Rediscovering Jimi Hendrix
A few months ago, writing about the pleasures of driving, I described myself listening to a Jimi Hendrix album on my daily commute. As soon as I wrote that sentence I felt slightly embarrassed: what a stereotypical baby boomer pop fan, on the far side of middle age, tooling down the highway to the nostalgic accompaniment of the music that was new when he was in college and has long since passed into the realm of the conventional. I considered changing or removing the reference, but in the interests of honesty left it in; it was, after all, what I was listening to on the day I was describing.
But I can also, in honesty, say that I was not indulging in nostalgia. In fact, at the time it was current Hendrix’s music never really meant that much to me. There was a period of six months or so when Are You Experienced? was inescapable, at least in certain circles, and although I was, like everyone else who was interested in pop music, pretty amazed and intrigued by the guitar work on it, this was not music that really touched my emotions. His second album was a disappointment and the third a mixed bag, and by the time of his death in 1970 I had pretty much lost interest in his music and didn’t hear it again for many years, except for the few songs that had become staples of classic rock radio.
At some point in the ‘80s I had a yen to hear Hendrix again and discovered that I had lost my copy of Are You Experienced? and gained a copy of a greatest hits compilation which included most of the more popular songs from Experienced. Listening to it, I found I had completely lost the little taste I had ever had for the noisy riff songs of sexual bravado like “Foxy Lady,” but the album contained a gem I had missed in the ‘60s, a straight-up blues called “Red House.” I had always heard that Hendrix could play the blues when he wanted to, but I hadn’t known he did it with genius. This cut was timeless, unlike a lot of Hendrix’s recorded work.
It was only this year that I discovered the existence of an entire CD of Hendrix playing the blues (called simply Blues). After one hearing it took its place in my mind as one of the great blues albums of all time, even though it’s mostly comprised of jams and outtakes that were never meant to be released. Hendrix’s guitar work is just staggering. A song like “Once I Had a Woman” begins with fairly straightforward blues licks, then with every verse gets more imaginative and further out until it’s full of the intensely expressive screams and roars and wails that only he at the time could produce and few have matched since, even with electronics that can produce similar tones at the touch of a button.
The blues vocabulary is of course fundamentally limited, and even Hendrix doesn’t avoid clichés and repetition completely. I find myself wondering what it is about his playing that sets it apart. I think part of the explanation is in the rhythms, which somehow manage to be simultaneously tight and loose, heavy and light. It’s as if the temporal space in which he places each note is larger than it is for other players; as if he has some extra room to work with, and doesn’t have to be in a rush to put the note exactly where he wants it, so that there is a underlying relaxed quality even when he’s playing fast and intensely. Someone like Eric Clapton, who is equally quick, seems a bit four-square, almost stiff in comparison. Someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan seems like he’s working really hard. Almost everything Hendrix does seems effortless, unstrained, as if he has as much speed and power in reserve as he is actually using at any moment.
And then there’s the tone, or rather there are the tones. Few others have (and nobody at the time had) as wide a range, and yet most electric guitar aficionados need only a few notes to recognize the Hendrix sound. To compare him to his contemporary Eric Clapton again (and no criticism of Clapton intended, because he’s a great guitarist), Clapton’s tone is very pure and clean, while Hendrix’s is scuffed up, richer, thicker, and more varied. His playing in the middle and higher range of the instrument has a liquid quality which as far as I’ve heard has not been duplicated by anybody. And of course there are what might be called the post-guitar tones. Hendrix was the first pop musician to find a way to make an expressive tool out of what at first seems to be sheer noise.
It’s when Hendrix combines the controlled noise of feedback and whatever else he stirred into the mix with ventures into melodic territory well outside the blues vocabulary that people trying to describe it come up with terms like “blues from Mars.” It’s a combination of earthiness and abstraction that to me is nothing less than gripping. There are people who play faster and louder and with more complexity, but I don’t know of anyone whose playing has more emotional power than Hendrix at his best.
This blues album sent me back to some of the other Hendrix albums for the first time in many years. I have to say that most of his songs don’t really amount to a great deal as anything except guitar vehicles, and you have to overlook a lot of gimmicky lust and psychedelia to enjoy them. The tracks that I keep going back to are the longer mostly instrumental ones, like “Voodoo Chile” on Electric Ladyland (the less said about the title song the better), or the strange ones like “Third Stone from the Sun” on Are You Experienced?. One wishes he had recorded more covers, as “All Along the Watchtower” has probably had wider popularity than anything else he recorded. Speaking of which, its famous solo is a perfect example of that intense-but-relaxed quality, with moments where many notes are dropped into a small space and yet still have plenty of room. And I downloaded from iTunes a copy of the famous Woodstock “Star Spangled Banner” (I have no desire at all to hear the whole album) and it strikes me as some kind of unique American masterpiece.
Like anybody who admires the work of Jimi Hendrix, I find myself wondering what might have been. I suppose drugs had a lot to do with the wildness of some of his experimentation, but I find it hard to believe that they did not also limit and hamper him musically (aside from the fact, of course, that they also killed him.) I find myself thinking of him less as a pop star who stumbled into moments of brilliance than as an innovator who was too bogged down in the stupid and destructive aspects of stardom and hippie culture to flower fully before his untimely death.
Attempting to be realistic in one’s speculations, one must suppose that had he lived, his subsequent development would probably have been like that of most of his contemporaries: an increasingly uninspired recapitulation of his early achievements. But there are moments in some of the pop songs on Are You Experienced? and his other official releases when it almost sounds like John Coltrane has dropped in on a recording session of the Rolling Stones, and I wonder if the work of a forty-year-old Hendrix might have had more in common with that of later musicians whom he helped to inspire, such as Bill Frissel, than with what he did at twenty-five.