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2013 (A merman I should turn to be…)

HendrixThe last time I saw Jimi Hendrix, he was getting into a helicopter to take him away from the Isle of Wight, still wearing the stage clothes, flowing silks in orange and dark red, in which he’d performed in the early hours of August 31, 1970. It was a chilly, misty morning, not long after dawn. Eighteen days later he was dead, and the speculation began about what, in musical terms, he might have left undone.

None of the posthumous releases have given us much of a clue, and that’s certainly true of People, Hell and Angels, the Hendrix estate’s latest production, in which mostly familiar songs are presented in the guise of alternative takes or versions cleansed of the overdubs undertaken after his death. Hard-core obsessives will find more than enough to satisfy their appetites, but it’s foolish now to hope for revelations.

So what would he have gone on to accomplish? Could he really have moved on beyond the basic template laid down by “Hey Joe” and Are You Experienced soon after his arrival in London in 1966? What happened to truncate the arc of musical progression created when that first album was followed within the next two years by Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland?

The year 1969 was the one in which he seemed to hint at future directions. Not just the staggering Woodstock version of “Star Spangled Banner” — a Guernica for the Vietnam era — but the jams that took place whenever he was in New York, often involving musicians associated with Miles Davis. In March of that year the guitarist John McLaughlin took a night off from playing with Tony Williams’ Lifetime to jam at the Record Plant with Hendrix, the bassist Dave Holland (then a member of Davis’s quintet) and Buddy Miles. In May there was a much bootlegged session with Hendrix, the organist Larry Young (another member of Lifetime), Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Later that summer a session was booked at the Hit Factory for Hendrix and Miles Davis, at Miles’s behest, but was aborted half an hour before the scheduled start time when the trumpeter demanded $50,000. And there were rumours that Hendrix and Gil Evans, the arranger of Davis’s Sketches of Spain and other classics, were planning to make an album together.

None of this resulted in anything of consequence and Hendrix never found himself with those musicians in a structured environment where serious work might have occurred. For all his sublime talent, would he have been technically capable of taking McLaughlin’s place in Lifetime, the most adventurous jazz-rock group of its time? (“He wasn’t very schooled; he had a limited knowledge as far as harmony is concerned,” McLaughlin later reflected. “But he had such an imagination that he made up for it.”) How would he have sounded with a group of post-Coltrane free improvisers? Could a meeting of Hendrix and Albert Ayler have worked out? But these weren’t the sort of projects in which his managers were interested, and Hendrix’s own way of life probably militated against any more rigorous pursuit of musical adventure.

There’s an interesting quote from Carlos Santana, who was present at the Record Plant during a session in November that year: “This was a real shocker to me. He said, ‘OK, roll it,’ and started recording and it was incredible. But, within 15 or 20 seconds into the song, he just went out. All of a sudden, the music that was coming out of the speakers was way beyond the song, like he was freaking out, having a gigantic battle in the sky with somebody. It just didn’t make sense with the song any more, so the roadies looked at each other, the producer looked at him and they said, ‘Go get him.’ I’m not making this up. They separated him from the amplifier and the guitar and it was like he was having an epileptic attack… When they separated him, his eyes were red. He was gone.”

The following summer, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull was surprised by what he saw when his band shared the bill with Hendrix at the Randall’s Island festival in New York. He seemed like a different person, Anderson said, from the one he had known a year earlier. “I wanted to go and talk to him, but I couldn’t get anywhere near him because he was surrounded by a phalanx of very sinister people. I saw him briefly as he made his way to the stage and he looked very out of it.”

It all reminds me of Charlie Parker, who had a similar revolutionary effect on the way music is played before meeting a similarly premature demise in 1955 (Hendrix was 27 when he died; Parker was 34). The tinest scraps of Parker’s output are preserved and cherished, and we know that he remained capable of great improvisation all the way to his death. But, like Hendrix, Parker died leaving questions about what would have happened next. Was his work already done, or might he have found a new context to stimulate and nourish further artistic growth? In both cases, the odds seemed to have been stacked against it. But, of course, we’ll never know.

* The photograph of Hendrix is by Gered Mankowitz and is taken from the cover of People, Hell and Angels, just released by Sony Legacy. The quotes are from Eyewitness Hendrix by Johnny Black, published by Carlton (1999).

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Napper #

    The story I ehard re Hendirix and Davis: Jimi met Miles at a party and they wanted to colloborate. The next time they met, Miles gave Jimi some sheet music; Jimi was too embarrassed to tell Miles that he couldn’t read it and they never worked together.

    Also, in about 69, Hendrix was getting involved with the Black Panthers. I think Noel Redding was getting phased out of the band by some of Jimi’s “friends” who wanted him to make more a pro-Black thing. Hendrix was never really defined by his colour, I believe he was a bit naive and impressionable, and was easily led by stronger characters such as the Panthers.

    Overall, very sad state of affairs. I have no idea where he would have headed musically – at the time of his death, he was getting more esoteric, certainly.

    April 19, 2013
  2. Paul Tickell #

    Was the all African-American Band of Gypsies a result of Hendrix’s interest in Black Power and his flirtation with the Panthers?

    As to what Jimi might have done next, it’s all idle speculation finally. However, is the role played by Peter Cosey in Miles Davis line-ups of the mid-’70s an indication of what Jimi and Miles might have sounded like together? Not that Cosey can be reduced to a Hendrix imitator: his ‘psychedelic’ style has its roots in the work he did for the likes of Howlin’ Wolf at Chess as a session musician years before he ever played with Miles…

    April 19, 2013
    • …and don’t forget the great Eddie Hazel with Funkadelic (“Maggot Brain”)

      April 20, 2013
  3. Would it make sense to think of Hendrix in Mahavishnu Orchestra instead of McLaughlin? I can also see Hendrix deciding to walk away from it all for awhile – he’d intimated as much already. Since all those Panthers and radicals were going on about Africa, what if he decided to go there and ended up in Senegal, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, or Zaire, checking out the local music and letting that seep into him. Ginger Baker did it, so it’s not that outlandish an idea.

    April 19, 2013
  4. Dick A #

    Play “Burning of the midnight lamp” and, all’s well.

    April 19, 2013
  5. Those 4 consecutive tracks on Electric Ladyland – Rainy Day, Dream Away; 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be); Moon, Turn The Tides…Gently Gently Away; Still Raining, Still Dreaming – seem so full of promise. It’s not impossible to imagine some electric Miles mixed in there. Maybe Bill Laswell could do it. Two oceanic mermen together. I’m sure they’d swim to Africa.

    April 20, 2013
  6. I like the notion of Hendrix as the equivalent of a Coltrane or Parker. Makes sense that he might have found his way into jazz – and who knows, hip hop and dance later on. Music where improvisation flourishes. As long as he didn’t just become a clapped out old blues rocker. What if, indeed!

    April 20, 2013
  7. Paul Tickell #

    Hendrix/Laswell happened on a very small scale in the mid-90s with ‘If Six Was Nine’ on the
    Funckcronomicon album… I wonder whether Laswell had tracks like Merman in mind when he re-mixed Miles Davis?

    April 20, 2013
    • Dick A #

      Don’t forget “If 60’s were 90’s” – a great sample/re-mix by Beautiful People.

      Dick A

      April 21, 2013
  8. Paul Tickell #

    Was that used in a tv commercial?

    April 21, 2013
  9. David Rosenak #

    I’ve never been able to imagine a successful Davis/Hendrix collaboration for the reason McLaughlin cites: Hendix’ lack of harmonic sophistication. For an idea of how it might have worked I try to picture Hendrix instead of McLaughlin on Right Off (from Jack Johnson), with its relatively simple bass underpinnings — I can imagine Hendrix soloing over that but I can’t imagine him supporting Davis’ solos the way McLaughlin did (thrillingly!). Much easier to picture Hendrix with the P-Funk crew as a way forward, and you know Clinton would have loved that! But what do I know — Davis and Hendrix were the musical visionaries, not me.

    May 2, 2013
    • David Rosenak #

      At the same time, though, in his autobiography Davis praises Hendrix as a great natural musician, and remembers how, when Davis would leave Hendrix baffled by a technical term, Hendrix would instantly understand when Davis would then play it for him. If Davis is to be believed here — and why wouldn’t he be? — he was initially surprised but not at all put off by Hendrix’ inability to read. And according to Davis he was very much looking forward to collaborating with Hendrix; they were trying (with some difficulty because of their travel schedules) to arrange discussions about a recording project at the time of Hendrix’ death.

      May 2, 2013
      • Remember that Miles played with John Lee Hooker, an unschooled and highly intuitive blues guitarist, as original in his way as Hendrix, to interesting effect on Jack Nitzsche’s soundtrack for Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot in 1990.

        May 2, 2013
      • David, good point. Miles liked Dominique Gaumont (used as a 3rd guitarist on ‘Dark Magus’ and parts of ‘Get Up With It’), who couldn’t read NB Gaumont by way of Oliver Lake. And the 6 string bassist/guitarist in his last group was pretty primitive – but Miles heard and liked something in HIS sound, as well

        May 5, 2013
  10. Stewart Bromfield #

    I’ve always liked the Hot Spot as Miles and Hooker complement each other so well.I seem to remember reading that Miles came into the studio and over dubbed what had been recorded without him being present.Always the man in control.
    PS keep them coming on the blue moment,some lovingly crafted pieces

    May 4, 2013
  11. Jon-A #

    Hopelessly late comment here, but this just occurred to me. Because of the tragic brevity of his career, it’s irresistible to speculate on what Hendrix might have done. But what he actually DID do makes it pretty clear that that is a rather tricky endeavor. Consider the major creative shifts in his brief discography: the initial blast of Are You Experienced, the expansive dreamworld of Electric Ladyland, the deep funk of Band Of Gypsys – who on Earth saw those coming? More than almost anyone else, the possibilities of his future were enigmatic – defined only by his considerable imagination.

    August 25, 2014

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