Text by Dawoud Kringle
Madison Square Garden, on the cold, rainy night of November 27th, 2012, Thousands filled every inch of the venue, and hundreds more stood outside and in Time Square, gathered around the enormous video screens and speakers that, after months of haggling with Mayor Bloomberg, were permitted to be set up. Major networks, live internet streaming throughout the world, and the unprecedented use of 3D hologram imaging simulcast live in Paris, London, Tokyo, Moscow, Dubai, and the Mayan ruins in Chichin Itzu, Mexicio carried the event. Millions waited with anticipation for what promised to be a defining musical moment.
On that night, the world celebrated the 70th birthday of one of the greatest musicians of our age, Jimi Hendrix.
Many celebrities were in the front rows (it was rumored that some tickets sold for as high as $3000). A special section was reserved for president Barack Obama, and the First Family, who had been quoted as saying “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
The house lights went down. The audience began cheering and applauding as Hendrix’ life long associates, and core band members drummer Mitch Mitchel, bassist Billy Cox, percussionist Juma Sultan, and newcomer keyboardist and guitarist Muhammad Collins took their places on the stage. They were followed by an ensemble consisting of members of the New York Philharmonic, the Arabic Music Society of San Francisco, and the Duke Ellington Memorial Orchestra. A moment of silence fell on the audience, and then Hendrix walked on stage.
Despite his age, his bodily movements had lost little of the fluid quality that he had in his youth. With his favorite Paul Reed Smith guitar in one hand, he approached the microphone and greeted the audience. They responded with an incongruous blend of whistles, cat calls, and the kind of reserved enthusiasm one saw at classical music venues. Dressed in a purple and gold velvet suit, his graying dreadlocks hanging loose, he took something out of his pocket. It was a portable vaporizer. He took a drag from it, and said “Honest; it’s just for my glaucoma.” And while the audience cheered and laughed, Hendrix walked to the edge of the stage, and asked President Obama if he wanted any. The president smiled and refused (with tight jawed Secret Service men powerless to do anything), and the crowd went mad.
Typical of Hendrix; he won the audience before he’d even played a single note.
Stepping back to the mic, his pedal board and ipad controllers, he unleashed a note. A single note that smashed into the audience with the annihilating force of the recent hurricane that devastated the east coast, and at the same time gently insinuated itself into the soul like a lover’s caress. For a moment, that note dominated the entire world, brought it to a halt, and forced it to contemplate itself. Then, signaling the band, they began the classic song “Black Gold.” It seemed a fitting beginning to the concert, as the song was both autobiographical, and filled with premonitions.
Volumes have been written about the legendary musician. After his meteoric rise to stardom in 1966, the subsequent release of the three Experience albums, the first Band of Gypsies album, and his legendary performances at Monterrey, Filmore East, Woodstock, etc., he’d seemed to have done it all. There was really nowhere to go from there.
Then, after surviving an assassination attempt by his former manager Michael Jeffery, which left him in a coma for 9 months, Hendrix began to rebuild – and redefine – his personal and musical life. Restructuring his business model, Hendrix paved the way for the “Do It Yourself” trend that survived to this day. His personal studio, Electric Lady, was doing good business, and various live recordings and films were released. It was also during this time that he took a year to study music theory; concentrating on jazz, but also studied flamenco and Arabic music. He formed his own record company, First Rays Records, and took complete control of his destiny.
His first recording project was the completion of First Rays of the New Rising Sun, the triple album he’d been working on when his life was violently interrupted. Some of the original tracks were scrapped, and much new material was written. He then embarked upon a worldwide support tour under his new management. The album’s phenomenal success was unexpected; with a total of nine hit singles. But it wasn’t until Black Gold that all previous records would be broken.
Black Gold was the autobiographical epic double album that was to attain success that not even Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or Michael Jackson’s Thriller could achieve. With the exception of the ethereal remake of “Valleys of Neptune,” every song on the album became a hit single, and the album stayed in Billboard’s top 100 for an astonishing 23 years.
Two world tours followed the release of Black Gold. Then, Hendrix began work on Pictures of a New World, the long awaited collaboration with Miles Davis. The album featured Jack DeJohnette, Joe Zawinul, Gary Bartz, newcomer Jaco Pastorius, and guest appearances by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana and Alice Coltrane. Although not nearly the commercial success that First Rays or Black Gold was, it was well received and brought to Hendrix the legitimacy in the jazz world he’d coveted.
It was during this time that he embarked upon a world tour wherein he performed in such places as Mexico, Brazil, Morocco, Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria, Nairobi, Egypt, Spain, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Australia, Russia, China, and South Korea. In many places, Hendrix was the first rock musician, and sometimes the first American to perform in these places. In the case of Afghanistan, he was the first and last to do so.
After the tour, the winds of change in the music world began to make themselves felt. The “twin terrors” of punk and disco began to edge Hendrix out of the limelight. Then, one of the genres he’d unexpectedly spawned, heavy metal, rose to prominence. By 1980, Hendrix found himself slightly adrift. He released the somewhat lackluster Band of Gypsies; Slight Return. This album met with only modest acclaim.
This was followed by a period of imprecise and haphazard output. Most of his recorded work at this time was guest appearances; including his landmark guitar solo on Michael Jacksons’ hit Beat It. Arguably his best work during this time was his collaboration with Bob Marley, with whom he’d developed a close friendship. The album they produced, Redemption, would be Marley’s last recording, and Hendrix donated all his profits form the album to Marley’s family. He also composed music for several films, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
But Hendrix had seemed to have lost his musical direction. Personal tragedy struck when his wife, singer Chaka Khan and their firstborn son Mandala were killed in a car crash. This, coupled with the deaths of Marley, John Lennon (whom Hendrix was close to, but never recorded with), and Kirk took their toll. In 1987, he released Strange Attractors; his least successful and artistically uninspired release. Nothing on the album could conceivably be called a song; with the exception of “Loss,” the acoustic ballad that closed the album. The album sold a disappointing 8,000 copies. Critics were ready to write Hendrix off. In his review for the New York Time, Lester Bangs said, “The well has run dry.”
This began a period of isolation. Hendrix hid from the world for three years. Some of his friends, such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, and his old friends Mitchell and Cox tried to ease him out of his funk. They could do nothing. It seemed Hendrix had reached the end of his journey.
In 1991, Hendrix went on a spiritual pilgrimage. He traveled to Morocco, and stayed with the Master Musicians of Jajouka for six months, studying their music, and absorbing their Sufi based spirituality. He then spent a year in India, where he studied the notoriously difficult sarangi (later, joking about how the instrument makers couldn’t understand why he wanted a left handed instrument), and learned about Indian raga. From there, Hendrix went to Africa where he walked across the Sahara desert, traveling with a small band of Tuareg nomads.
Upon his return to the US, he began work on his music again. In 1996, he released Anthem of New Atlantis. This was hailed as being the rebirth of Hendrix. The music on Anthem was bold, innovative, and sublime. With this recording, Hendrix used new digital technology to its fullest capacity, and even stretching it beyond its limits. The songwriting was strong, and the performances carried an emotional intensity that Rolling Stone described as “,,,channeling other worldly messages into the digital age.”
After the follow up release A Pearl in Wine (a jazzy exploration that seemed to take pieces of new age music and reshape it into something not only lively, but almost dangerous), Hendrix embarked upon the most ambitious project of his life. He composed a symphony, with choral, and himself as principle soloist. The composition titled Meeting of Two Worlds a work in five movements, took two years to complete. Yet it would be another three years before it would be performed. Hendrix was unable to convince the classical music world to perform his work. Some of the orchestras refused to play it, others tried getting him to put up exorbitant amounts of money, and both the Bamberg and Boston orchestras called the work unplayable. Eventually, however, Hendrix got his symphony performed and recorded. It was hailed as a work of genius, and critics called Hendrix “The Beethoven of our generation.” The release of the recording was followed by a world tour.
It was during this tour that Hendrix met Palestinian artist Shadia Hameed. They were married, and soon gave birth to a son, Jimi Jr. Hendrix took a few years off to spend time with his family. He also founded the Hendrix Music Academy, and spent a few years founding branches in Seattle, New York, London, and Paris.
In 2001, immediately following the 9/11 attack, Hendrix recorded a studio version of the Star Spangled Banner. It was more of an electronic orchestral sound collage that infused Stravinsky inspired harmonies into the familiar theme. He released it as a single, and donated the proceeds to the surviving families. This was followed by the live Hendrix Unplugged CD; a collection of solo guitar songs.
His next work, James Marshal Hendrix, a revisit to his blues roots, was accompanied by the release of his autobiography of the same name.
After some years of sporadic soundtrack work, guest appearances, and the legendary “Old World Tour” (where he performed in the ruins of places such as the Mayan ruins in Chichin Itzu, Angor Wat, Cambodia, Stonehenge, and Easter Island), Hendrix released The Story of Life in 2010. Urban legend has it that Hendrix wrote this as a poem the night of the assassination attempt. The collection of songs wove together to form a long story that unfolded as almost a mythology. One critic described it as a “Modern musical Mahabharata.” Hendrix played all the instruments himself on this; including guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, sarangi, African and Native American flute, bazantar (which he’d commissioned to have built after hearing Mark Deutsch), and computer.
The concert at the Garden was amazing by any standards. Hendrix was in rare form, his guitar playing was as bold and free as ever. Guest appearances at the concert included Prince, Mos Def, Sting, Regina Carter, Ornette Coleman, Eric Clapton (who Hendrix asked if he knew “Killing Floor”), Ziggy Marley, and Hendrix’ old friend Carlos Santana.
It was a long concert; almost three and a half hours. Yet everyone was energized, nobody was bored. Hendrix never repeated himself, and always followed one amazing thing with another even more amazing. The material was a choice blend of new music and old favorites. A few songs even went back to the old Experience days: “Purple Haze” was performed with an Egyptian/ Persian feel. Only Hendrix could have pulled that off.
He had just finished a long medley of “Third Stone from the Sun” and “A Love Supreme”.The last notes echoed and faded as the song’s violent climax imprinted itself on the fabric of every ear that heard it. After the applause, there was a moment of silence. Hendrix spoke to the audience.
“Dig, I was working really hard to make this concert happen. And just now, it occurred to be that today, I’m 70 years old. I never imagined I’d make it this far.” After some applause, he continued, his voice cracking with emotion “Over the years, I’ve seen so many changes, and lost so many friends and loved ones. I’ve worked so hard to bring something good to the people of this earth through the only thing I know how to do. Life is a beautiful thing, and a painful thing. It’s been an amazing journey; and you’ve all been there every step of the way.” Then he began playing an improvised song (which the band was clearly not expecting) reminiscent of “Villanova Junction;” taking a sarangi solo at the end. When it was finished, everyone in the Garden was weeping. President Obama was holding his wife Michelle in his arms; she was sobbing, overcome by the beauty of the music.
Picking up a guitar, this time, a white Hendrix Signature Series Stratocaster, he said “Listen, I just want to say thank you for the last 70 years, and I hope we will meet again. If not here, then in the next world. Goodnight!” Then he launched into “Voodoo Chile.” Everyone joined him on stage, and took turns taking a solo. After the last verse, everyone else backed off, and, with Cox, Mitchell, and Sultan backing him up, Hendrix went free. His guitar soared through the heavens and shrieked with joy, wept in agony, and in that space of time, compressed into a blues based musical improvisation the entire spectrum of human emotion and experience. At the last clue, the band stopped, but Hendrix kept playing. He and his guitar were not quite finished; he reached deep into everybody’s souls, and reached to the furthest regions of the heavens and brought them together. Everyone in the world who heard it was united in spirit at that moment. The music became quieter, and quieter, then an overwhelming roar filled the air where the heavens and earth were rent in twain, and it all settled.
After what felt like an eternity of silence, Hendrix said “Thank you.” Then the crowd went wild. The applause was deafening, and lasted 20 minutes. President Obama broke free of the Secret Service, climbed on stage, hugged Hendrix, and kissed his hands, bowing as he did so.
After a lifetime of creating one musical miracle after another, he came up with yet another legendary performance; with the leader of the most powerful nation on earth bowing before him.
The concert was over. After this, silence.
As I write this, it is the evening of December 22nd, 2012. Yesterday was the end of the Mayan calendar, and a supposed turning point in the history of our planet. It was also a sad and auspicious occasion; because yesterday morning, Jimi Hendrix, the greatest musician of our age, died of a heart attack in his home in Seattle, Washington.
The story has ended. Another is about to begin.