Saturday, September 18, 2010


On this date 40 years ago, my mom came and picked me up from middle school to tell me that Jimi Hendrix had died. I'd seen the Woodstock movie with the epochal and iconic "Star-Spangled Banner" in it the summer before, and a few weeks later, in Greenwich Village (where our parents had taken my sister and me to see a Japanese rock musical called Golden Bat), I bought my first copy of Rolling Stone, with the sepia tone picture of Jimi on the cover.

Seeing Jimi on film and hearing Are You Experienced?, which I bought later that summer, it was kind of incomprehensible to me that all of those sounds were made by an electric guitar. (I had just co-opted a cheapie acoustic my sister had gotten in the mail, and wouldn't talk our parents into buying me an electric for a couple of years yet.) Jimi's set from Monterey -- a portion of which was released that year, and which I got acquainted with while lying in bed with a tank of oxygen while suffering from a respiratory ailment that winter -- was more visceral and accessible, more like the Who's Live At Leeds, which I drove my sister crazy listening to four times a day after buying it the day it was released.

Guitarists were kind of scared of Jimi in those days. He seemed kind of inimitable. Lenny Kaye's Rolling Stone review of The Cry of Love ended with a description of a guitarist of Kaye's acquaintance who could "do" any name guitarist trying and failing to cop Hendrix's mojo. Ernie Isley from the Isley Brothers (whose older brothers had hired Hendrix as a sideman in the early '60s), Robin Trower (the ex-Procol Harum guitarist whose "Whiskey Train" we used to play endless versions of), and Franke Marino (a Canadian who claimed to have been touched by Jimi's spirit while on acid) all performed simulacra, but all missed out on an essential ingredient (or several).

My idol/best friend/nemesis Michael R., who was the best guitarist in our neighborhood, showed me some of Hendrix's tunes and techniques. I learned a lot more from an all-Hendrix issue of Guitar Player, which I studied extensively while flunking out of the state university in the fall of '75. While there, I met enough people who were destroying their psyches with drugs in a futile attempt to be "like Jimi" to ensure that I wouldn't be able listen to Hendrix music for about 15 years after dropping out. Most memorable were the kid who had all the same equipment as Jimi and could make every noise he did without ever playing a lick of music, and the townie guitarist I knew who fried his brain on acid. The last time I ever saw him, he grinned a grin of utter desperation while assuring me, "Better times are coming."

After I moved to Texas in '78, I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan, first on a live tape that a record producer friend of mine from Fort Worth had recorded, then in some 6th Street dive down in Austin I'd stumbled into while pub crawling one night. Stevie had an encyclopedic command of blues styles, including Hendrix's, and famously covered "Voodoo Chile," "Little Wing," and "Third Stone From the Sun" (complete with laying-the-guitar-on-the-floor feedback finale). In the '80s, I finally got to where I could listen to Hendrix again and recognize the colossal scope of his achievement (he changed the very way his instrument sounded; how many players can make that claim?), and the tragedy of his early demise. He checked out at 27; in the fullness of time, I can see the colossal waste in that. He was just getting started. (My friend Michael OD'd at 28.)

Brit scribe Kris Needs just penned a well-researched-and-written piece for Record Collector on the music Jimi made in his last year, which remains my favorite part of his output (the Band of Gypsys, the Woodstock set, the tracks compiled on First Rays of the New Rising Sun). He was finding his feet as a composer, had the most sympathetic accompaniment of his career with Billy Cox on bass and either Mitch Mitchell or Buddy Miles on drums, and opened Electric Lady Studios, which would have allowed him to conduct the marathon recording sessions he favored at will, without having to undergo the grueling tour schedule he maintained to the very end.

This week I've been listening to The Baggy's Rehearsal Sessions, which capture the Band of Gypsys prepping for its storied Fillmore East stand, released in 2002 on Experience Hendrix's "bootleg" Dagger label. (Thanks, Frank!) Music to dig while pondering what might have been...


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