Jimi Hendrix (November 27, 1942 – September 18, 1970) was shy of his 28th birthday by a couple of months when he died, and we’ll never know how much more he could have accomplished if he had even lived another decade. In her coming of age memoir of life in New York City in the late 1960s-early-1970s, Just Kids, Patti Smith describes meeting Hendrix at the opening night party for his Electric Ladyland recording studios. She was hanging around outside, a little shy of a party full of people far more established than herself, and the host/honoured guest was hanging out on the fire escape, escaping the noise and confusion of the party. The two struck up a conversation and in the short time they spoke, he talked to her about his hopes and dreams for the studio and a little of what he hoped to achieve.
I remember friends joking in the late ’70s that Hendrix would be playing disco if he had lived. They were mostly kidding, as they were all big Hendrix fans, but it was fun to imagine what he might have done. With all the guitar heroes who have come and gone since Hendrix’s death, and now that I don’t listen to him on a daily basis, it’s easy to forget how special he was. One of the key indicators of any artist’s status is the respect his or her peers hold for him/her and their influence on others.
In 1980, famed British guitarist Robert Fripp (King Crimson, League Of Gentlemen, and many collaborations with Brian Eno) was touring his solo “Frippertronics” soundscapes music. On his stop in Toronto he interrupted his evening of electronics to pay tribute to the “one rock and roll guitar player I respected, Jimi Hendrix”, and tore through a wild version of “Wild Thing.” When the desert warrior/musicians of the Tourag first picked up their electric guitars, it was Hendrix’s playing that caught their imaginations. Somehow it seems fitting that a Seattle-born mixed blood African/Native American’s music would inspire a group of nomadic tribesman looking to preserve their way of life.
Still, all of that is only talk. The only way to truly appreciate Hendrix is to listen to him. While there have been plenty of reissues of his work over the years, most of them have been of dubious quality and haven’t really managed to capture his magic. It now finally looks like the record is being set straight as the latest series of releases from Legacy Recordings shows. While his studio work was inspired, it was live that Hendrix really showed what he was made of, and both Hendrix In The West and the four-CD box set Winterland coming out on September 13, 2011 are stirring examples of what made him so special.
In The West was originally released posthumously by Polydor Records in 1972 and was intended as a memorial to Hendrix’s ability as a performer. The producers gathered together material recorded at concerts during the last two years of his life, performing with both the original Jimi Hendrix Experience, with Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass, and the 1970s version with Billy Cox replacing Redding.
The venues ranged from the Isle Wight Festival of 1970, the San Diego Sports Arena, Berkeley Community Centre and two tracks recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in London. As the last two were used without proper legal permission—they were listed in the original credits as being taken from the San Diego concert—and have been reissued properly somewhere else, on this version of the disc, they’ve been replaced with a version of “Little Wing” recorded at the Winterland and the actual version of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” recorded in San Diego. (On the original, the record company even misspelled the latter calling it “Voodoo Chile”). As well as the replacements, the new version of the disc included three tracks not on the original recording: “Fire”, “I Don’t Live Today” and “Spanish Castle Magic,” which was taken from the San Diego concert.
The original Polydor recording was one of the first Hendrix albums I listened to, and along with the soundtrack to Woodstock, was my first exposure to popular music outside the safety net of AM radio. Most people now a days think of the Sex Pistols when you mention “God Save The Queen” within a pop music context, but to me it will always evoke memories of Jimi Hendrix exhorting the crowd at the Isle of Wight Festival to stand up for their culture and say “fuck you” if you don’t – then playing the British national anthem. (To be honest I didn’t remember the fuck you part of Hendrix’s introduction on the original recording and wonder now if it was only restored for this reissue) Unlike his version of the “Star Spangled Banner” which was a searing indictment of its military implications, the soars and leaps he puts his guitar through for the Queen are more tongue-in-cheek than bitter.
Segueing into the Beatles hit “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” makes it seem all the more good spirited. It helps to remember Hendrix made his name in England first. Two-thirds of his original band were Brits., and it sounds like he’s paying tribute to the land which first recognized his talent.
As a kid, the other highlight on the original album had been his renderings of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”. What I had liked then, and still appreciate today, is how little he did to them. Most guitar heroes would look on these types of tracks as excuses to go to town and stamp themselves all over the songs. Hendrix never did that sort of shit. He had too much respect for other peoples’ work. Sure, he threw in some searing solos where appropriate, but he was paying tribute to the music he loved growing up, the music which influenced him, and it shows. He plays them with love and spirit so that even songs everybody knows and has heard countless versions of sound fresh and invigorated. At the same time, he managed to give them back the whiff of danger and excitement that reminds you of why rock and roll was considered the music of rebellion.
While the music on In The West is great, it’s not until you listen to the recordings on Winterland, culled from six shows on three days in October 1968 (Oct. 10th, 11th and 12th) that you begin to get some insight into Hendrix’s real genius. The band had been on the road almost non-stop for two years across Europe and the United States playing pretty much the same material over and over again. To some it might appear as if it were a miracle, as Redding says at one point, they “were still standing”, let alone performing. After an intense period of playing like this, there are two ways a band can go: they can either get to the point where they are doing their set by the numbers and play each song by rote or they’ve reached the point where they’re so comfortable with each other and their material they use it as a springboard to jump higher each and every night. For these six gigs in 1968, Jimi Hendrix and company were definitely in the latter camp, throwing caution to the winds and finding every single possibility available in each song.
Each time you hear “Purple Haze,” it’s like the first time again. Even though you can’t help but recognize what have to be almost the most familiar opening chords in rock and roll after “Smoke On The Water”, you can’t help but experience a sensation akin to the shock of hearing something for the first time. Maybe it’s the anticipation of wondering what’s to come and where is he going to take the song this time? But every time I heard that familiar wavering tremolo as Hendrix holds the opening note for what sometimes seems like an eternity before playing those big chunky chords of the opening, I felt a flutter of excitement coursing up my spine as if it were a new experience each time. At the risk of sounding like some artifact, his music was an experience in all senses of the word. It creates images in your mind’s eye, you feel it in your body, naturally you hear it and sometimes you feel like you can bloody well reach out and touch it. There’s such a tangible presence to what he created it doesn’t seem possible that there were only three men on the stage.
A couple of times over the three days they were joined by guests. Jack Casady subbed for Redding on bass for a song on the opening night, and instead of playing “Voodoo Child” as planned, Hendrix swings into Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor”. When the Experience are joined by flautist Virgil Gonsalves from the Buddy Miles Band for “Are You Experienced,” they extend the song to twice the length they performed it the previous night as Hendrix feeds off the flute to inspire his solos. Listen closely to what you think is the same set list over and over again during the course of the four CDs and on each song, you’ll hear something new and exciting inside a familiar framework. Therein lies the true genius of Hendrix: he can repeat something note for note when required but isn’t tied to any pattern and created something special every time he picked up a guitar.
If you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss is about, or have forgotten, listening to either of these releases will enlighten you. Also included on disc four of Winterland is an interview recorded with Hendrix backstage at a concert in Boston. While the sound quality isn’t the best, it does give you some insight into who he considers inspirations. He also makes some interesting comments on the difference between English and American music that makes a lot of sense. However, the real story of Hendrix is his music and to experience that is to understand how little everyone else since has explored the guitar’s potential. It also makes you wonder what he could have done if he hadn’t been so limited by the technology at his disposal. Even if he had ended up playing disco, it wouldn’t have been like the disco anyone else played.