39th Favorite Album

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Are You Experienced. The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
1967, Track Records. Producer: Chas Chandler.
Purchased (MCA Records 1993 edition), 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: Mr. James Marshall Hendrix is such a unique musical force that at times I swear he must be from a different planet. He can play any style of song, sings wonderfully and his playing resonates with me in a way that few others can emulate. It’s as if the words his guitar sing make more sense than those his voice sings. And Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding are simply one of the greatest rhythm sections ever – able to match and support Jimi’s brilliance.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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“Just be yourself,” is advice that Americans are given all the time, and it is generally excellent advice, particularly when applied to the “big-picture” aspects of life: sexual orientation; finding true love; choosing a career. It’s advice given by both high school students and folks on their deathbeds. Big thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote brilliantly to persuade us. Funny guys like Bernie Mac said the same thing in fewer words.

In the 21st century, the advice has become so ingrained that it’s achieved two particularly American forms of cultural affirmation: advertising and backlash. “Just Be Yourself” is the rather contradictory pitch for selling such hugely popular, herd-endorsed products as Coca-Cola, Converse sneakers, and Subway1. High-end products advise you to, apparently, just be your very wealthy self. Teeny-bopper body-spray gives your self a pause to think before you stink2. Advertisers know that Americans relish their identity as unique individuals, and that we’re complex enough to buy the world’s most popular soda in order to express it. (To be fair, I doubt that anyone watches an ad and runs out to buy a product. And to be extra fair, it’s not just Americans.)

The backlash comes mostly from people who seem obtuse enough (or get paid to appear obtuse enough) to take a global, general idea and misapply it to specific instances where it clearly won’t apply. (Saying everything that pops into your head isn’t what being yourself means, it’s what being a dick means). Others set a strict definition for what “Be Yourself” means, then set out to show why that definition is bullshit.

In a country like America, with no true native identity except the bit that remained after European conquest, one would think that being yourself would have been encouraged and valued since the days of powdered wigs. But while a few quirky individuals were celebrated for their nonconformance – men like Ben Franklin and Andrew Jackson – most people felt the surest path to success was to identify the norm and hew to it closely.

But by the mid-1900s, the devastation of conformity was being explored in culture and media. Sci-fi novels like Brave New World; realist dramas like Death of a Salesman; non-fiction collections like Notes of a Native Son; and countless other sources explored questions of difference, human purpose and The Self.

By the end of the 60s, the Civil Rights movement, Feminism and the Hippie movement were all parts of a changing American landscape that encouraged people to break from established (and myth-based, it must be said) expectations. The 70s brought a wave of pop psychology movements, such as est and Primal Therapy, that further encouraged people to strive for their authentic self. By the 80s, celebrities from Bob Hope to Magic Johnson were singing songs to kids in public service messages around the idea.

Rock and roll music started as outsider music. As such, a large part of its purpose was to elevate the self, to push the theme of the “Us” of individuals vs. the “Them” of conformity. Early rock and roll songs, like “Yakety Yak” and “Summertime Blues,” flipped the bird at conformity; 60s girl groups sang songs about rebels. By the late 60s and early 70s, freak flags were flying and individuality was downright expected – at least in our artists and musicians.

Still, artists continued to encourage us all – because it probably can’t be said enough – to “just be yourself.” During my music listening years artists from British synth-poppers, to R&B funk bands, to heavy-metal growlers, to Irish folk-rockers, to alternative supergroups have continued to pound away on the message. Current superstar Frank Ocean even included a voicemail from his friend’s mom about it on his latest album.

Yet despite all this encouragement, and all the pressure placed on Americans from every cultural source, despite even the efforts of most American parents since the latter half of the 20th century, the journey to becoming one’s true self continues to be difficult. In my lifetime, I can think of only a few people who seemed entirely comfortable following the “Be Yourself” guidance at all times, and the first example I came across in my life – and perhaps still the best example – is my schoolboy friend Josh.

Josh has come up before in these pages – as one of the kids in high school who warned me the new Robert Plant/Jimmy Page collaboration would probably suck. I first met him in 6th grade, the year the three elementary schools in my hometown school district flowed together as tributaries to the main river of Cedar Crest Middle and High Schools. He was a friend of my fifth grade buddy, Bruce, and that’s how I met him. He was striking and unforgettable – even as a sixth grader.

He was taller than everyone – well over 6 feet by the time we graduated – with brown hair that sprouted from his head like a lawn left untouched during a two-week vacation. By 11th grade his unkempt hair had been groomed into a disciplined battalion of standing hair, giving him a look somewhere between Billy Idol and The Fonz. (His hair was dense and sturdy, allowing him to stand playing cards in it – a skill that I alerted Late Night with David Letterman about for their Stupid Human Tricks segment. They called me, but he was too young to appear on the show.) He mostly wore flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled severely, up past his elbows, and he tucked those shirts into old, worn-out jeans or slacks that he cinched tightly around his waist. He clearly was not attempting to fit into any popular fashion style, nor did he seem aware that such considerations existed among the rest of us. This has remained constant in the 40 years I’ve known him.

He talked slowly, walked slowly, moved slowly, belying the speed at which his brain worked. You see, he was also brilliant. (Something else that has remained constant.) His breadth of knowledge was astounding, its depth remarkable. By high school he could discuss the influence of Mao’s wives on Far East politics with the World Cultures teacher; quadratic equations on imaginary numbers with the Calculus teacher; Bundesliga soccer with the gym teacher; and Bugs Bunny and Mad Magazine with me – all within the space of an hour. And yet, because of his appearance, I still had friends in other grades who thought I was hanging out with someone from the Special Ed classes3. He read constantly, doodled incessantly, laughed frequently and told stories better than most professional speakers. He’s the kind of person that – 35 years later – if you today spoke to any student, teacher, staff or administrator from the school at that time, they’d immediately say, “Oh, Josh? Oh yeah, I remember him!” and then regale you with an improbable tale of either his brain, his stories or his style4. He was truly himself – more so than anyone I’ve personally ever known.

And the only music he listened to was Jimi Hendrix. This was unusual for a high schooler in the early 1980s. Back then, in my hometown, at my public high school, boys tended to listen to pre-hairband heavy metal – your Judas Priests, Iron Maidens, Scorpionses – or Top 40 – your Michael Jacksons, Madonnas, Huey Lewis & the Newses – or 70s Classic Rock – your Journeys, Led Zeppelins, Styxes5. And pretty much everyone who had it watched MTV.

But not Josh. He claimed Jimi was the only artist worth listening to, and he lived that ideal to a degree such that even though he knew everything about everything else, if asked about music videos or trending acts like The Police or Prince or Ratt he knew very little beyond the fact that they couldn’t hold a candle to Jimi. (The only other artist I heard him praise in high school was a then-little-known blues guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan, who Josh knew before anyone else heard the name.) I associate Josh with Jimi Hendrix not only because of his fervent fandom, but also because both are so much their own unique selves. Josh and Jimi were both like no one who I’d seen before.

Though he was a great friend, I didn’t go along with his fervor right away. In fact, I used to tease him quite a bit about his Jimi-thing – even though most people would agree that my taste was far more suspect. I bought Are You Experienced in the early 90s when it was re-released – an event that seems to happen every few years. And I eventually caught the Jimi bug myself. This is the third Jimi album on my list (he’s the second artist, after Elvis Costello, accorded such an internationally distinguished honor), and it hasn’t gotten any easier to write about what makes him so special to me.

Jimi’s playing and singing connects with me on a level that is not really intellectual. It’s a feeling I get from direct communication via his guitar. There are some artists – Bob Dylan comes to mind – that many fans love because the words are so meaningful, who’s music, these fans believe, is sometimes awesome, sometimes very good, but either way his words carry the weight. This is how Hendrix’s guitar is for me – not simply the playing, but what the playing is communicating. I love many guitar players, am astounded by their cool sounds and incredible talent, but Jimi’s playing truly speaks to me. Take, for example, “May This Be Love.”

This is a gentle song, one of my favorites on the record, that – as with every track – actually showcases drummer Mitch Mitchell; in this case, his subtle genius. (Other songs will demonstrate his bombastic genius!) But I am drawn to the guitar. After the initial squiggly scales, and within the first 35 seconds, the basic guitar pattern is set: descending runs and arpeggios supporting the waterfall lyrics. To me, however, it’s more like the lyrics were tagged on to support what the guitar is saying. It happens again at about 1:07, after he sings “lazy-minded fools,” and the guitar plays a looping run. What the guitar is saying seems far more direct than the lyrics. But the solo, beginning at 1:52 and supported by incredible rhythm guitar from himself, is where I really find myself aware of the connection.

The lyrics are dreamy in that one, but even in songs with a direct story line Jimi’s guitar is the main voice I hear. As in, for example, the old-school blues of “Red House.”

It’s the basic blues story of girl-done-left-me-but-I-got-a-backup, and Jimi sings it really well6. But his guitar sings it even better, with a tone that’s somehow both clean and distorted. The solo beginning at 2:13 is both cool and moving and, combined with all the fills throughout, lifts the song beyond “simple” blues.

But of course, it’s not just Jimi playing – it’s a band. And rhythm section Mitchell and Noel Redding are a dynamic pair that more than hold their own playing with the master. The song “Manic Depression,” another of my favorites, is a drum song that ended up on a guitar album.

It’s a riff-based song that Mitchell takes over. His driving rhythm and fills propel the song forward – what he does after 2:30 is fabulous. The guitar riff itself is cool, plus so long that it backs the entire verses. I have no idea how he sang (lyrics) and played this at the same time. (Which he did live, as this horrible-sounding recording shows.) I don’t know if Jimi had manic depression, but I feel like this song has helped me with whatever is going on in my head.

Another song that I’ve enjoyed hearing (and playing with Dr. Dave and our band JB & the So-Called Cells) is “Fire,” which is another hot one (sorry) from this album. It’s similar to “Manic Depression” in that it’s got incredible drums behind a riff-heavy song.

Of course The Jimi Hendrix Experience was a 60s pop act, and they always place their versions of 60s pop on every album. “Can You See Me” is one of these songs.

But their versions always sound heavier, weirder … better than what most others were doing with pop songs then. The lyrics hint at Jimi’s origins from outer space7. But once again, his guitar says more than the words.

His guitar really talks to me on the song “Love or Confusion,” where he uses it, plus all the effects available in a 1967 recording studio, to create something almost orchestral. There’s a symphony of guitars surrounding Noel Redding’s bouncing bass. Jimi solos behind his singing, and when the song modulates at 1:27 it sounds even more orchestral than before. The whole song is a burst of energy.

I Don’t Live Today” is similarly orchestral in its approach to guitars, with layers of droning and sustained chords. It also has a nice riff and a great drum freakout by Mitchell, after about 2:30. “Remember” is a great pop song in which Jimi astounds in what he plays while simultaneously singing.

There are a couple other terrific, famous songs on Are You Experienced. The first track is the sultry “Foxy Lady.”

With its shimmering opening, chugging pace and whispering “Foxy,” it’s become a song that immediately says “swingin’ 60s” to me. I love the guitar fill at the end of each chorus, for example about 0:58. The band sounds terrific, and once again Jimi’s swaggering voice is put to good use. It’s a great song, not too unusual. What is unusual is the lead track, “Are You Experienced?”8

This song is one I used to tease Josh about, for its unconventional, industrial sounds didn’t seem like music to my high school ears. It’s another song in which Mitch Mitchell’s subtle playing amazes as much as Jimi’s inventiveness. He plays a marshal beat while Jimi’s symphony of guitars rings and noodles over a droning guitar scratch. At 1:41 Hendrix offers to “prove” he’s experienced, and what he does with that guitar demonstrates an experience that seems to come from behind the stars. (More on that in a bit.) I used to tell Josh that I preferred Devo’s version of the song. It’s not true, but I do like the way they squeeze in the melody from “Third Stone From the Sun.”

With Jimi’s guitar saying so much, you may wonder why he even bothers to include lyrics9. In that case the perfect song for you – and simply a perfect song – is the beautiful “Third Stone From the Sun.”

From the opening chord, a wondrous soundscape is created, then at 0:33 Jimi plays a little riff that signals the beginning of the main melody. I highly encourage you to listen to this song in headphones and listen to the solo beginning at 1:25 and the otherworldly spoken words behind the guitar. Noises and sounds flow through much of the rest of the song, swirling and buzzing around your ears. There’s a program on TV about the “Ancient Alien” idea, in which the claim is made that aliens arrived hundreds of thousands of years ago to either start off the human race or speed along its technological development. I typically think it is bullshit, but if they had an episode exploring whether aliens deposited Jimi Hendrix on Earth, and they used this song as evidence, I think I’d believe them. Actually, they could use this entire album. And all of his others.

Maybe he does come from outer space. But if he does, then I think Josh did as well. But I strongly (strongly!) suspect neither did. I think they both had (have) the gift of an individual spirit, an understanding of themselves within the greater world, and that’s allowed them to do what so many of us strive for: to simply be Josh and be Jimi.

Track Listing:
Hey Joe“*
Stone Free“*
Purple Haze“*
51st Anniversary“*
The Wind Cries Mary“*
Highway Chile“*
“Foxy Lady”
“Manic Depression”
“Red House”
“Can You See Me”
“Love Or Confusion”
“I Don’t Live Today”
“May This Be Love”
“Fire”
“Third Stone From The Sun”
“Remember”
“Are You Experienced?”
* – Not on the original album, these are singles (A and B sides) that were added to the record for this MCA release. Although my rules state that I can’t include album extras in my judging, I’ve broken the rules before. And I probably did here, too!

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Filed under Albums 40 - 31

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