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*****This year, his 40th death anniversary, has been a rewarding year for students and lovers of Jimi Hendrix.
On my changer now, engineered by George Marino, Purple Haze, and up next, The Wind Cries Mary. Jimi Hendrix died when I was 5 years old, yet his music changed the world I grew up into so totally that it is hard to imagine that Clapton or the Dire Straits or even Lady Gaga could have ever happened without him, okay maybe Lady Gaga but not the gods of guitar as they did turn out. Even my son, who just turned four, knows that Jimi Hendrix is important and makes music with a guitar. Here is a video of him at age three explaining to me who Jimi Hendrix is.
Jimi Hendrix was a guitarist who grew up in the 50s in Seattle listening to the black (and) blues masters B. B. King, Chuck Berry and the like, much like the Beatles across the ocean. He finished school and served in the army till 1961, when he was discharged and started playing as a backup artist under the name Jimmy James. Not a lot of people know that he fronted a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, up until the point when he headed to England and teamed up with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchel and formed what we now know as the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This was in 1966, years after the Beatles and Elvis had caused the world to rethink their idea of popular music, and rock, rock & roll, and rhythm and blues became mainstream music.
What happened over the next decade is history. From revolutionizing the concept of using distortion of the electric output from the guitar as an art form, to rockstar histrionics like settling the guitar on fire, playing the guitar with his teeth or behind his back, from using his hip movements as an integral part of his performing a song to phrasing around the augmented 9th dominant chord, effectively allowing him to switch between minor and major scales for the same dominant 7th, Hendrix laid the foundations for guitar work. His use of distortion and heavy driven riffs were the precursor of what evolved into hard rock and heavy metal. The version of Sunshine of Your Love on Valleys of Neptune verges on being a headbangers’ delight. His influence on contemporary guitar might be unknown to the new generation of guitarists themselves but is undeniable. The words fuzz and wah wah have long disappeared from the lexicon of modern guitar players, but were concepts/techniques that he popularized, along with Roger Mayer, his sound engineer, who innovated to give him new vistas to explore in the realm of tonality, thus becoming one of the pioneers of charting the evolution of the “electric” guitar from that of an electric signal from an acoustic instrument to a tonal source that could be moulded, manipulated, mauled and managed to create textures appropriate to the mood of the composition.
The magic of hearing Are you Experienced for the first time is one that can not be described, especially if you are a young guitarist discovering the blues, and the intricacies of the electric sound. This was followed by the discoveries that lay in Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland. These are the only three studio albums that the Experience cut. Even though they were introduced as the Jimi Hendrix Experience when they performed at Woodstock in 1969, Noel Redding had been replaced by Billy Cox on the bass, and Hendrix himself can be heard on the recording correcting the announcer and calling themselves Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, later to be called A Band of Gypsys. The historic set included the amazing guitar rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, one of the most beautiful guitar pieces (another being Amazing Grace on the bass by Victor Wooten) ever.
The Band of Gypsys went on to record a live album and do a lot of touring, and it was not till 1970 that the Experience name was used again, though Noel Redding was still not part of it. The period of 1967-1970 saw Hendrix getting messed up with his drug use, disagreements with his business partners and his bandmates, and financial struggles. His thinking and creativity, both warped by his indulgence in ganja, heroin, speed, acid, prescription meds like sleeping pills and painkillers, and alcohol, went into a downward spiral, with grandiose and irrational plans, and stereotypical repetitive compositions. He died on September 18, 1970, choking on his own vomit after an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol.
Like the genii of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, and Kurt Cobain, irresponsible abuse of drugs claimed another brilliant victim at the early age of 27 in Jimi Hendrix.
While it is natural to eulogize and worship the body of work that Hendrix left behind, it is also pertinent and prudent to reflect on the senseless waste of creative talent and life and to filter our adulation with caution that not everything that a role model embodies needs to be emulated. I grew up at a time when to play guitar like Jimi did was my goal, and he did it stoned, so getting stoned was the goal for budding young blues guitarists of our times, but nobody told anybody then that not only was drugs the greatest ambition killer but it also killed human beings in every way imaginable. Nobody talked about his washed out non performances concerts, the physical violence, the arrests and the humiliation that his lifestyle, his personality and his drug use entailed. Many of my friends and I myself have been blessed not to have died from our stupidity and our love for the “jimi thing,” in whatever ways that we didn’t die, but the millions of lives that have been snuffed out by drugs is testimony to how close we were to losing our lives, our sanity and our purpose in life.
The Hendrix legacy, whether it be the music and the bands, or copyright and authorized versions, or his personal life struggle, has had to go through turbulent tests. In 1994, Paul Allen (the Microsoft Paul Allen, yes), and other wellwishers of the Hendrix legacy came together to form the Experience Hendrix label, and then the Jimi Hendrix Museum which has now evolved into the mammoth Experience Music Project.
This year, the 40th death anniversary of Hendrix, (thanks Brian Ibbot of Coverville for setting the tone for September 18) we saw the release of Valleys of Neptune, the first genuine Experience studio release since Electric Ladyland, though his prolific output left behind a host of unreleased material which keep surfacing as bootlegs, compilations and re-engineerings. You can read my review of Valleys of Neptune by clicking here. Sony Legacy’s West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology in a 4CD/1DVD Box Set also holds great promise as it contains previously unreleased alternate versions (both studio and live) of tracks from every period of his career. It also contains the 90 minute documentary by Bob Smeaton on DVD, Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child. (You can pre-order it now by clicking here.)
If you liked this post, you may want to read about the life of Robert Johnson by visiting a more recent post on this blog.