Saturday, September 18, 2010

'I've been dead a long time'

Jimi Hendrix died 40 years ago today. He was 27 years old.

'Once you're dead you're made for life.'

Millions of words have been written about him and his effect on the music world (an indeed the world in general) and in many ways his presence is even greater today than when he was alive and making music. These are odd times for the electric guitar, as players are churned out on conveyor belts from nebulous 'institutes' which claim to teach the would-be guitar hero all that they'll ever need to know to play any type of music that they're ever likely to encounter - many would say that players who learn in this way are soulless and unoriginal, two words that could never be associated with Jimi Hendrix. To some he's the greatest ever exponent of the instrument, to others he's the most overrated player of them all, but few if any will deny his impact. Ask people who saw him perform about him and you can watch them being all-too-briefly transported back to a time when anything seemed to be possible, and when maybe, just maybe, music could change the World.

'My goal is to be at one with the music. I just dedicate my whole life to this art.'

His life story has been documented in almost Biblical detail, and as such doesn't need re-telling here; when he crash-landed on a swinging but nevertheless unsuspecting London in the Autumn of 1966 it's fair to say that no one had ever looked, acted or sounded like him. And I don't just mean musically - listen to recordings of him speaking and you hear a polite, almost impossibly gentle voice that redefines the word 'cool' and almost sounds as though he knew something that we (the rest of the population of the World) didn't but that maybe, just maybe, we could find out if we all listened closely enough. By all accounts he was a shy, intoverted person whose desire to please people is often seen as a contributory factor in his untimely demise - it seems the word 'no' wasn't in his vocabulary! - and as such his, shall we say, adventures with drink, drugs and women are all well-known. However the one thing it seems everybody agrees on is that above all else he lived for the music. Everything else just came along as well.

'A musician, if he's a messenger, is like a child who hasn't been handled too many times by man, hasn't had too many fingerprints across his brain. That's why music is so much heavier than anything you've ever felt.'

His first single 'Hey Joe' sounds almost tame compared to what was to follow but put in context of the music of the time sounds nothing short of revolutionary; the next two singles 'Purple Haze' and 'The Wind Cries Mary' pushed the boundaries even further both in terms of composition and sound. By the time you get to the first album 'Are You Experienced?' you're hearing a guitarist of unparalleled ability playing music that seemed to include elements of every style of popular music that had been heard up until that point in time but that somehow sounded nothing like any of it. The second album 'Axis : Bold As Love' came out only a few months later and was no less extraordinary, focusing more on his songwriting skills although it still contained some amazing guitar playing, and the third album 'Electric Ladyland' remains a sprawling masterpiece of monumental proportions that would still sound radical if it was released today. And the fourth album - well, the fourth album didn't come out, at least as far as Hendrix was concerned. The 'Band Of Gypsys' live album (featuring Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums) released in 1970 was a contractual obligation not considered an official release by the man himself although it does include the incredible 'Machine Gun' which contains what for many people is some of his most inventive and astonishing soloing. His projected fourth album was to be 'First Rays Of The New Rising Sun', which he'd been working on for at least a year at the time of his death. Posthumous releases of some of the material appeared on albums like 'The Cry Of Love' and 'Rainbow Bridge', and a version of the album was eventually 'officially' compiled (by recording engineer Eddie Kramer among others) and released in 1997; although it's highly unlikely that it would have emerged in this form had Hendrix have lived to see it's completion it's a good indication of his musical direction at the time of his death. It contains some truly remarkable recordings, with many featuring multi-layered interlocking guitar parts of extraordinary inventiveness and complexity. It could be argued that without Chas Chandler's production and editing skills that were with hindsight so evident on the first two albums he was heading too far down the path of self-indulgence (something that can certainly be said about parts of 'Electric Ladyland') but he certainly wasn't running out of ideas, as further releases like 'South Saturn Delta' and 'Valleys Of Neptune' show. They're still finding recordings from the seemingly never-ending studio sessions that all but dominated the last year or so of his life today - they're not all good, but they're not all bad either.

' You have to go crazy. Craziness is like heaven.'

As a live act The Jimi Hendrix Experience (featuring Noel Redding on bass and John 'Mitch' Mitchell on drums) hit the ground running with a series of early club gigs in around London. Manager Chas Chandler invited the great and the good from the music industry including virtually every name guitarist in the country, all of whom witnessed a live performer who had paid more than enough dues in more than enough backing bands and was not about to let his chance to take the spotlight pass him by. His showmanship quickly became the stuff of legend, and again we all know the story - playing the guitar with his teeth, behind his head, using tricks picked up over years on the so-called 'chitlin circuit'. To me the most remarkable thing is not just what he did, but how he did it - watch this version of 'Hey Joe' and see if you agree with me that none of it ever looks any effort to him, as if it's all just part of how he plays. He apparently grew to hate it, but it rarely if ever looks like it to me. There are several live DVD's available if you've not seen it for yourself - the Monterey set established him in The U.S.A. and is high on pyrotechnics (it's a bit of a shame that 'Wild Thing' is probably the best known number as he really could do so much more than set fire to a guitar!) while the Woodstock footage has less showmanship but some of his most celebrated playing including the infamous rendition of 'The Star Spangled Banner'. Great stuff.

'I've been imitated so well I've heard people copy my mistakes.'

In the 1960's the electric guitar was still a comparatively new instrument, and there were people around that were extending the sonic possibilities - Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend were both using distortion and feedback, The Beatles were recording backward guitars and Eric Clapton had stunned British guitarists with his work on the seminal 'Bluesbreakers' album. Hendrix did all of these things and more, armed only with what today would be seen as simple, even primitive equipment - a Marshall stack, a Fender Stratocaster turned upside down to accommodate his left handed playing (different than anybody else again) and the few effect pedals that were on the market at the time. Electronics genius Roger Mayer certainly contributed to the story by modifying his pedals and building a few exclusive devices for him, but that on it's own wouldn't have given him his sound. That came from him and him alone, and remains to this day a sound that many strive for but few ever approach. And then there's the playing itself, with elements of blues, pop, soul, jazz, rock'n'roll, even country picking, but sounding nothing like any of them but somehow sounding like all of them at the same time. Again, watch the footage - it always looks to me as though the music comes straight out from within him through the guitar, to such an extent that it's sometimes hard to tell where the instrument ends and the man begins. Does that sound pretentious? Watch and see if you agree. And here's something to ponder - next time you see a picture or a bit of film of him, have a close look at his hands. They're big. Very big. He could literally wrap his right hand around the guitar neck. If ever a man was built to play the guitar, it was Jimi Hendrix.

'If I'm free it's because I'm always running.'

So, 40 years after he left the building what are we left with? Recordings that still sound futuristic today, live performances that have literally become the stuff of legend, and a body of work that continues to captivate old fans and win over new converts with ease. It has been analysed so closely that it's almost devoid of any mystery, although of course the one great mystery remains - how did he do it? We all try to get the sound, but nobody ever really does. We all try to play the notes, but they never come out quite how he played them. And no one - no one - can get the feel of his best playing, where it sounds as though he's striving for notes that only he can play with a sound that only he can hear, making music that sounds like nothing else before or since. To me he was the man that the electric guitar was invented for, and it doesn't get any better than that.

'The story of life is quicker than the wink of an eye
The story of love is hello and goodbye
Until we meet again...'

1 comment:

Voltarol said...

Great writing Leigh...full marks. I'm jealous as always!