He made the electric guitar beautiful. It had always been dangerous, it had always been able to evoke anger. If you go right back to the beginning of it, John Lee Hooker shoving a microphone into his guitar back in the 1940s, it made his guitar sound angry, impetuous, and dangerous. The guitar players who worked through the Fifties and with the early rock artists — James Burton, who worked with Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers, Steve Cropper with Booker T. — these Nashville-influenced players had a steely, flick-knife sound, really kind of spiky compared to the beautiful sound of the six-string acoustic being played in the background. In those great early Elvis songs, you hear Elvis himself playing guitar on songs like “Hound Dog,” and then you hear an electric guitar come in, and it’s not a pleasant sound. Early blues players, too — Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Albert King — they did it to hurt your ears. Jimi made it beautiful and made it OK to make it beautiful.
Pete Townshend, one of the greatest ever to wield a guitar, had this reaction upon first seeing Jimi Hendrix play in a London nightclub called Blazes, back in 1966: I need to find something else to do for a living. Later, at the legendary Bag O’Nails club, Hendrix insinuated himself on stage to out-do Eric Clapton, then playing with the “super-group” Cream, who was taken aback – shocked and frightened, truth to tell – by the American’s supernatural talent. Graffiti all over London attested that Clapton was God, so what did that make Hendrix? Everybody flocked to see him, the entire pantheon, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney, Eric Burdon, John Mayall, and of course Pete, all of whom quickly came to the settled conclusion, from which none of them ever wavered, that Hendrix was the greatest guitar player who ever lived, or ever would live. It wasn’t just the raw skill, it was the sinuous assuredness of his artistry, the obvious joy he took in the performance, the way he could do things holding the thing behind his head that nobody else could do no matter how carefully they cradled the damned guitar, all of it without seeming to boast or show off in any way. It was just what he did, which doing had a way of making everybody else in the trade feel like a bit of a poser, to the point that it left those who’d built their fame on their reputations as guitar maestros not merely rattled, but almost abashed. At the famous Monterey festival in 1967, Townshend was desperate that the Who not follow Hendrix, since you simply couldn’t follow Hendrix, and according to legend the matter was decided by a coin toss, which Pete won (many years later, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead said that either way, this left him in the most unenviable position in concert history, having to appear between the Who and Hendrix, Townshend and the boys smashing their instruments like madmen, Hendrix later setting fire to his guitar, “and in the middle there’s us going ‘pling pling pling'”). End of the day, though, maybe it wasn’t so great to precede Hendrix either.
He only had time to record three albums in his all too brief career, Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland. The first of these might just be the greatest debut album in pop music history, presenting an artist fully formed and capable of extraordinary feats of both playing and composition, and its title track remains one of the most powerful and musically sophisticated artifacts of the psychedelic era. This is from Wikipedia:
Hendrix historians Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek have praised “Are You Experienced?” as “a majestic setpiece of declamatory anthem rock”:
Mitch [Mitchell]’s military snare raps out behind the startlingly contemporary hip-hop scratch sound-effects of tapes running backwards punctuating Jimi’s condition for being your guide (‘If you can get your mind together’). To what? Sexual ecstasy? Altered states of consciousness? Or just finding yourself, taking time out to view what you’re doing from the outside, ‘from the bottom of the sea’, letting go of the daily grind of the ‘measly world’. It is all there for the taking. The secret is being at peace with yourself – ‘not necessarily stoned, but beautiful’.
The overall effect was fantastic, though, one feels almost churlish in noting, the track is obviously the product of some very attentive listening to contemporary tracks by the Beatles, in particular Rain, I’m Only Sleeping, Tomorrow Never Knows, and Strawberry Fields Forever, in which can be heard virtually every musical device incorporated by Hendrix, including the martial drumming, the backwards guitar solos, the “scratch sound effects”, and the false ending. Even the insistent hammering on a single piano note has an echo in the coda to Strawberry Fields. What remains obvious is that Hendrix, in adopting these devices, was no mere imitator, and Are You Experienced is certainly no mere Beatles knock-off (in fact, so vast was Jimi’s talent, and so respected was he among his peers, that Lennon and McCartney were probably chuffed at the compliment; Paul, certainly, has always delighted in telling the story of going to see Hendrix and hearing him play the title track from Sgt. Pepper just a few days after it was released). Among all the amazing recordings he produced in the short time he was with us, from his apocalyptic take on Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, to the frantic, heavier-than-heavy-metal grind of Crosstown Traffic, to the beautifully nuanced and laid back artistry of The Wind Cries Mary, nothing else displays quite the level of artistic confidence, or has quite the emotional impact, of Are You Experienced? It still feels visionary.
Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have. There’s something about the way he sings those lines, sounding both sly and playful, yet also in genuine possession of some profound knowledge that eludes the listener. He’s just talking about being high on whatever it is the drug-addled lunatics are ingesting these days, scoffed the establishment, and they were probably at least partly right. At the height of the Sixties, a lot of people believed that substances like LSD were opening their minds in a host of positive ways, leading them not into a false and dangerous world of incoherent and meaningless hallucination, but to an exalted plateau of cosmic truth. Maybe Hendrix did too. Yet, falling under the sway of the music, it’s hard not to feel that he’s getting at something else, like he really did know something we didn’t, something about how to see the beauty of it all without needing the chemical assistance.
Whatever that may have been, it seems not to have been enough. Maybe it was just a stupid miscalculation, maybe something else, but by 1970, when he was just 27, he was gone, the victim of barbiturates, having decided to swallow 18 times the recommended dose of the sleeping pills that had been prescribed for girlfriend Monika Dannemann. The sheer, pointless waste of it, and of the lives of so many others like him, provokes a sort of bewildered, disappointed anger. He wasn’t finished. He’d barely begun. Didn’t he understand? Wasn’t it obvious that he was supposed to stick around? So often, it seems, we’re left with the same baffled questions, the what-ifs, and the thoughts of what could have been, if only.