BOOK REVIEW: Are You Experienced? The Inside Story of the Jimi Hendrix Experience

In the 1960s, The Beatles ruled the music world, but the sheer number of extraordinarily talented bands who were all making music at the same time in London was truly staggering.  In addition to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Cream, the Hollies, the Animals, the Zombies, the Yardbirds, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were all releasing fantastic singles and albums in this incredibly fruitful and fertile climate.  Within this collection of bands, the Hendrix Experience was perhaps the most unique of them all, formed in the autumn of 1966 when former Animals bassist Chas Chandler brought American Jimi Hendrix to London, recruited bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, and put together a band that first took the UK, then Europe, and by mid-1967, America by storm.  I've always thought of Hendrix' career running in parallel with that of his good friend Eric Clapton's band at the time, Cream. Both bands were power trios with virtuoso guitarists, phenomenally talented drummers, and excellent bass players (although Jack Bruce's virtuosity lopsidedly compares with Redding's excellent skill, unfair because Redding was a guitar player who had never played bass before hooking up with Hendrix). Both bands burned brightly, releasing hugely successful singles and albums and changing the face of live rock with their loud, heavy, and long concert performances. Both bands earned record-setting profits on their ever expanding American tours, and by the end of the decade, both had splintered: Cream from internal clashes and egos, and Hendrix from overwork, creative differences, and tragically, Hendrix' death.  Similar to Cream, where each member has written a memoir, there exist books by each of the members of the Experience...I've reviewed the closest we'll ever get to a Hendrix memoir and Mitch Mitchell's book is on my to-read list, which leaves us with Noel Redding's book.

I first purchased Noel's book in 1996 when it was first released. At the time, I read it and enjoyed it, but for the purposes of this review I've read it again, and I'm glad I did. It's subtitled "the Inside Story of the Jimi Hendrix Experience" and that is certainly true as Noel is candid, honest, funny, and bitterly cynical (when appropriate) in his telling of the meteoric rise and fall of the Experience's legendary career. He stays true to his word, too, as there is very little in this book about his life outside of his experiences as pertaining to the Experience. Born in Kent in 1945, like just about every musician of his generation, Noel was bitten by the music bug early and by the time he was in his early 20s, he was a working (and struggling) professional musician in and around London. His big break came in September of 1966 when he auditioned for a new band Chas Chandler was putting together around an unknown American guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. Redding was persuaded to switch to a bass, an instrument he'd never played before (but one which he would establish himself as one of the best of his era). Rounding out the band was former child actor and well-known London jazz and rock drummer Mitch Mitchell.  Steady gigging and fast recording sessions on a shoestring budget yielded hit singles right off the bat in the form of "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze," and "Foxy Lady" and by the time their debut album Are You Experienced? was released in mid-1967, the Experience were one of the most popular bands in England, with fellow musicians (Paul McCartney in particular) as their biggest supporters.  After their breakthrough at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, the Experience ascended to become one of the biggest concert draws of the 1960s, helped along by two further exquisite albums (Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland).  However, all was not well within the band, and this is what forms the meat of Noel's story.

From the outset, this was a band that was assembled, not a band of friends who slogged long and hard and worked their way up from the bottom together. While Noel describes a real friendship and affection that developed between all three members, he also points out that they came from such ludicrously different backgrounds (starving black American musician, former child actor of an affluent family, and working-class suburban kid) such that while these disparate roots were often a source of humor and bonding between them, they also served as wedges (most notably between him and Mitch).  Their prodigious drug intake and Jimi increasingly falling prey to numerous hangers-on and sycophants led to rows which came to a head during the making of their landmark third album, Electric Ladyland in 1968.  Hendrix' perfectionism and inability to delegate any aspect of the music making to anyone other than himself and Eddie Kramer led to Chandler's departure and Noel's detachment, two close confidantes whose abandonment shook Jimi deeply. A final disastrous tour in 1969 led to the break up of the band, and although an attempt was made at reforming in early 1970, Jimi and Mitch effectively froze Noel out and they never worked together as a trio again.  Eventually, Hendrix succumbed to various pressures, both internal and external, and died under mysterious circumstances in September 1970, an event that devastated those who knew him, including Noel. But the effects on Noel's life that his years in the Experience had was about to get even bigger.

Even though the band was earning huge amounts of money during their career, especially between 1968 and 1970, they saw very little of it thanks to their unscrupulous and shady co-manager, Michael Jeffrey. Noel would end up spending the remainder of his life fighting to try and get his fair share of the royalties and percentages on all music he played on and film with his likeness. From the point in the book when Jimi died up until the end, it reads like an almost farcical tale of navigation through a legal labyrinth that has to be read in order to be believed. While it's a sad and cautionary tale reading the litany of ways in which Noel, Mitch, and even Jimi were swindled out of their money (mainly by the villainous Michael Jeffrey, who has been discussed in just about every Hendrix book for the same reasons), after a while it begins to simply be a laundry list of failed lawsuits and bills piling up that Noel and his longtime companion Carol couldn't pay. It is quite sad to read of just how skint Noel one point, he and Carol were doing odd jobs around their village in Ireland simply to earn enough to buy bread, potatoes, and milk so that they could eat; they lived in a house that was in such a state of disrepair that they could not afford to fix, and they were constantly beset by people who treated Noel as though he were a retired millionaire (based on his time with Hendrix) who would then cut all ties with him when they found out he was broke. He eventually settled all claims to his rightful Hendrix money for a paltry sum that ate away at him until he decided to kick his addictions, buck up, shake himself out of his depression, and move on. By the end of this book, he was much happier and was earning good money playing gigs around the world with his own band or at Hendrix tributes, and had a publishing deal for his book.  Sadly, Carol, who had helped compile the book from his diaries, passed away in 1990 right before the book came out in the UK, another death of someone close that devastated Noel.

The feeling one takes away from this book after reading it is that, while Noel (mostly) had fun during his time in the Experience, the years afterward were wasted by lawsuits, depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and financial troubles that destroyed his love of music until he was well into his 40s. It's a candid, humorous, sad, and cautionary tale of a man who reached the peak of the rock music world at a ridiculously young age and spent the rest of his life paying for his youthful naivety and inexperience until finally finding peace and comfort before his untimely death later on in 2003 at the age of 57.