Talkin’ Blues (Jimi Thing)
or, everybody needs a pair of listening ears
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Jimi Hendrix. It’s hard to say his name without sounding simultaneously exultant and wistful. A surprising number of people wish fervently that he hadn’t died—that the freedom and aspirations of that era had not diminished. It makes no rational sense, but there is the sneaking suspicion that life would have been something quite different had Hendrix lived. One is tempted to say that the whole direction of music would have changed, the whole pattern of urban growth and decay—the saga of Neptune’s rebirth and Saturn’s watery creation.
Hendrix breathed a sense of life and possibilities into the stratified funk world of James Brown. He channeled the possibilities inherent in the destructive creation of the electric guitar. Many weren’t listening, but those who were — well, they were fully turned on.
One compelling thing to me about Hendrix is that he didn’t bow to pressures to be this or that, in a very black & white world. It was not simply the drugs (arguably, the drugs worked against him). Hendrix’s music was a separate entry and departure point altogether; a force field, a gravitational force that held entire galaxies in its sway.
There were naturally those before Hendrix down on the people farm, who knew that music was a journey, not a product. Bird. Diz. Davis. Coltrane. The questers, the improvisers, the jesters, the monks. Miles Davis was in the audience for the Band of Gypsies at the Fillmore East, New Year’s Eve, 1970, and the music he heard informed his conception of Jack Johnson and of the music that followed—until the corrosive axis of punk and disco washed everything away in 128 bpm annihalation.
One peak of Hendrix’ exploration is an early 1968 session with Larry Young. The 21-minute jam features Jimi playing with a musician for whom he has the utmost respect. You can tell from the way he plays without aggression or ego, the sound a fusing of two instruments held together by the fatback precision of Buddy Miles’ drums. This is the fluid non-pop Hendrix that an electrified Miles Davis in many estimates surpassed but, critically, this is Hendrix doing without the theoretical background, without a net. More than any recordings I have heard since Charlie Parker (circa 1947) and Miles Davis Quintet (circa 1964, with Sam Rivers), it is equal parts jazz of purpose and chance.
Sure, there are thousands of long Hendrix jam sessions before and after, but many are eminently forgettable. Take the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows group Hendrix put together in the weeks preceding Woodstock. The sound is clunky, gunky; full of discord, envy, and disrespect (and dare I say bad drugs?). By contrast, the Young/Hendrix/Miles trio is pulsing and alive, taut, instruments perfectly in tandem. The only way I can describe it in terms of the rock of the time (again, early 1968) is to imagine if the Grateful Dead had been tightened like a hide over a snake-oil drum; if Sly and the Family Stone had let their syncopation guard down and allowed their meticulous sound to flow without limit. In terms of stratospheres, the piece is rather more easy to contextualize. It is what we hope to find when we (as Stockhausen claims to have done) journey to other planets. Not disimilar to what Tony Williams achieved in his imminent proto-fusion endeavors (with Larry Young, Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin) but leaner somehow, more fluid. Despite Hendrix’ obvious excesses it is taut, disciplined.
If Jimi was just about the jam, that would be one thing. But he is also about subtle palette. The clouds slip and slide, and the churning feedback rivers reach up, make us see colors in sound. Listen to the guitar in Drifting and then multiply it by ten. That’s Machine Gun, a vision I do not take lightly. Anger, shrieking, and whistling parachutes from the sky into napalm jungle. Piercing the veil of reality, comprehending human killing, suffering, death. This is a timeless sound, not an affectation. It is echoed in the crying wah-wah of the electrifried American Anthem. Another message, through anguish, to love.
Music would certainly have been different, if this jam had continued. If Jimi had continued to talk on his public saxophone and let it lead us to a higher level of discourse. Needless to say, his music would not have affected politics, refrigerator models, or fashion. The sounds would have informed our everyday human interactions, created a space in which serious issues of Earth and its survival take precedence. Hendrix’ music was an awakening to certain intractable problems and of possible way humans might move boundaries, adapt. With his death, it was all stillborn enlightenment. Still we have his music and somehow, for those who care to listen, through the crass commercialism of his Estate, it is enough.
Lastly, there is Hendrix’ Axis: Bold As Love. The finest parts are not the most celebrated: they are the lonely, syncopated echoes that splash through “Golden Roads,”* the spiritual humming at the end, as life rolls out toward eternity. “It’s only a dream, I’d love to tell somebody about this dream—
The sky was filled with a thousand stars….” They are the flipped flute and earthy crunch, the gum-popping drawl “I’m the one that’s gonna have to die when its time for me to go… so let me live my life.. the way.. I want to.”
Axis is unique in Jimi’s canon because it is equal parts autobiography and spiritual undertaking. With a distinct beginning and an end, it is a UFO sermon. It is Jimi’s Earth Blues concept personified in characters — that young gangly cat of “I Think We Better Wait Until Tomorrow” who lusts after girls, but can’t get over a rather more urgent affection for a Strat. It is the proto-hippy who has sought Dharmic enlightenment in the clouds with an ancient Cherokee princess. It is the quicksand of Castles Made of Sand, a loss of innocence in a babble of suits and fast connections. It is the musing artist, the savage detective, investigating just what happened when the Axis went up in colors, unleashing its energy over a radiant earth. It is “the smell of a world that is burned” and it is questing, engaged.
From Northern California, Damon Shulenberger is an author currently working on projects such as the mystery-thriller Arisugawa Park and the nonfiction work A One Drop Companion: Inside Poker’s $1 Million Tournament and the Players Who Risk It All. He also writes on burning topics such as krill oil and donut pies.
- Actually, “One Rainy Wish. And not “Golden Roads,” “Gold & Rose.” Whatever. It’s only a dream….