In the late 60s, fatefully indoctrinated in the classics, my awareness of pop was largely limited to The Beatles, and it took my ears a long time to open up to the gutsy, intense physicality of unmediated rock and blues. Still, even I couldn’t help noticing the genius of Jimi Hendrix (YouTube channel; wiki), a shooting star who exploded onto the scene, as if the 60s weren’t already wild enough.
Born in Seattle in 1942, following a stint of army service he moved to Nashville, touring in backing bands. After a brief stay in Greenwich Village, in September 1966 he moved to London, “like a Martian landing”. Lured there by Chas Chandler, himself just starting out as a manager, for Jimi it was a leap in the dark; but when after just a week he got to jam with Cream, Eric Clapton was amazed by his playing of Howling Wolf’s Killing floor.
He soon formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience band, with the dynamic energy of Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass. In London he experienced less racism than in the States, and brought an Afro-American tinge to what was still a largely Caucasian pop scene, a “black hippie”. When he returned to the States in 1967 for the Monterey festival, he was still largely unknown there.
A deeply serious musician, he synthesised blues (already unfashionable among the new generation of African Americans), soul, folk, R&B, jazz, and psychedelic rock. He was at the heart of the whole countercultural zeitgeist; even his exotic sense of fashion was iconic. His vocals (“warm, wistful or lascivious on cue”) make a counterpoint to his astounding guitar playing. Like Coltrane, he was gentle and softly spoken.
His three studio albums are
- Are you experienced (double LP, 1967, contemporary with Sgt Pepper!):
- Axis: bold as love (1967):
- Electric ladyland (double LP, 1968):
The wiki article has a section on Jimi’s innovative use of equipment: guitars (notably the Fender Stratocaster, restrung for a left-hander), amps, wah-wah pedal and Uni-vibe (cf. Bach’s inspiration from new technology).
Jimi’s appearance at the 1967 Monterey festival must have been one of the great gigs of all time. The band opened with yet another stunning rendition of Killing floor, immortalised here; in Hey Joe Jimi plays guitar with his teeth, and behind his back (like the pipa players of the Tang dynasty…):
Yet Jimi never indulged in empty virtuosity; such iconic scenes are integral, sincere. He ended the set with Wild thing, setting fire to his guitar and smashing it (“I decided to destroy my guitar at the end of a song as a sacrifice. You sacrifice things you love. I love my guitar”):
For the Woodstock festival in 1969 Jimi had a new lineup. I must confess it took me some time to tune into his legendary reworking of The star-spangled banner (for some other versions, click here). I’m used to jazzers transforming standards with complex melodic and harmonic changes, and our ears are tuned to the dense, manic textures of rock; so, misled by Jimi’s sparse monodic rendition (Like, Hello?), it took me a while to hear that the meaning resided in the timbre—“an act of protest”, as Paul Grimstad observed, in which
bombs, airplane engines, explosions, human cries, all seem to swirl around in the feedback and distortion. At one point, Hendrix toggles between two notes a semitone apart while burying the guitar’s tremolo bar, turning his Fender Strat into a doppler warp of passing sirens, or perhaps the revolving blades of a helicopter propeller. […]
All the exalted ideals of the American experiment, and the bitterness of its contradictions and hypocrisies, are placed in volatile admixture through an utterly American contraption, a device you might say is the result of a collaboration between Benjamin Franklin, Leo Fender, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the mongrel machine that Hendrix made into a medium for a new kind of virtuosity. In the Woodstock performance of the national anthem, we find that an electric guitar can be made to convey the feeling that the country’s history could be melted down, remolded, and given a new shape.
Typically, Jimi deflated all the hype:
All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it… It’s not unorthodox … I thought it was beautiful.
Amidst legal disputes, Jimi parted with Chas Chandler, continuing to explore; his new band Band of Gypsys was an all-black power trio with his old friend Billie Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. Despite mixed reviews, their live album at the Fillmore East includes stunning solos from Jimi like Machine gun:
and Who knows:
* * *
There’s something cute about Hendrix being a neighbour of Handel in Brook street, albeit not at the same time. Both were migrants catering to a changing modern market, both experimenting in different styles—but while some of Handel‘s arias are admirable, he can hardly compete with Hendrix’s genius… *
By 1970 Hendrix was dead, yet another member of the fateful 27 club: Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin (all between 1969 and 1971), and later Kurt Cobain (1994) and Amy Winehouse (2011)… (cf. my list at the end of The spiritual path of John Coltrane).
* That’s how I originally wrote that last sentence—in the interests of brevity, not wanting to try the patience of Hendrix junkies. In view of Eric’s entertaining comment below, I might now augment it, perhaps like this:
While some of Handel’s music is admirable (see my tribute to some gorgeous arias), over his long career the ratio of drudge to ecstasy is rather high (and “I’ll have you know, I’ve played more Messiahs than you’ve had hot dinners”!). Handel found himself, as you do (or at least, as baroque composers did), dutifully churning out a lot of mundane fugues by the square yard. I’m not knocking the routine, bread-and-butter craft of artisans, but this is far from the evanescent genius of Jimi—and, I’d say, in a more sensible comparison, far from the constant spiritual inspiration of Bach. OK, for a more refined assessment of “the class of ’85”, see John Eliot Gardiner, Music from the castle of heaven, ch. 4 (cf. A Bach retrospective, Rameau, 1707 at the Proms, and many posts under https://stephenjones.blog/category/wam/early-music/).