[25 October 2007]
Jimi Hendrix did not come out of nowhere. His energy, showmanship and musical precision were crafted by backing such luminaries as Slim Harpo, Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, King Curtis, and Wilson Pickett. His creative juices were fired by exchanging ideas with Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MGs, recording with Arthur Lee of Love, jamming with Roy Buchanan, Richie Havens, and Bob Dylan, and supporting Curtis Mayfield. Hendrix also formed a group that included Randy California (later of Spirit) and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (a lynchpin of Steely Dan and, in a lower gear, the Doobie Brothers). All in all, he had quite an apprenticeship.
In 1966, Hendrix was invited to England where he simply cut the very idea of pop music to ribbons. His manager, Chas Chandler, held auditions for his band and assigned lead guitarist Noel Redding to the bass guitar slot and the jazz-influenced Mitch Mitchell on drums. The resulting trio was more fluid than most rock music of the time and with Hendrix at the helm they scared the competition stiff. His dynamism and versatility must have seemed like the magical emergence of Photoshop in an era of paper and glue. Eric Clapton, in a 2005 interview with Ray Minhinnett, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stratocaster guitar, recalls the first time he saw Hendrix play: “There was something about the way Jimi played the Strat that made it seem like it was off limits to me. I thought, I can’t do that, I’m not even going to get involved in all that, it’s just too crazy.”
Having conquered Blighty, Hendrix returned to the USA for a performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, in June 1967. Starting with an introduction by Brian Jones, the gig includes covers of Howling Wolf’s “Killing Floor”, BB King’s “Rock Me Baby”, and Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, as well as Chip Taylor’s “Wild Thing” and “Hey Joe” (inspired by Tim Rose’s slow rendition). The Hendrix originals are the equal of those covers, in particular “The Wind Cries Mary”, as light and spirited as any of Curtis Mayfield’s classics. On the plus side, the album demonstrates that Hendrix combined serenity and dynamism in live performance like few artists have done before or since. Unfortunately, there is also a downside, namely, all the over-hyped celebration of the major anniversaries of great albums. It detracts from their potency. I’m all for new listeners hearing great music, but do they really need to hurry to get a version of this release that comes with a commemorative beer glass? Answers on a postcard to: Experience Hendrix LLC.
The man deserves reinvention. For beneath the raw power and guitar dexterity, his sadness, sensuality and shyness are there for all to hear. Of all the lazy, cynical disservices perpetrated by decades of Classic Rock FM radio, arguably the worst is the reduction of Jimi Hendrix’s work to approximately five songs. That, and the tiresome “guitar hero” tag, ignore the elements of blues, R&B, funk and jazz in his music. Frustratingly, Hendrix’s tender, soulful singing is generally overlooked, and vast swathes of gentle experimentation on, say, the Electric Ladyland album, never receive airplay. Consequently, many people say they don’t like Hendrix, having never heard most of his music. Sadly, yet another CD issue of Live at Monterey will change nothing, it’s more likely to spawn a new generation of second-rate imitators. Indeed, most people will make a snap judgment based on the cover: guitar on fire, Jimi on his knees, headband on, mouth open. Is this the origin of the clichéd phrase, guitar pyrotechnics?
It’s no wonder that Hendrix chewed up rock music and spat it out so quickly. Like bubblegum, the flavor was gone. I like to think that things could have turned out differently. He might have worked with John Lee Hooker, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Ali Farka Toure, Sheila Chandra and Miles Davis. He could have ignited a space funk evolution, delved into the deepest blues imaginable, and ripped the jazz and world music genres to shreds. But who knows, maybe he’d have appeared on The Muppet Show or hooked up with another act on the bill at Monterey, the Smothers Brothers.