When he came storming onto the scene, Jimi Hendrix made weepy children out of the world's best guitar players, bringing a primal sexuality and grace to his playing that only a true master of the craft could muster. Guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend had spent nearly the whole of their young lives attempting to be the most impressive, most proficient guitar players anyone in England had ever seen, and then along comes this shy Yankee to plug in and make them all look like rank amateurs.
"Jimi threatened us both, in a way," Townshend has said of himself and Clapton, who were both in awe of him, and that awe undermined their own ambitions. "He was at one with his instrument," Neil Young said while inducting Hendrix into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "There was no technique that you could take note of. No chords that I could recognize. I didn't know what any of it was. I just heard it, felt it and I wanted to do it."
Long before Hendrix was confounding the greats, he was barely getting by as a session musician, fulfilling the Gladwellian rule of 10,000 hours to become a master of your craft. The Isley Brothers, Little Richard, Ike & Tina Turner, Curtis Knight, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson...throughout the young history of rock and roll, there is the guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix, punctuating the sentences and seasoning the music that came before him.
Going solo with the name Jimmy James with his own band, the Blue Flame, Hendrix was befriended by Keith Richards's girlfriend, Linda Keith (the two would become an item, inspiring Richards to pen the song "Ruby Tuesday"), who introduced Hendrix to Animals bassist Chas Chandler. One of the first to notice Hendrix's wild talent, Chandler brought Hendrix overseas to London, where his abilities might be more appreciated. "I'd never been to England before; that's the only reason, 'cause I'd never been," Hendrix said in a 1967 interview. "I could play louder over there; I could really get myself together over there."
Hendrix got together with English musicians Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed. Blowing away Paul McCartney, Clapton, Townshend -- basically the whole of the 1966 London music scene -- Hendrix was nearly an overnight sensation. He'd only been with his new band two weeks before they began recording Are You Experienced.
"This would seem to be the single most astonishing thing about the Jimi Hendrix Experience," writes Sean Egan in The Making of Are You Experienced, commenting both on the brevity of the group's time together, as well as their aversion to rehearsing songs. "Anybody listening to Are You Experienced who did not know the background of the album's recording would assume that it was the result of honing songs to perfection in either a rehearsal studio or a live situation. Yet, with the exception of 'Hey Joe,' not a single song on either the U.S. or U.K. edition of the album had been played by the Experience before the day they recorded it."
Although he would go down as the world's greatest electric guitar player, it was Hendrix's songs that first captivated the attention of Chas Chandler back in New York. A hopeless disciple at the feet of Bob Dylan, Hendrix followed in the eclectic minstrel style of combining Beat imagery lyrics with a plugged-in R&B sound. Later he would evolve his style, pulling from a more international bag of influences; but for Experience, it was pure Dylan.
"Hey Joe" spoke of manic revenge leading to jittering madness, much in the style of Times They Are a-Changin's "Ballad of Hollis Brown." "Purple Haze" -- despite being appropriated for particular marijuana strains -- describes the anxiety and panic of being high, similar to "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again." "The Wind Cries Mary," is his "Just Like a Woman," while "Foxy Lady" was "Spanish Harlem Incident."
Not to suggest that Hendrix was unoriginal. While he may have borrowed the mustache from Little Richard, some amplification tricks from Elmore James, some fashion tips from Carnaby Street, his ability to bend the sonic experience, taking it just to the edge of breaking and then snapping it back into form, was what made him the iconoclast that he was. Like Prometheus bringing fire to the mortals, Jimi Hendrix was taking '60s music higher than anyone was prepared to go.
And that's what was so frightening about him. You were unprepared to go where Hendrix was taking you. He was pulling from the dark recesses of his mind and his experiences and delivering something that, while beautiful, was also pretty unsettling. A very shy singer, Hendrix would ask for complete solitude while laying down his vocals, sometimes singing behind a curtain for fear of someone watching. It was as if he needed to escape his physical reality in order to attach himself to supernatural.
With three singles already on the charts ("The Wind Cries Mary," "Hey Joe" and "Purple Haze"), when Are You Experienced hit the British charts on May 12, 1967, Hendrix was already a star. Being denied the top chart position by a stubborn Beatles release of the time, Experience , nevertheless, became a widely respected and often imitated album, influencing future guitar grinders like Ron Asheton of the Stooges, Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.
Yet while Hendrix was quickly becoming a sensation in England, his homeland of the United States hadn't heard of him. His debut album wouldn't be released in the States for another three months (with a different track listing and inclusion of his previous singles), and Hendrix had yet to play a show outside of Europe with his new band.
At the insistence of Paul McCartney, Hendrix headlined the Monterey Pop Festival, a three day concert in California that saw the debut of not only Hendrix, but several San Francisco bands (The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin) who had rarely played outside the city, as well as the first major American appearance of the Who and Ravi Shankar. Reportedly heavily dosed on Owsley LSD, Hendrix gave the performance of a lifetime, wowing the audience with his unthinkable guitar licks, before burning his instrument like a ritual sacrifice to the gods he was so clearly communing with.
By morning, he would be a star.
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