After three decades of confusion, the legacy of rock’s greatest instrumentalist is finally coming into focus. The Hendrix family have been working, ever since they took over the musician’s estate in 1990, to redraw Jimi Hendrix’s back catalogue and negotiate the labyrinthine recording projects of the last two years of his life - almost none of which was released in his lifetime. A CD and DVD of Hendrix’s performance at Berkeley in 1970 have already been released; still to come is a recording of his gig at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1969.
In addition, jazz writer Keith Shadwick has published a major new book, Jimi Hendrix: Musician.
Where previous books on Hendrix tended to focus on the rocker of legend over the music itself, Shadwick plumps firmly for the latter. A teenager when Hendrix died in September 1970, he still remembers the initial impact of the artist’s music - as do many from his generation.
“From the moment I first heard Hendrix,” he tells me, “it was a universal language. It went right through your spine and told you it was important.”
Shadwick and I meet in Handel House, the flat on Brook Street in London’s West End where Shadwick has curated an exhibition of rarely seen photographs, ranging from Gered Mankowitz’s first portraits of the Experience in London in 1967 through to Baron Wolfman’s last-ever shots of them in New York in 1970. It is a peculiar fact about Hendrix that his look - the image - refuses to date. The candid photos of him and his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham taken in the flat upstairs from the show remain vital, curiously timeless. His audience, too, continues to refresh itself. Visitors to the show range from 16-year-olds to 60-something veterans of
rock’s first rave.
Many of the pictures appear in Shadwick’s coffee-table book, which explores in detail Hendrix’s confused musical chronology: it takes us from the racially segregated chitlin’ circuit that Hendrix worked in early-1960s America, through his years on the Nashville R&B scene, to the worldwide onslaught of the Experience, the short-lived triumphs of Band of Gypsies and beyond, ending with the last confused years of almost unceasing recording, jamming, and performance that preceded his cruel and pointless death.
Thanks to Shadwick’s research, Hendrix’s musical genius jumps into sharp focus: we can see exactly where he came from, and how far he really went. Which, as Shadwick suggests, is all the way. “Bill Evans said that only a few people transcend their era to become a musician for all time. I wanted to show that Hendrix wasn’t just a wild man of rock, but an artist of great genius and dignity whose music will outlive us all.”
That belief is shared by Robert Wyatt, who as Soft Machine’s drummer toured with the Experience through America and supported their concerts at the Albert Hall in 1969. “There’s one thing that gets overlooked,” he says.
“It was a group. It was the Experience. Mitch’s drumming had a breezy openness, and Noel was a wonderful anchor. People say he wasn’t a virtuoso bass player but he always knew where he was. Non-musicians tend to underestimate that quality.”
The Albert Hall recordings - promised for earlier this year, but now postponed to next spring - have existed in poor-quality bootlegs for years. It was the Experience’s last-ever British performance. The show was recorded for immediate release - Hendrix himself mastered some of the live cuts - but the film was only ever shown once before disappearing into a legal labyrinth, and the recordings followed suit. Though a release date for the film has yet to be announced, the original multi-track recordings should prove a revelation of the band’s power, and in particular Hendrix’s blues playing.
Peter Hammill of Van der Graaf Generator had barely any stage experience before he found himself supporting Hendrix on his second Albert Hall appearance, the one preserved for posterity. He recalls little of that night - neither his own opening set, nor the music Hendrix played - but one image has stayed with him that, he feels, sums up the guitarist’s visceral impact.
“There was a stack of Marshall amps. Two big roadies were behind them, peering over at Hendrix at the front of the stage holding his Strat in the air. He looked so incredibly frail. Then he came towards them and I remember these two burly guys reeling back as he toppled the whole lot over. That was the entire deal about Hendrix. He was an elemental source. Somehow he evoked this force - I’m not talking about magic or the counter-culture or anything - but he was invoking the force that he imposed when he was on stage, especially in that era.’‘
The Albert Hall show would not only be the Experience’s UK swan song, but Hendrix’s last appearance in England until the Isle of Wight more than 18 months later, by which time the sound of his music was the sound of a man and an epoch unravelling into white noise and brutalist amplification. What we hear on the bootlegs - and what we will hear in full multi-track glory when the official release comes out - is a heavily percussive, open-form music, breaking the tight structures of his songs into a vast space of fertile improvisation. Cutting, polyrhythmic solos bristle with the whoop and wail of white noise, pure electronic signal vying with complex harmonics and killer riffs. It is as if Hendrix were conducting electricity itself.
In contrast, the May 1970 concert at Berkeley - released in its entirely, and in the original concert sequence - has a warmth and subtlety missing in the previous year’s performance. This is especially so in what were then his new, unreleased songs: Machine Gun, Straight Ahead and New Rising Sun. The accompanying DVD, shot by four cameramen on acid (literally), is a fascinating period piece, combining sometimes abruptly edited performance footage and gyrating close-ups with the riots going on outside the theatre. Inside, the audience beat time with their hands on the stage just a few feet from where Hendrix stood, on the Persian carpet that was the band’s one prop.
“Like Miles Davis, he always wanted people to push beyond what they knew,’’ says Wyatt. ``I played hundreds of gigs with him, and he would always make your hair stand on end. I didn’t realise that nothing like that would ever come along again, at that time. And how lucky was that?”—GUARDIAN NEWSPAPERS LIMITED 2003