Text by Dawoud Kringle
On November 27th, 2011, Jimi Hendrix would have celebrated his 69th birthday. In honor of this, I offer some thoughts, observations, and meditations on the late master.
I will not waste your time with redundancies, nor repeat what has already been written about him (and if biographical information is needed, one has only to google his name, and the pages at your disposal will be saturated with all the information one could want. Instead, I want to explore the more arcane aspects of his historical significance.
The main thing I get from Jimi Hendrix is that he initiated me into the idea of using music as a source of power, and a means of spiritual enlightenment. This is nothing new to eastern or African music, and some European music (especially the music of the ancient Greeks). Jimi showed us how it’s done in American music using modern electronic technology. He was not only the first guitarist to successfully blend electronic sound with musical form, he was the first to show that the intangible spiritual power of music, once the exclusive domain of acoustic instruments, was possible with electronics.
Hendrix probably knew that he was invoking some VERY powerful energies in his music – and in some ways, he was playing a dangerous game. His music invoked power that few understand, and fewer can control. And in doing so, he attracted a great deal of wanted, and unwanted, attention.
Let me explain. Everything that exists is some form of energy; and this energy is manifest in waveform. All things are, essentially, the same primordial energy vibrating at different frequencies and with different harmonics. Music works like this too – which means that, of all the art forms, music most closely resembles the structure and workings of the universe. Including the mind, body, and spirit of human beings.
Since music is made by human beings, the effect music has is not separate from the rest of the universe. All master musicians of any culture, nation, race, and historical period understood this. It’s the simple law of Newtonian physics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. To think that music – or any action – can be separate from the whole universe is to make the one mistake that has driven the whole of western civilization to disaster, and is driving the human and social nexus to extinction.
Hendrix found in his music a source of power. This power had far reaching effects and consequences. And the specific energies that his music invoked were dangerous in that they brought into being an experience (no pun intended) of higher states of consciousness that few are prepared to face alone. This, at a time when some people were recklessly experimenting with consciousness expansion, and other people were violently opposed to it. Hendrix had a lot of obstacles in his way.
This is the same story we saw with many great visionary musicians. Beethoven was a good example. Here was one of the greatest musical geniuses in the history of western civilization. He composed his greatest works when he was deaf. But he suffered terribly because of it. John Coltrane was another. He battled cancer while creating music that few human beings can create.
All such visionary musicians were given a monumental task: condense the Voice of God and the essence of the universe into something human ears can hear. Human bodies are not strong enough to sustain this for long. But it must be done; and the whole of humanity is richer because of it.
Hendrix’ stature among musicians is legendary. Miles Davis wanted to do an album with him. Gil Evans (Miles’ arranger for several albums, and a brilliant jazz composer) did arrangements of Hendrix’ music. John McLaughlin, Larry Young, Howard Johnson, Larry Coryall (whom I met once, and spoke to him about Hendrix), Les Paul, Cassandra Wilson, and countless other brilliant jazz musicians admired him and experimented either with his compositions or the concepts he presented. In the classical music world, the Kronos Chamber Music Quartet, Nigel Kennedy, the London Symphony Orchestra, and guitarist Benjamin Verdy all performed Hendrix’ music. Ravi Shankar called him a “marvelous soloist.” Violinist Iztak Perlman was asked in an interview who he thought was the greatest musical genius of the 20th century. He said Jimi Hendrix. In fact, I’ve never met anyone with real musical sensitivity who wasn’t in awe of him.
Hendrix’ legacy seems to have touched a great many lives in unexpected ways. I’ve met Sufi Sheikhs (Islamic holy / wise men) from Africa, Iran, India, and Turkey, who have no idea who Lady Gaga or Jay Z are; but they all love Jimi Hendrix. In Dakar, Senegal, on the grounds of the capital, there is an enormous mural depicting all the great historical figures of African ancestry. Between Nelson Mandela and Shaka Zulu stands Jimi Hendrix.
There is something universal about Hendrix’ music. It cannot be confined to a strict definition. It was based in the blues; yet employed groundbreaking electronics and a jazz-like sense of improvisation. It was marketed to rock audiences, but audiences of all genres embraced him.
His death left a lot of people in shock and a lot of loose ends.
One night, I stood in a record store and listened as they played the new Hendrix release, “Valleys of Neptune”. I paid special attention to the title track. There are two main impressions I got from it. The first is that it is unfinished. If Hendrix lived long enough to release it, and chose to do so, the song would not sound like it does. Consider the period it was done: 1969. The influence of “Axis: Bold as Love” was still strong in his music. “Axis” was an important work in that Hendrix mastered the art of using the recording studio itself as a musical instrument. With “Valleys” he’d laid down a foundation; like a background in a painting. What was needed was the subject. The lyrics / singing formed only a part of this. What was missing were the melodic ornaments, the sonic arabesques Hendrix was so brilliant at. A good example would be “Castles Made of Sand” from “Axis”. We have the rhythmic foundation (listen to the bass drum part: pure hip hop!), the lyrics / poetry, and then the guitar parts weaving in and around the other elements of the song. This later is what’s missing from “Valleys” – and as it stands now, nobody can finish it. The only man capable of doing so is gone forever.
The posthumous release “First Rays of the New Rising Sun” was probably among the best that came out. It was produced and engineered by Eddie Kramer; who was there with Hendrix when he recorded the tracks. And much of it was music Hendrix himself had approved. There were some others: “Cry of Love” and “Rainbow Bridge” were marvelous, and their music was remastered on “First Rays”. “War Heroes” had a few moments. Crash Landing was an interesting technological feat; as was Midnight Lightning. But they were, as most of it, is just the businessmen and their hired engineers picking through the scraps, trying to find hidden gems to sell to rabid collectors. There was a line Hendrix sang on the posthumous Somewhere Over the Rainbow: “Pretty soon they’re gonna wrap me up in cellophane and sell me”. I guess they did – especially considering all that crappy merchandise that Janie Hendrix and Experience Hendrix LLC has for sale (including the Official Jimi Hendrix Signature Series Boxer Shorts I saw in their catalog a few years back.)
And now, there are recordings (bootleg or otherwise) that are surfacing of his live performances. Fortunately, computer technology has progressed to the point where these otherwise unlistenable recordings can be cleaned up. Many of them boast of truly magnificent performances; such as the legendary “Symphony”, the extended version of “Spanish Castle Magic” performed at Madison Square Garden in New York City where, during a section of the solo where the drums and bass sat out, Hendrix guitar sang with bifurcated feedback, harmonizing with itself, like the voice of angels.
Some of the videos that have come out are interesting. Some are, naturally, concert excerpts that adorn youtube.com for all to see. Hendrix Experience LLC had produced some music videos. Some are interesting, such as Bleeding Heart. Dolly Dagger was pitiful and insipid. Hendrix would never have approved of it. There is also the questionable video quality of much of Jimi Plays Berkley. As I understand it, the camera crew were stoned on LSD while filming this (why Hendrix’ management tolerated this is beyond my comprehension; but it is clear indication that they didn’t know the magnitude of Hendrix’s genius; and if the stories of the rogue and scoundrel Michael Jeffery are true, he probably wouldn’t have cared, so long as he made his money). Much of the out takes remain unreleased due to litigation. When the lost footage is finally released, Hendrix Experience will doubtless re-edit all the footage and present something of better quality.
Rhino released the film Rainbow Bridge on DVD. In fact, the behind-the-scenes story of the film is infinity more interesting than the film itself could ever be. Hendrix’ manager, Mike (Little Satan) Jeffery invested in a film that was being directed by an acid burnout, occultist, and former Andy Warhol associate named Chuck Wein, and the result was a cinematic disaster. Jeffery forced Hendrix to appear in the film in an attempt to recoup some of his losses. He also had to use the soundtrack album to release new music. At the time, Hendrix and Jeffery borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from Warner Bros. to build Electric Lady Studios. The agreement was that WB would recoup the loan out of album sales. However, the contract said nothing about soundtrack releases; which meant that WB would only get their relatively small percentage of the album’s sales. A slick move on Jeffery’s part. WB was furious, but that’s all history. The result was a crappy, incomprehensible movie that is useful only for a brief and distorted glimpse at a small part of a bygone era as seen by a hippie space cadet with more money than any sane person should have allowed him to have, and a few snippets of Hendrix performing on top of a volcano. (Footnote: Mitch Mitchel did indeed have to re-do his drum parts. He nailed them all in one take! Way to go, Mitch!! RIP.) Chuck Wein died in March of 2008, having done almost nothing of any merit since.
But considering that this is all we have, I am grateful. I imagine if film footage existed of somebody like, say, Beethoven, we would overlook the technical flaws simply because it was Beethoven. The monumental magnitude of his artistry and historical significance would earn such respect.
Hendrix’s music carried a depth of symbolic meaning. You are doubtless familiar with his Herculean and incendiary interpretation of the “Star Spangled Banner” from Woodstock. This alone carved his initials in the pages of history. Consider; here is a man armed only with an electric guitar who, in a brief moment of unrehearsed music, stood upon the world’s stage, looked the most powerful nation on earth in the eye and said, “You violated your covenant with God and your people!”. When I was 11 years old, I snuck into a theater to see Woodstock. I had little interest in the other performers (although I liked many of them very much). I was really only interested in Hendrix. When he finally appeared, I was overwhelmed by the power of his performance. Listening to that unbelievable music, watching his hands; nothing in the rest of the festival could compare to it. It was beyond mere loud rock music. It was something akin to a religious experience. Now, almost four decades later, the power of that experience remains undiminished; and I can’t listen to it without getting chills. And of course, the effects of that performance reverberated through history, with the timeless musical inexorability of something like Beethoven’s 9th.
And it wasn’t just music that he changed forever; he changed everything. Consider, if you will, the power of a man who changed the world with an electric guitar!
Compare this to the studio version of the “Star Spangled Banner”, in that he approached it from an almost orchestral perspective. This has all the elements of an orchestral arrangement; harmony, counterpoint, different instrumental textures, etc. Yet, it is all done on electric guitar. It goes further in that it exploits what was at the time cutting edge recording technology: and if there is one aspect of Hendrix’ genius that is obvious, it’s his use of the recording studio as a musical instrument in itself – which paved the way for almost everyone who followed him. And beyond the astonishing technical accomplishments, is the intense emotional impact of the piece
Those who were not around then cannot imagine what a shock Hendrix was. To everyone. He completely destroyed any and all ideas about what music was and what the electric guitar was capable of. He earned the undying love of the progressive minded, and the eternal ire of the close minded! What really boggles the mind is that despite the fact that he emerged “fully formed” as it were, and accomplished so much in only one album, he had, at the time of his passing, already outgrown what he’d done on “Are you Experienced”, and was headed towards more groundbreaking musical adventures. Hendrix’ guitar playing was, needless to say, almost superhuman in its expressive ability. Beyond this, the music on his studio releases is like a mythical magical land I could visit at will. Just put on the headphones, press “play”, and you were on a journey in a new world, and alternate universe where the commonplace was always a new experience, where the joy and anguish of life took on new dimensions, and where all possibilities and dreams were no longer out of reach.
For example, on “Electric Ladyland” the epic “1983, a Merman I Should Turn to Be / Moon Turns the Tides, Gently, Gently Away” is a mythological dream scape that pushes all envelopes. In the space of 15 minutes he actually turned mankind into an aquatic creature! “Voodoo Chile” was more than a long bluesy jam. It contains everything in the blues pantheon, and is delivered with an intensity that challenges human endurance. And the lyrics were a mythology all their own.
I remember many times as a teen listening to these albums on headphones in the dark at night while my family slept. The onomatopoeic nature of Hendrix’ guitar playing and music made the subject matter of his songs insinuate themselves in my psyche in such a way that it was as if I’d lived through these experiences. Few musicians have that kind of power.
Hendrix’ reputation as a wild man was at odds with his usual polite, gentlemanly behavior. Everyone I know who knew him said he was the shyest man they’d ever met. He had a few bouts of violent behavior, but for the most part he was quiet and unassuming; despite the powerful and magnetic essence of his personality and being.
People are unaware of the generous and philanthropic nature Hendrix had. Hendrix’s friends (including those whom I spoke to) say he often went out of his way to help individuals who were down and out (and often got little thanks for his efforts). He also donated $5000.00 (back in ’68 that was a sizable amount) and did a number of charity concerts; including the Vietnam War Moratorium charity and the United Block Association of Harlem.
Some small discussion of Hendrix’ drug use is, I imagine, inevitable. Jimi wasn’t exactly careful with his health and neglected the proper maintenance of his physical body. If he ate right, exercised, maybe did yoga, stopped smoking and getting high, and took a vacation every now and again, perhaps it would have been a different story. There were also people around him who did not, and could not see him for what he really was. To them, he was a “star” to be exploited. He didn’t have anyone around him to offer the support or guidance he needed. They just wanted to take their 5 or 10% and leave him with nothing. At that time (in fact, for decades since; and centuries before) people used drugs. This is, unfortunately, an intrinsic part of human behavior. Hendrix was no saint, and seemed to get a kick out of the experiences themselves as well as a reputation for being a bad boy (which his management and publicists exploited to profitable effect). However, toward the end of his life, Hendrix was getting tired of the drugs. People told me that he wanted to quit getting high. His late period lyrics also suggested this.
As for the infamous Toronto bust – I know several people who’d met Hendrix, and a few who knew him. He wasn’t into heroin. It was a set up; probably by his manager, but there were others who didn’t like him.
I am reminded of a time I was hanging out with the late Jaco Pastorius. He told me one night that he tells people he likes to party and take chances, but in truth, he wanted to stop drinking and doing drugs. But he didn’t know how. Perhaps something similar happened with Hendrix. He just didn’t have any friends, real friends, who could show him how to leave that part of his life behind.
I am going to make a controversial statement. The “official” story of his death is a lie. I believe he was murdered.
Two weeks before he died, a European tour had been cancelled. He’d replaced his English bassist (Noel Redding) with his old Army buddy Billy Cox (Hendrix was with the 101st Airborne Paratroopers, and was honorably discharged in 1962). Cox never did drugs; but someone slipped some acid in his drink without him knowing it, and he had a psychotic episode. The tour was canceled. This was a financial disaster for Hendrix because he owed Warner Brother $250,000 for a loan to build Electric Lady Studios. There were other problems in his business life he was not the most organized person in the world. He decided to take some time to chill and get his affairs in order.
At this point, I must share some info about his manager Michael Jeffery. Jeffery was a former British Army Commando who got into the music business. He was known as a scoundrel, had ties with organized crime in the US and Europe, and was reputed to have funneled millions of dollars of Hendrix’ money into dummy corporations in the Bahamas. The loan Warner Brothers gave Hendrix included his manager; who was a partner in Electric Lady. Also, both he and Warner Brothers Records had million dollar life insurance policies on Hendrix, with them as beneficiaries.
It may also interest you to know that the CIA and the FBI’s COINTELPRO had files on Hendrix. They considered Hendrix a possible threat to national security. They (or those whom they serve) certainly understood the power that Hendrix’ music invoked; and were loath to have someone running around doing this who wasn’t under their control.
The night he died, he was staying at the Samarkand Hotel in London with one of his girlfriends, Monika Dannerman (Jimi had a lot of girlfriends). They’d drank some wine, ate dinner, and Hendrix had taken some sleeping pills. Keep in mind that Hendrix was seriously stressed out, his resistance was low, he was undernourished (he didn’t take very good care of himself) and there was some seriously heavy stuff happening around him.
They undressed and went to bed. In the middle of the night Dannerman woke up and saw that Hendrix had vomited. She tried to wake him and couldn’t. She went around the corner for a pack of cigarettes, and tried again to wake him. No luck. She called Eric Burdon and his girlfriend Alvenia Bridges. They urged her to call an ambulance. She didn’t want to; she was afraid Hendrix would get mad at her. They said, “Call an ambulance and let us know what happens.” Two hours passed and they hadn’t heard from Dannerman, so they called. Dannerman said she didn’t call the ambulance; but had poured wine into Hendrix’ mouth to clear the air passage. They demanded she call an ambulance, and this time she did.
This is where things get suspicious. Dannerman said that she and Hendrix had been in bed, and that she let the EMTs in their apartment. The EMTs said that nobody was there to let them in, that Hendrix was alone, laying in bed fully clothed, and that he was covered in wine, vomit, and blood. When they tried to resuscitate him, an enormous amount of wine gushed out of his lungs.
While this was happening, Bridges got a cab, met Dannerman at the hospital, and saw them carrying Hendrix out of the ambulance, strapped to a gurney in an upright position with his head tilted back. Twenty minutes later, Hendrix was pronounced DOA. Bridges identified his body. She was given a few of the items he had; including a turquoise ring she’d given him. Alvenia Bridges told me all this. I know a few others who knew Hendrix personally, and were around when all this was happening.
In 1973, Hendrix manager, Michael Jeffery, was flying from London to New York to testify about Hendrix’ money that had disappeared. The airplane he was in exploded over the Atlantic. There were no survivors.
In 1995, Scotland Yard re-opened the case because there was evidence that he was murdered. They interviewed Dannerman because she was the last person to see him alive. She’d given them, and the press, conflicting stories. Half way through the investigation, she committed suicide.
In 2008, a former roadie who worked for Hendrix said that after his death, Jeffery came to him, drunk, and confessed to having had Hendrix murdered.
Some months ago I had a dream I was sitting in the living room of the house I grew up in. I’d bought a new edition of Jimi Hendrix’ “Axis: Bold as Love.” I was listening to and looking at the lyrics of EXP when suddenly it changed. Hendrix started talking about changes and upheavals and the end of the world. Then he gave a series of numbers that would be the beginning of all these catastrophes, one of which was unintelligible. But then I realized it was a dates, and that date had already passed. I found other things in the album that were not on the original; all of which was pointing to this. (I often have very heavy dreams.)
If you look at the lyrics to some of Hendrix’ songs, you’ll notice that he spoke of a number of things like this. In “Up From the Skies,” for example, he sang “I have lived here before the days of ice (my note: the last ice age?) And of course this is why I’m so concerned And I come back to find the stars misplaced And the smell of a world that is burned. Maybe it’s just a change of climate.”
In the posthumous release “Valleys of Neptune” he sang “Look out East coast you’re gonna have a neighbor, re-birthed land, home of the praying sand. We know there were three comets so much older, and they shall rise, and tell us much more the truth of man. I see visions of sleeping peaks erupting… Releasing all hell that will shake the Earth from end to end. And this ain’t good news, bad news, or any news… Lord, it’s just the truth, Better save your souls while you can.”
All of which, of course, is happening in the world now. Climate upheavals, volcanoes, record storms, floods, earthquakes, etc.,,,, I can’t help but wonder,,,
In the long version of Voodoo Chile, recorded in 1968, Hendrix sang of being “Way down by the methane seas.” In 2004, the Cassini Huygens mission to Saturn’s moon Titan revealed that the moon has rivers of liquid methane….
Outrageous claims and insinuations, I know. But there seems more here than meets the eye, and ear. Sometimes our minds are released from the confines of the illusion that time is not linear. There is nothing “supernatural” about this. In fact, we all have some measure of this ability to break free of the confines of “normal” human mindsets; a spiritual mediocrity, if you will. And as for these frightening events, perhaps we are frightened of them because we see them through the eyes of our temporary instrument: a human body and mind. We are not our bodies and minds. We are creatures of eternity. Now, to be sure, I’m not without some fear and trepidation about all this myself! If my life is threatened, you may expect a very human performance from me! And there is the spirit, the soul, which is also affected by the events in this world. This will survive our physical death.
But there is more to our being than we see. Perhaps you, respected reader, have experienced some sense, some perception that points to these cataclysmic changes?
Hendrix’ music possessed a quality that only a true master can possess. It affects your soul, and speaks to your heart. It is beyond technique and style. It demonstrates to musicians that one must not only speak to the heart; but having something to say – something that’s worth addressing to the heart and soul of your listeners. If I learned anything from Hendrix, it’s that.
In fact, the real reason why I, in my own musical endeavors, went with sitar, placed the guitar in the background, and took it in the direction I did was to find a voice of my own and to give something back for what I’d taken. If I give something in return – or at least make a sincere effort to do so – then mine will have been a wasted life.
Thinking of all that change in his development (and even comparing it to other artists – myself included) one wonders where he’d be had he lived? The theories and extrapolations abound. The collaboration with Miles Davis would have changed the course of musical history. He doubtless would have accomplished what he’d once said in an interview about playing a Bach, Muddy Waters, Flamenco thing, and more
I often wonder who is / will pick up the gauntlet that Hendrix threw down when he died. Who will continue where he left off? Now, I don’t mean the usual assortment of “Jimi Clones.” I mean that all approach wherein music transcends mere art and entertainment. Hendrix showed us what could be done – and like the Buddhist admonishment, the finger pointed toward the moon, and most people stare at the finger. Of course, since Hendrix is now an historical figure, analysis of his music is useful. And he should be remembered. But sometimes I wonder if a better way to honor Hendrix would be to cultivate those musicians and artists (and whoever else may have been influenced by him: his impact cannot be confined to music alone) who will pick up where he left off, and take their work to the realms Hendrix pointed us toward. Once that is done, Hendrix may rest peacefully, knowing his life’s work made a useful impact on humanity – even more so than we already enjoy.
Either way, tell the children that Jimi Hendrix once walked this earth. His like will not be seen any time soon.
“Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” -Wm. Shakespeare” – Hamlet, Act V
“If I don’t see you no more in this world, I’ll see you in the next one, don’t be late.” Jimi Hendrix