Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Dead Hendrix"

The new Ugly Things is here! The last bastion of old-school fanzine culcha's latest issue is replete with more info than you ever thought was possible on original Them guitarist Billy Harrison (first part of a series; the ass-ends of similarly exhaustive, multi-part features on Patto guitarist Ollie Halsall and Aussie rockers the Masters Apprentices also appear in this ish), the Pleasure Seekers (pioneering all-girl band with Sherilyn Fenn's mother and aunts, one of whom you might know as Suzi Quatro), and Norton Records' Billy Miller and Miriam Linna (the latter of whose Bobby Fuller piece in Kicks kind of set the standard for what Mike Stax and his crew are up to). While the ish loses points for just reprinting Stax's liner notes to the Coba Seas' Norton release (fella's gotta get paid somehow), that transgression's more than offset by the inclusion of Tim Earnshaw's "Dead Hendrix and the Last of the Hipster Mohicans: The Jimi Hendrix Albums They Don't Want You To Hear."

I'm as obsessed with late-period (post-Electric Ladyland) Hendrix as I am with the Who, the Stooges, and the '64 Mingus band. I think Jimi's writing improved over time -- whose doesn't? -- and that the Cox-Mitchell riddim section was a more effective teaming than Redding-Mitchell had been. Bearing in mind that I've frequently commented that Jimi was "the water I grew up swimming in," I was 13 when he died, and didn't begin to understand the full extent of his accomplishment until much later. The first album of his that I owned was Rainbow Bridge, which I bought when it was brand new. Besides sounding as if it was recorded underwater (I blame bad mastering), that album contained a dizzying array of sounds including "Dolly Dagger," the studio "Star-Spangled Banner" with its orchestra of overdubbed guitars, the live Berkeley "Hear My Train A-Comin'," and "Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)," perhaps the greatest of Jimi's chord studies -- in sum, more than I was capable of wrapping my teenage mind around.

Are You Experienced? I found daunting at first -- were all those sounds really _guitar_? -- and Classic Rock radio ultimately blunted my enjoyment of about half of its songs, in the same way as it did for Who's Next and Dark Side of the Moon, albums I once loved which I don't _ever_ need to hear again. The four songs from Hendrix's incandescent Monterey Pop Festival set that were originally released as one side of an LP along with a similarly truncated Otis Redding performance were a lot more visceral and thus, more easily accessible. My first year of college I got wa-a-ay into Electric Ladyland and my aborted last semester, similarly into Axis: Bold As Love (although in the latter case I was attempting to deal with the songs as playing forms, not acid-trip sound F/X).

Cooling my heels/spinning my wheels at my parents' house for a couple of years before moving to Texas, I discovered the subtler pleasures of The Cry of Love (along with Beefheart, Coltrane, Ornette, Miles, et al.). I still find the sequence "Freedom"-"Drifting"-"Ezy Rider"-"Night Bird Flying" as satisfying as anything I've ever heard on record. Then I lost the thread for awhile, until Rykodisc released Live At Winterland and Radio One in the late '80s. Voodoo Soup, Alan Douglas' imagining of the last Hendrix album, arrived in '95, when I was rediscovering Dee-troit ramalama, and I briefly owned it during a time when I was selling all my CDs and books to eat. When the Hendrix catalog was sold to MCA a couple of years later, Voodoo Soup was duly deleted and replaced by First Rays of the New Rising Sun, which contained more of the old Rainbow Bridge material and in time became my favorite Jimi. Until now.

The point of Earnshaw's Ugly Things piece is to rehabilitate the reputation of the recordings released after Hendrix's death -- not just the first set, which declined in quality from The Cry of Love through Loose Ends, but also the much-maligned Douglas creations (Midnight Lightning through Voodoo Soup) that frequently committed the sin of overdubbing the work of musos who'd never worked with Jimi in life onto unfinished tracks. It's an interesting premise. Myself, I found The Cry of Love as cohesive as anything Jimi released while he was alive, and Rainbow Bridge (mastering aside) nearly so. By the time War Heroes and Loose Ends appeared, I was off into other things; I thought they made fine background music in somebody else's dorm room. I've never heard Crash Landing or Midnight Lightning.

I think that Alan Douglas, who produced Eric Dolphy before and John McLaughlin and the Last Poets concurrently with his work with Hendrix, had as much "right" to work on the posthumous releases as Eddie Kramer, who facilitated Jimi's sound-painting on the three Experience albums. I also understand that history is written by the victors, and Kramer is clearly the Hendrix estate's man. I've already said that I dug his vision of the fourth Hendrix album. Earnshaw's piece motivated me to dig up a copy of Voodoo Soup (which I hadn't heard in 16 years) for basis of comparison.

Voodoo Soup loses three Cry of Love songs ("My Friend," "Straight Ahead," and "Astro Man"), only one of which ("Straight Ahead") is missed. In exchange, you get four instrumentals -- "New Rising Sun," which opens the proceedings in a fashion reminiscent of the first couple of tracks on Electric Ladyland, and the bluesy jams "Midnight," "Pali Gap," and "Peace in Mississippi" -- along with a studio take of "Message To Love" (a Band of Gypsys highlight). "Pali Gap," which originally appeared on Rainbow Bridge, is as sublime as the Woodstock-closing jam "Villanova Junction," while "Peace in Mississippi" rides that monochordal drone in _nastier_ fashion than anything else in the Hendrix canon. Jimi loved to jam, and it seems only fitting that side of his musical personality should be represented (as it was by the long blues jam version of "Voodoo Chile" on Electric Ladyland). I also like the way Douglas jacks with our expectations, having "Freedom" appear as track three, rather than opening the album, and placing "Night Bird Flying" before "Drifting" and "Ezy Rider."

First Rays retains all of the Cry of Love songs and adds both sides of the withdrawn final single "Dolly Dagger"/"Izabella" (the former of which appeared on Rainbow Bridge), adding the instrumental "Beginnings" and two crucial Rainbow Bridge tracks: "Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)" and "Earth Blues." "Beginnings" was performed at Woodstock and appeared on the Woodstock Two album and innumerable bootlegs as "Jam Back At the House." It's more structured but, to these feedback-scorched ears, not as inspahrd as the jam material that appears on Voodoo Soup. I think in a perfect universe (which we all know doesn't exist), I'd graft "Dolly," "Izabella," and "Hey Baby" onto Voodoo Soup to make my ideal version of the Hendrix album that never was. Maybe you've got yours, too. Hope so.

(The vids are pretty lousy and included only to pique your interest in hearing this music.)


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