September 18th, 1970. American rock star Jimi Hendrix
was pronounced dead narrowly escaped death after overdosing on barbiturates. Rescue workers performed an emergency tracheotomy on Hendrix, successfully reviving him . . .
After his brush with death in London, Hendrix eagerly returned to New York in early October of 1970 to resume work on his highly anticipated fourth LP, First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Still recovering from recent throat surgery, performed to correct damage from his life-saving emergency tracheotomy, Hendrix threw himself into completing the ambitious double LP collection. Despite his frustration with his own vocal performances, forced as he was to accept all the vocal takes as finished he had laid down prior to his London misadventure, he was determined to explore every musical idea his fertile mind produced, building up endless layers of guitar overdubs, each new pass inspiring new ideas to be revisited upon otherwise completed tracks.
In the midst of recording First Rays in October of 1970, Jimi got the news that his friend and fellow guitar god Eric Clapton, had overdosed on heroin while recording with his current band, Derek and the Dominos. At the request of Duane Allman and the rest of his bandmates, Hendrix flew to Miami to add lead guitar to the extended blues, Have You Ever Loved a Woman. Jimi would continue to reprise the tune in concert in memory of Eric for many years to come.
Upon returning to New York, Jimi briefly considered releasing the ever-expanding New Rays project as an unprecedented triple album, eager to include the explosive series of extended instrumental excursions he had been laying down in his newly completed Electric Ladyland Studios. Ultimately relenting to record company pressures to keep the record as a two LP set and complete the long-delayed project, First Rays of the New Rising Sun was finally released in June of 1971.The album is met with both critical and popular acclaim, jumping to the top of the charts where it would remain for seven months.
Despite the success of his latest album, the beginning of the new decade brought tremendous pressures on Hendrix. His business affairs were in a shambles, deeply in debt due to the extravagant costs incurred building his beloved Electric Ladyland Studios. Meanwhile, the rising Black Conscious movement, the hippie counter-culture and the anti-war faction were all pressuring the sensitive and apolitical musician to be a public figurehead for their respective causes. Ironically, his damaged throat may have helped Hendrix survive this difficult time in his career. Still unable to sing due his numerous throat surgeries, the pressure to get out on the road and perform his hits was removed for the immediate future. This allowed Hendrix, for the time being, to avoid the demands of pop stardom and to explore outlets for his guitar playing outside the rigid expectations set down by his previous successes with the Experience.
The first of these new explorations would take him from New York to the west African nation of Nigeria. Ginger Baker, former drummer for the power trio Cream, and more recently the over-hyped and short-lived Blind Faith super group, recruited Hendrix in early ’71 to play on a recording Baker was making with Fela Ransome Kuti, the Nigerian singer and band leader. Hendrix, eager to participate, but contractually unable to perform under his own name, appears on the resulting uneven, but startling Chains and Blood. The album sold poorly, but contained compelling explorations of African grooves, James Brown-style horns, combined with Hendrix’s unmistakable soaring, fluid electric guitar. When the blend worked best, Hendrix avoided acid rock flashiness, and instead wove long, undulating melodic lines through the dense polyrhythms, creating music both beautiful and primal.
Late in 1972, the much anticipated, and seemingly inevitable musical encounter of Hendrix and the jazz trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis became a reality. Back in 1969 Miles had pursued Hendrix to contribute to his ground-breaking electric masterpiece Bitches Brew, However, the streaking fireball that was Hendrix’s career had not allowed the mercurial guitarist to participate, forcing Davis to “settle” on the talents of the astonishing British guitarist, John McLaughlin.
Sadly, despite all the build up surrounding this historical encounter, the results proved to be, overall, disappointing. Out of the nine tracks the two collaborated on, spread through three different Davis releases, only two from the ’74 album Black Earth Rising, reach the potential suggested by the meeting of these two titanic talents. Davis’ penchant for keeping his collaborators on their heels, giving only minimal direction and input, failed to elicit from the guitarist the fresh and cliché-free performances that Davis has come to expect from his methods. Surprisingly, Hendrix sounds tentative much of the time, seemingly at odds with the dense, roiling voodoo funk that Davis and crew laid down. However, on the two successful tracks, Hendrix unleashes some of his most exciting and creative use of feedback, pure sound, that shifts and slides in and out of the mix, evoking emotions both hellish and angelic.
The next couple of years saw Hendrix release a couple of recordings, 1973’s Celestial Sideshow and 1974’s Lunar Hearts and Solar Diamonds, while not out-and-out jazz fusion records, none the less put too much emphasis on his guitar virtuosity. Even the genius of Hendrix can begin to sound monotonous on side-long one chord vamps. Although featuring a number of guest vocalists, these records cry out for tighter arrangements. Apart from Sly Stone’s vocals and organ on the way-funky, but way too long (at twenty two minutes) Do You Mind My Mind, the rest of the material from these sessions is best forgotten.
Thankfully, Jimi too, seemed to tire of the “freedom” of the long space jams and blues-based rave ups. By the mid ‘70’s his damaged vocal cords had finally healed to a point where he could begin to sing again. Though never terribly confident about his own singing, even at the height of his acid rock days, through long and hard rehabilitation and vocal training, he learned how to project without straining. Hendrix began to gain new confidence in his vocals, which encouraged a renewed commitment to songwriting. These efforts paid off in 1975’s Funky Tongues, another high water mark in his remarkable career. At first met with some hesitancy from his fan base for its understated delivery and lack of flash guitar pyrotechnics, Funky Tongues has come to be regarded as one of Hendrix’s masterpieces, pointing directly at his blues and R&B roots as well as his debt to the enduring influence of Dylan’s lyrics. This album is Hendrix’s statement as a songwriter, with his still astounding guitar playing kept in the role of support of the songs. His vocals are mixed more prominately than any previous records, with a new intimacy unheard before. One can hear the tradition of deep Mississippi delta blues, gut bucket R&B and his own brand of psychedelic poetry meshing seamlessly in a stew of laid back summery grooves.
Just as the punk explosion loomed on the horizon, Hendrix was back out on the road, playing his old hits, seemingly thrilled to be in front of live audience again. He claimed he was working on a return to a set of songs that would bring all his talents together again, remaking the Jimi Hendrix Experience for the new decade. With huge expectations for the new album, the single released on Feb 12th hit the charts like a bomb. Rope Of Starlight was truly a blast from the past, with Hendrix’s soaring guitar work front and center, Jimi delivering a tight, focused hit song full of that sexy gypsy fire not heard in nearly ten years. However the remainder of the album was sadly, nothing more than a shadow of his late sixties output. The 37 year old guitarist seemed on auto pilot, deft, but familiar licks flowing from his fingers, the whole thing sounding overly rehearsed, and played safe. Though Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell performed valiantly, bringing his remarkable dexterous fills and improvisatory swing to the proceedings, he couldn’t overcome the overly slick arrangements bogged down with background singers and strings(!) The songs too, apart from the Dylan cover, seemed too comfortable, as if Hendrix had nothing passionate left to say.
Resurfacing in ‘84, Hendrix was back with a new look and a new album. With newly close-cropped hair and sporting simple denim work shirts and pants, Hendrix attempted to cast off the super-freak gypsy pimp persona that had been associated with him for so many years. The new album was the brave, but flawed Cosmic Archipelago, a rough attempt to combine Hendrix’s psychedelic fury with the laidback skank of reggae. Co-produced with Hendrix by the rhythm duo of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakepeare, the album includes vocal contributions from Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals, singing the single Down Throw Time, an amiable but tepid bit of summer fluff. As with many albums of the era, overuse of programmed drum machines and synthesizers date the material badly.
The mid-eighties were a fallow time for the supremely talented but increasingly troubled performer. As with many of his rock and roll contemporaries, Hendrix did more than one stint in rehab. Adding to his woes were back taxes issues and patrimony claims. To fulfill contractual obligations and alieviate some of his financial difficulties, many unused tracks from the First Rays sessions, along with copious jams from around the same time, were compiled and unceremoniously released. The public received them with little fanfare.
As the eighties gave way to the nineties, Hendrix' only release would be the MTV unplugged album. That acoustic performance, fine as it was, contained only one new song, Paratrooper’s Sky Song, basically a blues shuffle with a Dylan-style rap paying homage to his army days and all the men who have bravely served after him.
In 1991, Hendrix was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, performing Purple Haze and Wild Thing for the tuxedoed sea of record execs and portly rock stars. Later that year Hendrix would survive a dramatic small boat rescue as his yacht was caught in a tropical storm shortly after launching on a short excursion from the Caribbean island of Martinique. Shaken, but unharmed, Hendrix and his companions were rescued thirteen hours later 120 miles out in the Atlantic. Upon his return to his home in upstate New York, Hendrix announced his retirement from touring, intending to spend his time gardening on his 60 acre estate.
As the 90’s approached the end, the outrageous stage antics of Monterey were a dim memory for the fans of the increasingly reclusive Jimi Hendrix. Although suffering from diabetes and obesity, he has resumed performing. Today you will find Hendrix playing to theater-sized crowds, seated, still generating a virtual psychedelic orchestra from his trusty left-handed Strat, though at decidedly lower volumes than his heydays of the sixties and seventies. Though his current music is of little interest to the contemporary music scene, and with no major label support, Hendrix has quietly reclaimed his place as a true innovator. He continues to explore musical worlds both strange and beautiful, reaching beyond the solar system for his inspiration.
Despite obscene amounts of money being thrust in his face to reform the Experience, Hendrix steadfastly refuses to return as an oldies act. Taking his cue from his good friend and lyrical mentor, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, referring to himself as “nothing more than a gypsy troubadour”, continues to navigate new excursions into uncharted psychedelic star systems for those whose minds remain open enough to follow him.