Band of Gypsys. Jimi Hendrix
1970, Capitol. Producer: Heaven Research (Jimi Hendrix)
IN A NUTSHELL – Masterful guitar work over soulful grooves creates a listening experience that is divinely spiritual. At least for me. Deep and meditative.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It’s so groovy to float around. Even a jellyfish will agree to that.
I’ve always been a bookworm. A word-nerd. I developed a love of reading at a very young age, fostered1 by two older sisters who took our childhood games of “School” – in which I was invariably the pupil – quite seriously. My choices were learn to read or be expelled. I learned to read.
A love of writing quickly developed from this love of reading. I liked the stories I read and decided it would be fun to come up with my own. The first piece of writing I remember feeling really proud about was a fifth grade assignment in which Mr. Keesey2 had us pull titles for stories out of a bag, and we were free to write anything about it. I pulled the title How I Won the War3 and wrote a story about sailing a hot air balloon over the Confederate troops in the Civil War and dropping bombs on them. It was so good that Mr. Keesey read it aloud to the class. I still remember how embarrassing it was when he read my sentence, “Back at the hospital, the nurses were helping me (fixing me up).” I should have done better. But more than that, I remember the other kids laughing at the funny parts and Mr. Keesey saying I had a future in writing.
From there it continued. Just as I imagine athletes must remember games going all the way back to their childhood4, I can remember stories I wrote going back to that Mr. Keesey story all the way up until yesterday. In eighth grade I wrote a funny story in which I was a CIA agent assigned to find President Reagan’s jellybeans. In twelfth grade I wrote a suspenseful story in which I foretold my own death in a dream. After college, I wrote a weird story in which Satan himself tricks me into becoming a fan of the then-perpetually-awful New Orleans Saints.5
Throughout my life I’ve kept writing – whether anyone has read anything I’ve written or not6. I think I’m pretty good at writing, and if nothing else I’m SURE that when it comes to communicating, I do it much better through writing than through speaking. Even when I did stand-up comedy – typically thought of as a speaking-heavy form of communication – my act was very dependent on scripted jokes, honed through performance, with very little in the way of ad-libbing. I feel very confident about my writing ability. I might not write better than a lot of other people, but I write better than I do a lot of other things.
But all the confidence in the world won’t help you if you can’t figure out what to write about! Entire books have been written about “Writer’s Block” – a well-known condition that has prevented writers both famous and obscure from starting or finishing their works. The authors of these books on Writer’s Block no doubt cured their own cases by using the subject as their topic – certainly an effective palliative for the malady’s typical cause: “I Don’t Know What to Write About!”
But I’ve been having a different problem, a problem I’ll still file under Writer’s Block, but caused by something else. Clearly I know what to write about: I spent more than a year listening to all my albums specifically so that I WOULD have a topic to write about. My problem – which has caused this blog to go un-updated for a bit longer than usual7 – is that I don’t know how to translate my feelings about Band of Gypsys into words. I have a lot to say about the record – but I don’t know how to say it on the page.
There is a famous quote, attributed (possibly incorrectly) to Mr. Barth Gimble himself, comedian Martin Mull, that goes “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And it truly can be as ridiculous as that quote makes it sound. There is much about the topic that can’t be put into words.
Music has invisible tendrils that insinuate themselves into one’s heart and soul, and press buttons there causing lights within to brighten and dim. Music feels important and necessary in ways that might sound goofy and strange to those whose buttons and lights operate differently. Your favorite songs might not have the power to stop everyone else in their tracks, but they mean something special to you. Nobody else may get why “Call Me Maybe” brings a tear to your eye, or how it is that “Raining Blood” makes your heart swell until it feels like it may burst through your chest and actually rain blood upon the room. And you could write 1,000 words about both songs and the reader still wouldn’t necessarily “get it.”
Still, I’ve pursued writing about these records because … I don’t know, really, but I like them, and I figure I’ll just say what it is I like about them. Okay, true, most of the time it’s “guitar sounds cool, the drummer’s really great and I love the melody.” Over and over. A few records have broken out of that mold, but for the most part my attraction to these records has been pretty consistent. And in all cases, I’ve been able to go through songs and state, “hear that riff there? That sounds cool. And those lyrics – I like them, as well.” This is because my love for these albums is almost entirely about my ears: what I hear goes through my ears and in my brain and makes me happy. True – some of the songs also reach my heart or soul8, but usually this touch is something I can translate into words, even if they’re as vague as “it really moves me.” I feel like I can generally convey what I like about the songs, even though I realize I’m not ever going to truly put the reader into my ears and brain and heart and “soul.”
But some music seems to bypass the ear and brain altogether (I said “seems to”), and shoot directly into the regions of one’s self that are difficult to describe, or even fully locate, but that are typically referred to as “heart and soul.” These nameless, indescribable regions inside are the destination of Band of Gypsys, an album attributed to Jimi Hendrix, but actually recorded as a live performance by the band that Jimi called A Band of Gypsys9.
Much like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, I feel like I’ve known Jimi Hendrix for my entire life. Before I knew what songs he sang or whether he was alive or dead, I could identify him as that African-American man in fringed clothes and a huge afro cinched by a dangly bandanna who did crazy stuff with his guitar. “Jimi Hendrix” was an identifiable form or shape, like a flower or a fireman. It was the costume my friend Andy wore to a Halloween party in 7th grade.
As I got older, I began to know more about him. In high school, my good friend Josh10 claimed that the only music he owned, and the only music he listened to other than the radio, was by Jimi Hendrix. (That is, until 1983, when Stevie Ray Vaughan appeared and released Texas Flood, which he immediately bought.) I listened to his songs on the radio (I’d say “Fire,” “Hey Joe,” and “Purple Haze” were most often played on AOR back in the 70s and 80s) and I liked him okay, but I never bought any of his records.
Then I went to college, and – as with so many musical aspects of my life – Dr. Dave helped guide the way. My recollection is that he fairly insisted that I listen to more Hendrix than I had by that point. I eventually bought the three studio albums by his band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. They are excellent albums. I played them a lot.
In the late 90s, I heard an interview on “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” with a popular author of crime novels named George Pelacanos. He was discussing his latest book, King Suckerman, and it sounded really good. I went out and bought it. Early in the story, one of the characters in the book, Marcus Clay, who owns a Washington, D.C., record store in 1976, discusses Jimi Hendrix with record store employee, Rasheed X.
Rasheed mentions that he thinks Hendrix’s music – which throughout his career had resided within the mostly Caucasian Rock Music genre – was headed toward soul and funk music when he died, and as proof offers up the album Band of Gypsys. This brief bit of dialogue – which really had nothing to do with the plot, but was simply a humorous vignette to provide background on two characters (astutely demonstrating the characters’ relationship, their in-depth musical knowledge, their perception of identity and their respective positions on the intersection of politics and business in 1976 Washington D.C., all in less than a page) – was enough to make me think I’d better go out and buy Band of Gypsys.
Band of Gypsys is a live album, documenting 4 shows in two nights by the band at The Fillmore East, in New York City. The recordings took place on December 31, 1969, and January 1, 1970 – as unconditional a transition between the 60s and 70s as there could possibly be. Hendrix was performing with a drummer and bassist perhaps unfamiliar to fans of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, respectively11. While my research shows they did play a few songs familiar to Hendrix’s fans, it was six new songs that made it onto the record: four Hendrix compositions, and two by drummer Miles.
The songs are lengthy, with simple structures that lend themselves well to extensive jamming and soloing by the band. Most of the songs are built on a single riff that serves as a sort of departure point and landing spot for Hendrix’s virtuosic flights.
These flights are what connect so deeply with me. I have a hard time putting into words what it is about Jimi’s playing that sets him apart from so many guitarists, that causes his sound to vibrate within me. I asked Dr. Dave himself – one of several guitar-playing friends, but the one I’ve known the longest – if he could explain it (“on the record”) from a guitarist’s perspective, and he put it this way:
At first blush the answer seems very easy but as I put pen to paper it becomes impossible to word it. Let’s face it, who’s to say Tommy Scholz isn’t a great guitarist – but is he great like Hendrix? Of course not. This situation is pretty abstract and I guess it is why it’s difficult. (Heck, you yourself touted the guy from Sonic Youth. How do feel about what you wrote last week and this question?)12
… Hendrix for me makes me realize I could never be (not just play) like him. Everything about his style of singing, voicing, guitar playing, choice of words, diction, mood is what touches something inside me.
I might hear a tune in the car and immediately get into this funky feeling that makes me keep beat and make a grooving face. Visceral. Yes, visceral. Nothing by Hendrix is forced. It’s more intuitive, devoid of an intellect (if you will) despite his genius.
Yea, that’s it. I’ll go with that. (Oh, and he is fucking awesome!)
So even a guitar player has a similar reaction to mine upon hearing him. Dr. Dave didn’t say “the way he plays a suspended 9th chord …” or “his deft plectrum work …” or “the glissando he plays beneath the arpeggiated blah blah blah …” No, he used the word “visceral.” This is the exact word I had in mind about Band of Gypsys when I asked Dr. Dave his opinion.
There is a response generated within me to the music, a response that I haven’t been able to adequately state on the page. I’ve spent some time trying, and I’ve been unhappy with the results. The writing never captures what it is about the music that makes me so happy.
I think of how a religious Christian person must feel about the Bible. Sure, I could write a hundred thousand words about what Jesus says, and what the stories mean, and the effect it has on me, but the book itself is going to be so much more important and meaningful to me than anything I could write for you. The best I could really do to try to make you understand is to ask you to read the book for yourself.
So I think all I can do is place links to the songs here, and let you hear for yourself. I’ll mention a few things about each song, but I can’t really say anything about them that Jimi doesn’t say twenty-three times better with his guitar.
So as famed director Marty DiBergi said, “… enough of my yakkin’. Let’s boogie!”
The first song on the album is “Who Knows.”
It’s a riff-rocker, featuring drummer Buddy Miles as co-lead vocalist. Jimi’s solos – at about 2:50 and especially the one at 6:39 – are two of the many indispensible Jesus parables of this Bible of a record. Also – for a “WTF?” segment that always amuses, but somehow gets less weird with each listen – check out Miles’s scat-solo from 4:47.
Next up is the classic song “Machine Gun.”
Jimi dedicates it to “the soldiers fighting in Chicago …” presumably the Chicago 8, who were on trial at the time of the recording, and “oh yes, all the soldiers fighting in Viet Nam …” It’s a clear anti-war song by a US Army veteran. The solo that runs from around 4 minutes to 7:45 – offering a sonic description of a battlefield that by 5 minutes becomes the most beautiful or horrible guitar solo I’ve ever heard – well, I just sat here for 7 minutes trying to think of what to write about it. I should just refer to these passages like people do with Bible verses: “John 3:16.” For example, “In the Book of Band of Gypsys, I think Machine Gun 4:00 – 7:45 says it all.”
The third song is a fun one written by drummer Miles, “Changes.”
Changes, 2:02 – 3:06.
Next up, “Power to Love,” which was renamed “Power of Soul” on the reissue.
This song has riff that almost sounds like a mistake, and excellent singing and playing together. Hendrix has always been an underrated singer, I believe. His guitar prowess can overshadow an excellent vocal style. How he remembers lyrics like “reap the waves of reality,” and words about jellyfish floating, while at the same time playing the things he plays … it seems super-human, like walking on water. Power To Love 3:00 – 3:49. Way cool key change from 5:19-5:25.
Up next, Message of Love, which was renamed Message to Love in reissue.
Holy cow. Holy Jimi. Message of Love 1:13 – 2:42.
The closing song is “We Gotta Live Together.”
Amen and amen.
I suppose one would think that the more an album’s invisible tendrils push one’s impalpable buttons, the better it will be. However, just as an album full of catchy, fun pop songs might be too much of a good thing, the same can be said of those tendrils and buttons. Sometimes you might not want to feel music, you might just want to hear it. This is why the album isn’t ranked higher on my list. My appreciation of Band of Gypsys is definitely linked to my mood. There are times in my life when this album would be Top Ten, hands down, and times where it might not scratch my favorite 10-dozen. Like many people from all faiths, sometimes my religion is imperative and sometimes I almost forget.
I don’t expect you to fully understand – it’s a record that’s meaningful to me for reasons I can’t adequately explain – but whether it moves you or not, I think we can agree that Hendrix’s guitar work is astonishing. Dr. Dave once visited a new guitar teacher who, when told that his prospective student was interested in playing like Hendrix, responded, “Really? He was mostly just a showman.” Dr. Dave restrained himself from responding with violence, but this is the kind of statement that makes me want to go Jihad on someone. But then I think of Band of Gypsys, Chapter Machine Gun, Verses 4:00 – 7:45 and I know that violence isn’t the answer.
Power to Love
Message of Love
We Gotta Live Together