Nearly four decades ago, a blazing comet crashed into London’s burgeoning music scene and exploded in a cloud of purple haze. Arriving from an entirely different artistic universe, that comet, better known as James Marshall Hendrix, single-handedly changed the face of ‘60s pop culture. Everything about this axe-wielding apparition was different: his looks, his playing style, his ability to create. Even the name of his band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, foretold the sensory journey he was to lead. He was light-years ahead of his time, and quite possibly too good for his own good, as his visit proved to be a short one. What Hendrix did in his brief career, however, was raise the bar of creativity to impossible heights, while cementing a legacy as an innovator, visionary, and icon.
Hendrix’ prowess as a guitarist initially left Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend slack-jawed in disbelief, and nearly made them hang up their own instruments out of frustration. Yet Jimi’s talent was not predicated on mere physical dexterity, but more so on spirit. The guitar was a part of him; an appendage that was directly connected to his head and heart and channeled through his soul. The sounds and emotions emanating from his lefty-strung Fender Stratocaster and amps were by-products of what Hendrix could see and feel within himself. So profound were his musical and spiritual sensibilities that his accomplishments still elicit wonder and amazement all these years later.
The scope and breadth of the Hendrix catalogue belies the fact that only three studio albums were recorded during his lifetime. Beginning with 1967’s Are You Experienced and progressing through Axis: Bold As Love (also from 1967) to 1968’s Electric Ladyland, Hendrix matured as an artist at an unbelievably rapid rate. His debut recording showcased unbridled flair and flash; it was anchored by the classic psychedelic excursions of “Fire”, “Foxy Lady”, “Manic Depression”, and “3rd Stone From the Sun”, while also hinting at Hendrix’ deep affinity for American Delta Blues with the inclusions of “Hey Joe” and “Red House”. Axis went a step further as Hendrix deftly mingled the ethereal beauty of “Little Wing” and “Castles Made Of Sand” with the acid test mind expansion of “If 6 Was 9”.
Hendrix’s true genius was not fully recognized until his final studio album; Electric Ladyland was an exhaustive labor of love, one that blended aspects of Jimi’s past, present, and future into a bubbling cauldron of sonic energy and expression. Originally released as a double album, (adorned with a controversial gatefold photo of unclad female worshippers in the UK), its sixteen tracks ebb and flow with a precise irregularity that affords listeners a fleeting glimpse into the recesses of Hendrix’ artistic psyche. It also features contributing guest artists including Buddy Miles, Jack Casady, Al Kooper, and Steve Winwood, and boasts the engineering wizardry of Eddie Kramer.
Beginning with “...And the Gods Made Love”, Jimi’s uncanny ability to harness imagination is on full display. No one but Hendrix could conjure, much less transcribe, appropriate studio effects to approximate a deific act of intimacy.
Mixing board magic aside, the album contains the most thought-provoking and moving material Hendrix had written and performed to date. Painting a canvas with broad aural brush strokes, Jimi transitions effortlessly from the gracefully poetic “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” to the determined punch of “Crosstown Traffic” and “Long Hot Summer Night”, from the rollicking cover of Earl King’s “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)” to the haunting melancholy of “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”, from the relaxed serenity of “Rainy Day, Dream Away” to the urgent charge of “House Burning Down”. Even the jaunty Noel Redding-penned “Little Miss Strange” is smartly contrasted against the blues-drenched “Voodoo Chile” and “Gypsy Eyes”, evidence that Hendrix was willing to deviate from the norm at every twist and turn, traveling in directions even he may not have initially expected.
As wonderfully diverse as Electric Ladyland’s material is, there are two moments that transcend the album’s greatness, albeit it in different ways. A devotee and admirer of the music of Bob Dylan, Hendrix chose to cover the classic “All Along the Watchtower” in tribute to his friend. What he did in the process was to reinvent the song, bettering the original and making it his own. The fervency of Hendrix’ playing and vocals make this version such a powerful statement that it has evolved into arguably the best cover of a rock song ever.
The album’s creative zenith, however, is reached with the track, “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be).” Not merely a song, it is a thirteen and one half minute epic wringed by pointed social commentary, optimistic dreams, and idealistic fantasy, all held together by mind-bending musical experimentation. It is a tale of love and life that showcases Hendrix’s skills as romance writer and passionately cerebral artist, one who could weave words and sounds into a vivid pictorial tapestry. A rare and exquisite composition that can transport a willing listener into another dimension, “1983” is as majestic in its grandeur as it is awe inspiring in its vision of Atlantean Nirvana.
Perhaps the ultimate significance of Electric Ladyland comes by way of Jimi’s subconscious knowledge that it was to be his crowning achievement. He did, after all, leave a cryptic message amidst the soaring guitars of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” when he stated, “If I don’t meet you no more in this world, then I’ll meet you in the next one, and don’t be late, don’t be late”. It can be argued that after the album was recorded, Jimi was never the same. Frustrated by public expectations and professional obligations, he soon grew weary of the business of music, departing this world 18 September 1970 to continue on his cosmic travels. Although he moved on far too quickly, his energy and artistry still resonate in the recorded material that remains. For me, though, Electric Ladyland is far more than just an album. Over time, it has become an invigorating life force, one that courses through my veins with regularity. It represents hope and purpose and inspiration, and is a bittersweet reminder of that brilliant flashing comet known as James Marshall Hendrix.
My favorite? Just ask the Axis…