Let’s get to Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix. It’s hard to say that in one breath without sounding exultant, mystified, and wistful. Ask practically any musician, they wish he hadn’t died — he was creating new patterns of thinking through the vibration from that strat. For a good 2–3 years he did it. He breathed in life, breathed out sound.
He left many wishing that the freedom of that era had not died. That life had not been subsumed into mere subsistence. That outbreaks of happiness had occured, more or less simultaneously across the globe. I did not get into Hendrix at age 16 because of reasons of rebellion — I was drawn to the depths of the reality he was describing. Inspired and yet
Life would certainly have been something quite different if Hendrix had lived. I mean, (one is tempted to say) the whole direction of music would have been different, the whole pattern of urban growth and decay, and the saga of Neptune’s rebirth and Saturn’s watery creation.
Hendrix breathed a sense of life and possibilities into the stratified funk world of James Brown and the destructive creation of the electric guitar. Many weren’t listening, but those who were—well, they were fully turned on. The amazing thing about Hendrix is that he didn’t bow to the pressures to be this or that in a very black & white world. Hendrix’s music was a separate entry and departure point, a force field, a gravitational force of its own.
There were naturally those before Hendrix who knew that music was a journey, not a product. Bird. Diz. Davis. Coltrane. Kirk. The questers, the improvisers, the jesters, the monks.
To me the peak of Jimi’s playing is not searing thunder, virtuosic pyrotechnics. I applaud Bill Graham’s challenge to Hendrix to eschew all the stage displays and create a raw blend of blues, funk, and jazz with the Band of Gypsies for one show, at Fillmore East. Miles Davis was in the audience and the music he heard informed his conception of Jack Johnson & of the decade that followed.
Prime Hendrix is to me an early 1968 session with Larry Young. The 21-minute jazz jam features Jimi playing with a musician for whom he has the utmost respect. You can tell from the way he plays without aggression or ego, the sound a fusing of two instruments held together by the precision of Buddy Miles’ backbeat. This is the fluid Hendrix that an electrified Miles Davis in many estimates surpassed, but, critically, this is Hendrix doing it spontaneously. It is jazz of chance, without theory or book learning to tie it down.
Sure, there are long jams later—such as those of the Moons, Rainbows, and Stars band that he put together in the weeks before Woodstock. But while that is clunky, gunky, and full of discord, envy, and disrespect (and dare I say bad drugs?) the Young/Hendrix jam is pulsing and alive, taut, 3 minds in tandem. The only way I can describe it in terms of the rock at that time is that it is like the Grateful Dead if they had been tightened like a hide over an oil drum. In terms of stratospheres, it is rather more easy to contextualize. This jam is what we hope to find when we (as Stockhausen claims to have) journey to other planets.
If Jimi was just about the jam, that would be one thing. But he is also about sound palette. The clouds slip and slide, go awry and the rivers reach up into visions deep, making us see colors. Listen to the guitar in Drifting and then multiply it by ten. That’s Machine Gun, a vision I do not take to lightly. Not an everyday tune. Anger, shrieking, and whistling parachute-jumps from the sky. Piercing the veil of reality, comprehending human killing and suffering. It is echoed in the crying wah-wah of the electrifried American Anthem. Another message, through anguish, to love.
I think music might have been different, if this jam had continued. If Jimi had continued to talk on his public saxophone and let it lead us to a new level of discourse. It would not have affected politics, refrigerator models, or fashion , but rather inform everyday human interactions. Where serious issues of Earth and its survival take precedence. Hendrix’ music an awakening to certain intractable problems and the possible way humans might change their ways, adapt. Instead, with his death, it was stillborn enlightnment. Yet we still have his music and somehow, to those who listen, it is enough.
Finally, there is Axis. My favorite parts are not the most celebrated: they are the lonely, syncopated echoes that splash “Golden Roads.” They are the flipped flute and earthy crunch, the gum-popping drawl “I’m the one that’s gonna have to die when its time for me to go… so let me live my life.. the way.. I want to.”
Axis is unique in Jimi’s canon because it is a spiritual undertaking, with a beginning and an end, a sermon. It is Jimi’s Earth Blues concept—that young gangly cat in “I Think We Better Wait Until Tomorrow” who lusts after a Thunderbirds and girls, but can’t get over a rather more urgent affection for a Strat. He who has sought Dharmic enlightenment in the clouds with Little Wing, an ancient princess. There is the quicksand of Castles Made of Sand, a loss of innocence in a babble of suits and connections.
This is the musing artist, the savage detective, investigating just what happened when the Axis went up in colors and fire, and the guitar was burned, unleashing its energy over a radiant earth. Amen.