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Can You See Me?

January 4, 2011

I remember watching half of a doco on Electric Ladyland the other month, it was quite interesting, I should’ve finished it (as with so many things in life), but one thing that stood out was the comment (by someone whom I forgot, it might have been Noel Redding or Eddie Kramer) that Jimi was always depicted as this tragic hero, when in reality he was (supposedly) such a lively and joyous figure – although he did have his personal issues.

I love this image for that reason. It shows him having fun. Which is what he did. He loved the guitar. He loved the blues, rock, jazz, anything he could get his hands on. I’ve watched a fair bit of footage of him, I can’t recall ever seeing him look troubled with an instrument in his hands. Yet all the pictures I see of him are often very dignified, reflective and sombre.

None of which he wasn’t, but which are an unfair portrayal. Very similar to Kurt Cobain, a man who was seemingly very fun and actually light-hearted, their most dynamic sides are often forgotten or glossed over in favour of the more attractive dark, brooding side. Unlike Cobain though, this was simply not reflected in his music, with Jimi’s electrifying take on blues standards, expressions of raw desire and psychedelic madness as well as subtle storytelling. To praise Hendrix’s innovation and ability has become an unfortunate cliche, because to hear his music is at times anticlimactic given its arbitrary legendary status, and as such isn’t treated with the respect it deserves, merely the classic rock rotation of “Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe” and “Foxy Lady”.

It’s difficult to adequately describe Hendrix’s impact upon modern music, and even more difficult to simply describe the versatility of his songwriting and musical ability. Individually, “Are You Experienced?”, “Axis: Bold As Love”, “Electric Ladyland” and “Band of Gypsys” [First Rays of the New Rising Sun is an excellent effort, encompassing more funk and R&B elements, as well as more jams and layers contrasting with the tight basic elements of Are You Experienced. As a complete work though it’s harder to fully rate because it’s unfortunately still a posthumous approximation and estimation of a Hendrix album, even if it is a great one] are momentous, unique musical statements. None are a perfect album in the sense of “Abbey Road” or “Dark Side of the Moon” – they lack the right album length, the thematic links and that certain wholistic sense – but that was never Hendrix’s style. However, as a continuous musical development and statement, his career demonstrates a progression from blues to encompassing heavy rock and embracing psychedelia (“1983… A Merman I Should Turn To Be” for god’s sake, what the hell does that mean) and ultimately his black roots with soul and funk.

It saddens me that two key parts of his career are still so overlooked:

Now admittedly Mitch Mitchell [is that even him? he looks so badass] and Noel Redding weren’t as talented or visionary as Jimi, but to call their musical abilities “solid” would be an insult to their versatility and skill, both incorporating highly jazzy lines and grooves. Hendrix’s music was rock by all means, the lack of spontaneous improvisation and extended soloing sections of jazz and fusion prevented the true showcase of their abilities, but their true highlight is being the perfect accompaniment for Hendrix’s spectacular guitar work – while he was messing with feedback and distortion, they provided much more than a rock solid groove, but constant interplay, especially in the first record, in which Mitch looks to be vying for dominance with Hendrix on many tracks. Mention must be given as well to Buddy Miles and Billy Cox – providing the essential funk roots for Hendrix’s later direction, Cox especially is great on First Rays, in which Noel was no part of [although it may have been Hendrix on bass too, as much of Electric Ladyland was].

I feel it’s cliched to admit to Jimi Hendrix being a personal idol. Well, forget cliche, because as a musical figure he was with few peers. The rock music press take considerable joy in the phrase “Hendrixian” or describing someone as “the Hendrix of his generation” [used to describe Matt Bellamy, word], but that ignores the whole impact and identity of Jimi himself. He wasn’t the greatest guitarist around, to which he would attest himself. As a musical identity, he represents a sense of serenity and creativity, assured upon the notion that he’ll go where his music takes him, with great respect for his predecessors and peers but also of a complete trust in his own instincts. To be known as an excellent guitarist is an unfortunate caricature of such a legendary musical figure, whose influence is aways touted but never fully appreciated.

I wish every tribute to Jimi would not have to end on such an arbitrarily sombre note, in which we acknowledge the loss of a young musical genius. I personally think it’s sad that his time with Mitch and Noel was only two years, including tumultuous experiences with Hendrix’s personal psyche and external pressures of record companies and subsequent botched shows. The real triumph though is that they played some amazing shows, made brilliant music, and had a genuine friendship, not simply an artificial relationship between white session musicians and a black genius.

Which is why I write this celebrating his life and music instead of contrived over-eulogising – including the unfortunate deaths of Noel Redding in 2003 and Mitch Mitchell in 2008. Despite the unfortunate personal and legal circumstances both during and after their existence,  The Jimi Hendrix Experience was far from tragic.


From → Music

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