Thursday, November 15, 2007

Jimi Hendrix Lives Today


Jimi Hendrix first came to my attention when the I Don't Live Today greatest hits double album was being promoted on radio, probably an early variant of Radio 5. There was a rude blast of an breakout excerpt from the title track and then the most ominous record title I'd ever heard. If one were to judge purely by the advertisement Jimi Hendrix was a mysterious, wild noisemaker of great power and intensity. Of course this stuff was never actually played on South African music radio at the, or at least not on the stations I listened to, and I had no older siblings or friends who owned the records and so the full impact of the Jimi Hendrix sonic experience eluded me for a long time.

It is now impossible for me to tell which Hendrix tune I heard first, either Hey Joe or Purple Haze, but my guess is Hey Joe, because my abiding memory of hearing it for the first time, is how simple and tuneful and yet powerful it was in a very understated fashion, completely unlike the weird sounds I’d imagined Hendrix made when he touched a guitar. Hey Joe was no psychedelic freak out but an almost folky, bluesy song with the age-old blues theme of betrayal and revenge. Not exactly the radical breakthrough I’d understood Hendrix’s music to have been in the late Sixties.

In stark contrast to Hey Joe, Purple Haze does sound like the acid freak out, the antithesis to Beatle-esque pop or Stones-ish loping blues infected rock. This was where the line was drawn in the sand. Of course, I loved both tunes.

Back in the day in the mid-Seventies I was an uncool, loner school kid with no money, no clue, no money and no music collection. It was my habit to hang out at least once a week at the Sigma record bar (at one point it kind of shared premises with a “jeans bar”) in Andringa Street, Stellenbosch, where I spent hours longingly flipping through record covers with no prospect at all of buying anything. I spent so much time there; I probably had a better idea of the inventory in the store, than the sales clerks did.

Anyhow, it was at Sigma Records that I first saw the covers of I Don’t Live Today, Electric Ladyland, Crash Landing and Cry for Love though I never got up enough courage to ask the shop assistants to play me a track or two.

An aside: when I was that lonely alienated kid, I thought it would be the coolest job ever to work at a record store and to be able to listen to all those records all the time. A bit later I realized that working in a record store may be kind of groovy if you really liked music but that the pay sucked. Then my focus turned to being a DJ on the radio. They earned more than shop assistants and they were in the powerful position of nationwide influence in respect of the music they played; not only could you play the stuff you thought of as cool, you could expose that music to a big audience who might go out and support the musicians. Then I read that in most cases the DJ does not choose the music he or she plays, the choice is made by a programming director who cares very little for the DJ’s personal likes or dislikes but who chooses music according to a demographic determinant. So much for being a DJ – just a voice on the radio. Finally, and once I started reading the New Musical Express (this some years before it simply became the NME) I came to the conclusion that the best job of all would be to write about music and musicians. You could listen to a lot of records, disseminate your opinions, influence people. You could have actual power in this sphere of human endeavour. The salary was not so important because you got loads of free records and did not pay to go to gigs – hey, I was still a na├»ve teenager at the time.

My first full and material exposure to the music of J Hendrix came about when I bought the double album soundtrack of the Jimi Hendrix movie documentary at Adrian & Don's Record Bar in the Trust Bank Centre in Stellenbosch, where I also started hanging out flipping through covers of albums I’d never buy. They were the serious opposition to Sigma Records and lasted a year or two but then sadly faded away with a large “everything must go” sale. The double album cost R6,25, which was cheap for double album in those days -- ordinarily single records cost

something like R4,50 in those days. I have a memory of Adrian warning me that he would have to charge the full R6,25 cover price because he was not allowed to give me a discount. I was vaguely annoyed at this patronising attitude since I had more than enough cash to buy the record. By this time I was at Varsity and had a casual job with the University’s sports office, working at the box office of various sports events, and earned cash to enable me to build up a nice little record collection.

The tracks on Jimi Hendrix are a mixture of live performances (plus one acoustic studio performance) from the movie and short extracts of interviews with girlfriends, friends and musicians who'd known Hendrix and still had fond memories of him. Apart from one acoustic song, Hear My Train A-Comin’, all the tracks were taken from live gigs such as Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Fillmore East and Isle of Wight. The songs mostly represent the “greatest hits” part of the Hendrix repertoire with some big hits like “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze”, the Woodstock live take on the “Star Spangled Banner” and Monterey Pop’s “Like A Rolling Stone.”

Perhaps the most intriguing to me were the two versions of “Machine Gun” from Fillmore East and Isle of Wight respectively. The latter had really scary, sci fi-like interjections from the security crew's walkie talkies and it added a really ominous colouring to a hard song about death in war. It was some years before I read that the interference was an accident as the result of faulty technology. At the time I was transported straight into a land of ugly desolation with robot-like alien voices of authority stamping down on the common man.

There was also a long version of the famous Red House in which Jimi stretched out his blues chops to the max. I had not yet heard the studio version of the tune, so I was much impressed by the improvisation and dynamics of a man I had not really thought of as a bluesman. This was also a number of years before I read Charles Shaar Murray’s book Crosstown Traffic in which he places our Jimi smack dab in the middle of the great blues canon, in the tradition of Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and the rest. Jimi’s blues may have had the gonzo hue of psychedelia, but it was nonetheless as deep as any of the masters who preceded him.

Along about 1985 I got finally got to see a scratchy, jumpy version of the Monterey Pop movie at the Labia Theatre in Orange Street, Cape Town, which was then just a slightly worse for the wear but funky venue for “art” movies, rock music documentaries, and commercial moves that had just ended their runs in the upmarket movie houses in the city. Students and the alternative crowd hung out there for the ten o’clock show, which was usually the one where the best obscure stuff was shown. I was living in Somerset West then and often drove into town just to catch something esoteric and interesting at the Labia.

Anyhow, the movie and Jimi Hendrix soundtrack both feature his, uh, “hot” version of “Wild Thing” where he sets his guitar alight with lighter fluid and caused some, uh, “heated” controversy. This wild man act was my first exposure to Hendrix as a performing artist. It was all the more exotic because the print was no longer pristine and because the sound at the Labia was hardly any better than a tinny old 1950’s transistor radio. It was a land and a time far away from my reality, a time I would never experience and a type of musical experience I thought I would never have.

I played Jimi Hendrix almost into extinction. The longer tracks started to pale after a while, but I always returned to Like A Rolling Stone, and Hey Joe, Purple Haze and In From the Storm.

If memory serves, the second Hendrix album I bought was I Don't Live Today, then Electric Ladyland, and in quick succession by Hendrix in the West and Crash Landing.

I bought I Don’t Live Today at Sigma Records, at long last united with the album of the advertisement, and one of the most iconic Hendrix album covers ever. Man, I would have killed to wear that image on a T-shirt! Maybe I would not have been the only one, but I would have been a proud one. The double album is a collection of hits and well-known track from the Jimi Hendrix Experience (basically Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland filleted), with nothing from Band of Gypsies or Cry Of Love. It was great to hear the original studio versions of Hey Joe, Purple Haze and Red House, and the funky grooves of little known songs like Remember, and the psychedelic pop of Waterfall and the Wind Cries Mary. There was also the avant garde noise songs like the title track, though I did not know at the time that the version on this album was the expurgated shortened version of the full length freak out on Axis; Bold As Love. Even so, it was an album I loved and played to death to the extent where the vinyl is now largely unplayable unless you are a fan of snap, crackle and pop.

Electric Ladyland also came from Sigma Records and I bought it after a lot of soul searching or, should I say, budgetary examination because it was sold as a full price album, and at double album price too, at a time when my main concern was with how many cheap albums I could buy at any one time in the bargain bins of Stellenbosch or Cape Town. It was a simple consideration: for the price of one current release I could buy three or for or more cut price albums that were in my estimation just as good or interesting. Quantity was quality.

All in knew of Electric Ladyland was what I had read about it and though it sounded intriguing enough, I was not sure whether I wanted to spend that much money on it. Curiosity got the better of me and I splashed out on the thing, brought it home, and started playing it to death. The first disappointment, though, was that the local pressing in South Africa did not have the same packaging as the one in the USA or Europe, the cover with the whole array of naked women. The South African cover was not bad – a cool photograph of the Experience – but it once again reinforced that we were very far away in space and time from the hub of the world; a world with different values and a different perception of what was acceptable and what was not, a seemingly less petty world. Okay, so I was a horny virgin who wanted to see naked tits on an album cover.

Electric Ladyland was the last official release under the name of the original Experience though there are many guest musicians on the album and it might as well be called a Jimi Hendrix solo album on which the members of the Experience sometimes play together. The album has a good cross section of the styles Hendrix employed, from electronic experiments to fairly straight forward rock'n'roll to weird soul and blues. All Along the Watchtower is the big hit, and the third side with its three long, languid, segueing tracks was the most experimental, “trippy” and utterly captivating. The soul rock tracks such as Long Hot Summer did not do it for me.

Some years after I’d seen the Monterey Pop movie, I was fortunate enough to see Jimi Plays Berkeley, a basic concert performance film of the type where the camera concentrates almost wholly on Hendrix as if the rest of the band were session players not worthy of any attention. The movie was also incredibly impressionistic and not completely satisfying for the likes of me who wanted to see the guy play, not some hippie’s version of a trippy time in Berkeley. Anyhow, the main thing I remembered from the film was the superfast, slick and rocking version of Johnny B Goode that highlighted to what extent Hendrix could be wildly exciting within traditional bounds. He plays this rock’n’roll staple almost straight up and tears the shit out of it. Go, Jimi, go! This version is one of the standout tracks, okay, probably the only standout track, on Hendrix In The West, a compilation of live performances from all over, from Berkeley, to Monterey Pop, to the Isle of Wight, and beyond. For completists only, as they say, since the majority of the tracks sound like second grade filler. There is a very long version of Red House which almost completely loses its way, virtually dies and then magically resuscitates itself for many more minutes than should have been allowed. This is the kind of performance one cites when stating that by the end Jimi was just going through the motions when he could not do his new thing and had to appease the fans, and no longer rehearsed with his musicians.

Crash Landing was an Alan Douglas product consisting of reworked demos that were probably never meant to be released and had just about only the guitar left of the original recordings. Apparently it was a painstaking effort to work up the tracks into a releasable state, and the fact of the work required should have put off Alan Douglas from the start, but I guess he surrendered to the pressure of putting product out there for the avid public who would buy anything Hendrix related. The tunes are plodding and tedious, and about the only interesting tracks are the couple of instrumentals.

I bought these tow albums purely and simply because they were available at large discounts in the sale bins of whatever record store I was in at the time. The best thing about Crash Landing is the cover. You can’t really say that about Hendrix In The West – on the cover photograph it looks like Jimi is wearing a freaky diaphanous blouse and bolero jacket combo. Far out!

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