This article appeared on American Heritage’s web site in October 18, 2006 to commemorate the anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s death. Its original title was “To Kiss The Sky From The Bottom Of The Sea: Remembering Jimi Hendrix.” Sharon Lawrence, whose book on Jimi is essential reading, contacted me and had some very nice words about the piece.
Jimi Hendrix Dies–And Lives On
It was on this day in 1970 that Jimi Hendrix died in London as a result of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills given to him by a woman he’d met only months earlier in the Germany. However, those that knew him were not wholly surprised by his passing. In fact, some members of Hendrix’s inner circle even speculated that he always knew his time on earth was limited and pushed himself to perform and record as much as possible as a result. Others suggested that the weight of the legend he’d created in just three years was crushing him. The constant struggle between public expectations and the direction Hendrix wanted his music to take weighed heavily on him. Hendrix, like most musicians of the period, embraced hallucinogens. However, the drugs he took became darker as he became more frustrated. Unfortunately, it was also during this period that Hendrix was more beset than ever by hangers-on who often seemed intent on facilitating him with the “ultimate high.”
Sadly, Jimi’s naiveté kept him from keeping these predators at bay. But his musical legacy was as influential and lasting as a rock musician could hope for. As his Hendrix’s page on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website states, “He expanded the range and vocabulary of the electric guitar into areas no musician had ever ventured before…More than any other musician, he realized the fullest range of sound that could be obtained from an amplified instrument.” He was so far ahead of his peers that when Eric Clapton and The Who’s Pete Townshend famously first saw him play in a London club they were so awestruck they figured that their careers were over. In 2003, Rolling Stone officially named Hendrix the greatest guitarist of all time.
Americans of the 1960s may have thought that Hendrix exploded into their radios and onto their television and movie screens, but he had actually been plying and honing his craft for some time. Born in Seattle in 1942, Hendrix lived with his Cherokee grandmother in Vancouver after his parents divorced in 1951. It was after his mother died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1958 that he first picked up the guitar. In 1961, an alleged car theft led to two years of mandatory service in the Army. Not surprisingly, a less than enthusiastic Hendrix lasted less than a year as a paratrooper. After a broken ankle led to his discharge, he worked the “chitlin circuit” of the south, backing up acts such as The Isley Brothers, King Curtis and Little Richard. It was during this time that he cultivated his now-famous stage act which would later include playing his guitar behind his back and with his teeth. Hendrix drew his sense of showmanship from the R&B acts he worked with, but as Little Richard would later recall, he could not longer play the side man forever.
After striking out on his own on stages such as Greenwich Village’s Café Wha?, Jimi was “discovered” and subsequently brought to London by former Animals bassist-turned producer, Chas Chandler. It was there that Chandler helped Jimi to form The Jimi Hendrix Experience, with British musicians Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. The Experience’s debut album Are You Experienced, facilitated Jimi’s meteoric rise with such hits as “Hey Joe,” “Foxey Lady” and “Purple Haze.” However, it was British audience who first embraced his “wild man of the guitar.” It wasn’t until his American “debut” at the Monterey Pop Festival, and the feature film that captured it, that Hendrix became a household name in this country. Following the mass destruction of instruments and amplifiers that marked The Who’s set, Hendrix felt he needed to do something really special.
After being introduced by then-Rolling Stone Brian Jones, Hendrix launched into an old Howlin’ Wolf blues song, “Killing Floor.” The seemingly unorthodox opener showcased Hendrix’s ability to make a “cover” completely his own. His right-handed Stratocaster, turned upside own and restrung for the southpaw guitarist, was pushed to the limit as Hendrix’s unusually large hands created everything from lightning-quick solos to feedback that contained searing melodies rather than simply distortion and dissonance.
Later in the set, Hendrix similarly re-interpreted Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” It takes a lot of chutzpah to perform a song that is a current hit, let alone one that introduced the world to electric rock. But Hendrix’s version left the audience floored by adding searing leads within the compact framework of Dylan’s anthem of urgency. During the finale, a reworking of The Troggs’ garage-band classic “Wild Thing” Hendrix put himself in the history books by dousing his guitar with lighter fluid and seemingly summoning flames to rise out of his fallen instrument.
Blues guitarists such as Buddy Guy had been performing stunts such playing out into the parking lot for quite some time, but Hendrix’s showmanship, coupled with his astronomical talent, took the stage act to an entirely new level. His Monterey set, just like the performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” which closed out Woodstock, is either shown or mentioned in any account of the 1960s.
The almost overnight fame after Monterey left audiences calling for repeat performances at every show. But Hendrix constantly bucked convention and consequently pushed his music forward. His second album, Axis: Bold As Love, contained more complex compositions like “If 6 Was 9,” which later immortalized in the film Easy Rider. Hendrix also penned one of the most revered (and covered) ballads, “Little Wing” on the album. However, he still felt something was missing from the final product. His third, and sadly, last, studio offering became the double album, Electric Ladyland. The album fit Hendrix’s vision of a complete work, rather than a collection of singles. However, it did contain classics such as “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”, which can still be heard everywhere from bars to baseball stadiums to car commercials. His interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” was immediately hailed as vastly superior by its composer and contains some of the most searing guitar work ever captured on record.
After the breakup of The Experience, Hendrix assembled confidants from his army stint, including bassist Billy Cox, for rehearsals in a house in upstate New York. The resulting impromptu band would close out Woodstock. It wasn’t the first time Hendrix played “The Star Spangled Banner,” but it was certainly the most publicized. As was the case with Monterey, the film cameras were rolling. Jimi didn’t intend for his rendition of the National Anthem to become a symbol of protest, but the gesture took on the life of its own. As Dick Cavett reminded him in an interview after the festival, it is impossible to tinker with the song in any way without attracting criticism. That still stands true today.
After Woodstock, Hendrix formed another “power trio,” retaining army buddy Billy Cox and adding Buddy Miles on drums. They would record the Band Of Gypsys album over four shows at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969-1970. The shows, the loosest of Jimi’s career to that point, showed traces of every conceivable (and some not-yet conceived) style. There is now a DVD of the surviving black and white footage. “Machine Gun,” with which Hendrix was now actually protesting the war, was a 12-minute tour dé force. With the bass and drums forming a “jungle groove,” Hendrix simulates a barrage of bullets and bombs with his guitar. Even though the song is played using one chord, Hendrix showcases sustain, over bends, double stops, effects, behind the neck tapping and spring manipulation. During his solos, Hendrix was able to convey his opposition to the Vietnam War and his empathy for the soldiers fighting it by creating a rice paddy under attack with the other two members of the band. When Miles Davis met Hendrix, the first words he uttered in that unmistakably deep voice were simply, “That Machine Gun.”
Hendrix’s posthumous legacy is also bolstered by the hours of studio sessions he recorded at the now-famous Electric Lady Studios. Since 1970, approximately 300 (including his almost-completed 4th studio album) recordings have been released under Hendrix’s name. Some of them simply contain germs of songs. Others serve as evidence that Jimi was looking to create music more steeped in jazz and blues than what he had recorded previously. There are recordings of jam sessions and impromptu club appearances with artists as diverse as BB King and Elvin Bishop to Stephen Stills and Taj Mahal. Miles Davis met with Hendrix frequently and the two musical giants planned to record at least one album together. While the great improvisational musicians always cite Davis a major influence, with Henrdix it was the other way around. While scheduling and financial concerns prevented the two men from ever recording, Davis always credited Jimi for his seminal 1970 Bitches Brew album which is regarded as the birth of fusion. The track “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” is a tribute not only to Hendrix’s love of jazz and blues, but the funk that Jimi was dabbling in during the last years of his life.
In fact, entire collections have been dedicated to Hendrix’s exploits in different genres. His music has been called everything from psychedelic to hard rock. Back in high school, I remember feeling Hendrix’s music was a little scary. But in my 20s, after finding an appreciation for a much wider variety of music, I revisited it. As soon as that first track Band Of Gypsys kicked in, I was immediately floored. Having only really known Jimi’s music for his use of feedback and guitar stunts, I was captivated by the complex yet cohesive interplay between the three musicians. However, I still appreciate Hendrix’s virtuoso performance with the Stratocaster. Subsequent guitarists have to employ devices like wah-wah bars and pedals just to approach him. He created his own blues standard, “Red House” a melodic yet exploratory instrumental with “Third Stone From The Sun” and an achingly beautiful ballad, “Angel.” These songs are still performed as tributes by artists from every conceivable genre. This is the best evidence that Jimi Hendrix not only drew from established styles, but changed them.
Ross Warner writes often about popular music.