How time flies… Jimi Hendrix would have turned 62 this week. When he passed into the next sonic dimension nearly three and a half decades ago, the world lost more than a brilliant musician and iconic figure of the Psychedelic Generation; we were deprived of watching Hendrix grow as an artist and fulfill his promise as a visionary. As a result, Hendrix will always be remembered for his brief tenure on the scene, never aging past his 27th year, never graying around the temples, and never putting away his sleek velvet pants. His catalog continues to generate millions of dollars annually, with “new” material packaged and released semi-regularly since his family regained the rights to his work, and he is regarded as a six-string deity and cultural hero who continues to influence countless guitarists world wide. Despite the ongoing appeal of Hendrix’s legacy and the scope of his importance to rock music, one question persists among aficionados and casual listeners alike: Had he lived, where would Jimi be today? Though we can only speculate, Hendrix did leave enough clues to formulate an educated guess.
Hendrix built his resume on R&B, and blues from Chicago and the Delta, touring with acts like the Isley Brothers, Curtis Knight, Ike Turner and Little Richard. After emerging from the shadows as a hired musician to stake his own claim, he crafted a distinctive signature sound without wandering far from his bluesy heritage. Not as overtly blues-oriented as early Yardbirds, John Mayall, or Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Hendrix nonetheless retained a driving, mournful quality to much of his music, incorporating a variety of blues inspired songs into his set list. Certainly his inaugural album, Are You Experienced?, was buoyed by the psych-rock commercial success of “Purple Haze”, “Fire”, and “Foxey Lady”, but it was also grounded in the blues sensibilities of “Hey Joe” and “Red House”.
His affinity for the organic vibe of the Midwest and South notwithstanding, Hendrix’s image rapidly developed from anonymous sideman to flashy rock star as he became known for his incendiary performance at Monterey. While his stage theatrics were deliberate, he soon found the public’s expectations for such showmanship to be suffocating, and altered his live and studio presentations within an amazingly short time span. The broad experimental sounds of his second and third albums, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland, proved as much, with both releases featuring material built around somber emotions that shared a tonal and thematic resonance with traditional blues music. The underlying sadness of “Castles Made of Sand” and loneliness of “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” are not the expressions of a guitar-wielding superhero, but rather those of a latter day Robert Johnson. In stark contrast to the popular music of the time, Hendrix’s recordings conveyed deeply personal feelings of futility, lost love, isolation, and self doubt, made more profound by his instrumental prowess. From the final farewell of “Wait Until Tomorrow” to the disturbing elegance of “1983… A Merman I Should Turn to Be”, Hendrix exposed himself as a vulnerable muse, unafraid to bare his soul through song. As with the greatest blues talents before him, Hendrix’s primary gift was not manual dexterity, but his ability to have his guitar speak for him and serve as an extension of his being.
As dramatic as Hendrix’s artistic shift was from 1967 to 1970, so was the change in his stage persona. By the time of Woodstock in 1969, he had dispensed with much of the wild-man antics, maturing into a composed musician, playing exclusively with his heart and head rather than with his teeth. His band lineup reflected this development as well; gone was the explosive power-trio format of the Experience, replaced by the looser jam-outfit blueprint of Gypsy Sun & Rainbows. This is not to say that Hendrix had lost any passion—quite the opposite, as he now concentrated on substance rather than style. His metamorphosis can be further seen in the legendary New Year’s concerts at the Fillmore East in 1969/1970. Paring back to a trio once again, Hendrix took the stage with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox as Band of Gypsies, as different an incarnation as anything he’d arranged previously. Just as his Woodstock appearance became synonymous with “The Star Spangled Banner,” the Fillmore performances came to be identified with a single tune, “Machine Gun”. So powerful was Hendrix’s desolate aural landscape that the song was readily accepted as a breathtaking commentary on the socio-political ills of the moment. The recording was much more than a talented guitarist eliciting shrieks and howls from his Stratocaster, it was a master storyteller wringing every bit of emotion from his axe while chronicling the environmental tensions around him. Consistent with the original development of blues, “Machine Gun” transcended the parameters of chords and lyrics to become a profound personal statement of anger and frustration.
Yet to place Hendrix in one category or another is implausible. The complexities of his music demonstrate the breadth of his sophistication as an innovator; he was a veritable sponge for musical information, blending aspects of everything he heard into an ornate mosaic. Two posthumous albums of material released by his estate in 1997, First Rays of the New Rising Sun and South Saturn Delta, showcase songs that were recorded before his death but not released as a cohesive collection, all of which display his dramatic creative progression. The tracks exude an intricately soulful ebb and flow, as Hendrix was clearly branching out stylistically; his fretwork is sizzling, augmented by solid rhythmic foundations throughout, and the compositions show how far removed he was from the “hits” of Are You Experienced?. Strong blues undercurrents are present everywhere, complimented by elements of jazz and R&B, as well as what would soon become labeled as funk. Hendrix’s forays into this area paralleled those of pioneering acts Sly & the Family Stone and the Chambers Brothers, further evidencing his desire to distance himself from the standard rock stereotype, and drift into musical regions constructed from deftly woven influences and diverse genres.
Perhaps the most obvious example of Hendrix’s base of influence and potential direction comes by way of the 1994 release, Blues. More than a collection of covers and originals, the compilation provides a glimpse of Hendrix paying homage to his heroes while recreating them in his own likeness. While his British counterparts were avid students and practitioners of England’s blues revival, Hendrix boasted an inherent flair and intimacy for performing blues material that even Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck could not duplicate. Hendrix came of age on the Southern and Midwestern circuits; he didn’t just play blues, he was blues.
Hendrix’s preoccupation with blues did not necessarily mean that he was morphing into a blues purist, ala Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, although his increasingly modest stage demeanor and evocative songwriting accelerated his transition from the bombast of rock into the understated realm of his blues-playing forefathers. In all likelihood, Hendrix would have continued building from his blues foundation into something resembling the fusion elements of jazz, with the final result being an amalgam of many different blues musicians’ outputs. Whatever the result, Hendrix’s eventual path would have been different than anything he’d done prior and years ahead of his contemporaries’ efforts.
While there are countless lasting images of Jimi Hendrix, there is one that stands out amongst all others. It is not of him setting his guitar alight at Monterey, nor his flashing the “V” sign to the huddled masses at Woodstock. It is one of Hendrix sitting on a stool, handsomely dressed, with a 12-string acoustic in hand performing a melancholy solo version of “Hear My Train a Comin’”. Two decades before it became fashionable for rock and rollers to play unplugged, Hendrix showed how dynamic a few strummed chords could be.
Sounds like he was playing the blues…