[11 March 2010]
Get excited. There is a new Jimi Hendrix album fully comprised of previously unreleased material.
I know I was excited when I first heard the news of Valleys of Neptune, which takes the name of one of Hendrix’s most widely bootlegged tunes. I was, in fact, so excited, I caught myself reconsidering the concept of Intelligent Design and felt the existence of Santa Claus was, all of a sudden, conceivable. Then I actually heard the album and am now here to tell you about it.
Get excited, but don’t get too excited. Here’s the deal: Valleys of Neptune is not, as some of the early buzz is incorrectly reporting, the last material Hendrix was working on before his death in September, 1970. Nor is it a collection of polished or even complete studio sessions; rather, it is a smattering of assorted jams, sketches and works-in-progress—some of which would be repurposed on Hendrix’s posthumous album, the one he was working on just before his death (of which more later). On the other hand, this is new, previously unreleased music by Jimi Hendrix! That alone is cause for unrestrained celebration, and the arrival of this album is—and will remain—one of the significant musical stories of 2010. And there’s more: in order to properly commemorate the occasion (and the fortieth anniversary of Hendrix’s passing), all of the original studio albums are being reissued with the deluxe remaster treatment, including bonus DVDS (of which more later).
It would be understandable to assume that Valleys of Neptune represents Hendrix’s final recordings, and, again, it’s disconcerting to see this release erroneously being described as such. In fact, the songs are mostly culled from a series of sessions in early ’69, more than a year before Hendrix laid down his final tracks. Fans will recall that the double-album Hendrix was unable to complete before his premature departure from this planet was released posthumously in as faithful a fashion as possible (first as the single album The Cry of Love and much later, and more satisfactorily, as the double-album length CD First Rays of the New Rising Sun).
These sessions do represent the last occasions that the original Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded together, and bassist Billy Cox, who would replace Noel Redding, can be heard for the first time on several songs. The press materials describe Valleys of Neptune as “12 fully realized studio recordings”. That is not exactly a misnomer, but it’s misleading. Again, this is Jimi Hendrix material recorded in the studio which means, by definition, it is serious stuff. But in the interest of accuracy, these are mostly rough, unfinished and occasionally unfocused cuts. If that sounds like semantic nitpicking, it is offered out of deference to Hendrix: not for nothing, but these recordings were all in the can many months before Hendrix died, and there are good reasons none of them, in their existing form, made it onto an album before now.
While listening to the new songs repeatedly over the course of a week, I kept thinking how revelatory they would be to watch as much as hear. If this studio footage had been caught on video, it would offer a fortuitous chance to see Hendrix (and his band mates) testing out material and taking the creative process for a test drive. As they exist, these tracks should best be received, and appraised, as the interesting and often quite worthwhile results of typically inspired jam sessions. Also interesting, if not especially illuminating, is the opportunity to enjoy Hendrix revisiting some of his famous songs. The set kicks off with “Stone Free”, a significant song that was the B-side of Hendrix’s first single, “Hey Joe”. As is the case on all 12 tracks, the guitar playing is, unsurprisingly, astonishing. It will be interesting to see how many aficionados feel this, or any of the other new versions improve upon the originals. For my money, they do not come close (“Stone Free” lacks the dangerous and almost desperate vocals, while “Fire”, incredibly, sounds almost tame and misses the machine gun ferocity Mitch Mitchell employed so indelibly on the debut album).
The results are more compelling when Hendrix updates two songs that were (and, based on his live performances, remained) crucial stepping stones for his rapid development, “Red House” and “Hear My Train a Comin’”. The former gets slowed down and dragged out for more than eight minutes, featuring the full spectrum of Hendrix’s dexterity and imagination. The latter, heretofore best represented as an acoustic blues, gets the plugged in and amped up live-in-the-studio treatment. Both songs are triumphant and illuminate the ways Hendrix continued to utilize traditional blues in the service of his ambitious but sophisticated acumen. Another concert staple, the band’s aggressive interpretation of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” is a launching pad for Hendrix: for almost seven minutes he employs many of his favorite tricks, toying with tempo that at one instant echoes the original, stops on a dime, and veers off into entirely other places. The other cover is a spirited update of the great Elmore James’s “Bleeding Heart” that splits the difference between sloppy and inspired, just as one would expect (and hope) for from a jam session.
The highlight of the album has to be the title track which, of all the songs, comes closest to standing alongside Hendrix’s better material. It is immediately evident that the close-but-not-quite version we hear is the result of considerable work, and the liner notes confirm that it had evolved over time from a solo demo. The ethereal drone and cymbal wash that introduce the track recalls “Angel”, but the gears shift and the guitar soars into the main melody, full of the clean, crisp pyrotechnics we associate with vintage Hendrix. The lyrics are a tad half-baked (this was, after all, 1969) and it’s intriguing to imagine how this song would (should?) have worked as in instrumental.
The rest of the songs feature sounds and motifs that would resurface on subsequent work. For instance, “Ships Passing Through The Night” is an early run at “Night Bird Flying” and “Lullaby for the Summer” would eventually coalesce as the superior “Ezy Ryder”. “Lover Man” is based on B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and “Mr. Bad Luck”, which would mutate into “Look Over Yonder” is in fact a holdover from Axis: Bold As Love. The set closes with the instrumental “Crying Blue Rain” which leaves the proceedings on a tentative, softly hopeful note. And that seems just about right, aesthetically and historically. As we know, Hendrix would continue to work with Billy Cox (and Buddy Miles, captured for posterity on the seminal Band of Gypsys set), and he would revisit some of this material to great effect in the final months of his life. Valleys of Nepune, then, is not the Holy Grail, and it doesn’t need to be. That already exists anyway, and it is celebrated in spectacular fashion with the deluxe CD/DVD reissues of the four proper alums that preceded and followed these ’69 sessions.
It is exceedingly refreshing to see that Sony’s Legacy Recordings is making the most of this opportunity and reissuing the official Hendrix catalog, with bonus (DVD) material at incredibly—bordering on unbelievably—reasonable price points. Ten bucks for remastered sound and a mini-documentary DVD? This is no brainer, redefined. Which brings us to the crucial question: what more can possibly be said, at this point, about Jimi Hendrix? Actually, it is entirely fair to propose that we have not yet said enough about him. As it has long since been established that he is the Alpha and the Omega of electric guitar, conversation tends to stop there: what more needs to be said, we say, when we don’t say anything more. As a result, the actual scope of his virtuosity tends to, however unintentionally, get reduced to stock phrases (see above) and the sorts of encomiums that preempt elaboration. So how do we explain the truly singular genius that is Jimi Hendrix? Aside from the innovation (he did it first), apart from the obvious (he did it best), what sets him apart?
When it comes to Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.
1967: there are the immutable opening salvos, those hit singles that remain radio-friendly four decades on (“Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe”, “Fire”, “Foxey Lady”) and the moodier harbingers of what lay ahead (“Manic Depression”, “I Don’t Live Today”, “Love or Confusion”) and then there are the outright masterpieces. Consider “The Wind Cries Mary”: written the night before, brought to the studio the next day and captured in one take. An example like this underscores the seismic shift that blasted an unsuspecting world when Are You Experienced hit the streets, the unambiguous arrival of a major, scary talent. But (as the companion DVD details in a series of interviews with engineer—and unsung hero—Eddie Kramer) it is the subsequent embellishment, courtesy of five overdubbed guitar parts, that move this track from mere classic to one-of-a-kind epic: the mood and feeling of melancholy Hendrix conveys calls to mind Poe’s edict about the totality of effect.
Then there is the psychedelic space jazz of “Third Stone From the Sun”: the ways Hendrix navigates an almost surf-rock elegance with proto-thrash distortion and makes it sound not just natural but inevitable, is part of why the first album continues to merit consideration as the most fully realized debut album in rock history. Finally there is the title track, which truly is one of those instances that defy time and description on so many levels. This song could only have been released in ’67, but it still sounds unsettling and slightly ungraspable in 2010. Perhaps more than any of the other tracks, this one signified the summation of Hendrix’s strategy at that stage: backwards solos, restless feedback and subtly effective piano plinks build up the tension like the song was programmed to detonate. And by the time anybody knew what had hit them; Hendrix was already back in the studio.
Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)
The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup. Indeed, the only gripe about the bonus DVDs is their brevity; I could easily listen to Kramer and Chandler tell war stories for hours on end without getting bored, and I’m certain I’m not alone.
There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9”. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.
By 1968 Hendrix has relocated from London to New York City and it was during the open-ended and generally unrestrained Electric Ladyland sessions that Chandler, ever the taskmaster, famously fled the scene. “Gypsy Eyes” alone allegedly required forty different takes before Hendrix was satisfied, an intensity surpassing obsession that literally drove Chandler out of the studio. This circumstance was inevitable, and frankly necessary. Hendrix absolutely needed and benefited from Chandler’s mentoring, but now he had more than come into his own and nobody could keep up with him (he could scarcely keep up with himself). The results scream for themselves and to say that Electric Ladyland is yet another major advancement (how do you improve upon perfection?) is of course a pallid understatement.
Just as little from Are You Experienced hinted at the next installment, Axis: Bold As Love seems almost pedestrian and conservative compared to the staggering triumph of style and sound that is Electric Ladyland.
This is Hendrix’s masterpiece, and it is on this double album that practically every trick in his oversized bag is employed to its fullest extent. The storytelling skills are displayed on tracks like “Crosstown Traffic”, “Long Hot Summer Night” and “House Burning Down”. The compositional prowess is evident in every note, most especially on the song suite that covers side three and spills over to side four. What Hendrix was able to achieve, despite the contemporary limitations of old-fashioned recording equipment is, on a song like “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)”, heroic. It also offers the best evidence we have of what he saw and heard inside his always-teeming imagination.
What remains vital, and compelling, all these years later is the way Hendrix appropriates blues music, creating a template that copycats are still trying, in vain, to emulate. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and the live-in-the-studio riot of “Voodoo Chile” are rock music touchstones, and nothing anyone has attempted has come particularly close to them. Hendrix himself puts it best when he boasts “Well I stand up next to a mountain/And chop it down with the edge of my hand.” That is exactly what he did, and he remains king of the mountain he scaled, and then razed.
From “Purple Haze” to “Rainy Day, Dream Away” in less than two years still seems inconceivable, even impossible. But it happened. And, of course, Hendrix continued to broaden his scope and incorporate more styles and sonic experiments (check out the full, funky brass accompaniment on the title track from South Saturn Delta), pushing past the boundaries he had already blown away. The material collected on First Rays of the New Rising Sun represent many of the songs Hendrix was assembling for another double album in the summer over 1970, just before his death. Noel Redding is gone and Billy Cox, having already worked with Mitchell and Hendrix during the Valley of Neptune sessions, is a liberating presence that allows the band to spread out and chase the guitarist as he soars above, around and beneath them. With all due respect to Noel Redding—and nevermind the rumors that Hendrix simply played all the bass parts himself—one of the tantalizing prospects remains what avenues would have continued to open with Cox freeing Mitchell to incorporate his jazz stylings into the mix.
Back to the genius thing and how to wrap our minds around the extent of Hendrix’s gifts: Eddie Kramer analyzes “Dolly Dagger” and uses the console to demonstrate the fastidious attention Hendrix devoted to every second of every song, down to his ability to multi-track his own vocals, knowing in advance exactly where each note and inflection was meant to go. When Kramer isolates the guitar tracks on “Night Bird Flying”, it’s not just a matter of how great each one sounds and the ways they complement each other; it’s more the uncanny way each one could easily and convincingly stand alone as a fully formed statement. Many of the songs, like “Izzabella”, “Stepping Stone”, “My Friend”, “Straight Ahead” and “Astro Man” are loose and as light as Hendrix had been since some of the tracks on Axis: Bold As Love. Then there are irrepressible gems like “Ezy Ryder”, “Dolly Dagger” and “Belly Button Window” that bring the band directly into a new decade. Most of the material has a fresh and unfettered sound: much less overdubbing and Hendrix’s infatuation with “phasing”—which he took to its logical limits on Electric Ladyland (think “Moon, Turn the Tides…Gently Gently Away”)—is now discarded in favor of a more straightforward assault. This direction is nicely encapsulated in the instrumental “Beginnings” where there are no frills or tricks, only a scorching a workout that showcases Hendrix’s ability to create fire with any smoke.
Of course, there are also a handful of tracks that elevate themselves above the rest and go to that other place. “Freedom”, the perfect album opener, is just a clinic of where rock and roll had gone, and where it might have continued to go; “Room Full of Mirrors” is a tour de force of multi-tracked guitar bliss (including cowbell!) and “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” is, or will have to be, as suitable a farewell statement (“May I come along?”) as we could hope for. And finally, the one-two punch of “Drifting” and “Angel”, that, not that it’s necessary to quantify, might represent the most beautiful work Hendrix ever recorded. Inevitably, some measure of outright hyperbole is unavoidable: if there is such a thing as beyond perfection, it is achieved on “Angel” and “Drifting”.
And then he was gone. The magnitude of his loss remains unfathomable. There is no question, absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that he had years and years of untapped magic to explore and nourish. On the other hand, perhaps Hendrix did live and record for four decades; he just crammed it into four years. Hendrix and the gift of his music are subjects that can never be exhausted: the songs hold up, they should be studied and dissected, and above all they should be savored. They are, like the man who made them, incapable of ever being forgotten.