Until I was sixteen years old, I had thought Jimi Hendrix was just someone who played an early version of heavy metal and burned his guitars at concerts. In the spring of 1989, my friend Dave Fabris (an excellent guitarist in his own right) set me straight by recording three of Hendrix’s albums onto two cassettes: Axis: Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland (still my all-time favorite album), and The Cry of Love.
All three albums showed me that Hendrix was not looking to make eardrums bleed but to use sounds as a painter uses a palette (indeed, he often referred to sounds as colors). And although wasn’t the best singer, he knew how to use his vocals to capture the right feeling needed for a song.
Before his death in September 1970, Hendrix was looking to further expand his sound by moving away from the psychedelia of his first three albums and revisiting his roots (he grew up in Seattle but spent years playing in the South). Despite being hastily compiled after his death, The Cry of Love has some great examples of this new direction, including two beautiful ballads, “Angel” and “Drifting.”
While the former is arguably better, there is a lot to love about the latter.
Lyrically, there isn’t that much — just a couple of really short verses that are nearly identical except for a minor variation. And while the soulful vocals are a bit rough, there’s a beauty in the way he expresses the words. But “Drifting” is really about the beautiful soundscape Hendrix and engineer Eddie Kramer created with layers of guitars — played both forward and backward — and Buzzy Linheart’s vibes. Although he sings about drifting in a lifeboat at sea, the lengthy instrumental part better paints that image. And even though the final product could have been different if Hendrix had lived (the vibes were added posthumously), “Drifting” illustrates Hendrix’s ability to use music to create new modes of expression and transcend the “wild man of pop” label that has stuck with him for decades.