Counterbalance No. 12: The Jimi Hendrix Experience's 'Are You Experienced?'
Before Jimi Hendrix, face-melting guitar solos were all too rare. Hi 1967 debut album Are You Experienced? blew the lid off the unmelted face market and rock was never the same. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger discuss.
Mendelsohn: We've talked previously about separating the myth from the music, but this one is a doozy. The Jimi Hendrix Experience's Are You Experienced? has 40 years of mystique to dig through. Where do we begin? The classic rock radio staples, the psychedelic freak outs, the down and dirty revisionist blues?
Klinger: Let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). The introduction to "Purple Haze," the album's opening track, employs the tritone, also known as the diabolus in musica. By playing the root note and the flatted fifth, you create an ominous, discordant sound that, believe it or not, was once banned by the church for invoking demons or some such thing. And unlike some of the other famous uses of the tritone ("The Siiiiimmp-sooons!"), Hendrix never resolves the melody by going up to that natural fifth that your brain is expecting. In fact, he keeps the tension moving through the song with his use of the E7#9 chord. It’s one crazy way to kick off a debut album, and it immediately serves as notice that things are going to be different.
What I'm trying to say is that in listening to the album anew for this Counterbalance, I was struck by how tightly constructed it all sounds. Hendrix is all over the place, but it never once sounds like he's out of control.
Mendelsohn:Well look at you, diving into music theory and dropping knowledge bombs about tritones and Latin phrases. I didn't think I'd need to pull out the old college education but I guess I was wrong. My favorite example of a more figurative diabolus in musica is Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring". While it doesn't employ the aforementioned tritone, Stravinsky's use of dissonance to shock the listener—removing them from their comfort zone and forcing their brain to interpret music that does not have a discernible pattern proved to be a musical landmark and helped solidify its popularity among the masses (after they rioted)—was the forebearer to many modern rock bands. Hendrix updated Stravinsky's techniques with the guitar, using the tritone and wildly irregular, yet controlled compositions to shock the listener, forcing the brain to work a little harder and ultimately leading them down a path of musical exploration the likes of which they had never heard.
And now that I've used up all of my 10 cent words: Man, this Hendrix dude can shred some hot licks! Right?
Klinger: Bwwwowwwwwww...deedledeedledeedle... dyyyyyyoooooowwww!!! You got that right, man!
But on Are You Experienced?, it's pretty clear that Hendrix knows exactly what he's doing. I'm surprised to be hearing a lot more composition and a lot less noodling than I was expecting after years away from this record.
Hendrix has too often been painted as some sort of Wild Man of Borneo, and a few too many stoned, out-of-tune performance tapes have made that an unfortunate part of his legacy. But on this album at least, Hendrix was in complete control.
Mendelsohn: Hendrix displays a precision and mastery of composition that has been oft imitated but never rivaled. The noodling that, as you pointed out, which become part of his legacy, doesn't show up until a couple years down the road. On Are You Experienced? all of the songs are tight little nuggets of blues, rock, and psychedelic pop. Hendrix managed to straddle all of those very different genres and he does it effectively without making it sound forced. That in itself is a serious accomplishment. Add in his guitar skills and you have the perfect storm. Why isn't this album number one on The List?
Klinger: Because Brian Wilson has been through enough, Mendelsohn.
A couple theories. Even as critics rightly praised Are You Experienced? as a groundbreaking intersection of composition and virtuosity, the relatively stripped-down nature of the instrumentation may have kept it from receiving its full due in an era when psychedelia often meant a lusher sound. And to be honest, I think the wild man reputation has cost him in the long run. When Hendrix first arrived on the London scene in the mid-'60s, the pasty blues crowd may have revered him, but I also get the sense that they seemed unsure of what to make of him. Hendrix may not have faced the same racial barriers as in the United States, but given the fact that he was black and American and he could play all of them under the table, there was definitely a sense of the Other about him. There was a tendency among supposedly enlightened flower children on both sides of the Atlantic to depict Hendrix as a Noble Savage, compared with the "meticulous virtuosity" of his blues-playing Anglo counterparts. Subtext, my friend—read reviews and interviews from around that time and you’ll get the idea.
Mendelsohn:That's a bit disheartening but it helps validate my dislike of hippies.
Adding to Hendrix's reputation is the fact that he was also one of the greats who was felled by drug abuse, fueling a legacy that might not loom as large had he been alive to put Electric Lady Studios to good use. But then his early accomplishments may have been overshadowed by decades’ worth of records full of nothing but guitar noodling.
Now I feel like I've lost my way. All this talk is heavy, man! Racism, drugs, untimely deaths and pasty Brits who fear the Other. This isn't the kind of experience I'm looking for. I'm going to put on "Manic Depression" and turn it up as loud as I can right when he hits that hellacious guitar solo.
Klinger: Oh, there’s an abundance of face-melting emotions here, from the joyous “Fire” to the portentous “Love or Confusion” to the delicate “The Wind Cries Mary”. And they all sound really good turned up loud.
But yes, the eternal question—what if they had lived? Hippies, bless their simple little souls, tend to operate under the assumption that their fallen heroes would have continued to create brilliant music, each album more paradigm-shifting than the last.
Short answer, although I'm sure we'll elaborate on it over the course of the next 2,988 albums, is that they would have had careers. Much like the ones who survived, they would have made terrible records (probably in the '80s) and would have continued to make boutique records for their fans, followed by reasonably lucrative greatest hits tours. Jimi Hendrix, having made a series of possibly ill-advised funk-jazz fusion albums, followed by desperate attempts at relevance and then more traditional blues records, would surely be in approximately that place now. In fact, I'll bet those records might actually be pretty good, although his embarrassing mid-period would have made them a tough sell to today's snark-fueled youth.
Mendelsohn: I imagine that Hendrix's mid-70s funk-jazz fusion discs would sound a lot like the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But I would have loved to hear some more traditional blues records from Hendrix. His take on the blues was magnificent, the Jimi Hendrix: Blues and Martin Scorsese Presents compilations are stellar. Hendrix always seemed more suited to the blues—he could write a great pop song but didn't have the vocal chops to pull it off.
Klinger: Right, for all his mod trappings, Hendrix was steeped in tradition. He played on the Chitlin' Circuit, backing up all the guys at whose altar the British musicians worshiped. And he brings this traditionalism to bear throughout Are You Experienced? There are R&B and blues licks all over this record, and not surprisingly they never once sound inauthentic.
In fact, might I suggest that this album is at its least effective the further he strays from this tradition? I don't know that "Third Stone from the Sun" is going to be a go-to track for me, unless I've been into those funny brownies Dave from Accounting brought to the last Counterbalance Christmas party. (I didn't think I'd ever get out of that bean bag chair!)
Mendelsohn: If you think Dave's brownies are good you should try the Kool-Aid he makes. Transcendentally refreshing.
This one is going to end with us patting each other on the back while complimenting the other's good looks and sharp wit. Your assessment is dead on. Hendrix took blues to the next level, setting the bar so high that no one will ever be able to match it.
Klinger: Well, yes, having arrived at the bold statement that a well-regarded album is in fact quite good, I think we can now begin the long, arduous process of congratulating ourselves profusely. Nice tie.
Still, I am concerned with the idea that no one will ever match Hendrix's contribution to the blues. Of course, now that the blues has all too often become party music for drunken middle-aged white people, the damage may well be done. Still, I'd like to think that someone somewhere will find yet another new way to approach this venerable music and make us all listen with fresh ears.
Mendelsohn: I think the sad reality is the blues will never get any better without Hendrix. Over the last 40 years they've devolved into a simulacrum of what Joe the Plumber thinks blues music should sound like.
Klinger: Well, that is a drag. If only there were some form of music that would crystallize my sad feelings, perhaps involving a 12-bar chord progression and an AAB lyrical structure.
Never mind, I guess. At least we have this fine LP to remind us of what could have been.