Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jimi Hendrix: Hero Worship

Many people idolize sports figures. Others idolize movie stars.
I am one of those who puts musicians on pedestals. Over the years my A-list has included James Brown, The Beatles, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Carlos Santana, Bob Marley, Frank Zappa, Michael Jackson, Prince, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stanley Clarke ,Buddy Guy and—believe it or not—at one time even Ludwig Van Beethoven.
But there’s one musician I’ve had a special relationship over the years: Jimi Hendrix. No matter who or what I am tuned into during a particular period, I slap in a CD every once in a while to catch up with Jimi.
What brings me to talk about him now is last week’s release of “Valleys of Neptune,” a CD containing new studio material from Hendrix. The 12 songs date mostly from 1969 during the final days of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the power trio the guitarist formed with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. It also features songs from the next stage of Hendrix’s development, his work with bassist Billy Cox, with whom he would later form Band of Gypsys.
Though most of the songs are familiar, the album breaks some new ground. A more funked up version of “Stone Free,” an uptempo rendition of the blues “Bleeding Heart,” an instrumental cover of “Sunshine of my Love,” and an extended version of “Red House” that literally milks the blues out of what has become his signature blues song make this album worth its ten dollar cover price. Not to mention the whimsical-sounding title track, a full-band version of which has never been heard before.
Hendrix was a pivotal musician in my life for a lot of reasons. Listening to “Red House” in college was my first exposure to the blues.He also solidified my affection for guitar oriented rock.
Still, my appreciation of him is posthumous. Though his work is rooted solidly in the music of African-American blues musicians, and though he began his career with R and B icons such as Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, Hendrix during his heyday was not part of the commercial black music scene. And, as an African-American youth growing up in Washington, D.C. during the 1960’s, I was more likely to be tuned into James Brown or Motown than him.
The only exposure I had to him while he was alive occured during a conversation I had with an older kid who was talking to me as “Foxy Lady” played over a pocket-sized transistor radio.
I was in eighth grade French class when I heard about Hendrix’s death on September 18, 1970. It just didn’t register.
But all through out that period I had a sneaking, sort of subliminal feeling that I should be paying more attention to him. In 1975, while a sophomore at Wesleyan University, I found out why.
Then, some student group rented “Jimi Plays Berkeley,” a film about a 1970 Hendrix concert in Berkeley; and the 1973 documentary “A film about Jimi Hendrix,” for a double feature at the college movie theatre. For about three hours, I was engrossed as Hendrix made sounds I’d never heard anyone make on the guitar before. The audience in the theatre was as transfixed as those in the films as Hendrix gyrated across the stage, playing his guitar behind his back and with his teeth. I loved his attitude! It was almost as if he was saying "I don't care whether or not you like it--but I know you do.


Afterwards, I heard a student say "it was just like he had been re-incarnated.”
Over the next three or four months I couldn’t buy enough Hendrix. I started with “Band of Gypsys,” “Greatest Hits,” “Electric Ladyland” and then bought “Hendrix in the West,” a posthumous album featuring live tracks gathered from several performances, including Berkeley and Isle of Wight.
“Hendrix in the West” featured an incredible version of “Red House” that I played at least twice a day for six months.
Then, as part of a senior year theatre class, I was assigned to write and perform a 15-minute monologue on a historical character. Guess who I chose? I borrowed a guitar, tie-died shirt and headband scarf and chose songs to play over my monologue. One of those songs was, what else? “Red House.”
Because I had to research the project, it was the first time I ever learned details of his life.
Since then, my hero-worship comes out at Border’s whenever I see a new book or magazine article on Hendrix. And that’s what drew me to “Valleys of Neptune,” which a newspaper article described as “a warning shot” for a wave of Hendrix material yet-to-come.
It's certainly a "warning shot" for me. And I'll probably be playing "Valleys of Neptune" on my way to the store for the next album.

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