Wednesday, February 6, 2013

essay contributed to feature package on Hendrix, Uncut, July 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Think ‘Hendrix’, and the first image that comes to mind is the onstage Jimi – a sensual inferno of improvisatory creativity, fingertips ablaze; Jimi the aural arsonist, sonically torching the Stars and Stripes; Jimi the Dionysian dandy, the pyrotechnician who put the flambé into flamboyance. But – and you knew this was coming right? – there was another side to Hendrix that runs against this pat if not entirely misleading image: Hendrix the diligent, patient craftsman, the ‘studio rat’ who methodically pieced together Electric Ladyland over several months of
ten hours per night, all week long work. Some Ladyland songs were re-mixed three hundred times.

If Jimi onstage was a case of never-mind-the-Pollocks, a volcanic spermatozoic splurge of garish gushing expressionism, in the studio he was more a landscape painter, endlessly layering overdubs, tweaking equalisers and echo buttons, trying out new effects and arrangement ideas. With Electric Ladyland, Jimi exhibited the kind of obsessive detail-oriented perfectionism you associate with ultra-white, classicist-not-Romanticist auteurs such as Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney/George Martin, Todd Rundgren, even Brian Eno. This isn't a Dionysian lineage (frenzy, intoxication, orgiastic chaos – think Stones, Doors, Stooges) but an Appollonian one (Apollo being the god of serenity, sanity – art as contemplation, Nature garden).

As well as this unlikely white company, you could also place Hendrix in a black lineage of studio science and producer wizardry – Lee Perry, George Clinton, Sun Ra, Prince. In the ‘Afro Futurist’ pantheon, the band leader or producer orchestrates all the sonic strands into funkadelic symphonies, using texture, polyrhythm, and multi-track spatiality to weave what critic Kodwo Eshun calls "sonic fiction". A crucial aspect of this producer-led approach is that effects and studio as-instrument processing are as important as the musicianship. In Hendrix's case, the two things were always inseparable: using wah-wah, sustain, distortion, fuzz-tone, feedback modulated by the tremolo arm, etc, he refracted the blues into a vast spectrum of timbres. And this was a pretty radical idea at the time. When Jimi did a session for Radio One, the crusty old BBC engineers were hopelessly confused, and in the end the producer had to speak up: "Look here, Jimi, I'm terribly sorry, but we seem to be getting quite a bit of distortion and feedback and can't seem to correct it."

As Hendrix's music evolved, its timbre-saturated colour motion got more ultra-vivid and kaleidoscopic. It also got more spatialised. ‘3rd Stone From the Sun’, a sirocco roar of controlled feedback and one of the few songs on Are You Experienced? to extend beyond three minutes, looks ahead to Ladyland's studio-spun immensities, and further still – to the drone swarm daze of My Bloody Valentine (who worked with Roger Mayer, the geezer who built FX pedals and technical gizmos for Jimi), to Husker Du's wig-out blizzardry, to Sonic Youth's "reinvention of the guitar". Jimi's guitar becomes increasingly gaseous and contourless, like radiation or a forcefield in which the listener is suspended. Contemporary rockcrit Richard Meltzer described how Hendrix replaced the "tunnel space" of conventional rock production (the guitarist distinctly positioned in the stereo-field) with "paisley space" (a wormholey, fractal surroundsound with Jimi coming at you from all sides, from behind you, sometimes seemingly from inside you). Electric Ladyland had a ‘3D sound’ that, Jimi later complained, the technicians who transferred the masters to vinyl "screwed up… they didn't know how to cut it properly. They thought it was out of phase."

Jimi's music was about space in another sense. His lyrics are full of extra-terrestrial journeys and kosmik imagery – ‘3rd Stone’'s Barbarella-like request, "may I land my kinky machine?", and bizarre narrative about aliens visiting Earth, deciding chickens are the smartest species, then blowing up the planet; the imagery of "Jupiter sulphur mines/Way down by the Methane Sea" in ‘Voodoo Chile’; the solar system tour guide of ‘The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam's Dice’, a title that non-coincidentally acronyms the hallucinogens STP and LSD; unreleased songs like ‘South Saturn Delta’ and ‘Valleys of Neptune’. Jimi was an avid consumer of sci-fi, fantasy, and all forms of mysticism. His obsessions included the I Ching, numerology, astrology and the symbolist poets' belief that there are synaesthetic correspondences between colours and sounds; he believed he had ESP and could recall astral travels. All these traits came together in his dream of an "electric religion". He died before he could pull together the overtly transcendentalist double album, First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, his hymn to the Eternal Cosmic Feminine, featuring songs like ‘Hey Baby (The Land Of The New Rising Sun’ about a female messiah leading humanity to the promised land.

Like other Afro-Futurists, Hendrix was as interested in mythic antiquity as in the outerspatial tomorrow – Nubia, Atlantis, the whole "ancient to the future" (Art Ensemble of Chicago) shtick. His song ‘Pali Gap’ was named after the Hawaian goddess of the volcanoes aka Pele (beating fellow space cadet Tori Amos by a couple of decades). ‘Purple Haze’ was influenced by Hopi Indian myths, and ‘Voodoo Chile’ taps into West African magick via Haiti and New Orleans. In terms of his own mystique, Jimi achieved a double-whammy, being half black and half-Native American. For the beats and the hippies, blacks and Red Indians represented two kinds of authenticity and exoticism that beckoned as alternatives to consumerland emptiness: blacks incarnated passion, sexuality, energy, soul, and Native Americans represented mystery, ritual, ceremony, a non-alienated relationship with the land.

The culmination of all these tendencies – the black science fiction, the studio wizardry, and the alienation from contemporary Western industrial culture – was Ladyland's closing song suite, ‘1983 … (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)’, and ‘Moon, Turn the Tides… Gently, Gently Away’. The lyrical scenario is Jimi and girlfriend abandoning a war torn, despoiled Earth for a subaquatic paradise, ignoring their sceptical friends who argue "the machine, that we built, would never save us… it's impossible for a man to live and breathe under water… anyway, you know good well it would be beyond the will of God". Flouting the patriarchal
reality-principle, Jimi and his water babe are reborn as aquanauts in a womb-like wonderland beneath the waves. Sonically, ‘1983’/‘Moon’ is a masterpiece of stereo panning and guitar-treatment techniques (slowing down and speeding up tapes to depict a shoal of fish swimming up to check out the human visitors, then darting away again; seagull noises created from headphones feeding back into mics), with all the myriad components painstakingly assembled and then mixed live in a way that anticipates both dub reggae and ambient. All undulating flow and flickering refraction, this is rock unrocked and uncocked, androgynised, Jimi exploring the anima kingdom inside his own soul. There is nothing else like it in rock except maybe Robert Wyatt's similarly oceanic/amniotic Rock Bottom, Can's moonstruck ‘Come Sta La Luna’, John Martyn's dubby-bluesy shimmerscapes ‘I'd Rather Be The Devil’ and ‘Big Muff’.

Electric Ladyland is sometimes accused of being somewhat self indulgent and over-produced, but if anything it's not self-indulgent enough. The double-album was, however, the climax of his burgeoning relationship with engineer Eddie Kramer, who was able to implement Hendrix's vague desires ("I want the sound of underwater") and who gradually displaced the Experience as Jimi's foil and launchpad. With Ladyland less like a power trio than a 300-piece guitar orchestra, songs like ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp’ are stately constructions rather than spontaneous combustions – haciendas and pagodas gyrating in the sky.

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