The love I have for Jimi Hendrix’s music goes back to the summer of my middle school years when I pleaded with my mother to buy “Are You Experienced.” And so, before I had that album all to myself, I’d relentlessly call the top 40 radio station and pester the DJ to play “Foxy Lady.” I didn’t know at the time but the song wasn’t a 45 single and that the station only played 45 singles. The DJ could’ve said, “hey stupid kid, I just can’t play Jimi Hendrix, I have to play the songs they tell me to play which are the well-known hits of The Animals, The Turtles, and the Supremes.” And I would have understood. I forgot all that when my mother unexpectedly bought the album for me. I first studied the photographs of the band on both sides of the album. They are contrasting photos: the fiery psychedelic fish-eyed lens photo on the front, and the close-up, back-lit, black/white photo on the back cover. Looking at Jimi Hendrix: his wild hair, his multi-colored shirt with the eyes and feathers, his large claw-like hands, and his confident expression, he struck me as someone primitive, bold, and entirely different from anybody else at the time, yet more advanced. I mean, a dynamic person who is in touch with himself on a deep level, his feeling, and what he can do with a guitar. Through the years, my impressions of him haven’t changed.
Now, in contrast to what I know about his musical history, it’s interesting to read about his younger army days through the cold hard facts of his discharge papers which were recently published. Even back then, I couldn’t picture Hendrix as a straight army paratrooper who was rumored discharged with a “back injury.” Basically, the papers say Hendrix was dishonorably discharged because he was an incompetent soldier. He had a simple job as a repair supply clerk, yet he could barely serve this function. Among other army issues, the papers state that he “wonders off without a pass, pays little attention, unable to carry on an intelligent conversation, requires excessive supervision at all times, couldn’t shoot straight, has a large laundry bill, and was caught masturbating in the latrine while on detail” (the soldier looked over the stall to see if Hendrix was asleep). Hendrix’s service record goes on to read like a Beetle Bailey cartoon strip, which only adds a provocative layer to his image.
As a guitar player, what couldn’t he do? Besides restringing for the left hand, he invented a style of playing where he would play the low E with his thumb wrapped around the neck. Hendrix used the microphone stand as a slide, plucked the strings with his teeth, played behind his back or head, was kinetically fast, used feedback, backward tape effects, pedals, and he would often run his pick along the strings, etc. There are so many ways that he could play, but he used his technology of playing, through the format of the blues, to create modern rock. To further this, he built the Electric Lady Studio, and although he didn’t do much there, a lot of other bands recorded there after his death. But my strong sense of Hendrix’s guitar playing is that he used his techniques to create sonic textures. His virtuosity produced a rainbow of tone colors and textures that was inexhaustible and always surprising in their effects. In “Love Or Confusion,” the bending G chord slides into a tremolo bar octave note. This is an astonishing passage because it’s ambiguous as to whether there are two guitars playing, or just Hendrix alone playing a trick of virtuosity. Hendrix had a perfect sense of pitch. However, he was insecure about his singing voice and he supported it with his guitar. This only served his voice and gave it an alien metallic quality. Here again in “Love Or Confusion,” his flat, reverb treated, vocals have a detached quality within an electric storm of tremolo bar and feed back. Hendrix also had a keen sense of the leading tone in the blues and pentatonic modalities. His guitar playing was intuitive to where the leading tone could go and its implications. He knew the blues conventions so well from jamming during his early experiences as a sideman with the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, that he could later recast the blues constituents into something else. “May This Be Love,” is shocking in its juxtaposition to the blues. But within the electric waterfall of cymbals splashing and guitar glissandos, the lyrics are blues subject matter as he rejects scoffers for his unique vision of love.
If you look at the back cover of Hendrix’s “Smash Hits,” you will see the band dressed as western bandits. No doubt Hendrix had an air of bravado. But behind his outer hippie love appearance and aura, he was out to prove that he was the world’s greatest guitar player. When Chas Chandler, now Jimi’s manager and member of the Animals, brought him to England in the sixties, Jimi was dropped into London’s hot bed of competing guitar gunslingers, that being: Clapton, Townshend, Beck, and Page. There is a well-known anecdote where Townshend and Clapton have a worried conversation that this new guy in town will threaten to out shine them and replace them as a guitar god. There is a high level of pride in playing rock guitar – that it is a gunslinger’s arena. Chops are guarded, and they can make or break a guitarist. Hendrix loved to shoot down other guitarists or musicians during jams. On “Voodoo Child,” he musically urges Steve Windwood into an exchange between organ and guitar. Hendrix just out plays him, he never had a chance. Hendrix makes a tepid appearance on Stephen Stills’ solo album. On “Old Times Good Times,” Stills’ aggressive organ playing (not his guitar?) obviously wanted to dominate and push Hendrix into a corner. But during his solo, Jimi noodles around as if to say that he is just sitting in – no big deal. Stills’ incredible ego makes this song one of rock’s many disappointments. But the collaboration of a few songs between Arthur Lee and Hendrix are terrific and just as obscure. They were recently released on the album”Love Lost.” Lee claims in his autobiography that he discovered Jimi Hendrix, and that Hendrix stole his look off of the cover of Da Capo. They were close friends and looked a lot alike, but when Hendrix stole Lee’s girlfriend, that was the final straw of their friendship.
Over the course of the first three albums, Hendrix never seemed loyal to his band, “The Experience.” As described in Mitch Mitchell’s book, rather than rehearsing with them, Jimi was always off jamming with other musicians. It was as though he wanted the adoration of other musicians as a free-wheeling sideman, but not the spotlight. Hendrix then brought in his old army buddy Billy Cox, and Buddy Miles, on “Electric Ladyland.” This “jam” on “Electric Ladyland” then turned into the live “Band Of Gypsys” album which was a longer jam. The band was short-lived, and it seemed at the time Hendrix succumbed to the pressures of race issues. He did that by forming an all black band (Band Of Gypsys), and writing songs against the war. It’s ironic that Arthur Lee did the same thing with his “Black Love” band later. With the Band Of Gypsys, Hendrix reverted to conventional blues and never returned to his flowery, psychedelic, and plasticized music of the “Experience.” I still view the earlier as his most lasting and indigestible material, and the latter, his most direct and popular. With his first three albums, there is a promise of transcendence; they create that transformation. In “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” through “Moon, Turn The Tides…gently gently away,” there is a musical march to the sea. To breathe underwater among the bobbing sonic buoys is a promise of transformation of physical and spiritual self. Like “Third Stone From The Sun,” “Moon, Turn The Tides” is eclectic music from another world.
Hendrix was a magical figure in Rock; a figure who crossed musical boundaries and transformed himself at a time of intense pressures. He was autonomous. With his style deeply established and popular, there was really nothing else for him to prove. At that point, he could have gone back to experimentation; he already created a new territory that younger bands became involved with. Hendrix probably understood the implications that a new direction beyond the blues or even rock was to be explored. Sadly, Hendrix never saw this great legacy and posterity play out with time. He was taken from us too early to give us an answer.