“Before our heads go under, we take a last look at the killing noise …”
Jimi Hendrix was an exceptional musician and songwriter and justifiably considered as one of the most outstanding artists of the twentieth century. The interpretation of him as simply a great or greatest guitarist has in a way overshadowed the sheer beauty of his music, his songwriting.
It is true that he transformed the whole approach to electric guitar playing with his audacious fusion of Chicago blues, R&B, rock and roll, free jazz, you name it. He had an enormous influence on so many musicians and not only in rock and blues circles. Even the great Miles Davis felt compelled to abandon traditional “Jazz” structures, even putting a wah-wah pedal on his trumpet, to get the “Hendrix sound” into his music. Hendrix’s influence reached out to soul artists such as The Temptations and subsequent Oscar winner Isaac Hayes who soon featured funky Hendrix-style “wakka wakka” or fuzzy guitars in their arrangements. Of course it was primarily in the field of rock and pop that his influence was so strongly felt and many artists and groups followed suit, featuring elaborate guitar playing in their music.
Jimi’s psychedelic image also launched a trend with many black artists adopting his look, from Sly Stone to James Brown to the young Michael Jackson and his brothers, who took the stage sporting psychedelic costumes and afros, looking like little Hendrix clones. Even Eric Clapton had an afro perm back in 1967, making him look like a white Hendrix fronting Cream!
The fact that he achieved so much in a short time, with such influence, is amazing. There again, what he did get down is frustratingly short of the real measure of his talents. His blossoming as a songwriter in 1967 and 1968 had established him as a major international artist. His three classic albums as The Jimi Hendrix Experience had perfectly suited and even defined their epoch. Two unbelievable years of creativity and fun, like one long party, which couldn’t have lasted forever and the whole psychedelic “thing” had burned itself out by the end of 1968. The Beatles looked for a fresh start with the blank sheet of “The White Album”, The Rolling Stones wisely came back to their first love of blues-rock, Pete Townsend wrote his legendary rock opera “Tommy”. For Jimi, the psychedelic “wild man” persona was by then old hat. The dream was over (to paraphrase John Lennon). He had to move on.
Relations within the band and management had deteriorated also. The relentless crafting of his masterpiece “Electric Ladyland” in 1968, amidst a hoard of partying hangers-on, drove his manager/producer Chas Chandler away and further alienated Noel Redding (both remarked that Jim’s personality changed when he began to settle back in the U.S.A.). In December of 1968, the band announced to the press that they would soon split up, in order to pursue solo projects. On the last Experience tours of Europe and America in 1969, Jimi had tired of putting on a physical show, generally adopting a static, more serious approach on stage, concentrating fully on his playing. He lost patience with fans who came to see the “Wild Man”, demanding just the hits. He felt trapped in his own image and slightly humourously wished that audiences would sit and pay attention as though they were in church, his “Electric Church” as he called it, to convey his desire to touch people’s very souls. Pressures built up all around him from his management, the lawsuit from PPX Enterprises and the cloying fans and opportunists.
To top it all, in May 1969, while in Toronto, hard drugs were found in his luggage and consequently he faced severe penalties. This troubled him and certainly sobered his mood in general (he was however cleared of all charges in 1970).
By June, The Experience (temporarily) broke up. After the wild escapade to London and around the world, Jimi was back home and now felt more comfortable with his original bass partner Billy Cox by his side again, just like in the old days (they had spent years touring the States in the early sixties).
Immediately after the dissolution of The Experience, he threw together a new group with Cox and some friends, which he called Gypsy Son & Rainbows (or a Band Of Gypsys). Mitch came in briefly to play drums in this new 6 piece outfit. However, too much drug-taking, lack of discipline and a lack of leadership/material meant that the group soon fell apart after a handful of sessions and live performances (one of which was the immortalised on film at the legendary Woodstock festival).
Now, without Chas’s keen ear and music business know-how, Jimi lost focus on his work, spending months on songs (instead of the few days, hours or even minutes in which he put things down in 1967). A tour was on the cards in September 1969, but Jimi declared that he didn’t feel up to the challenge and cancelled it, obliging him to pay the organizers a large compensatory sum. So in the studio, he worked on at his own pace (to hell with them) and this period was seen perhaps unfairly as a creative block, though it was only six months, and he did return with a radically different sound. Mitch Mitchell had left to pursue other projects so Jimi brought in Buddy Miles with whom he had been jamming on and off for a year or so. This new group, which he called simply Band Of Gypsys, didn’t live up to his own expectations and he dropped Miles after only three concert dates.
The pressure had been immense because following the Experience’s success, he had given himself such a hard act to follow. After the intoxicating euphoria of swinging ’67 and ’68, his songwriting may have lost some of its biting originality but then he had perhaps said it all in terms of psychedelic rock. Thankfully, the 1969 studio sessions gradually led him to craft his new direction in music. He came back to an earthier R&B feel in his work, with more social awareness in his lyrics. He was also drawn to the uncharted liberties of jazz-rock, a field that would have suited his phenomenal talents of improvisation. His music now looked forward into the new decade. It was soulful, funky and richly arranged. Modern.
One project he had in mind was a “Tommy”-like concept album, with the working title of “Black Gold”. He had ideas to expand the theme to poetry, an animated film and perhaps an illustrated book/graphic novel. In the summer of 1970, Jimi gave some tapes to Mitch Mitchell (for him to familiarize himself with his new compositions) which included work on “Black Gold”. Mitchell finally sold the tape to Experience Hendrix who released one song in 2011 on the “West Coast Seattle Boy” box set. We await impatiently for the rest of the recordings. More about “Black Gold”.
Despites his troubles, in 1970 he began to get his act together. He was recording at a quicker pace as he got to grips with the next phase of his music. However, now with his very own Electric Lady Studios studios, he got lost in perfectionism. In July, he did 19 takes of Dolly Dagger before achieving a master. Deering howe (in Charles Cross’s book): “…he’d get hung up on a song, and one eight-bar thing would take three days to fuck with.” This was obviously why Jimi asked Chas Chandler to come back and help him to sort things out. Despite this self doubt, the resulting masters he laid down were spectacular.
On stage, with good old Mitch Mitchell again in the drum seat and Billy Cox on solid bass, even though some of his new music didn’t really fit the three piece format, he was back playing great power trio rock ‘n’ roll and blues across America, sometimes even reviving some of his old stage antics. However the pressure and all the drugs had taken their toll. When he had arrived in England to play at the Isle Of Wight festival with a heavy cold or flu, he was found in a desperate state in a London hotel room by his ex-girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. His subsequent Isle Of Wight performance was disappointing. A few days later, another drug induced crisis saw a concert in Aarhus, Denmark aborted after just one song. The magic was still there in other performances of the short European tour, though less focused in this transitional phase. After a concert in Gothenburg, Billy Cox became ill (another drug related incident) and the tour was mercifully grounded a few days later. Word was put out to Noel Redding to return but for some reason it didn’t happen. As a result, the following concert bookings for Rotterdam, Paris, Vienna and Essen had to be canceled.
Everyone wanted a piece of Jimi: record companies, his management, PPX Enterprises (demanding another settlement album), The Black Panthers (pressuring him to do more for the black cause), the hangers-on, the drug pushers. His sanctuary was to be his own state-of-the-art Electric Lady Studios in New York (which still operates to this day – see Links) but sadly he didn’t live long enough to fully appreciate it. Friends remarked how tired and confused Jimi appeared, whereas others found him enthusiastic about new projects (Electric Lady, “Black Gold”, collaborations ahead with Gil Evans or Roland Kirk, his plans to expand the group, his upcoming new album nearing completion…).
One ridiculous notion that circulates is that Jimi was a “touring slave” for his and uncaring manager Mike Jeffery, working till he dropped. This utter nonsense and is disproven by the fact that Jimi toured little during his last 15 months, even feeling free to cancel a planned tour in the autumn of 1969. In 1970, Jeffery himself had plans drawn up to build a luxury artists’ retreat on the island of Maui, where musicians could relax and recuperate. Before this became a reality, he planned a month’s holiday for Jimi and the band on the island, for “R&R” as Billy Cox put it, before they embarked on the short September tour of Europe (Jimi in fact stayed for a 10-day holiday before returning to Electric Lady Studios to work on his 4th studio album).
When the European tour ran into trouble (Billy Cox’s illness), again, Jeffery planned to fly Jimi and the crew to Spain so that they could recuperate and plan the last few dates of the tour.
In London, Jimi wanted to get back to New York in order to finish the album (or bring the tapes back to London, to finish them with Chandler). However, on the morning of September the 18th 1970, at a girlfriend’s apartment he took some sleeping pills to try and bring himself down from a strong amphetamine that he’d taken t a party and he went into a coma. He was rushed to hospital but passed away in the ambulance. A crazy conspiracy theory has become very widespread but all the facts reveal that it is nonsense. Read more:
Poor Jimi had an unhappy childhood, adolescence and early professional career. After finally being recognised, he said that 1967 was the happiest year of his life.
The following years brought him many troubles but he gave his art all he could. Jimi Hendrix lives. His music, his spirit, remain fresh, exiting, inspiring.
I just hope this site serves its purpose in clarifying the jumble of material that constitutes his musical legacy on record. I think I had better stop there or I’ll never get this thing on-line.
Portrait of Jimi by my daughter Florence (8).
I hope you have enjoyed reading this record guide. A special thank you to my good friend Manuel for archive audio and artwork research (where are you Manuel – get in touch!). Thanks also to Caesar Glebbeek for the Univibes info and general help. Also to all those who have mailed me additions and corrections – especially Régis and all the gang at the Forum Jimi Hendrix, Maurice at Brume Pourpre, Yazid Manou, Steve Rodham at Jimpress, Steve Roby, Kurt Max, Niko at Early Hendrix, Peter Noble, Géraud, Andrew, Hubert, Pauli, Samb, Miros, Jerry, Scott, John, Mike, Carl, Christian, Peter in Australia, Serge, Glenn, Blazej, Lars, R.M. Bob, Walther, Paul, Sven, Patrick, Lasana, Ren, Jacek, Gord, Dallas, Marco,… special thanks to Richie Unterberger for recommending this site in his book “A Rough Guide To Jimi Hendrix” and of course to Brian Auger, Vic Briggs and Elandra Meredith for the interviews. Thanks also to all the hardworking Hendrix biographers (see Bibliography), to Sony Music France, to Steve Jobs for inventing the Mac and of course to James Marshall Hendrix, the coolest man on the planet, for the fantastic
Keep On Groovin’
Hey World, stop the fighting, and let’s fight to save the planet !
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To Brenda and Charles
and all the victims