Listening to this new set is like getting to heaven only to realize there is an even better place; it is without question the most welcome, if unexpected, musical gift of 2010.
Jimi Hendrix has been dead for a long time, and the only thing we have to reconcile the senselessness of how young he died is the legacy he left behind. This is true, of course, with any artist who goes away too soon, except that with Hendrix it is more so. The loss is unparalleled, but then, so is the music he made. Depending on whether you care to see the cosmic glass as more than half-empty or as one that forever runneth over, we celebrate him for what he did in direct proportion to mourning what we still should have received. It is selfish, but understandable. Hendrix with horns in the ‘70s? With samples and scratching in the ‘80s? Mentoring (or obviating the need for) the grunge movement in the ‘90s? Collaborating with musicians from all over the world, releasing live jams on his website today? Or just continuing to do what he was doing practically until the last second he drew breath. Whatever it might have been, it would have improved the playing field, and he would likely still be eons ahead of his peers.
This year marks the fourth full decade since his death, meaning he has been gone 13 years longer than he lived. As such, 2010 has provided an excellent opportunity to reassess and celebrate the music he made. Earlier this year we saw the welcome reissue of his proper studio albums, all lovingly re-mastered with bonus DVDs. Now, to bookend this milestone year, we get a new collection that delivers four discs of previously unreleased material. Considering how opportunistic and unprincipled the supposed custodians of Hendrix’s legacy were for most of the last 40 years, it has been a welcome -- and long overdue -- development to see his family assume control of his estate. West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology should provide solace and sustenance for several more years while we commemorate this solemn milestone.
How to describe, much less review this music? Let’s just say that every time we think we have adequately grappled with what Hendrix means and what he achieved, more evidence emerges from the vaults, leaving us back where we began: awestruck, speechless. Listening to this new set is like getting to heaven only to realize there is an even better place. Fans will likely greet this the way they embraced Valleys of Neptune earlier this year, only this release is more than four times as long and about one hundred times better. The box set compiles tantalizing outtakes, live tracks, and alternate versions, many of which have surfaced on myriad bootlegs of dubious quality over the years. This set, finally, does the job of assembling them in one place, cleaning up the sound, and offering extensive liner notes with vital stats (who, when, where) of every single track. This, in short, is the most welcome, if unexpected, musical gift of the year.
Serious fans of Jimi Hendrix understand he did not simply explode on the scene in late ’66 like midnight lightning. Rather, Hendrix had worked for years as an axe for hire (real serious fans know who he worked with, what he played on, and where to find copies). This collection does everyone an enormous favor by dedicating the entire first disc to these early years, which were equal parts formative and invaluable in terms of his development. Hendrix learned as much about what he did not want to do as what he hoped to someday accomplish while he toiled, with increasing impatience, as an apprentice. The fact of the matter is that Hendrix struggled to support himself and paid serious dues on circuits old school enough that his being an African-American mattered. And I don’t mean mattered like he got static; I mean like getting hurt or being hired in the first place. It was under these circumstances that the very young Jimi (still Jimmy) Hendrix found employment playing with the likes of Little Richard, Don Covay, and the Isley Brothers. Incredible as it sounds, this was a time when it signaled a welcome breakthrough for Hendrix to share the same stage as these names.
The first disc showcases Hendrix’s two-year stint as a young and promising guitarist. Only 21 on the first track, the Isley Brothers’ hit “Testify”, Hendrix already shows signs of the smokin’ soloist he would shortly become. The next four songs -- two by Don Covay and two by Rosa Lee Brooks -- are remarkable and border on revelatory; they provide a useful roadmap for understanding how Jimi got from the Chitlin’ Circuit to Monterey Pop so quickly. The impressive technical skill is abundantly established and already finding ways to harness a teeming imagination: we hear the swamp grooves meeting the south side of Chicago and the roots he would revisit on cuts like “Red House” and “Killing Floor”. It’s a faster, fully electrified advancement of the classic blues recordings, and we hear the vibe that everyone from Sly Stone to Stevie Ray Vaughan (and even early ZZ Top) picked up on. Fans of Amy Winehouse might be stunned and delighted to recognize the guitar vamp and vocals that were appropriated for the track “He Can Only Hold Her”, courtesy of the Icemen’s “(My Girl) She’s a Fox”.
Chas Chandler (bassist for the Animals who became Jimi’s mentor/manager/producer) should always be celebrated as the one who saw, immediately, how good Hendrix was, and how unbelievable he could become. Taking him to England liberated Jimi from the by-then boring grind that threatened to suffocate his restless creativity and ambition. Perhaps as importantly, it gave the young guitarist the necessary confidence to imagine being a front man who could sing as well as play. From obscure to Are You Experienced?: the most dramatic, unparalleled transformation in rock history. A case could probably be made that even if Hendrix had disappeared after this first album, he would still be recognized as the best and most important guitar player in modern music. That is how crucial and influential that debut was and remains.