wild Thing” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” which are capsule definitions of rock & roll, the outrageous “Star Spangled Banner” from Woodstock, much less anything from the Berkeley concert released as Hendrix in the West.
The latter omission is most surprising, since The Essential Jimi Hendrix is meant to replace all of the posthumous releases (with the exception of Douglas’ own bastardized concoctions, of course). To this end, we are offered seven songs from three of those albums, constituting barely one-quarter of this set’s running time. Clearly, Douglas has a greater ambition: to define Hendrix historically.
One wonders whether it’s possible to get all of this great rock innovator’s facets on two discs in the first place. But to accept this meager glimpse as essential, much less definitive, is impossible. More than anything, Jimi Hendrix remains fundamental listening because every moment of his music involved a redefinition of himself. That’s what made him more than just a technician, or a momentary craze. And it is what keeps so much of his music fresh. More people ought to be familiar with his legacy, but this definitely isn’t the way to find out about it.
This story is from the November 16th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.