LOS ANGELES — The keepers of Jimi Hendrix’s flame are calling the new album of long-buried recordings by the proto-rock guitar hero “Valleys of Neptune.” The obvious explanation is that it’s the title of one of the cornerstone songs that emerged during a fertile, albeit transitional, period in Hendrix’s career: the early months of 1969, when the original Jimi Hendrix Experience was dissolving and its namesake was figuring out what to do next and with whom he would do it.
But spend a little time talking with those keepers — Hendrix’s stepsister, Janie, who controls his estate, recording engineer Eddie Kramer, who was there in the studio much of the time when Hendrix was at work, and music historian and Hendrix devotee John McDermott — and you quickly sense that “Valleys of Neptune” also describes just how far they’ve been willing to go in recent years to put his recorded legacy and — in a grander sense — his memory in order.
“I keep saying that this is the most fun, archaeological dig you could possibly go on,” said Kramer, one of the handful of people still alive who spent significant time with Hendrix in a recording studio. “You unearth these little gems, and you go, ‘Wow, I don’t remember him doing that.’ But then all these little pieces start to fit together. ... That’s the intrigue: You get on the scent of something, then you get that lovely moment of discovery — like that classic moment when we found an enormous pile of tapes that had been left at some studio on the East Coast because a phone bill hadn’t been paid.”
Hendrix, Kramer and McDermott gathered recently at the North Hollywood recording studio where Kramer and associate Chandler Harrod have been putting finishing touches on master recordings they’re using for “Valleys of Neptune.” They’re working with 41-year-old 14-inch reels turning on vintage Ampex tape machines hooked up to banks of the latest digital equipment to ready them for release March 9 on CD and audiophile vinyl pressings.
The releases roughly coincide with the launch of the latest Experience Hendrix Tour, this one kicking off in the Southland with shows March 4 in Santa Barbara and March 5 at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. On the bill are Hendrix disciples, including Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang, along with bassist Billy Cox, Hendrix’s Army buddy who joined him when Noel Redding exited the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
For a couple of decades after Hendrix’s drug-related death at age 27, fans were deluged with what seemed like every scrap of tape that had ever captured some of his musical landscape-altering guitar work or his fierce, blues-fired vocals. He released just three official studio albums during his lifetime: the watershed 1967 debut of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Are You Experienced,” followed in relatively short order by “Axis: Bold as Love” and his only No. 1 collection, “Electric Ladyland.”
A live set from Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys surfaced shortly before his death on Sept. 18, 1970.
In succeeding years, however, various labels have issued more than 30 albums of live performances and assorted studio recordings he left behind. Since Janie Hendrix emerged as the victor in the legal wrangling over who would control the estate after the 2002 death of her father, Al Hendrix, she, Kramer and McDermott have busied themselves trying to redress what McDermott terms “a short-sighted approach that was just to try to grind (his catalog) for what it was worth at the time. There was no long-term thought or care, and this was a guy who wanted all of that.”
Their first step has been to prep the three original albums for deluxe reissues, also due March 9. Those will include bonus tracks, extensive liner notes and a DVD on the making of each album featuring interviews with original Experience members Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, producer Chas Chandler, Cox and Kramer.
They’ll be giving a similar treatment to remastered editions of “First Rays of the New Rising Sun,” the double album Hendrix was working on when he died that was the initial release from the Seattle-based company Experience Hendrix in 1997, the “Smash Hits” compilation and “Live at Woodstock.”
They’ll be issued under a long-term contract that Janie Hendrix signed last year with Sony Music after the 12 years that Universal Music handled all Hendrix releases. At the time the deal was completed, Sony vowed to make his music “available through every type of media” — including a new edition of Rock Band that Janie Hendrix says should appear before the end of this year.
Phase 2, Janie Hendrix says, begins with “Valleys of Neptune” and involves exploring her stepbrother’s archives and pulling out unreleased recordings — not simply for material that hasn’t surfaced before but with the aim of finding tracks that shed new light on what’s previously been issued.
She says there’s enough to support another decade’s worth of releases. To avoid criticism from fans who’ve been burned by previous strip-mining of the Hendrix archives, Experience Hendrix will have to come up with releases as cohesive as “Valleys of Neptune.”
In this case, several tracks show Hendrix reconnecting with his roots in “the deep blues, it’s a completely different direction, and I think it shows as a musician where he was evolving to,” says Janie, who remembers the stepbrother who was 19 years her senior as someone with “a great sense of humor ... he loved to tickle me and chase me around the house.”
McDermott, a pop music historian who’d written books on Hendrix’s career before signing on as catalog director with Experience Hendrix LLC, the family’s business enterprise, noted that “this period was very important from a developmental point of view. In the aftermath of ‘Electric Ladyland,’ he was approaching a new level of success. For us, this represents the best approximation of what his next album would have been.”
Finding source material has brought the archival team considerable joy — and frustration over how slipshod the handling of original tapes had been for so long. Regarding the tapes and the long-unpaid phone bill Kramer had mentioned, McDermott said: “This guy who’d been the owner of a small studio had held onto them. It was about principle to him. I think at the time it was about $7,000 for the phone and some studio charges and stuff. And he had 66 multi-tracks. I went out there, and all he asked for was the money. The value of the money today was around $11,000 or $12,000. He just said, ‘Yeah, here they are,’ and he kept handing them over, one after another after another. I put them in my car and drove them home. And that’s one example.”
Four decades after Hendrix’s death, fascination over every aspect of his career still rages because of the staggering impact of his innovations as a musician. “Valleys of Neptune” should pique the interest not just of hardcore Hendrix aficionados but also a broad swath of rock and blues listeners for several tracks in which the African-American rock star wrests the blues form back from the hands of white British players such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards, who had largely co-opted the indigenous American music in the ‘60s.
Listening to the tracks recently, Kramer and McDermott singled out the blues foundations of “Lover Man,” a song Hendrix performed regularly live, and a reworked rendition of his classic blues rocker “Red House,” in which the amped-up distortion and histrionics of early versions give way to pianissimo pinging, warbling, keening guitar sounds that fall somewhere among slide, steel and Hawaiian styles.
“His use of dynamics is without question like nobody else,” Kramer said. “There are many blues players who can do that — Buddy Guy comes to mind — but to take raw blues and combine them into a performance like this, it’s amazing.”
McDermott, trading thoughts with Kramer nearly as seamlessly as Hendrix and his collaborators exchanged licks, added: “Jimi was a guy who had witnessed the blues. That’s what he was about. He played this at every concert. ‘Red House’ was not like a rotated song, it was a permanent part of each set. Again, it’s one guy, six strings, a piece of wood, maybe one or two pedals and an amp stack. It’s not like you have the benefit of today when you’ve got a bunch of (special effects) going on ...
“From a roots point of view,” McDermott said, “the great thing about ‘Red House’ is that while a lot of the sessions with the British blues players was fueled on covering existing stuff, Jimi was writing new stuff, real stuff.”
That encompasses Hendrix originals surfacing officially for the first time on “Valleys of Neptune”: the pounding, polyrhythmic instrumental “Lullaby for the Summer,” a showcase for Hendrix’s growing confidence and imaginative hand as a producer; and the hard-charging rocker “Ships Passing Through the Night.”
In addition to “Red House,” the new album includes his reconfigured versions of two other Hendrix canon staples, “Stone Free” and “Fire,” plus an instrumental treatment of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” proving he could out-scorch Clapton on his own musical turf.
Asked how the team selected among the songs lurking in the catacombs and the different takes Hendrix attempted, McDermott said: “Obviously, Eddie’s got that direct connection, so he feels it right away.”
For his part, Kramer didn’t pause for a beat: “You just listen to all the takes, and you just know. There’s no question.”
Still speaking of Hendrix in the present tense on occasion, Kramer said, “You know when Jimi’s not happy by his body language, if someone was playing something not quite there, not what he wants to hear. He was never, ever satisfied. Not even when it was great.”