Having first discovered the wares of rock and roll’s pantheon through the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who, I always felt I was a latecomer to Jimi Hendrix. That is despite the fact that by the age of 17, I saw myself as a Hendrix legionnaire, ever intent on introducing people to his music. In Hendrix’s time, this was known as turning someone on, a phrase that applied to certain drugs as well as to music, but since it was understood that the music was probably made and certainly was meant to be listened to under the infuence of those drugs, the conflation didn’t much matter. I didn’t adopt that hippie-friendly patois, but an electrical metaphor, “turning on”, struck me as apt given how Hendrix at his best seemed like bottled lightning itself.
The Beatles, Stones, and Who, especially in their early, chart-ascending days, featured many songs of the two- and three-minute variety. Many were laden with hooks and constant surprises as to chords and modulations, but they were still songs that, in structure at least, differed little from the fare in rock’s earliest era of Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Carl Perkins. Hendrix, however, was another animal, to the point of suggesting some music-making creature out of a Jules Verne novel. To the uninitiated a lot of noise was at play in Hendrix’s output. To my folks, for example: When I tried to turn them on to Hendrix’s debut LP, Are You Experienced?, it must have sounded, at best, like a cacophony of shrieking notes atop a fiery jumble of feedback and amplifier hum. If it was protean, which it undoubtedly was, it was so in the manner that the unloosed sounds of war are protean.
There is a fascinating divide between how we hear music by ourselves and how we hear it in the company of others. If those others are people you wish to convert, Hendrix’s way of music-making might be a hard sell, especially if they’re stone-cold sober as opposed to just stoned. The notion that such livewire, even violent music is possessed of a rare beauty that fellow virtuosos of an ostensibly gentler persuasion, like J.S. Bach and Franz Liszt, exhibited seems just this side of preposterous. But it’s true.
Depending on how you view it, Hendrix’s discography is either aggravatingly small, comprised of just a handful of albums (he died at age 27 in September 1970), or it’s prolix and damn near out of control, given all of the posthumous releases that have followed over the past 44 years. If you are a Hendrix neophyte, there is lot to sort through as you’re getting started, and a lot of it is terrible. There are some cheapjack compilations, and that’s not even including the world of bootlegs—that misty, mysterious realm for unabashed Hendrix completists who claim to own concert tapes better than anything on the official market. (They sometimes even have a point; mostly, however, their conceit over possession has warped their judgment.) But a number of excellent, freshly sanctioned releases have come out in the past few years that really do amplify our sense of Hendrix as one of the rarest of musical acts: a technical virtuoso who also had all of the blood and guts we don’t normally associate with such performers. These virtuosos, like Errol Garner, Paganini, and even Eric Clapton, can coast on technique, producing work that is seemingly meaty but often pretty lean once you bite into it. Consider, for example, the box set of Hendrix’s October 1968 Winterland recordings. The official release streamlines the bootleg versions that are readily available on the web, but what we get is a sense of Hendrix in residency, a view of how he changed his material and his approach from set to set, at one of rock’s hallowed clubs, in rock’s greatest concert era.
As psychedelic, blues-laden field recordings go, the Hendrix Winterland material is tough to beat. But the new Miami Pop Festival, which documents a single set from May 1968, is a rare gem as well. Here we have a Hendrix performance that is suitably raw as Hendrix fans tend to prefer, but it is also comprised of tight, punchy performances. The virtuoso quotient is high, and the ever-crucial earthy bluesman quotient rises to match it. Additionally, two songs (“Tax Free” and “Hear My Train A Comin’”) are getting their first airings, a choice bit of news you can use to make your case for Hendrix to the uninitiated. In this set it’s clear that, for all of the pyrotechnics of Hendrix’s music, what matters most is how gently, even sweetly, human it is. If ever a rock and roll star personified the mind/body split, it’s Hendrix, creator of some of the most lusty, intense sounds ever heard, and also some of the softest and sweetest. Hendrix at his best, as he is on Miami Pop Festival, could reconcile both sides at a single concert.
For some weird reason, Hendrix puts me in mind of Samuel Beckett. One can imagine a theatergoer reading a description of a Beckett play and thinking, “Well, that sounds too far out there for me.” But if you attend a Beckett play performed more or less authentically, you quickly learn that the “far out” elements are like raiments hung on a human form we all easily recognize. That same form ultimately carries the day with Hendrix, beneath the feedback and soaring guitar lines.
One of my earliest music teachers would delight in shocking his charges with the video of Hendrix’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from Woodstock. (It’s a performance that never ceases to shock no matter how many times you’ve seen it, though I suspect for different reasons as we get older.) This teacher would claim that Hendrix alone could truly control feedback. Now, I’ve since discovered this not to be true. Jeff Beck of the original Yardbirds, another guitar god just a peg below Hendrix, had mastered several of the same techniques by the mid-1960s. But as the Miami gig documents, Hendrix had a special knack for imbuing feedback with a sing-song quality such that it almost doubled as a kind of rhythm guitar attack unto itself, a guitar-based backing vocal, if you will, that allowed Hendrix more room, while that feedback was unfolding, to take his lead lines out into new directions. I’ve never heard anyone before or since employ this approach, and Hendrix, here in May ’68, was someone who could truly claim to be the best in the world at what he did. He needed to do that: Remember, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was the smallest electric band of its time, consisting of just Hendrix’s guitar, a bassist and a drummer.
The Miami Pop festival has since been cited as the bridge between Monterrey Pop, from the so-called Summer of Love in 1967, and Woodstock, the all-but-official end of the 1960s in August 1969. In 1966, Hendrix had to go all the way England to gain an audience and, eventually, re-appear in this country to knock the American listening public on its collective rear end. The plaudits from the UK rock royalty world were immediate, as they should have been, but Hendrix’s two bandmates, Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, got all but lost in the process. Only together were the three “the Experience.” The definite article is telling, just as it would later be for Eric Clapton’s “the Cream” (as in, cream of the crop) before Clapton’s fellow power trio dropped the definite article. One didn’t just hear the Experience, as one heard a record on the stereo and drifted off for forty minutes. Their sound was a life experience unto itself, after which you became a different person.
Noel Redding liked to push the music with his bass and was always aggressive in that regard, while still providing the sure footing of a rhythmic bedrock. Mitch Mitchell was a virtuoso himself on the drums, and had he not been in a band with rock’s leading instrumentalist, he would have been afforded the same kind of attention as someone like The Who’s Keith Moon, or Deep Purple’s Ian Paice. Mitchell could play circles around the likes of a fan darling such as John Bonham of Led Zeppelin. If you’re a jazz musician, you’ll appreciate both Mitchell’s chops and his sensibilities. Most rock drummers can’t touch a good jazz drummer, but beneath the high-decibel fury Mitchell was more a jazzer than a rocker. We can make the same case for Hendrix.
Hendrix’s analogues aren’t so much Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters as they are Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. There has even been a fetishization to this notion of collecting Hendrix solos and debating their relative merits, with many pages of guitar-based magazines being given over to polls, lists, and compendiums adjudicating which solo trumps another or what gig is a peg better than a largely similar outing. Charlie Parker’s mid-century acolytes were much the same as Hendrix’s devotees, and when there’s talk that a Parker concert has been discovered, we all hold our breath waiting for the news that a new holy grail is at hand. So it goes with Hendrix, to the point that I’ve noticed a burgeoning cynicism in recent years. That is why it’s interesting to watch something like Miami Pop Festival garner extremely cautious reviews, generally positive but mainly noncommittal write-ups that sign off by saying that the material is nice but not essential; that it’s for completists only, worth a listen or two, and so on.
The caution is unwarranted. “I can’t express myself through conversation”, Hendrix declares in Hear My Train A Comin’, a documentary that has entered the market on Blu-ray and DVD as a sort of ride-along partner to the Miami set. Footage from the latter appears in the film, with one talking head after another attempting to explain what made Hendrix Hendrix. He is alternately discussed as a simple man with a few loves in life, one of which happened to be the guitar, to an almost Gandalf of the guitar and not much else. (After all, for a rock and roll star, what else matters?)
But when one watches the segment with Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer isolating Hendrix’s lead vocal for “Little Wing”, a song from the Experience’s second LP, Axis: Bold as Love, you get a sense of how cohesive the totality of Hendrix’s art was. The vocals mesh with the instrumental approach, and the instrumental approach enables expansive options for the studio to deploy as a larger, more versatile instrument. Aspects of what I think of as that feeder approach, with everything going into the pot (no pun intended), potentially, are what make the Miami set so brilliant. Essentially, this is a transposition of complex thought processes from an internal medium to an external one, and made audible in the process.
Hendrix introduces “Hear My Train A Comin’” as a loose jam. In loose jam mode, Hendrix could be sloppy; large portions of the celebrated Woodstock set noodle and do little else, but this, as we quickly learn, is not noodling time. “Train” is straight blues, which is interesting, since Hendrix didn’t do a lot of straight blues work, despite the fact that almost everything he ever recorded had a high blues factor. His blues, though, was normally cut with metal, or rhythm and blues, acid/psychedelic rock, or even folk. After all, Hendrix’s cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” from later in 1968 is one of his best ever.
There aren’t many songs that double as an artist’s statement of intent and still manage to encapsulate their genius. Genius is by definition rangy, and so is not easily encircled or tamed. Here at least the shape of Hendrix’s genius is adumbrated in one of the most fascinating performances I’ve heard in a lifetime of listening to them. These blues build and then boil, with Hendrix’s guitar richly contrapuntal. It has the sense of a blues-based electric concerto, and at the same time a work in progress that seems unable to go much further, up until it does. This is a towering performance at a time when Hendrix was only getting started.
For one thing: Hendrix doesn’t deliver the title line, a line that later provides as cathartic a release as anything in the Hendrix oeuvre in dozens of live performances going forward. But if each performance, when we’re talking about Hendrix at his best, succeeds because of the quality of the choices that comprise it—much as do the licks, solos, and quality of group interplay—then this iteration of “Train”, from a quieter Hendrix, accounts for one of the great nuggets of the man’s career. It has all the force of a Greek drama, in which the main action occurs off-stage and is brought to the audience by a messenger—and is all the more gripping because of it.
In that way, it’s an unnerving performance, especially if you know other versions of “Train.” Even at this earliest of junctures, Hendrix clearly knows the power he has in reserve, a musical power he can deploy or hold in abayance at any time. And while it’s easy for the lazy-minded to think of Hendrix as an all-out noise merchant, there’s a steady quietude of controlled ideas, of intended impact and approach, to even his loudest music. It’s these most experience-able of ideas that leave rock and roll strictures behind in a way that the earlier, song-based frameworks of the Beatles, Stones, and The Who do not.
Hendrix is not part of the highest rock pantheon along with those three British bands. He didn’t last long enough for that, but more importantly he wasn’t competing in that realm. Hendrix created a genre unto itself. But that genre is more in keeping with classical music than rock and roll, a kind of electric chamber music that, I suspect, would make more sense to fans of Bach’s Art of Fugue than to owners of A Hard Day’s Night.
Despite his foreshortened life, Hendrix’s musical output invites a lifetime of study, and these two new releases represent two sides of that invitation. Hear My Train A Comin’ is comparable to a documentary that gets trotted out in class or when the teacher isn’t in the mood to teach. It can get you hooked on an artist in the same way that we get hooked in our most impressionable years. But Miami Pop Festival is both an ideal Hendrix primer and an expansive lesson in the man’s most expansive art, with dollops of Paganini the showman, Robert Johnson the bluesman, Frederic Chopin the poetic, restrained and quiet communicator, Mary Shelley the monster/mayhem maker, and Jerry Lee Lewis the balls-to-the-wall rock and roller. That it’s an essential, standalone Hendrix live document that adds art to a catalogue of art is impressive, but that it is poised to set you off in search of other sets of a perpetually unfolding sonic narrative is where Hendrix’s core, questing spirit is most on display.
So it goes that when one hears another version of “Hear My Train A Comin’”, with the title line being delivered, it feels as though older, private thoughts have been given external, triumphant expression in what sounds like both a warning and directive from on high. In some sense, perhaps, that’s what it really is. All else equal, you wouldn’t expect a left-handed, electric guitar-player to be a one-man rocket boosting rock and roll into an entirely new orbit. But that’s what he was.