How Far Can You Go?
“Why isn’t Jimi Hendrix regarded as one of the [20th] century’s great composers? By musicologists, I mean…
Why is he not spoken of like John Cage?
He is somebody who defined the way people think about music.”
-Brian Eno, Pulse, March 1989
“You know, when you play guitar, you can play, or you can transcend, and you can go as far – there’s no boundaries – how far you can go in your own body and how far your mind? Jimi showed me that; I learned that from Jimi.”
-Neil Young, inducting Jimi Hendrix Experience into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, January 15, 1992
Jimi Hendrix didn’t just play music, he transcended it – and in that process he transformed it. Rock was forever altered once Jimi arrived – but his ultimate legacy is how his impact reached far beyond “rock.” Jazz will never be the same, blues will never be the same, pop-culture will never be the same, how we think about guitar-playing will never be the same….
….the very nature of improvisation will never be the same, but most of all the ways we perceive music were fundamentally expanded. Jimi changed the way records were created as much as any artist outside The Beatles. Surely that’s part of the reason so many famous musicians who could record anywhere in the world still seek to work at Electric Lady Studios, the New York City recording facility originality built for Hendrix. There’s music pre-Jimi and music post-Jimi. This isn’t hyperbole – it’s the history of the sound of music, and the line Hendrix drew through it.
No non-jazz artist has had more impact in post-’60s jazz than Hendrix has.
Listen to any Miles Davis recordings from before and after Hendrix’s influence seeped in – it’s like the Wizard of Oz going from black-and-white to color. The exact same is true for Pete Townshend’s guitar style. And Buddy Guy’s.
Whereas Brian Wilson was inspired by The Beatles’ mid-’60s masterpieces, Are You Experienced crushed him as Jimi at Monterey sent The Beach Boys into a tailspin.
Then there’s Fab Four themselves – listen to their guitars on Revolver. They had already soaked up sitar buzzes and fuzz pedal effects, but it’s night and day from their later experiments, post-Hendrix (both as a band and apart, with Lennon most effected – i.e. his wailing amp on “It’s All Too Much,” “Cambridge 1969,” or “Why?”).
Bob Dylan changed how he played his own songs after hearing Jimi play them.
Graffiti throughout London in 1966 claiming Clapton a deity birthed the popular concept of the “guitar god.” Then Jimi arrived and every burgeoning British guitarist was humbled (Jeff Beck: “It was like. ‘what the hell am I going to do tomorrow? Get a job at the post office?”), left to copy Hendrix (and not just his guitar techniques – FACT – Slowhand, Syd Barrett and others added colors to their wardrobes and grew perms within weeks of meeting Jimi).
Though Jimi wasn’t strictly a bluesman, no musician has shaped blues in the last half-century more than him. Every new decade’s “blues star” is in his shadow, and they know it all too well (here’s looking at you Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Joe Bonamassa, geesh..even John Mayer).
Every freak-flag-waver of the past four decades – be it mohawked “punks” or Adam Lambert – owes a part of their acceptance to the maverick that riddled us if six were nine (Henry Rollins: “It’s the Hendrix spirit that makes me not give a fuck what you think of me or my work. And there you go!).
Neil Young became the “Godfather of Grunge” by blasting away with the same conviction as Jimi (minus his technique).
Heavy metal was birthed by hamfisted guitarists and their bands turning their amps to eleven in sloppy attempts to resemble Hendrix and the Experience – Leigh Stephens with Blue Cheer the prime example.
The transition from James Brown’s pioneering funk records to what the genre became in the ’70s and eversince is unimaginable without Hendrix. Don’t take my word for it, take George Clinton’s: “Jimi was definitely the one we held up when we wanted to reach for something…there were no boundaries to his playing,” the funky freak famous for arriving on stage in a spaceship, amongst a band dressed in over-sized diapers told LA Times in 1989. “One minute he would sound like Curtis Mayfield, next thing he’d be doing Ravi Shankar. His music gave me the freedom to go out and be anything I felt like being musically.”
Curtis – who Hendrix toured with as guitarist for obscure R&B group Bob Fisher and the Barnesville on an early ’60s Mayfield/Marvelettes package tour – added in the same LA Times article, “Jimi’s approach to music transcends racial barriers. His imagination spoke to people on a deeper level than that..he was almost like a scientist, studying the effects.” The experiments began when a pre-fame Jimi toured with Curtis, using Mayfield’s amp nightly – his first exposure to high quality equipment. Watching Mayfield nightly from the side of the stage proved a seminal opportunity in Jimi’s development as a guitarist.
Little Richard – who gave Jimi one of his first breaks – praised his flair, “He didn’t mind looking freaky…” Likewise, Clinton recently summed up his opinion of Hendrix’ impact in a radio interview, “weird became pop!”
But that’s old stuff. What’s more illuminating is how Hendrix has continued to shape the evolution of music. For kids growing up post-Kurt-Cobain-smashing-his-equipment-ala-Jimi, we heard Hendrix in hip-hop samples, bands jamming at music festivals and the sonic explorations of Ronald Jones and Kevin Shields (the latter went so far as to hire and collaborate with Jimi’s guitar tech/ pedal designer, Roger Mayer). In 1991 Spin – then still a young magazine that prided itself on covering the cutting-edge and being the antithesis of boomer-icon-celebrating rags like Rolling Stone – placed Hendrix on their cover and dared to affirm “Why Jimi Still Matters.” The article explained how 21 years after his death Hendrix was not just still relevant, but the common thread between much of the year’s defining music: My Bloody Valentine, Prince, Husker Du, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, Tribe Called Quest, Stone Roses, Living Color. It’s now over 21 years since that publication, but its central arguments hold. By-pass Lenny Kravitz, Primus, Pearl Jam, OutKast, Phish, Rage Against the Machine, Ben Harper (and the many other Jimi-indebted of the past two decades) to the most acclaimed albums of the past year – from Lonerism to Celebration Day to (full circle) m b v. Tame Impala, Pond, J Mascis (both with Dinosaur Jr and especially Heavy Blanket), Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Spiritualized, Richard Hawley, P.i.L., Astra, Moon Duo, Patti Smith, My Bloody Valentine, and others have varied influences – not to mention, their own ideas – but there’s no escaping Jimi creating the boundaries they play in.
And then there’s the less obvious, like The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithaus. “I got my first guitar [at 15],” he explained to Pitchfork. “The first thing I wanted to do was learn all these Jimi Hendrix songs.”
Nobody has shaped music across genre-lines in the last two decades more than Jimi – that he’s the only artist who has graced the cover of both Spin and Jazz Times is testament. But decades of rock cliches, lame imitators, scorn for hippies, and classic rock stations playing the same few songs to exhaustion can cloud his broader significance. “So he played behind his back or with his teeth, took drugs, had a big penis and choked to death on his own rock stardom…“‘ you might ask, ‘so what?’
His lyricist skills were inconsistent and his albums never reached their potential.
OK, true enough. But listen to his rhythm playing, especially live. Without studio overdubs you can hear his flow of chording and fills woven seamlessly throughout each other – plus the bass lines he implied with his thumb… as he sang! Listen to his guitar voicings and the limitless variety of techniques he integrated. Many guitarists were mastering blues licks in rock songs by 1967, but Jimi went so much further – from dreamy Curtis Mayfield R&B licks to Wes Montgomery octaves. It wasn’t just the sequence of pitches he fingered, it was how he phrased them in combination with the tone of each. He played texture as much as he played melodies or rhythms (stop for a moment and think about how groundbreaking that is – surely part of what guitarists like Kevin Shields heard in his phrasing). It was how present he was in his music, like a Zen master meditating at the altar of an “electric church.” As an improviser he was as fluid, vivid, playful and boundlessly creative as anybody since Louis Armstrong. Forget about fingering technicalities or his musical style, just listen to the layers of ideas he improvised and consider the imagination it must have taken to ad lib the abstract sagas he “wrote” in his solos. That he was able to physically embody his ideas as he played made him showman, but it’s the ideas that have lasted long after the shows have ended. “He’s not stealing my act,” Pete Townshend explained in “A Perfect Haze,” “he’s doing my act….for me, it was an act and for him, it was something else. It was an extension of what he was doing.”
In the studio he was just as visionary, creating tracks that stand with The Beatles and a precious few peers’ best as ageless ’60s recordings. There’s an argument that he was too talented a guitarist and too commanding a performer, that his skills and showmanship were so shocking in their day they overshadowed his considerable other abilities. Jimi was one of his era’s defining writers and perhaps its premier assimilator – stirring diverse styles into his psychedelic stew – yet his songcraft is rarely given the attention of his six-string-slinging. Never mind Joan Baez or The Byrds, Jimi was the Dylan disciple that made the most of Bobby’s trailblazing. Sure Jimi could shred, but he was just as obsessed with writing lyrics – from songs of freedom, independence and love; to outer space science fiction or the inner states of altered perceptions. His songs are versatile to be played in many styles and settings beyond Jimi’s own (hey kindergarten teachers, “Spanish Castle Magic” is perfect to sing with your students). He commented on the issues of the era – civil rights, war and peace – both in words and sounds. “He did a simulation of bombs going off on his guitar – because he was really into his whole Vietnam trip,” Billy Corgan once said of Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” “and what came out of it was an amazingly sonic record. It’s a bit of a guitar geek album.”
“’Machine Gun’ really made quite a statement at that time,” Living Color guitarist and Black Rock Coalition founder Vernon Reid says of the Band of Gypsys’ anti-war classic. “It was like a movie about war without the visuals. It had everything—the lyrics, the humanism of it, the drama of it, the violence of it, the eeriness of it, the unpredictability of it. I can’t imagine what it was like to have been in the Fillmore East and have that happen in the second set. If you were there it had to have changed your life, if not forever at least for a little while… Hendrix was one of the only cats to do that activity and have it extend beyond the notion of chops and scales or anything to where it literally melded itself into the fabric of society and the big questions of the day. And to my mind he did it twice. He did it with “Machine Gun” and he did it with “The Star Spangled Banner.” And in both instances, his playing, his improvising was woven into the fabric of the times. It was like Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Those were the kind of times that they were, and it seemed like only those times could have produced him...who could listen to ‘Machine Gun’ without thinking about black soldiers in Vietnam? It’s because he was black that his version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is so powerful.”
Hendrix was also a great fan of music of all genres and a masterful interpreter of others. Countless peers covered “Hey Joe,” Dylan and the blues – but none so memorably as Jimi. Listen to how expressive he sang. He became the song. “[Hendrix] played [my songs] the way I would have done them if I was him,” Dylan hand-wrote in a two-page, personal tribute to Jimi for a 1988 New York Hendrix exhibit. “Never thought too much about it at the time, but now that years have goneby, I see that the message must have been his message thru & thru. Not that I could ever articulate the message that well myself, but in hearing Jimi cover it, I realize he must’ve felt it pretty deeply inside and out and that somewhere back there his soul and my soul were on the same desert.” Hendrix felt the same: “Sometimes, I play Dylan’s songs and they are so much like me that it seems to me that I wrote them,” he said. “I have the feeling that Watchtower is a song I could have come up with, but I’m sure I would never have finished it.”
“It overwhelmed me, really,” Dylan remembers of hearing Hendrix cover “All Along the Watchtower.” “He had such a talent, he cold find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
Hendrix has meant so much to so many for such a wide variety of reasons that his impact is as hard to escape as it is to capsulize. Maybe this is why, for all his fame and acclaim, his artistry is so misunderstood. It’s shortchanging Jimi’s impact to see him just as a “guitarist,” especially considering how deeply he’s inspired masters of other instruments – from jazz bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius (who would play “Third From the Stone” nightly between Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Parker’s “Donna Lee”), to classical violinist Nigel Kennedy or Blues Traveler’s ace harpist John Popper. Then again, Henry Rollins and Patti Smith are among those that aren’t instrumentalists per se but have been just as shaken by Hendrix as anyone. It’s equally limiting to think of Jimi as a “recording studio pioneer,” “showman,” “songwriter,” “‘post-black‘ icon,” “blues artist,” “rock star.” Most agree he accomplished much in his less-than-four-year career, but pinpointing what defies classification.
Perhaps recognizing Hendrix was the first to “bring the noise” (and it’s hard to imagine Chuck D disagreeing), The Beastie Boys wrote “Jimmy James” in tribute to Jimi, only to have its samples of “3rd Stone from the Sun,” “Foxy Lady,” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” denied for use by the Hendrix Estate (Adam Yauch: “One night I sampled this loop off a Hendrix song called Birthday. Then I put that loop on top of a Turtles beat and began cutting all these ill Hendrix sounds over the loops… Unfortunately, we couldn’t clear any of the sounds that were scratched into the song. Determined to keep it on the record, we went back into the studio, found other sounds that were similar and remade the song so that we could keep it on the album. But it never seemed quite right. The song is really a tribute to Hendrix, so taking his guitar sounds off it felt just plain wrong. A few months after Check Your Head came out, the Hendrix estate finally gave us clearance to use the sounds. We then decided to put the original version out on a 12-inch and to do a video for it.”).
Elton John – who loved both Jimi’s music and flamboyant fashion – sampled Hendrix decades before any hip-hoppers (well kind of, the crowd cheers on “Bennie and The Jets” were taken from Jimi’s Isle of Wight recordings). When The Butthole Surfers weren’t singing about Jimi making “love to Marilyn’s remains” in “The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave!” they were starting fires on stage (though never as stunning as Jimi at Monterey) or twisted tributing him with Electriclarryland. Vernon Reid thinks “of Hendrix in the same context as Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X.” Coach Phil Jackson edited footage of Jimi performing at Woodstock into the championship Chicago Bulls’ game tapes. Jesse Ventura (the ex-WWF wrestler whose low-budget, third party, 1998 run for Minnesota Governor was perhaps the most unconventional political victory in living memory) frequently replaced typical politician garb with less conventional Governor attire: Hendrix T-shirts (including at his inaugural ball). And though some say The Pixies “Trompe le Monde” is about Kurt Cobain (an odd theory – considering it was released the same day as Nevermind), there’s more clues in its lyrics pointing towards Seattle’s first famous dead-at-27 rock star.
Which brings to mention another facet of Hendrix’s legacy: nobody in rock history had more potential to blaze a new trail at the time of their death than Jimi. It’s not just that his young demise was tragic, it’s also that it forever strokes our imaginations in how what could have been would re-contextualize what already was. Part of the reasons it is so hard to define Jimi’s music is he was still deeply involved in defining it for himself when he passed.
So how do we make sense of all this? How do we balance the multitude of ways Jimi touched Tame Impala, Miles Davis, Slash, Robert Fripp – all different influences, each from the same musician. From Eddie Hazel to Eddie Van Halen, John Lydon to John Mayer… how do we also recognize that even if none of these artists were impacted by Jimi the ways they were – if he wasn’t “influential” – his music would still be a marvel of ingenuity?
…..(Henry Rollins: “He was more than just a player…it was a love thing“)….
Simply to rave – yet again – about his most iconic performances won’t do it. “Wild Thing” at Monterey Pop Festival, “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” into “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, “Machine Gun” at Fillmore East are great. So is “Foxy Lady” at Isle of Wight Festival, his “All Along the Watchtower” single and many other recordings. So what?
Likewise his guitar feats – “Stepping Stone” at Fillmore East, “Little Wing” at Royal Albert Hall, “Spanish Castle Magic” at San Diego Sports Arena – only tell one part of why Hendrix ever mattered, let alone why he still does.
At the other extreme, we can dig deep for overlooked gems. “Gypsy Boy,” “May This Be Love,” “Peace in Mississippi,” “Taking Care Of No Business,” “One Rainy Wish,” “Midnight,” “The Stars That Play with Laughing Sam’s Dice” and “Valleys of Neptune” all define aspects of Jimi’s greatness. But it’s not a fluke they haven’t resonated with wider audiences as his hits have.
We can pick apart his roots, be it blues (classics like his “Hear My Train a Comin” 12 string acoustic version, “Rock Me Baby” at Monterey, “Red House” at San Diego Sports Arena, or even lesser known tangents like “My Friend”); R&B/soul (“Angel,” “Drifting,” “South Saturn Delta,” “Fire,” “Hear My Freedom,” “Remember,” “Message to Love,” “Wind Cries Mary”); or the other styles he fused, as evident in the variety of his covers (“Hey Joe” at Winterland, “Sunshine of Your Love” on Happening for Lulu and at Royal Albert Hall, Johnny B. Goode at Berkeley, “God Save the Queen” into “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” at Isle of Wight Festival, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?,” “Tears of Rage,” “Come On (Part 1),” “Gloria”). But the way Jimi integrated his influences was always so much more than the sum of its parts.
So here’s a different approach:
…to examine ten of his most boundary-pushing tracks – from the freak-flag-waving avant improv of “If 6 Was 9” to sitars, fusion jams and progressive song structures – to see just how far-out his music (and impact) has gone. That’s below. We’re also reconsidering the notion of the “Guitar Hero” here – how Hendrix relates to the six-string glory of Neil Young, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, the ’70s CBGBs scene, mid ’70s Miles Davis, mid ’60s Pink Floyd, Jack White, John Lennon, The Stooges, My Bloody Valentine and others.
Reconsidering Ten Far Out Classics
Manic Depression – Are You Experienced, 1967
Hendrix’s debut LP Are You Experienced boldly pushed in so many directions to the point the idea of “genre” blurred and became irrelevant. Case in point: “Manic Depression,” essentially a jazz-waltz as psych-rock psychosis. With Jimi’s free-spirited phrasing and Mitch Mitchell’s Elvin Jones-inspired Afro-Cuban polyrhythms (listen with headphones for the full effect) it paved the way for the fusion milestones just around the corner by (Hendrix associates) Soft Machine, Tony Williams Lifetime, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis’ et al. Check the Winterland 1968 version to hear how the Experience’s improvisations expanded it in concert.
Mitch Mitchell’s background and interest in jazz drumming played a big part in the Experience’s place as fusion forerunners. On their ’67 recordings he swings “Up From the Skies,” inserts Philly Joe Jones-styled breaks into “Wait Until Tomorrow” and in general plays to Jimi like Elvin Jones did to John Coltrane – especially on “Manic Depression” and “If 6 Was 9”. But whereas Mitchell’s comparison to Jones was technical, what Jimi shared with Coltrane was spiritual: a sense of soloing-as-“search,” or even transcendence. Carlos Santana was among the emerging guitarist paying attention: “I began to understand what [Coltrane] was going for. It’s the same thing Jimi Hendrix strove toward—tones that serve to remind us that we’re multi-dimensional spirits, not just blacks or whites, Jews or Mexicans. That’s small stuff.”
The rising guitarists of the period – whether in rock, jazz or blues – all found an influence supreme in Jimi’s playing. Miles Davis’ early ’80s guitarist Mike Stern told Downbeat in 1982: “Jimi was definitely a legato player, and whether he intended to or not, he started a movement among guitar players with his long sustaining, legato lines. He sounded more like a horn player than anyone before him, and he influenced everybody that followed him. I’m after that same hornlike quality in my own playing either when I’m with Miles or when I’m playing a straight-ahead bebop gig….[Miles is] always saying things to me like, “Play some Hendrix! Turn it up or turn it off!” Miles loves Hendrix!”
In the same article Return to Forever’s Al Di Meola noted, “[Jimi] was just into experimenting with sounds and taking tunes out with long solos that took you on a little bit of an adventure….His soloing was definitely in the jazz tradition, and a lot of members of the jazz community picked up on it.”
Nels Cline was among the younger guitarists transformed by Jimi’s fresh sound as a kid in the ’60s. Inspired by Jimi, Nels establish himself as a free jazz guitarist in the ‘80s and ‘90s; and since 2004 he’s become world renown with Wilco. For Cline, it all started with hearing “Manic Depression”: “Jimi Hendrix was the reason I decided to make playing guitar the center of my life. My brother and I had been listening to rock and roll and psychedelic rock before the advent of underground FM radio. We had seen Are You Experienced upon its release, because we used to go to the record store every two weeks with our allowance and buy a record, but we hadn’t heard it. We had bought records with cool covers with our precious allowance before, and the records weren’t that great or inspiring. So, we held off buying it—even though everything about it looked like the coolest record ever made. Then, one Saturday afternoon, we were listening to the Top 30 on AM radio and they played “Manic Depression,” which, in retrospect, is surprising because it wasn’t the single. We knew it was that record immediately, because it was guitar, bass, and drums, and, somehow, we could tell that it was a black guy singing. We were jumping up and down, and running around the room like crazy people, because listening to that song kind of felt like being jolted with electricity. Much on the radio at that time was magical and mind-bending—“I Am The Walrus,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Seven and Seven Is”—but “Manic Depression” took it to a whole other level. It was obviously a trio, and then the whole ascending scale thing when he’s singing along with his guitar and goes into the solo, the controlled feedback, the sound of the drums, that groove—it was the coolest thing ever, and filled with magic, mystery, and excitement. I’ve never been the same since…He just got better and better with the official releases. Axis: Bold as Love was absolutely a classic from beginning to end, and Electric Ladyland had some of my other favorite musicians on it, like Steve Winwood and Jack Casady. Hendrix was everything that I thought was exciting about rock and roll, because he was not only this great guitar player, but also so innovative and colorful. He was super sexy, and obviously married to electricity….[Wilco strives to] do something that is intoxicating for everybody—where we all go to this magic realm together. That was what Jimi Hendrix embodied to…”
The New Rising Sun – TTG Sessions, 1968 (MLK – Record Plant Sessions, 1970)
This meditative instrumental rarity solely by Jimi has a twisted release history. In a severely hacked edit it was officially released for the first time as the opening track to 1995’s Voodoo Soup (now out of print). Its full quasi-ambient-dreamy-space-rock glory was unveiled only recently, on 2010’s West Coast Seattle Boy. In the early ’70s however a snippet of “New Rising Sun” was edited onto the tail of a composite track of unreleased instrumental passages from the Hendrix vault. Labeled “MLK,” this mash-up of sorts was for the soundtrack to Rainbow Bridge but left off the film’s companion LP. “MLK” – sources differ on whether that was Hendrix’s title in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr, or just three random letters assigned to the recording after Jimi’s death – was re-edited for release on 1975’s Crash Landing, with controversial posthumous overdubs and a new title: “Captain Coconut.” The bulk of that track comes from a 1970 Band of Gypsys recording completely unrelated to “New Rising Sun.” Regardless, to anybody who’s ever heard the “Coconut” mix the two instrumentals will forever be associated. Both exhibit interesting sides of Jimi’s guitar playing. “MLK” is an extreme example of Jimi’s whammy control and explorations of strange sounds. “New Rising Sun” wanders a bit – some deem it a noodling mess, albeit a pretty one – but that’s what makes it “trippy.” Besides, when else do you get to hear Jimi at the drum kit?
(Confusing the issue even further, one of the best known songs Jimi left unreleased in his lifetime is called “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun).” How exactly this song and the “New Rising Sun” instrumental would have been connected on the unfinished concept album Hendrix was creating when he died is unclear, but musically the two tracks bear no relation).
Third Stone From The Sun – Are You Experienced, 1967
Ever wonder what was in Jimi’s vinyl collection? Like many guitarists of his generation his first record was by Chuck Berry. By 1967 it had expanded in every direction: folk (Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin); blues (Albert King, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, Muddy Waters); jazz (Roland Kirk, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery); and more (Jeff Beck, Ravi Shankar). Jimi soaked all of these and more into his own style. The influence of the Beck and Shankar records is clearly heard in “Third Stone From the Sun,” but then again so are the jazz discs. Hendrix and Mitchell’s psychedelicizing of John Coltrane/ Elvin Jones is even more pronounced on “Third From The Sun” than it is on “Manic Depression,” and Jimi plays the main melody (head?) in octaves ala Wes Montgomery. Among the jazz cats paying attention to Jimi’s fusing was future fusion legend John McLaughlin. They met and jammed together at the Record Plant in fact (with Miles Davis bassist Dave Holland on March 25, 1969). This was around the same time John recorded In a Silent Way with Davis and Emergency! with Tony Williams Lifetime – en route to defining fusion guitar (on Miles’ Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson; with his own Mahavishnu Orchestra and through many other projects, i.e. Stanley Clarke’s School Days).
“Third Stone From the Sun” and its overt Wes Montgomery influence is what initially brought Jimi to the respect of those in the late ’60s jazz scene. Guitar great and fusion pioneer Larry Coryell – who knew Jimi from late night New York jams – discussed the Jimi/Wes connection with Jazz Times: “a Hendrix performance compared to a Wes performance—I once saw them both the same night—was simply iconoclastic. It was beyond categorization of jazz versus pop or blues. It was a force unto itself. There were, to be sure, elements of the avant-garde that was de rigueur in New York at the time in Hendrix’s music. Plus, it was loud—not obnoxious and unpleasant loud like certain counterparts. But it was, at the same time, sweet, romantic, hard, scary, comforting, spontaneous and free in spirit and—because of the extra tones and overtones coming out of the distortion—in the harmony.”
Now widely recognized as the earliest popular example of fusion, “Third Stone” has become a jazz-rock standard. Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny and Stevie Ray Vaughn have all famously covered it and it’s been quoted by Weather Report in “Slang” and The Allman Brothers in “Mountain Jam.” The main melody was also referenced in both Devo and Patti Smith’s covers of “Are You Experienced”…not to mention sampled in Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy”…
Though it’s often acknowledged in jazz circles for Jimi’s improv and Mitchell’s swing, it’s also an example of Hendrix’s innovative studio approach as well as his interest in science fiction. Hendrix and manager/producer Chas Chandler recorded a tape of dialogue and inserted it into the track slowed down for a trippy spoken word effect ala Star Trek. Want to know what they’re saying? Hear the tape at regular speed on 2000’s Experience box set. Likewise, Jimi’s use of echo and glissandi on “Third Stone from the Sun” were directly influenced by Pink Floyd’s space rock (according to Syd Barrett biographer Julian Palacios).
1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)/ Moon, Turn the Tides… Gently, Gently Away – Electric Ladyland, 1968
In between Pink Floyd’s 1966/67 “Interstellar Overdrive” and King Crimson’s “Moonchild” came this futuristic (for 1968) sci-fi epic comprising nearly all of side three of the Experience’s final album. Syd Barrett’s crazy diamond influence (perhaps) shines through its descending chord progression and the lengthy interstellar jamming of “Moon…” Like “Third Stone from the Sun” – but farer out – the ad libbed trip returns to “1983’s” refrain for its dramatic conclusion. Whereas Third Stone” highlighted some of Jimi’s most traditional techniques, the fantastical futuristic sounds he coaxes from his guitar in “1983” offer some of his least conventional playing. A decade later Hendrix disciple Patti Smith directly lifted lyrics from “1983” for “Elegie,” the closing track to her landmark Horses and a tribute to Hendrix and his passing.
“When the last American tour finished earlier this year, I just wanted to go away a while, and forget everything,” Jimi reflected about the direction his music was headed in a September 1970 Melody Maker interview. “I just wanted to do recording, and see if I could write something. Then I started thinking. Thinking about the future. Thinking that this era of music – sparked off by the Beatles – had come to an end. Something new has to come and Jimi Hendrix will be there.
I want a big band. I don’t mean three harps and 14 violins. I mean a big band full of competent musicians that I can conduct and write for. And with the music we will paint pictures of earth and space, so that the listener can be taken somewhere.
It’s going to be something that will open up a new sense in people’s minds…You see music is so important. I don’t dig the pop and politics crap. That’s old fashioned… Music doesn’t lie. I agree it can be misinterpreted, but it cannot lie…When there are vast changes in the way the world goes, it’s usually something like art and music that changes it…”
His thoughts wandered but he returned to speaking on a vision for the future of his music: “I dig Strauss and Wagner – those cats are good, and I think that they are going to form the background of my music. Floating in the sky above it will be the blues…The term ‘blowing someone’s mind’ is valid…and while it’s being blown there will be something there to fill the gap. It’s going to be a complete form of music. It will be really druggy music. Yes, I agree it could be something on similar lines to what Pink Floyd are tackling…people like Pink Floyd are the mad scientists of this day and age.”
A couple of weeks later Hendrix was dead.
Burning Desire – Fillmore East (New York), January 1, 1970, 1st Set
Ask any prominent British musician of the late ’60s and they’ll share their Hendrix story. Sir Paul reminisces at concerts lately about attending a club show with Clapton: Jimi called Eric up to the stage to tune his guitar. Ringo will share how his famous 34 Montagu Square apartment was rented and painted by Hendrix. And Robert Fripp has recounted numerous times the night Jimi caught one of his concerts: “On May the 14th, 1969, King Crimson played the first of three sets at the Revolution Club in London…what I didn’t know until 1981, when by chance I bumped into the sister-in-law of King Crimson’s drummer of 1969, was that she was sitting at the table next to Hendrix that night. She told me that he was jumping up and down, and saying, “This is the best group in the world.”
Like Hendrix’s praise shortly before his death of Pink Floyd, Richard Strauss et al, his enthusiasm for King Crimson suggests Jimi might have steered his music down an art-rock path had he lived. The recordings he made in his final year however point his music in yet a different direction: funky-psychedelic-blues-rock-soul. In a way “Burning Desire” represents all these ideas.
Hendrix recorded basic tracks but didn’t live to finish “Burning Desire” or record vocals (thus the studio versions on various bootlegs and 2011’s official West Coast Seattle Boy are instrumental only). Even though not “fully realized” the definitive version – both by default and its own greatness – has to be considered its best performance from the Band of Gypsy’s Fillmore East run: New Year’s day, first set. Though it’s not “prog” per se, it is an eight-plus minute suit of sorts with an extended intro, an unconventional verse/ refrain form, and an ambitious, instrumental middle section dramatically shifting its tempo and volume several times. That’s got to count for something in the “progressive” books…right?
Maybe not. Though an ardent Hendrix admirer, Fripp – like some of his studious peers – deemed Jimi’s guitar technique “inefficient and [misleading for] many young guitarists.” This raises an aesthetic question: despite all that has been speculated about the jazz, prog or fusion Hendrix could’ve made had he lived, could the current that energized his playing be contained into these styles?
Branford Marsalis – a top jazz saxophonist with an open-enough mind to work with The Grateful Dead and Sting – summed up Jimi’s “jazz” potential best: “He was definitely an improviser but … jazz probably would’ve been too limiting for him. You know, too many rules and shit. He just wanted to go up there and do whatever the fuck he wanted to do—all the time. Jazz is such a different aesthetic. …The thing I love about him was he wasn’t a jazz musician but he was a grade A-1 bona fide fucking musician. That couldn’t be disputed.”
This may be one of the few ideas Marsalis and John Lydon agree upon. “You know what I truly respect about Hendrix,” the Sex Pistols and PiL frontman told NPR, “is that he threw out the rulebook and regulations of music, right out the window. And the shame of the people that followed – or tried to follow – in his footsteps, ended up imitating what he was doing and putting it into formats when he was anti-format.”
Which brings us back to “Burning Desire.” Stylistically its cues are from rock and soul – albeit mixed with Hendrix’s signature psych blues shredding – and its lyrical theme is a direct extension of Jimi’s first foray into funk, “Fire” (“I have only one burning desire/ Let me stand next to your fire“). To be sure, none of the archetype “prog” bands played pieces like “Burning Desire” or Hendrix’s other Fillmore East material.
“Band of Gypsys…was earth-shattering!” Branford Marsalis insists. “At the time I couldn’t think of why it spoke to me but it did, immediately. First of all, it’s live performance so it’s not a bunch of overdubs after overdub after overdub. And it was at that line where rock ’n’ roll could still be free, and that’s the thing that I dug the most. The shit was just funky the way Led Zeppelin was funky and the way The Beatles had a little groove to their shit, too. But those two groups never could get their bottom to have that funky-ass stank groove the way the Band of Gypsys did…I would suspect that just by the energy on the stage that he really had fun with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles…at the end of the day, Jimi was a groover…. He had all the elements of jazz because you know all the elements of blues are in jazz when it’s played right—spontaneity, creativity, improvisation, the blues itself, groove.”
“Jimi was the first to do a whole host of things musical and things guitaristic,” Larry Coryell says of Jimi’s playing with te Band of Gypsys. “He practiced special techniques, such as working with the wah-wah pedal with the same depth and intensity that McCoy Tyner was working with new, fourths-based jazz chords. Jimi also worked with pedals and amps to the degree that his sounds predated analog synthesizer sounds—especially when I heard him jamming one night at the Cafe Au Go Go with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles. Those pre-synth “nailings” can be heard on Live at the Fillmore East.”
But never mind all of the above and call it whatever you will. All that really matters is that its grade A-1-bona-fide-fucking-music.
TRIVIA – Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” played over the Fillmore’s PA as the clock ticked down to the end of the ’60s at the Band of Gypsys’ New Year’s Eve 1969 show.
Burning of the Midnight Lamp – Single, 1967
Harpsichord. Choir. Unconventional chord progression. Vari-speed overdubs.
“Burning of the Midnight Lamp” isn’t exactly prog, but it has many of the same ingredients progressive rockers used to cook. Perhaps too much so – to some fans the studio version is over the top and dated. Check its Stockholm 1967 live debut (available on Stages and the 2000 “Purple Box”) for a refreshingly stripped arrangement. Left to just guitar, bass and drums its daring songwriting spirit radiates. This chord sequence with these poetic lyrics of loneliness and love begs for more YouTube re-arrangements. So what are you waiting for? Grab your mandolin or uke and go for it….
Little One – Legendary Bootleg, 1967
This may be an instrumental – officially unreleased until 2010 – but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s filler. The original recording was tracked alone by Jimi, but his drumming was replaced by a Mitch Mitchell overdub. Frequently bootlegged with the claim of being recorded with the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, the booklet in West Coast Seattle Boy makes no mention of him – just Traffic’s Dave Mason on sitar. Regardless of personnel, it ranks along The Stones and Beatles predecessors (“Paint it Black,” “Within You Without You”) as the era’s most durable “raga rock.”
“Jimi Hendrix could play the ass off anyone. I think he was as good a blues player as B.B. King is. I think he could do it standing on his head, you know what I mean?”
– Mick Jagger, 1971
“Don’t think you’re going to be… Jimi Hendrix just because you can go wee wee wah wah…first you’ve got to know that fucker. And you go to bed with it. If there’s no babe around, you sleep with it. She’s just the right shape.”
-Keith Richards advice to budding guitarist in his book, Life
“I loved Jimi Hendrix from the beginning. The moment I saw him, I thought he was fantastic. I was an instant convert. Mr. Jimi Hendrix is the best thing I’ve ever seen. It was exciting, sexy, interesting… I was quite friendly with him. He was a really sweet guy. A bit confused.” – Mick Jagger, 1995
If 6 Was 9 – Axis: Bold As Love, 1967
In which numbers (and the imagery of longing for togetherness from ’50s standard “Stand By Me” – one of the many R&B classics Jimi performed in his early days) are spun into the ’60s’ ultimate anthem of freak-flag individualism. It pointed at the era’s “white collar conservatives” as it sidestepped the sheepishness of the counter-culture (“If all the hippies cut off all their hair/ I don’t care…cuz I got my own world to live through and I ain’t gonna copy you.”). It’s multi-section form is one of Jimi’s most unique, with its liberal improv displaying his interest in free jazz. Lest anyone miss the point, Jimi flutters a flute solo…or something like that…
Rainy Day, Dream Away/ Still Raining, Still Dreaming – Electric Ladyland, 1968
An organ trio soul-jazz, blues shuffle, psychedelic R&B hybrid, “Rainy Day” realized the fusion of styles that characterize Electric Ladyland to their fullest while hinting at Jimi’s newest musical ideas. Largely improvised in the studio with sax, organ and old pal Buddy Miles drumming, the track was cut into two pieces. The first half was titled “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and opened side two of the sprawling double album. The reprise, “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” starts side four.
“Blue Window” – a 1969 jam with the Buddy Miles Express – also showed Hendrix’s soul-jazz blues hues (sax solos, organ, a brass section). Its extended improv and intricate horn backing marks it as the closest Jimi ever came on record to conventional jazz. Had he lived its likely Hendrix would have made more music with the combination of influences and instrumentation on “Rainy Day” and “Blue Window.”
Young/ Hendrix – Record Plant Sessions, 1969
Miles Davis’ wrote in his autobiography: “I realized that no matter how great a musician that he was, no matter how much that I personally loved his music – very few young black had heard of him.” Jimi could have said the same of Miles’ music, and both wanted to break barriers.
Davis got funkier – musically, as well as with his album art and appearance (he also mentions in his book going to the same hair-dresser and clothing stores as Jimi). At the same time Jimi became increasingly interested in jamming with jazz musicians and quipped to Melody Maker (Britain’s premier music weekly),“when I die I’m not going to have a funeral. I’m going to have a jam session…Roland Kirk will be there and I’ll try to get Miles Davis along if he feels like making it. For that it’s almost worth dying….” (ironically Davis was one of a handful of musicians to attend Hendrix’s funeral not long after this comment).
Davis claimed he jammed with Jimi in private, though their long-rumored recording sessions were stalled by financial concerns. Jimi had also played with Kirk – at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, early 1967 – and gleefully shared that experience with Rolling Stone’s John Burks’ in 1970. “It’s revealing to hear Hendrix talk about jamming in London with Roland Kirk, jazz’s amazing blind multi-horn player,” Burk’s wrote. “Jimi was in awe of Roland, afraid that he would play something that would get in Roland’s way. You can tell, by the way he speaks of Kirk, that Hendrix regards him as some kind of Master Musician. As it worked out, Jimi played what he normally plays, Roland played what he normally plays and they fit like hand in glove.”
As Davis was moving closer to Jimi’s aesthetic, Hendrix was exploring Davis’ circle of sidemen. In March 1969 Jimi jammed with Miles’ current guitarist and bassist, John McLaughlin and Dave Holland. This was his first time playing with jazz musicians since the fluke meeting with Kirk. Holland recalled to Jazz Times: “…a call I got one afternoon to come down to his studio and just have a jam session with John McLaughlin and Buddy Miles. It was very loose and a lot of fun, and that was the extent of it. It’s interesting though—he had this really long cord and he would walk up to cats and give them a little riff to play and then he’d walk up to someone else and give them a little riff to play, and that’s exactly what Miles did, that same kind of intuitive orchestration…”
McLaughlin was already being influenced by Jimi (as he explained to Guitar Player): “I was one of many guitarists who had already abandoned the “cool jazz guitar” tone by the end of the ’60s, thanks in large part to the influences brought about by Jimi and Eric [Clapton]. We adapted our jazz techniques to the more distorted tone. Coltrane also had a hand in this. If you listen to his later recordings, it sounds as though his sax is going through some kind of distorter—but, of course, this was his natural evolution. By the early ’70s, there were groups, including my own Mahavishnu Orchestra, who were using the distorted guitar sound in a much more complex musical environment, and we had great success. Unfortunately, however, by September 1970, Jimi had disappeared, and he never got to see and hear the fruits of which he was, in a substantial way, the originator.”
Drumming great Tony Williams had left Davis’ combo in 1968 to form Lifetime – under the sway of Jimi, Mitch Mitchell and other adventurous rock players. In 1969 Williams and McLaughlin recorded Lifetime’s landmark debut Emergency! with Larry Young – Grant Green’s former soul-jazz organist now branching into fusion. In April 1969 Jimi again teamed with Holland and Buddy Miles at a Record Plant session, this time joined by Young. An edit of the 20 minute jam they recorded was released on the free improv-themed posthumous LP Nine to the Universe in 1980 and the full track was unveiled on Jimi’s 2010 box. It’s not “jazz” but it’s an interesting snapshot of Jimi toying with his potential to play with jazz musicians, one that would’ve blended well into the fusion landmark both Holland and Young recorded later that year with Miles Davis: Bitches Brew.
Between Jimi and Miles there was a middle ground – more improv-based than Jimi’s hits, more rock than Miles’ jazz and funkier than either. Jimi didn’t live to make that music, but “Young/ Hendrix” hints the interest and ability were there. Davis lifted patterns from Hendrix’s records for his rhythm section however, both during and after Jimi’s lifetime however. Bob Belden (producer and Davis scholar in charge of Columbia/Legacy’s Miles reissues) explained to Jazz Times: “Jimi’s music—particularly the bass lines—directly influenced Miles Davis. If you listen to “Inamorata” from Live/Evil, that’s the bass line to “Fire.” “Mademoiselle Mabry” from Filles de Kilimanjaro is derived from Jimi’s “The Wind Cries Mary”; “What I Say” from Live/Evil is basically “Message to Love” from Band of Gypsys, and so on. Miles had Michael Henderson play those kind of bass lines, and he had Jack DeJohnette play like Buddy Miles because that’s what he wanted to hear.”
Hendrix’s Davis-associate connections extend beyond his lifetime in another way as well. Jimi was scheduled to begin working the week after he died with jazz arranger Gil Evans on an album of Hendrix’s music in the style of Evans’ acclaimed LPs with Davis (Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain). Eventually Evans completed the album and performed it at Carnegie Hall in 1974 with surrogates for Jimi (Ryo Kawasaki and John Abercrombie).
“He wanted to do big band arrangements and stand still… He’s one of the great innovators and geniuses….”
“Considering Hendrix died when he was twenty-seven and had accomplished all that he did, I get the feeling he was the only real genius rock music ever had.”
Read “Reconsidering the ‘Guitar Hero'” here – how Hendrix relates to the six-string glory of Neil Young, The Stooges, Tame Impala, Sonic Youth, mid ’70s Miles Davis, mid ’69s Pink Floyd, Jack White, John Lennon, Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine and others.