Remembering the Remarkable Jimi Hendrix
I had an older friend who told me once that he’d seen Jimi Hendrix in Minneapolis in November 1968. He said, “I didn’t get it.” His statement surprised me because at the time the music world had already shifted. But as I listened to Manic Depression again this week, I wondered if the reason he couldn’t relate to what Dylan was doing was because he was still living on the “Before Dylan” side of the divide. That is, before Rock ‘N Roll had been transformed to Rock.
In 2013, I wrote about this insight I’d gleaned from Lee Marshall’s Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star, which many of us have known intuitively for decades. The essence is this: up until a certain point in time rock and roll was music you could shuffle and tap your feet to. After that moment in time, rock was a permanently altered genre.
Listening to Hendrix again today I understand how confusing his music might have been. When the first three notes steam up and then pause, what follows is a riveting ride. It’s not a dance tune. It’s not rock and roll. And Hendrix was never a rock and roll star. He was a rock star.
Where did Hendrix discover his path? According Charles R. Cross’s Room Full of Mirrors, even though in ’65 Hendrix was playing gigs up in Harlem, he was drawn to the scene that was happening in Greenwich Village. Something explosive and real was going on. He recognized it and wanted to be a part of the freedom it promised.
Before this time Hendrix spent several years honing his skills as a backup guitarist in big name bands that included the likes of Little Richard, Wilson Picket, the Isley Brothers, Jackie Brown and others. Cross points out in his book how Hendrix was a student of these experiences, picking up all those tricks that he later wowed people with, including playing with his teeth and behind his back.
The one thing he picked up on the scene in the Village was the inspiration and motivation to quit being a backup guitarist and go it on his own. It happened when heard Bob Dylan. Hendrix didn’t care much for his own singing, so it held him back. But if Dylan could make it with his voice (and Dylan had made it), Hendrix figured he could also make it.
Depending on which legend you read, Hendrix was invited to England by either Keith Richards’ girl friend, Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham or bassist Chas Chandler of the Animals. It was in England that he hooked up with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding, establishing himself and assembling his new sound.
The Copernican Revolution was essentially a paradigm shift. Before Copernicus, it was believed that the earth was the center of the galaxy. Copernicus published a treatise positing that the earth and planets revolved around the sun. The odd thing about this revolution is that it didn’t happen overnight. It took more than 100 years, yet we label it a revolution.
So it was that the Rock Revolution cannot be called a single incident, a single song. It was a space in time. It took place in the Sixties. It caused a shift in everything, upheavals in values, and strove for something elevated which felt within reach for a time: Freedom.
“The emergence of rock culture, from 1965 to 1968,” writes Marshall, “thus depends upon a series of ideas concerning how rock music is actually a form of popular art, and rock stars popular artists. Dylan is central to the emergence of this kind of discourse. As part of a ‘more mature’ folk genre, he had already utilized the album as his main format and thus his electrified albums carried cultural legitimacy into the teen market.”
This idea of albums, not pop chart singles, was a major shift. Hendrix, the Beatles, Bowie and others are remembered by their albums. Are You Experienced, the album, put Hendrix on the map, not the singles extracted from it which served as a form of advertising for the albums. We follow the arc of Hendrix’s career by the albums he created.
Marshall continues, “During 1965 and 1966 he (Dylan) embodied the idea of an artist following a unique personal vision no matter where (personally and professionally) it took him. Dylan came to represent the artistic change itself…. Dylan provided pop artists with a new model of the star and a new range of topics for songs.”
In short, Dylan demolished the logjam and let the river flow again. Hendrix was one of many ships that sailed through to a newly opened sea.
‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky.