Ultimate Hendrix by John McDermott

What most artists spread out over many years, Jimi Hendrix crammed into four. From his first burst of UK popularity to his still saddest of deaths, Hendrix spent every day of his life at the service of his art. If he wasn’t playing music live, he was thinking about it, talking about it, rehearsing it, even miming it on television. And between all this he wrote and recorded some of the heaviest, craziest, most innovative guitar music of all time.

Modeled on Mark Lewisohn’s seminal 1988 The Beatles Recording Sessions, Ultimate Hendrix: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Live Concerts and Sessions shows just how busy Hendrix was, with a performing/recording schedule that would have killed the Beatles if they’d been one guy instead of four. Author John McDermott, with Eddie Kramer and Billy Cox, Hendrix’s engineer and long-time friend and sometime bassist respectively, fill the dates with detailed entries that track the guitarist’s career from struggling sideman to rock superstar to super-exhausted and struggling rock superstar.

While it is common to think of his career as fitting the dates 1967-1970, in truth Hendrix hammered away for years. Ultimate Hendrix begins in 1963, when the guitarist began playing backup for such acts as the Isley Brothers, Curtis Squire, and Little Richard. It wasn’t until the summer of 1966, when Hendrix met Animals bassist and future manager Chas Chandler, that things really took off, and at this point the book’s broad seasonal headings, such as “Summer 1965” or “Fall ’65”, change to the more consecutive “Thursday, 13 October 1966 … Friday, 14 October 1966 … Saturday, 15 October 1966”, with rarely a date unfilled.

The book’s day-to-day entries oscillate between high productivity and very low frustration, with peaks and valleys dictated by Hendrix’s fortunes and later his moods. Undoubtedly, 1966-67 was a peak moment. Both Chandler and Hendrix knew early on what they wanted, and through a symbiotic relationship that was as pragmatic as it was alchemical, they managed to create some of the greatest music of all time in a very short time. Hendrix arrived in the UK in September 1966, his first single (“Hey Joe/Stone Free”) was released in December, and his debut album Are You Experienced a mere five months after that — no time for Chinese Democracy here.

As with Beatles Recording Sessions, Ultimate Hendrix describes songs being built from the bottom up, listing the many takes and practical procedures behind some of the most familiar, impractical sounds. On 20 February 1967, for the track “I Don’t Live Today”, Hendrix “skillfully manipulated a hand wah-wah unit [which] foot-controlled models soon replaced”. A hand wah-wah? Another favorite Hendrix trick was to create “various spaceship sounds … by moving his headphones into and away from his vocal microphone”. From such mundane things is magic born.

While I was aware that Hendrix played bass on some of his recordings, I was surprised to learn just how often and how it wasn’t only the bass. Hendrix also played piano, drums, electric sitar, and even a kazoo (“Crosstown Traffic”).

What one also realizes from reading this book is that while Hendrix was obviously a great musician, he was a considerable producer, as well. Though his official production credits, outside of his own music, for bands such as Eire Apparent or Cat Mother remain largely unknown, numerous entries describe him moving from studio to control room to studio, combining a producer’s capacity for efficiency and momentum with the imagination of an artist hitting his stride.

It’s amazing that Hendrix managed to record and produce anything at all, let alone the amount he did, considering his touring schedule. In early 1968 alone, McDermott notes, “in what can only be described as a remarkable test of their endurance and enthusiasm”, the Experience played 60 US dates in 60 days, traveling in a rented station wagon! On 22 May 1968, they were mixing in a New York studio, and on 23 May they began touring Italy and Switzerland. Understandably, this kind of pace couldn’t last long.

Ultimate Hendrix‘s co-author’s, Eddie Kramer and Billy Cox, were two of the most important people in the guitarist’s life and career. Cox especially is an unsung hero of the Hendrix legacy, a confidante and collaborator who provided the guitarist both musical inspiration and psychic respite. Hendrix’s music changed as much and as quickly as the Beatles’, and after the exit of bassist Noel Redding in June 1969, Cox was there pretty much the rest of the way, helping the guitarist find his new sound: “Jimi knew that I had a direct link to him musically. [He] must have felt that I could help him pull all of the pieces of ideas that he had together into something as good as those three albums he had released”.

Of “those three albums”, only Are You Experienced seemed to fully satisfy Hendrix, as he stated that both Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland “could have been so much better”. In order to ensure firmer control of his music, Hendrix built his own studio, Electric Ladyland, which even in its first few years was legendary. As engineer Eddie Kramer continually laments, too many Hendrix recording sessions ended up as parties, with hangers-on, groupies, and various other revelers packed into the studio to witness the Hendrix magic.

Of course, some of the revelers were great musicians in their own right — Steve Winwood, Stephen Stills, Dave Mason, or future Band of Gypsy’s drummer Buddy Miles — and despite the chaos and disorder of some sessions, hundreds of hours of consistently outstanding music did go down on tape. Though much of this included reels of extended jamming deemed unusable by Hendrix for a fourth studio album, after his death engineer Eddie Kramer and drummer Mitch Mitchell put together the very beautiful and cohesive The Cry of Love LP which, with its layers of guitar and complex rhythm patterns, gave a clear indication of where Hendrix was headed musically.

Sadly, since his death the guitarist has been haunted by many permutations of his voluminous recorded material, some of it re-dubbed, re-edited, even re-tracked. Remember the name Alan Douglas and curse it.

But luckily, the legacy is now in good hands. In his introduction, author John McDermott writes how he had the “extreme good fortune to be asked by Al Hendrix [Jimi’s father] and his daughter, Janie, to join his newly formed company, Experience Hendrix LLC, and manage the Jimi Hendrix catalog”. So now, readers have the residual good fortune of McDermott’s access and expertise.

RATING 9 / 10