Jimi Hendrix was the most visionary musician in rock music.
Many claims are made for him: “greatest guitar player” principle among them, and certainly all rock (and most blues and many jazz) guitar players since then have had to grapple with Hendrix—even if only to attempt to reject him. Certainly both his physical dexterity and his command of the electric instrument’s enormous timbral range were unmatched to his advent, and have been matched by damned few since then: Stevie Ray got within hollering distance of Hendrix’s blues playing, Eric Johnson within range of his timbral acuity, Ernie Isley his overall post-modern R&B approach. This is fitting: there’s certainly no shame in wearing Jimi’s dirty drawers, and Hendrix himself was a masterful synthesizer of prior threads of black guitar playing: the stinging pentatonic licks and sheer, manhandling strength of Albert King; the beautiful hummingbird’s-wing vibrato of BB; the funk of John Lee Hooker and (especially) Jimmy Reed; the heart-wrenching chord-melodies (and poetry) of Curtis Mayfield; the feedbacking psychosis of Hubert Sumlin (with Wolf).
Equally many claims were made for Hendrix as a psychedelic Staggerlee: Anglo-America’s fantasy of the biggest-endowed and most dangerous Black Stud of them all. Jimi understood the bizarre and subliminal neuroses that underlay that (he’d been on the chitlin’ circuit, after all, and he’d seen all those little white kids—and dweeby white hipster adults—slumming at the black clubs), and the fantasies of pimpdom and sexual prowess that drove some of the (positive and negative) reviews (for a real glimpse into the muck at the bottom of Anglo-America’s Superfly fetish, read the outrageously derogatory—but titillated—reviews by British critics of his first England shows; they’re particularly outrageous, because, as dharmonia says, “That was the most beautiful man in rock ‘n’ roll”). And he’d play into that too: dressing more “flash” and with more panache than any Brit-boy could possibly pull off, and always with at least one blonde white chick on his arm. Going all the way back to Bert Williams, and to Mr Tambo and Mr Bones before that, Anglo-America has held an unholy fascination with Big Black Men. Particularly one like this, who looked (they claimed) “like a Mau Mau,” but had been a fucking paratrooper in the Screaming Eagles, the 101st Airborne--talk about a bourgeois nightmare!
Certainly he built the most persuasive synthesis of psychedelia and improvisation: the Grateful Dead played longer solos, the Jefferson Airplane wrote “trippier” lyrics, Blue Cheer turned the amps up even louder, but NO ONE had both the chops and the imagination to create aural canvases (especially live) that supported psychedelia’s prose imagery. Except Jimi, who had twice as much cosmicity and ten times the funk.
What Electric Ladyland makes clear is that Jimi’s vision was greater than virtuosity, than Staggerlee the Badman, than psychedelia—was even greater than the sum of their parts. Other people prefer other albums (the “Viet Cong have just assaulted Carnaby Street” guerilla pop of Are You Experienced?, where he made a snotty British guitar player-turned-bad-bassist and a snotty British jazz-drummer keep up with him; the funky grooves and smart brevity of Axis: Bold as Love (which has some of his most beautiful songs); and the deep, scary, Black Pantheresque, Vietnam/midnight grooves of Band of Gypsies (subject of another “100 Greats” post), but Ladyland, the 3rd and last set released (as two LP’s) under his direction, is his magnum opus.
Partly this is because it addresses all of those constituent genres that were his building blocks, and makes them all his, as the “First Rays of the New Rising Sun”: the badass funk of Long Hot Summer Night (complete with black-doo-wop vocals), the chank-style rhythm licks and screaming guitar/vocal doubling of Gypsy Eyes, in which he appropriates (and inverts) the James Brown template, and the lickety-split Come On (Part I), where he turbo-charges Earl King’s already-titanic New Orleans anthem; the lovely Mayfield-esque funk of Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland); the lunar Superfly slow blues of Voodoo Chile (worth the price of admission all by itself); the contemptuously brilliant pop of Crosstown Traffic and House Burning Down; the magnificent version of All Along the Watchtower (which joins Jimi’s live 1967 version of Like a Rolling Stone as the only two covers which ever bested Dylan’s originals—so great that bar bands since then play Jimi’s version, not Bob’s); and most especially the slow, revolutionary funk of Voodoo Child (Slight Return), where Jimi takes the menace of Muddy Waters’s I’m a Man into outer space, “standing up next to the mountain, chop[ping] it down with the edge of my hand,” and, oh yeah, blowing away any boundaries to the guitar as he goes. But his vision is also there in magnificent, courageous, imaginative, and free-wheeling extended pieces: the tape loops and backwards-masking of Rainy Day, Dream Away; the extended solos and spoken word musique concrete of 1983 (A Merman I should turn to be). Some of this sounds dated now—psychedelia had a limited shelf-life, but what you mostly hear in these tracks is an unfettered musical imagination: someone who had cast off the chains of the chitlin’ circuit and the blackface performing-bear expectations of Anglo-American pop, who ahd found a way to use all the spectrum of “Great Black Music” in service of a creative vision. As a composer, as a master of available technology, and most certainly as an improviser and sculptor of musical sound-scapes, I’d put him up there with Ellington.
Hendrix died in 1970 at age 27, essentially killed by a rock ‘n’ roll industry so young, so greedy, and so ignorant that it hadn’t realized how many more millions could be made by keeping its artists alive (even if that meant paying for drug clinics, alcohol treatment, or six-months’-stays in Caribbean island studios). The first time I saw him, in the fantastic and revelatory concert/compilation film Jimi Hendrix, which connects clips of many different kinds of music and many different situations (and also his brilliant and hilarious appearances on the—clearly sympathetic—Dick Cavett show), in a midnight show at the old Harvard Square Theatre around 1978, it made me weep.