Tuesday, September 18, 2012
(This is the first in what I hope/plan to be a series of personal posts on my favorite musicians/bands. Since music is a HUGE part of my life (and probably the most important force in my life apart from my family) and has been since I was born, it's seems an obvious thing to do)
Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the death of one of my all-time favorite musicians, Jimi Hendrix. We all know how esteemed he is by musicians (particularly guitarists, one of which I am), as well as music fans around the world. This post will be more of a personal treatise on Hendrix' life, music, and what it's meant to me, quite literally throughout my whole life.
A brief synopsis for those who are not too familiar with the man: Jimi was born on November 27, 1942 and grew up in an unhappy and broken home in Seattle, WA. He was introduced to music at a young age and became obsessed with the guitar. He wasn't a particularly good student, so after school he enlisted in the Army and was a paratrooper stationed mainly in the southern US. He was dishonorably discharged and spent year playing guitar in the "Chitlin Circuit" with bands fronted by legends like Little Richard and King Curtis, to name a few. After making his way to New York City in 1966 (and feeding his growing Bob Dylan obsession), he was discovered playing at Cafe Wha? by Animals bass player Chas Chandler, who became his manager and brought him to London (which would become Jimi's adopted homebase). They set about recruiting a backing band and settled on Mitch Mitchell (drums) and Noel Redding (bass guitar), both of whom would prove to be every bit as talented and not just a mere backing band. Dubbed The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the trio began playing gigs (including Jimi joining Cream onstage at one of their own early gigs to jam on Killing Floor and beginning a deep friendship with fellow guitar god Eric Clapton) and recording material, mainly Hendrix originals. Over the course of his too-brief career (1966-1970), Jimi and his band released 3 classic studio albums (1966's Are You Experienced?, 1967's Axis: Bold as Love, and his crowning achievement, 1968's double Electric Ladyland), a legendary live album (1970's Band of Gypsys), and countless classic singles (Foxey Lady, Hey Joe, Purple Haze, Voodoo Child (Slight Return), All Along the Watchtower, etc). He gigged all over the world to the point of exhaustion, jammed with anyone and everyone who was willing (bootlegs of these jams include Johnny Winter, Jim Morrison, Steve Winwood, Stephen Stills, and others), and was a restless and relentless creative spirit. The music poured out of him and by the time of his death in 1970, he had amassed multiple album's worth of newly finished, nearly finished, and demoed songs. All the while, he financed and oversaw the construction of Electric Lady Studios in NYC, which finished shortly before his death and continues to be the site of many classic album's recordings.
As for his death, he flew from NYC to London in late August 1970 in order to play at the Isle of Wight festival (documented both on CD and DVD) as well as complete a short tour of Europe. The shows were quite uneven, and one in Denmark had to be cancelled two songs in because Hendrix had OD'd on something and couldn't hold his guitar plectrum and was slurring his sleep. Those around him generally noticed he seemed exhausted, depressed, and was quite brooding. The presence of numerous hangers-on crawling out of the woodwork to grab a piece of him did not help. He played his final gig in Germany on September 6 and cancelled the rest of the tour. After spending some time in and around London, he died in the squalid basement flat of one of his psycho groupie hangers-on, Monika Dannemann, on September 18, 1970. While the accepted cause of death was asphyxiation on his own vomit after being sick in his sleep after consuming too many sleeping pills, there is a lot of mystery shrouding the time of death and whether he was alive when he got to the hospital. My feeling, after spending years reading all of the evidence and accounts by all of those who were there, was that his death itself was a tragic accident, but that he was (barely) alive when he got to the hospital and died there. Delays in calling the ambulance (for whatever reasons) caused his death when he probably could've been saved had the paramedics gotten there sooner. There's extensive literature and many worthwhile books on the subject, and that's for another (longer) discussion. Ask me in the comments if you want directions on where to look further. In any event, his death was a tragic waste as, musically, he was still on top of his game if you go by the countless recordings he left behind (and which have been posthumously released).
As for my own personal experience (pun intended) with Jimi, he was one of the musicians I can remember hearing literally from birth (well, ok, as far back as I can remember, really) being played by my dad (an original fan from the 1960s) around the house on vinyl and on cassette in the car. Along with The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, and others, these were the songs I loved to listen to as a kid either at home or riding in the car with my parents and listening to the radio. When I was 10 years old, I decided I wanted to learn how to play guitar and started to teach myself mainly by playing along with all of the aforementioned records. Of course, I knew then and even now after playing for 22 years (and counting) that I can never be as good as Jimi. But it's fun to try...the bands I was in when I was younger used to cover some of his songs and we did a pretty good job (Voodoo Child, Hey Joe, Purple Haze, Foxey Lady, Red House).
(As an aside, I remember being shocked when, years after listening to Jimi with my dad, I saw a picture of him and saw he was black! Not that it matters in any way in the least, but my child mind just assumed he was white, since all I had were the sounds up to that point. It's the same way as a kid that I thought Johnny Winter was black until I saw a picture and realized not only was he white, but that he was albino...you can't get whiter! I just thought that'd be funny to share)
One thing that always bothers me is how Jimi seems to be relegated to being simply a guitar pyrotechnician and wildman who took a ton of drugs and died young. Yes, the stage antics were cool and he did incredible things with the guitar, both from a technique standpoint as well as helping to pioneer the sound of rock music with amps, effects pedals, and feedback. However, digging deeper shows so much more of Hendrix. As odd as it may sound, probably the most overlooked aspect of his output was his songwriting itself. Far more than just riff based heavy rock, a listen to his studio recordings shows a guy who wrote some really incredible and complex stuff, especially as he was able to spend more time in the studio. The leap from Are You Experienced? to Axis is a large one, but it's a quantum leap from there to Electric Ladyland and the post-1968 studio stuff he was making right up until his death. He began experimenting with incorporating horns and keyboards into his sound and was planning on adding Traffic's Steve Winwood (who played organ on Voodoo Chile from Electric Ladyland) to his band when he died.
The man was a phenomenal guitarist, whether he was heavily distorted or not...some of his finest playing leans more toward jazz or R&B playing, he was a master of the blues, and the few cuts of him playing acoustic guitar are simply stunning. He was a great lyricist and a guy with a childlike imagination (and I mean this as a compliment, as I feel I'm the same way...someone who constantly wonders about things and also enjoys daydreaming, etc). From the obviously drug influenced lyrics (Purple Haze, Manic Depression) to humor (Wait Until Tomorrow, Astro Man), to autobiography (Highway Chile, Spanish Castle Magic), to musings on life and spirituality (Castles Made of Sand, Straight Ahead) to current 1960s events and turmoil (Machine Gun, Freedom, Earth Blues), from love (Angel, Little Wing) to wicked women (Dolly Dagger, Stepping Stone) to plain old psychedelic rock (Voodoo Child, Are You Experienced?, Purple Haze). Throw in some fantastic blues originals (Red House, Hear My Train a Comin') and countless other classics and you get a real picture of the man as a musician, not just a guitarist.
And as for his singing, it was something he was incredibly self-conscious about in his early years, but he grew to be a very powerful and good singer, and on the later studio material he's as good as anyone. Plus, it was the perfect voice for his music...could you imagine anyone else singing his music?
For me, Hendrix was from another planet, a guy who took what all of the legends I looked to in my own playing (Clapton, Page, Townshend, etc) and blasted off in a completely different direction. I loved his music then and I love it now. I wish Jimi had lived longer, both so he could've enjoyed his life more, died on his own terms when God decided he was ready to, and so he could have continued to give us some truly amazing music. He would've been 70 years old this year and I've no doubt he still would be doing something magical with his music and his guitar.