In her autobiography about being a young artist in New York City, Just Kids, Patti Smith described attending the opening night party for a new recording studio in August of 1970. Being shy and easily overwhelmed by crowds, she spent a great deal of time outside on the fire escape with the equally shy musician responsible for the studio’s existence. Jimi Hendrix didn’t have too much longer to live when he sat on the fire escape outside his newly opened Electric Ladyland Studios with the young poet. The studio was to be the place where he would experiment and play music away from the demands of the world—he was only able to do so for four weeks before going on the road and ultimately passing away in September. Today, more then 40 years after Hendrix’s death, the studio is one part of his legacy to the world of music. (Smith is only one of many artists who recorded there too, taking advantage of what Hendrix created.)
Listening to the new CD, People, Hell and Angels, released by Legacy Recordings, of previously unreleased Hendrix studio sessions is to be reminded once again how complete a musician he was. Some might wonder why bother releasing the music of somebody dead for four decades, especially tracks which are essentially unfinished. The answer would be for the same reason we publish and read the letters and diaries of famous writers. Hendrix was a musician, so these tracks are his diaries, his letters to the world. They represent a chance to gain some insight into the directions he wanted to take his music, what his interests were and maybe get to know him a little better.
The majority of music released under his name since his death has been of not only dubious quality, but dubious origins as well. It’s only been recently his family has been able to gain control of his music and try and redress the damage done to his legacy by a legion of unscrupulous people trying to make a fast buck off the name of Hendrix. In the years following his death a number of poorly recorded and badly mixed albums were dumped on the market.
Tracks appearing on this disc had previously been released in either truncated versions or with studio musicians overdubbing those who had originally been in the studio with Hendrix, leaving only his solos intact. This would be equivalent to rewriting an unpublished story by James Joyce, leaving monologues intact while having some hack ghostwriter fill in the blanks. Whatever magic was originally present in the studio when Hendrix was there with those he chose to create with in the moment was lost. Taking his solos out of their original context is akin to planting a palm tree in the Arctic Circle. Not only will it look out of place, it will wither and die. Here, lovingly restored by Eddie Kramer, the man who engineered all his studio albums and recorded his most famous concerts, and co-producers Janie Hendrix (Hendrix’s sister) and John McDermott, the songs can be heard in all their rough, uncut glory.
I remember having semi-serious discussions with high school buddies in the 1970s about the possibility of Hendrix playing disco if he had lived. Who knows, he might have. If he had I’m sure whatever he did would have been far superior to the emasculated swill flooding the airwaves at the time or what Prince churned out in later years. Of course there’s no way of knowing what he might have done, but judging by what we hear on People, Hell and Angels his heart was still firmly rooted deeply in the blues. You’ll also hear that while our dire predictions of disco might have been unfounded, he retained a fondness for both funk and R&B.
The first track, featuring him accompanied by his old army buddies Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, “Earth Blues” is a bare bones funk tune. No horns or keyboards like we’re used to, just the three of them driving the beat and playing something dark, dirty and dangerous. Recorded in December of 1969 it might have just been three old friends jamming together and having fun; it could also have been an indication of his vision for the song. The version released on the posthumous Rainbow Bridge in 1971 was a far different, more mainstream radio acceptable tune.
Two other songs on the disc which go a long way towards suggesting Hendrix had no desire to be pigeon-holed as just another rock guitar god are “Let Me Move You” and “Mojo Man”. Both of them show him reaching back to his early days as a sideman in R&B bands. Whether trading leads with saxophone player Lonnie Youngblood on the former or taking a master vocal track created by Albert and Arthur Allen (the vocal duo known as the Ghetto Fighters – read the interview at the other end of the link to the Ghetto Fighters, now known as TaharQa and Tunde Ra Aleem, to find out more about their relationship with Hendrix) on the latter both show Hendrix pushing the R&B genre much further then anybody today would even dream of trying.
However, no matter what the song, no matter what the style, running like a constant thread through every song in the ever changing pattern of a complex tapestry tying multiple images together are the blues. They are the solid bedrock which all the tunes on the disc are rooted in. In some ways it seems like he was stripping his music down to its bare bones and finding new ways to clothe them. Unlike others, Hendrix wasn’t going to be satisfied with merely rehashing the same old format. Instead he was reinventing what was possible and pushing the blues and its associated genres in directions no one else was or has considered.
Hendrix will always be remembered for his incandescent guitar work and the wild abandon he brought to music. However lost amid the sound of the pale imitations trying to copy the original was the inventive and innovative soul constantly seeking to find new modes of expression. Listening to People, Hell and Angels is an opportunity to peek into the mind of an artist at work as he explores his media and the possibilities it offers for more musical expression. These might not be finished songs or even the most polished of efforts, but they are invaluable and worth listening to none the less. We have no way of knowing what Hendrix would have accomplished with these selections had he lived longer. However, if this release is anything to go by, he would have always been two or three steps ahead of everyone else.