Wednesday, August 25, 2010
I was 13 in 1967 and might have just been coming to the realization that there was more to music than the Top 40 as broadcast by WABC in New York. I was the eldest of five, so had no older sibling to, early on, educate me in the ways of more erudite fare. All this by way of saying that I didn't know about Hendrix when "Are You Experienced?" appeared. But my best friend Mike, a year and a half older, did.
I have distinct memories of going over to his house, on Croft Road in the Spackenkill section of Poughkeepsie, to listen to this album, to marvel at these utterly new--to me--sounds. I've no doubt that I latched onto the more overt, strongly structured songs therein, things like "Purple Haze", "Foxy Lady" and "Fire", though I do recall being entranced (still am) by the bass line in "Manic Depression". Other tracks were just strange--"I Don't Live Today", the title cut. But what stands out most of all from that time is how utterly baffled we both were by "Third Stone from the Sun". We simply couldn't recognize it as music! No real lyrics. Plus, at 6:40, it was entirely too long! I often wondered, years later, long after it was clear that it was merely pretty much a jazz-based piece (Mitchell being very Elvin Jones-influenced), if my reaction was similar to those who hear a bit of avant jazz or classical--that they just can't fit it into their existing mental framework of what music is.
Something that still sounds especially outstanding: the title track, the backwards guitar and that rhythm...man, so good.
Another reason Hendrix was so pivotal for me was the beautiful casualness of his vocals, the "ums" and "ahs", the laid back phrasing, the conversational quality they had, so much in contrast to the strutting, manicured vocals of 99% or pop and rock at the time (and now). As one who, early on, couldn't abide most rock singing and lyrics, this was rather refreshing.
So, when "Axis: Bold As Love" came out (early '68?), I was ready and dove right in, the title cut, with all its mystical warrior overtones fitting right in with my contemporaneous devouring of Marvel comics and Conan novels, swiftly becoming my favorite piece of music at the time. Though I think, within a short period, both "Little Wing" and "If 6 Was 9" superseded that. The latter's lyrics made a huge impression on me and still resonate:
I've got my own life to live
I'm the one that's gonna have to die
When it's time for me to die
So let me live my life the way I want to.
That a rock musician dealt so starkly, not so romantically, with death struck me.
Listening these days, I'm surprised how much of the album holds up, even the Noel Redding songs and despite all the bizarro stereo panning. The jazzy lilt of "Up from the Skies" still charms and "Castles Made of Sand" remains heartbreaking, with one of the loveliest, briefest (backward) guitar breaks around.
Mike and I had tickets to Woodstock. I should explain...As originally planned, the festival was to take place on two days, Saturday and Sunday, the 16th and 17th of August. We bought tickets for those two days, the idea being that my dad would drive us to the site (which vacillated from Woodstock proper to one or two other places before settling on Bethel, NY, some 50 miles due west from Poughkeepsie), drop us off and pick us up on the Monday. Festival organizers belatedly added a third day, the preceding Friday (my 15th birthday). Well, not having tickets for that day, we figured we'd simply go to the 2nd and 3rd day, no big deal. Right. By the time the dates rolled around, Dad wasn't about to go anywhere near the place so that opportunity passed us by.
Oddly, when we bought the tickets, sometime in May I think, the act I was most anxious to see was Richie Havens. A recent album of his was getting substantial play on the newly-discovered-by-me radio station, WNEW-FM and I loved it (and Havens' Woodstock appearance is, in fact pretty fantastic). But by August, it was Hendrix I was dying to see and hear. "Electric Ladyland" was released in September, 1968, but I have a feeling it took a while for it to utterly flatten me, probably midway through the next year. I'm guessing it was the combination of sf spaciness ("1983", etc.) and the, to me, new sound of psychedelic blues that killed. To this day, I'm not sure there's a finer 60 or so seconds in rock than the opening minute of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)".
"Band of Gypsys" came out in mid '70, I guess, "Machine Gun" being the cut that had the most telling effect. I think I was a bit disconcerted then at the drift toward soul on a few tracks, but chalk that up to the prog I was otherwise into at the time. I was working my first after-school job in September of that year, janitoring at a local church, when word came that Hendrix had died. Like an infatuated schoolgirl, I carved his name into a desk there, with the date.
When I traded in virtually my entire rock collection in '75, Hendrix went too. I don't recall if I had qualms about his inclusion or if, as far as I was concerned, he was "rock" and I wanted nothing to do with the genre (Beefheart didn't make the cut either, so you see I was being severe). Around 1982, we were on vacation in Block Island and I went into a small sandwich shop. "The Wind Cries Mary" was playing on the house system and I stood there, struck at how beautiful the song was, how elegant and simple (in the best sense) the guitar solo. I thought to myself, "I think you screwed up, getting rid of those records." and went out and repurchased them all, also getting the disc versions later on. Bought the Live at Winterland 2-LP set as well, a fine set, with as jazz-rocky a piece as he ever recorded, perhaps, "Tax Free".
Glad I did. I've listened to Hendrix non-stop since then, always deriving great joy.
Curious, of course, about what direction he would have taken. Jazz was a possibility (scheduled to record with Gil Evans the week after he died, Miles' interest in him, having shared the stage--which I'd kill to hear--with Rahsaan) though the album that was cobbled together to represent what his next releases would have been, "First Rays of the Rising Sun", is pretty weak. Cynically, I'm afraid he might have trod the fusion path.
Thank you, Mr. Hendrix.