50th Favorite Album

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Axis: Bold as Love. The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
1967, Track Records. Producer: Chas Chandler.
Purchased, 1997.

IN A NUTSHELL: Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding are in fine form on songs both heavy and light, each song bursting with the unmistakeable virtuosity of Hendrix’s guitar – sometimes subtle, sometimes bombastic. He plays a few pop songs, too, and always makes them sound like Jimi. He also displays an under-appreciated, soulful singing voice that particularly stands out on the lighter, slower songs.
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Everyone wants to be a VIP. All over the internet, folks are using the allure of VIP status to entice you to buy yoga apparel, car washes, cameras, and sporting goods; access to restaurants, zoos, muscle-car clubs, pinball museums and places that aren’t even real. And while it’s probably true that nobody really thinks their longterm commitment to buying quality socks online actually makes them more important than they were when they were simply buying Kirkland socks at Costco, it’s also true that if the letters “VIP” didn’t actually help sell things then vendors wouldn’t use them.

It is well-established that people want to feel important1. But we also like to acknowledge those people who are important in our own lives. Many of us, it seems, need a little help letting those people know how special they are to us, but we all (mostly) recognize those important people are out there. (If you don’t know who they are, there are several online quizzes to help you figure it out!)

Of particular interest to humans seems to be those people we think are “most important.” Schoolchildren of all ages have likely written at least one essay on the topic “The Most Important Person in My Life.” And if they can’t think of someone, there are plenty of example essays for sale on the topic! It’s not just teachers who like a good “Most Important Person Essay,” either. Many websites post such features for all their readers to enjoy. It’s also a popular topic on websites devoted to particular religions.

These essays and stories and blog posts all tend to focus on longtime relationships that are obviously important. The singular fact that your mother carried you inside her for nine-plus months immediately renders her important, whether or not her laugh is all that great. If you’re a big-time athlete, you’re bound to have a coach or two with whom you’ve developed a special bond. Most of us probably have several of these types in our lives making it quite difficult to pare a list of important people down to one single “most important2.” (And remember: when thinking about those “most important people” in one’s life, always keep in mind – as we children of the 70s learned on TV – that the most important person is YOU!)

Parents, coaches, teachers, mentors, friends, grandparents … these are all obvious types of important people. People in your life who fall into these categories have earned a claim to the title of Most Important Person, I am sure. “For fifty years, my sister has been there for me.” “I learned so much more than World History from Mrs. Meyer in 10th grade.” However, there is a type of Important Person that I find far more interesting. It’s a type of Important Person who perhaps hasn’t had such a broad or philosophical influence on your life, but who had a direct, specific, turning-point-facilitating impact. When you ask yourself “How did I get here?” and follow the thread of your actions and decisions back through the twisting maze of your past, you will come across a person or two without whose words or deeds a significant turn in your path would have been missed – even though you Don’t Remember Their Name! This is The Forgotten Person in Passing. Better-known as The ForPerInPass. Or maybe the Forg-Pip. Or F-PIP. Whatever, I suck at nicknames and acronyms.

FPIPs are often only recognizable if you allow your memory to step back through the stages of your life and consider how each link between stages was made. For example: I’ve had a 25-plus year career in the biotech/pharma industry. How did I get there? Well, I can easily walk back through the various jobs I’ve had at different companies in New England and California … and before arriving in California, I can go back in my mind to Pennsyltucky… where I can remember getting my very first pharma job at a Bayer Aspirin factory … a job I got because I had a minor in Chemistry … which was a degree I took only because of … Some Guy. An FPIP.

In 1989 I was days away from graduating college with a degree in Biology Education. As with everything pre-internet, the administrative process of graduation involved filling out a lot of forms and getting a bunch of signatures on these forms. One of these forms was to be signed by the Department Chair (a terribly Important Person, no doubt), who, having reviewed the paper copy of my college transcripts would, by signature, assert that indeed I had fulfilled the requirements to receive a Bachelor’s degree.

My transcript included grades from two years spent at PCPS, a college of science whose hefty, science-packed course-load included about 23 credits of Chemistry in my two years of study3 – which is a shit-load of chemistry. As I walked through a science building on my way to get a signature, some FPIP took a look at my transcript and said, “Holy crap! You have enough Chemistry credits to get a minor!” (or words to that effect.) “Why should I do that?” I asked. “Why not?” he replied. “It couldn’t hurt!” So, on my way to get the Biology chair’s signature, I stopped in at the Chemistry chair’s office for his signature, and voila!! I had a Chemistry Minor! If I hadn’t gotten that Chemistry minor, I probably wouldn’t have gotten my first pharmaceutical job. And since I wasn’t looking for a career in pharmaceuticals, but only took the job (which was supposed to be temporary) so that I’d have some flexibility to tour with my band, I probably wouldn’t have had a successful career in what has turned out to be my field if I hadn’t bumped into that FPIP.

In terms of my life’s path, that dude who gave me the tip about obtaining a minor was WAY more important than any advice-giving coach or hand-holding aunt could ever be! And he’s just one of several such FPIPs.

Other FPIPs in my life include this wacky, effervescent, middle-aged dancer/actress/singer I met in San Rafael, CA, soon after I moved there in 1993. She was a friend of a friend, and I met her once, at a lunch with our mutual friend during a break in rehearsal for some cabaret show she was hoping to mount, and during that one meeting she told me that of all the acting programs in San Francisco, the only one worth attending was the Jean Shelton Acting School. On that advice I started taking classes, and one of the first friends I made there introduced me to the woman who would become my wife. If not for the wacky FPIP, I might still be single.

Another FPIP – who I definitely can picture, and who I knew pretty well at the time, but whose name I can’t recall – was the guy who said “Axis: Bold as Love was a life-changing album for me.” He was an improv teacher at Sue Walden & Co., (now ImprovWorks) a school in San Francisco where I trained and performed for years. He played guitar, and in the mid 90s he was in his 40s. As a teen-aged guitar player living in the Bay Area in the 60s, he was a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix, and as I recall, he told me that Axis: Bold as Love had been released just as he was starting to get really good at guitar. But, he explained, when he heard that album he realized just how hard he was going to have to work to become the type of guitarist he wanted to be. I don’t remember the details of what he said, but I recall the reverence with which he spoke, the deep connection he had with the work, not just as an album of rock songs but as a true work of artistic expression that had left an impression still palpable some 30 years later. It was like hearing a Catholic priest speak of seeing St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time.

I was already a fan of The Jimi Hendrix Experience album Are You Experienced?, so I knew immediately that I had to get Axis: Bold as Love. In this case, the chances are likely that I would have purchased this album at some point – so maybe he doesn’t precisely fit the FPIP definition. But I still can’t hear this record without thinking of that guy, and feeling lucky to have met him, and in a way I still consider him responsible for my love of this album, and deepening my appreciation of Jimi.

I was already familiar with this album’s cover because my high school buddy, Josh, had used it to decorate our room in 11th grade World Cultures class when we had “India Day.” The story goes that Jimi didn’t particularly care for the artwork, as nobody in the band had any Indian heritage (apart from Jimi’s Native American “Indian” lineage). And although depicting the band members as gods of the third largest religion on Earth is undoubtedly offensive to many4, it’s still a pretty cool-looking album.

Cool-looking though it may be, Axis: Bold as Love starts off rather cornily with a sort of amusing, kind of pointless, though maybe sort of wild-for-its-time skit, called “EXP,” about aliens that allows Hendrix to make some futuristic sounds with his guitar. But more importantly, it serves as a prelude to the cool groove of “Up from the Skies.”

It starts with a jazzy, brush-stick intro from fabulous drummer Mitch Mitchell, and Jimi begins singing right away. This is perfect because it allows me to state immediately that Hendrix’s acknowledged guitar virtuosity has overshadowed the fact that he’s actually a terrific singer! On this song he’s expressive and controlled as he takes the voice of the alien in “EXP” to ask us all about our life here on Earth, and why it’s so degraded since the last time he visited. Behind the outer-space words is some fantastic wah-wah guitar that subtly distorts the sound of the entire song – giving me a feeling of bobbing in water. The drumming – I can’t say enough about Mitchell. Hear for yourself just 15 seconds of brilliance, between 0:30 and 0:45. Jimi’s solo beginning at 2:25 – I need better words to describe his playing. Those who think Hendrix was only about guitars lit on fire and playing with his teeth must listen to this solo: restrained and lovely, incorporating both the wah pedal and studio panning to achieve its full effect.

Next up is a song in a heavier vein, the type for which Hendrix is perhaps more well-known: “Spanish Castle Magic.”

It sounds like early heavy metal, based around one chunky riff doubled by bassist Noel Redding. The lyrics are purported to be about an old rock club on the outskirts of Seattle, called The Spanish Castle, where Hendrix played as a high schooler, but I’m thinking they might also have to do with Jimi’s use of LSD. Regardless of their content, I’m always amazed at how Jimi can sing and play guitar so well at the same time5. In this and many songs, the melody he sings is a different rhythm than what his hands are playing – and sometimes his hands are doing additionally crazy things. I recognize that in a studio overdubs are used to make this task easier, but Jimi pulled off this shit live, too!

These two songs are examples of the two main styles in which The Jimi Hendrix Experience traffics: 1) gentle, subtle grooves; and 2) heavy riffs; both based in the blues and both with brilliant guitar. One of the most well-known Type 1 songs is the beautiful “Little Wing.”

It’s a song loved by guitar players, with a sound lifted by many artists over the years. When I listen closely to what Hendrix is playing, I understand why my FPIP was so overwhelmed. At first listen, it sounds rather simple. But when you focus in on his subtle bends and arpeggiated strumming you recognize how advanced the playing is. For example, the 20 seconds before the solo – at about 1:20 to 1:40. His playing doesn’t even sound like fingers and a pick on strings – it sounds like it’s just emanating from him. (By the way, he also played the glockenspiel on the piece6!) The lyrics were apparently inspired by “… a very sweet girl that came around that gave me her whole life and more if I wanted it,” Hendrix stated. “And me with my crazy ass couldn’t get it together.” As with many Hendrix lyrics, the meaning isn’t immediately apparent from the actual words … but who cares? It still sounds beautiful.

I love “Little Wing,” and am in fact drawn to all the mellower songs on the album. Perhaps my favorite is the evocative “One Rainy Wish.”

The guitar in this song is wonderful. Much has been made of Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and his ability to make his guitar sound like rockets and bombs. In “One Rainy Wish,” his guitar doesn’t sound like rainfall, but it conjures rainfall imagery, with its cascading descending runs and wavy bends, giving the listener the feeling of standing in the rain. The mellow 3/4 time of the verse kicks into a more raucous 4/4 in the chorus (at about 1:13), and Jimi solos through the whole thing. Drummer Mitch Mitchell plays a distant-thunder roll on his tom at about 1:57 to bring it back to the drizzly verse, a seamless transition of the type the band makes easily throughout the songs on the album. I get chills at the guitar in this song, and it makes me wonder if I have ASMR. It’s another Jimi-style, dreamy love song, with lyrical content (“you were under the tree of song / Sleeping so peacefully / In your hand a flower played”) that could only be written by one man.

Another magical piece – and the more I think about it, “magical” is a great way to describe this album. It seems to get better and better and reveal more and more with every listen! – is the spiritual “Castles Made of Sand,” with its slice of life lyrics that together urge the listener to seize the day – for it all could wash away tomorrow. This song features some backwards guitar, and once again Mitchell’s drumming is tight. But come on: just go back and listen to his guitar playing during the “castles made of sand” sections – 0:47, 1:25, 2:13 – tell me that’s not just otherworldly brilliance? I get carried away – I almost forgot to post the song.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience only had one Billboard Top 40 song, but it is useful to remember that the band WAS a POP BAND, writing songs contemporaneously to artists like The Grass Roots and The Cowsills, and some of the songs on Axis: Bold as Love clearly seem to be Jimi’s attempts at writing a pop song. Of course, being Jimi Hendrix, the result isn’t exactly “Sugar Sugar.” “You Got Me Floatin’” has too much Jimi vocal style and overdriven guitar, wild Mitch Mitchell drumming and a Noel Redding bass solo to ever be mistaken for Neil Diamond. “Ain’t No Tellin’” is a radio-friendly one-minute-fifty, but it has those triplets the kids can’t dance to, and a section (beginning about 0:46) of jazzy chord changes, and so much smoking guitar that Cousin Brucie would’ve blown out his headphones. The weakest of these pop songs is the one written by bassist Noel Redding, “She’s So Fine,” which actually sort of sounds like a 60s pop song. Mitch and Jimi do what they can on it, including Jimi’s soloing (about 1:30 and 2:12), in which he seems to be saying, “Fuck that shit, Noel, let me take over.”

One song I find really interesting on Axis: Bold as Love is the rather humorous offering, “Wait Until Tomorrow.” It tells the tale of our hero wooing the lovely Dolly Mae, who continues to ask him to wait … until Dolly Mae’s dad’s gun finally puts an end to the relationship.

It’s got a terrific riff, some excellent Mitchell fills toward the end, and is one in a long line of songs (“Hey Joe,” “Machine Gun”) Hendrix played that featured gun violence, and they each approached the topic differently. “Little Miss Lover” at first seems like a throwaway song, until about 1:07, when he plays a killer riff and a solo that – frankly – deserves a better song behind it!

The only songs left to discuss are two serious songs, key in the Hendrix Canon (in my humble opinion.) First there’s the trippy journey of “If 6 Was 9,” not one of Hendrix’s best lyrical outputs, but I couldn’t give a hoot about that.

This entire album is very “headphone worthy,” offering more sonic tidbits with every listen. But “If 6 Was 9” is particularly great on headphones, with a guitar that almost sounds like it’s inside a tin can – but in a really cool, positive way. Right around 1:40 the guitar builds, and then Noel Redding gets to play some scales on the bass that whirl and expand, and provide a kind of tether for Jimi’s guitar atmospherics. Jimi gives a little chuckle at about 2:52 that – coupled with all the guitar on this record – always makes me think he knows a lot more about everything than I’ll ever know … That’s the best I can explain it. Even Mitchell’s drum solo afterwards can’t beat that feeling out of me. At 3:56 Hendrix begins to bring it all home, creating flutes, industrial sounds, outer space chirps … it’s the kind of song I’d have HATED as a Middle Schooler, because it would’ve scared the shit out of me. But I love it now.

The album closes with “Bold as Love” – a sort of poetic salute to rainbows, whose lyrics I don’t try to understand – I just sit back and enjoy them because they create something beautiful.

“They’re all bold as love,” he sings – and who can argue with that? I’m glad this is the last song to write about because I don’t know how many different ways I can say “Boy, he’s a really excellent, moving guitarist!” Listen at 1:46 how he approaches the solo with a run, and how the solo seems to end the song at 2:40, until a coda begins that takes the song to a new level. It’s one of the most perfect album-ending tracks I know. Satisfying, it somehow says “goodbye,” not so much in words, but just as plainly as the alien in “EXP” said “hello.” As the track fades, I’m always left feeling like The Jimi Hendrix Experience may have actually been from outer space, and may have arrived here for the sole purpose of guiding us listeners to a very, very happy place.

It’s not unlike those FPIPs in your life, who seem like they were visiting you and only you to direct things, to set you on your course. You don’t need to know their names, you don’t need to know how they knew to give you that important information. All you need to do is hold them in your memory, and hope you can be as helpful to others as they were to you. If you can get someone to become a fan of Axis: Bold as Love, you’ve done something wonderful.

Track Listing:
“EXP”
“Up From the Skies”
“Spanish Castle Magic”
“Wait Until Tomorrow”
“Ain’t No Telling”
“Little Wing”
“If 6 Was 9”
“You Got Me Floatin'”
“Castles Made of Sand”
“She’s So Fine”
“One Rainy Wish”
“Little Miss Lover”
“Bold as Love”

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Filed under Albums 50 - 41

3 Responses to 50th Favorite Album

  1. Frank DePalma

    I enjoyed that one quite a bit,Eric.I bought it on cassette around 1983 and gave it a cd upgrade in the 90’s.Its always been a favorite.Listen to the “Wait until tomorrow” from that BBC set I gave you.Truly fantastic.

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