Earth, Space, Hendrix: The Most Significant Album Ever

Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival, August 1970. Credit: Evening Standard/Getty Images.

hide captionJimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970.

Evening Standard/Getty Images

August 1967 was the height of the Summer of Love. It was also the crowning month of an amazing year of music. It was the year Pink Floyd released its first album. The Stones released several. There was the Monterey Pop Festival. Plus, there was a little album from the Beatles that was dropped to, oh, a bit of notice.

Also, the most significant music album ever was released in the U.S. on Aug. 23.

That was when America was introduced to the absolutely astounding debut record from 24-year-old Johnny Allen Hendrix. Jimi, to the world. At a time when both musicians-as-artists, as well as studio recording techniques, were evolving at an accelerated pace, Hendrix possessed a singularity. As a self-taught guitarist — left-handed, no less, on a flipped Fender Stratocaster as opposed to a true left-handed guitar — he was an unparalleled virtuoso. Beyond his sheer ability, what made Hendrix Hendrix was the absolute fearlessness of a nuke scientist he owned when it came to mixing and blending styles. Rhythm and blues, free jazz, soul, rock... A cocktail he called the melding of earth and space — earth being the music itself, space being a psychedelic approach to phrasing, playing and recording. Added to all that was Hendrix himself — the hair, the clothes, the casual attitude toward life, the open use of and references to drugs and the obsession for creating perfect music.

Hendrix's musical philosophy is put on raw display in an album that is track by track nearly flawless. "Purple Haze," "Manic Depression," "Hey Joe" ... Side two begins with the soulful "The Wind Cries Mary," then launches into what is the greatest straight-ahead rock piece ever written: "Fire." Rounding out the album are "Foxy Lady" and "Are You Experienced?" In between and among all that is a tour de force by a man who was born to invert expectations of music and who played what how.

And that is the prime significance of Are You Experienced? and Jimi Hendrix. There was, of course, no shortage of black music stars, particularly at that time when Motown was in full flower. However, there were few, if any, prominent black rock stars. To the contrary, the modus operandi of rock had been for white acts — be it Pat Boone or Elvis, the Beatles or the Stones — to lift from black R&B, repurpose the music and sell it to white audiences. Hendrix flipped the script, took the rock format, infused it with soul and funk and gave a visage of color to rock and roll.

The influence of his artistry was powerful and pervasive. A direct line can be drawn from Hendrix to nearly every guitar icon of the era: Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton (who would remain close friends with Jimi for the remainder of his life). It was Paul McCartney who got the Jimi Hendrix Experience — Jimi's ultra-lean band with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell — into the Monterey Pop Festival. At the festival, it was Stones' guitarist Brian Jones who introduced the Experience.

Unfortunately, no matter that Hendrix "stole back" black music and openly acknowledged and credited countless R&B legends who influenced him, like many blacks who live how they please, Hendrix was often accused of not being "authentically" black; of being a sellout for his style of music, for not having black band mates and for dating white chicks. Basically, he was given crap for being himself rather than the kind of black that others perceive and dictate black should be.

You'd think in 40 years such puerile questions of "authentic" blackness would have been long answered, then consigned to the potter's field of racial identity. Take a look at what nonsense Barack Obama still has to put up with, and you see that, sadly, they have not.

Changing racial politics was beyond even someone as unique as Hendrix. It's unfortunate his talents should be lost on those who see race more than they are able to hear music. The lesson, of course, is that if some would open their eyes and ears as wide as their mouths, they might learn something. For the rest, who have and who continue to allow themselves to be, well, experienced, they are the richer for it.

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When I was 14, Jimi Hendrix rocked my world. I think John Ridley has it right. Hendrix and musicians like him brought the generation closer together. Even the radical forces drew nearer. Black and white folfs locked arms with Martin Luther King Jr as he marched. My mother, a white woman, cried as we watched the news of his death on television. But in Hendrix was a center piece of that blending, among others, that filled out my musical world: Richie Havens, Sly & the Family Stone, Taj Mahal, Santana, the Chambers Bros... They all gave a music a greater legitimacy.

Sent by michael | 6:27 PM | 8-21-2007

His name was James Marshall Hendrix.

Sent by David Lippincott | 6:47 PM | 8-21-2007

As you would expect from NPR, the author got it right. He was born Johnny Allen Hendrix. His father changed it to James Marshall after his mother left the family.

Sent by Dave Funaro | 8:33 PM | 8-21-2007

Axis" Bold as Love is my fave.

Sent by buzz | 8:41 PM | 8-21-2007

In the spring of 1967, stuck in Cleveland, I was fed up with rock radio, bored, unable to find the music I knew what out there somewhere. I was waiting for my orders to report to a Navy ship - fortunately not bound for war. I was so desperate for real rock I quit looking, I tuned into a central Ohio C&W station and found out about Merle Haggard. Then came my orders and, within days my ship had left Newport, Rhode island, bound for Norway. I figured I would have to wait months to again hear anything as funky as "What a Shame" by the Stones or some old Hank Ballard or anything with emotion. We got to Bergen and I was fewer than 100 steps from the ship, right there on the dock in Norway when I found heaven. Three albums in a record store window - I had read about each but never had heard a note of them. "Fresh Cream," "Sgt. Pepper," and "Are You Experienced." I bought them all and spent my first foreign liberty buried in the music. The Brit version of Jimi's album also had "Red House" on it, and I must have listened to it fifteen times in a row. The last week of May 67 my disillusionment with American rock evapoated. For the moment.

Sent by Tom Corcoran | 10:51 PM | 8-21-2007

Thank you for writing about one of my musical heroes - and finding a way to mention Obama too - now could you please find a musical great parallel for Hillary - we need a woman president sooner rather than later too

Sent by Gary Young | 1:04 AM | 8-22-2007

He played left-handed. It wasn't upside down as the first paragraph suggests. He had his guitars custom made to look upside down but they were not.

Sent by N | 2:09 AM | 8-22-2007

James Marshall Hendrix wasn't his birth name. His father renamed him when he was a boy, as part of a custody fight with his mother.

Sent by andy carvin | 10:15 AM | 8-22-2007

He was born Johnny Allen Hendrix and later changed to James Marshall Hendrix.

Sent by Ross Casey | 10:58 AM | 8-22-2007

Aat the time,Hendrix was not really "a black man" representing a race. He was more a musical prophet and jester, somewhat parallel to the Beatles. He was somewhere out in front of music and in front of the counter-culture, which was defining itself, making leaps in all directions based on the experiments of its nominal leaders, people like The Beatles and Hendrix.

I think the psychedelic experience itself must have made it untenable for Hendrix to be "the black man" he was expected to be; instead it was opened to him to be something more universal and multi-dimensioned, that was not understandable to most people at the time, even though the concept was on people's lips.

There are two tendencies in his sound; one of them is that psychedelic limpidity, and the other is a blues-based "down" which can be noted in songs like Hey Joe and in a falling end-of-phrase mannerism that was much copied from Hendrix by singers and guitarists.

In the end, Hendrix had liberated electric guitar timbre and phrasing, up to a point, and it fell to others (among them George Harrison, Jimmy Page and Robert Fripp) to surpass the pioneer and move rock onward past its reliance on the blues vocabulary.

Sent by Robert | 11:03 AM | 8-22-2007

His complete name was James Marshall Hendrix. His father is James Al Hendrix.

Sent by Jim McDonald | 11:03 AM | 8-22-2007

For a young man who knows Barack Obama as a living figure and Jimmie Hendrix as always-been-dead - well said! It goes to show that my frustration with the treatment and comments about Obama by the black community are warranted.

Sent by Ryan Hoffman | 11:11 AM | 8-22-2007

When someone asks me what type of music genre I like, I typically tell them: Rap, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, and some alternative. BUT, an even better answer would be to say music infused with soul. Music so real that when I hear it, that artist or band is almost right next to me. Talking to ME, not the masses.

Jimi Hendrix is one of those artists. Every breath he takes, movement, you can feel it on the record. I remember a white friend introducing me to him my sophmore year of college, prior to that moment I had never heard of his music.

Hendrix is not only a legend, but an example of extraordinary talent and creativity. The kind of uniqueness that we need more of today in all walks of life. In relation to your Obabma comment, we should not shun his uniqueness, but understand and come to grips with it. Not try and pigeonhole it.

Sent by Rashid | 1:11 PM | 8-22-2007

Do you have this album?

Sent by Earl Coaston | 1:14 PM | 8-22-2007

"The lesson, of course, is that if some would open their eyes and ears as wide as their mouths, they might learn something."

Fantastic quote...

Our lives have been immeasurably enriched by the tragically short supernova of Jimi's music.

Thanks for the article...

Sent by Adam Sutton | 4:20 PM | 8-22-2007

"He played left-handed. It wasn't upside down as the first paragraph suggests. He had his guitars custom made to look upside down but they were not."

Actually, his first guitar was a right handed strat flipped upside down. Of course the strings still went from thickest(top) to thinnest(bottom) like normal guitars, but the nut was flipped to accommodate the inverted string thicknesses.

I dream of a day when perception of self is not guided by the arbitrations of societal concepts like race, but is a true projection of the inner self.

Sent by Smithers | 4:11 AM | 8-23-2007

One of the high points of my then young life was attending the Hendrix concert at the Baltimore Civic Center in 1969, amusing my young date by cheering like a madman till I was hoarse.

From the moment I first heard The Experience I was hooked, and still am, and my 21-year-old son likewise has been a fan for many years.

Visiting Hendrix's grave in Seattle last year, the gathering rain clouds summoned memories of the unrest and social injustices brought into focus in the 1960s.

What a shame that after all these years, we apparently still can't talk about Hendrix--or anything, it seems--without steeping the discussion in race and politics.

I'm not suggesting the injustices and racism have vanished--the opposite is true. But, one way we go beyond race, as so many enthusiastic Hendrix fans did in the 1960s, is to ignore it. Why can't we simply stick to the fact that he and his group were fantastic musicians? It doesn't mean we're blind to realities.

To do otherwise honors not his wonderful talent and abilities. It transforms his memory into a political tool, evoked for political purposes without his consent. This is hardly a satisfactory memorial; I fear it perpetuates racial discord, not heals it.

Sent by Dale | 9:49 AM | 8-23-2007

Being born in 1957 and having both an older brother and sister, I remember istening to "Are You Experienced" when it first came out. That was quite a musical education for a 10 year old kid.

A fantastic quote that I will always remember that was attributed to Jimi is "Knowledge speaks, but Wisdom listens".

Sent by Larry Popp | 11:23 AM | 8-23-2007

And don't forget 2nd and 3rd generations of guitarist icons whose style derives directly from Jimi: Stevie Ray Vaughn and John Mayer.

Sent by Doug | 12:27 PM | 8-23-2007

one drop of black blood is all you need to be black.were it not for that one drop...we who have been systematically raped..and especially in the southern slave states...would all be considered white.to give you an idea...when a group of hebrews and black nubian ethiopic egyptians passed by a group of midianites ...the midianites said, "there go the hebrews".if there was a difference...perhaps they would have said,"there go the hebrews and the egyptians."now in israel..blond russian khazars and askenazians...have usurped the role of the hamitic hebrews without anyone noticing.only the falash are still around to give the lie to the deception.that one drop rule is extremely powerful.if hendrix had his one drop and one kinky hair on his body...that is all the blackness he needs to be totally black

Sent by m. chester fisher | 12:34 AM | 8-24-2007

I attended his last concert in Houston. I was 16 and He was fantastic, my favorite if I had to choose one would be "The Star Spangeld Banner". Thank you for the article.

Sent by Patricia Draeger | 9:35 AM | 8-24-2007

Besides his amazing innovation with the guitar ( he literally authored a whole new musical form by bending the limited technology of the day to his will- still an incredible feat!) I think what grabs me the most about Hendrix 40 years later is the incredibly high level of hipness of expression that was his gift. Like Miles, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock and others, Jimi's sense of timing, phrasing and drama was so acute and so completely original - and so difficult to reproduce, copy or teach.

There are many talented musicians in this world, but few arrive with that spirited hipness that makes us want to listen over and over and over.... Jimi had it in spades.

Sent by Dana W | 11:50 AM | 8-24-2007

This is a fantastic piece and I am truly grateful that the author wrote it.
My first musical love was "Purple Haze" and it led me on a 12 year journey through the world of guitar. The one constant throughout all of that time, despite having gone through college and being in graduate school now, was Hendrix. "Are you Experienced" was the most important album of my life in the sense that it ushered in a time of understanding and diversity in my life. I hope my kids will listen to Hendrix and truly understand the importance of listening before speaking.

Sent by Michael R. Eidell | 11:07 AM | 8-25-2007

The greatest electric guitarists of the second half of the twentieth century lived in Africa. A favorite story about one, Nico Kassanda Wa Mikalay, aka the Eternel Docteur Nico, Dieu de la Guitare, the greatest of his great generation of Congolese electric guitarists, was that once when Hendrix was in Paris, he heard that Nico was in a nearby hotel and went out of his way to seek Nico out and give him his proper hommage.

Sent by Barry Eisenberg | 6:54 PM | 9-4-2007

Hendrix is a life long influence of mine; 55 year old rock guitarist who loves blues, didn't even think of race when I first listened in 67 and now sometimes forget the relevance of race, but there again I am a white guy with no economic or social bariers to deal with. Hendrix will always be the best.

Sent by Paul Wheatley | 5:22 PM | 9-7-2007

This afternoon a friend handed me the special edition two disc DVD set of Jimi Hendrix: Live at Woodstock. There's a picture of a Woodstock ticket in the booklet. Three days for $18, or $6 per day. Among the special features of the two disc set is a press conference Hendrix held in a Harlem restaurant, two weeks after Woodstock. One of his interesting comments, and I paraphrase, is that black kids should be allowed into concerts like Woodstock for free. Cause ten dollars is a lot of money to them. There's some song lyrics reproduced written in Hendrix's hand. Right now I'm in New Mexico right now. My friend found this DVD set at the Roswells Wal-Marts Sams. So, I guess if you're in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or wherever, you ought to find it there.

It was a long running dark humor joke I had about Hendrix, and other rock stars of the time. I didn't get to Woodstock. I was overseas. Remember looking at the aerial photos of the Woodstock crowd on the front page of Stars and Stripes. When I got back to the World, me and another guy went to the Fourth of July Atlanta Pop Festival, a three day event in a field about 30 miles south of downtown Atlanta. Around three hundred thousand. A naked guy dressed in nothing but the Pope's pointy hat, holding a staff with chickens perched on it, came on stage, gave an impromptu speech on how "God was a chicken." Jimi did the Star Spangled Banner at midnight, to fireworks. I won't mention smoke or prescribed medications or anything of that nature.

The Allman Brothers were there. Duane Allman was still alive then. Anyway, this was July. By September, Jimi Hendrix was dead. Not too many months later, Duane Allman died aboard a motorcycle.

A couple of weeks after Atlanta, I went to a Janis Joplin concert. She was dead by October. I'd been to the famous "Doors" concert in Miami, where Jim Morrison was charged with obscenity and starting a riot. Morrison died a little after Joplin.

I went to a Led Zeppelin outdoor concert in Tampa Stadium. A couple of weeks later drummer John Bonham was dead.

Right after that I got a letter from a rock group manager offering me money not to attend anymore concerts. I was deemed bad luck.

That letter probably saved my life. Those concerts were like Russian Roulette. But, damn, were they fun.

Anyway, if you're at Sams, look up the two disc DVD set of Live at Woodstock.

Fred call aka bigbro

PS..Cynthia Plaster Caster has a web site. She's still actively pursuing her plaster casting. Just search type in Cynthia Plaster Caster. For those of you not familiar with Cynthia, in the Joe Cocker rock documentary "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," Cynthia was a prominent groupie who did plaster casts to commemorate her intimate moments with rock stars. She said that Jimi was the biggest rock star she had ever plaster casted. If you look on Cynthia's web site, you can see the remnants of Jimi all for yourself. If you are so curious.

Semper Fi! Hu-rah!

bigbro

Sent by fred call | 9:43 PM | 9-15-2007

Caveat on the Jimi Hendrix DVD: We sat up late last night watching the two set series, and I got to thinking that if anyone is looking for Dolby quality sound and Martin Scorsese brilliance in visuals, remember, this is Live at Woodstock. Okay? And if anyone knows the story of Woodstock, the whole ordeal was put together by bailing wire and scotch tape. It was a miracle it happened. Promoter Billy Graham said that if the people there had ever rioted, everyone responsible would've all been killed at Woodstock.

But, for those of you who are interested in Jimi Hendrix's history, this is a valuable work. The interviews with bassist Bobby Cox and backup guitarist Larry Lee are great. As are the words of Noel Redding and others. Bobby Cox was with Hendrix at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Larry Lee took a bullet to the side of his head in Vietnam. After the military, the three of them got together to do gigs in Nashville. The early photos of these guys are something. Hendrix tried to get Cox and Lee to follow him around the country. Except these guys were on unemployment and hungry. So, Hendrix set out on his own. Eventually Hendrix would call Bobby Cox to ask for a twenty dollar loan to get a bus ticket back to Nashville. This went on a half dozen times or more, until a promoter paid Hendrix's way to London.

Three years later, Cox gets a call from Hendrix, who says he's living in Woodstock jamming. Hendrix tells Cox to find Larry Lee. He sends them money to come to Woodstock to jam at a concert that was coming up. Michael Lang had Jimi scheduled for the closing act. He tried to get Jimi to play at midnight. Jimi chose to stick with the closing act arrangement. Turned out that after three days of "Mud and Blood and Beer," Woodstock looked more like a battleground than a concert. But the hand held cameras are on stage with Hendrix and Cox and Lee and Redding et al. And it's like you are at Woodstock.

But be forewarned, the sound and visuals are like you were at Woodstock after three days of the tempest. All the same, if you are into the history of Hendrix, do this DVD series.

bigbro

Sent by fred call | 10:28 AM | 9-16-2007

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Last night I watched the HBO DVD of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Based on the book by Dee Brown. During Vietnam, "Wounded Knee" was among the requisite reading among the anti-war left. Guess I'm sort of amazed that so many years passed before the book was made into a movie.

Wounded Knee covers the historical span of the Sioux defeating the Seventh Cavalry in the Little Big Horn, through the Seventh chasing Sitting Bull into Canada, the phenomenon of the Ghost Dance, the eventual murder of Sitting Bull on December 15 and the resulting massacre of Sioux men, women and children at Wounded Knee on December 29.

In 1980, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the majority opinion that the Sioux Nation had been totally screwed over the gold in the Black Hills. There's some 600 million dollars waiting in government coffers for the Sioux Nation to collect as recompense. But the Sioux won't claim the money for their sacred Black Hills land.

In the army, I knew a Sioux. Big guy. Came in close to three hundred pounds. He had tattooed on his arm, 'Custer Had It Coming.'

Anyway, one more note: a bulletin for the so-called Intellectual Left Anti War Movment.

Attention: The Intellectual-Left Movement is Dead

The Intellectual-Left Movement has had its day. Just like Davy Crocket once had at the Alamo. The Movement is a fine memory. But its an anachronism now. In fact, the Intellectual Left has become an oxymoron. Like Army Intelligence is an oxymoron.

The largest contributors to the Intellectual Lefts Antiwar Movement are the Neoconservatives. The Neocons know that the Intellectual Left aren't going to march on Washington protesting the lack of health care or any other domestic issues. Nope. The Intellectual Left will continue marching on Washington protesting the war in Iraq. They might as well march in protest of craters on the moon. The global elite create and maintain these global wars. They're money is far too big.

In fact, they have so much money that every time the media begins to focus on a domestic problem, the Neocons help organize another march on Washington to protest the war in Iraq.

The Intellectual Left is in a continual downward spiral of protesting a war they have no affect over. While the Neocons pull sleight of hand picking America's domestic pocket.

Even when the Democrats won seats in the Midterms, nothing changed. No, wait! That's wrong. Something did change. More troops were sent to Iraq.

Blackwater isn't leaving Iraq. They'll change their name. Meanwhile, your local police are becoming mini-mercenary armies. You National Guard in America is being reduced to traffic patrol. If on your way to the next anti-war protest in Washington, the bridge doesn't collapse while you are crossing, then you count yourself fortunate.....for the moment.

So, it's time you, of the Intellectual-Left, put down your philosophy books and take to understanding what it's about protecting yourselves, your family and your neighborhoods. Which you probably can't do. Much less protect neighborhoods in Iraq.

Fred call aka bigbro

Sent by fred call | 11:21 AM | 9-23-2007

I find that the homogeneity and conformity that is constantly encouraged in America is cross-cultural. We're pretty much conditioned to fit nicely into our nice little roles, and to disdain those who would make their own way, and challenge our comfortable notions about who and what we should be. Hendrix was one of those people, and his legacy shows it.

In the sphere of politics, white male presidential candidates 'whiteness' is tested and measured by the electorate as surely as Obama's 'blackness' is, albeit a bit more subtly, and under the guise of patriotism and religiosity. And, it's yet another measure of conformity, just like political candidates having to profess a belief in god in order to even have a chance of getting elected, whether they actually do believe it or not.

Considering that I'm white, I'm not sure that my opinion on whether or not Obama is 'black' enough matters much, but beyond that, I have to profess to a certain amount of ignorance regarding what the current popular conception of 'black' is.

Anyone mind telling me just what it is to be 'black'?

Sent by jonathon | 9:47 AM | 9-25-2007

If God ever came down as a Guitar player it would have been jimi.

Sent by eddy larosa | 10:44 AM | 10-10-2007

I've got to respond to Robert's contention that Hendrix's playing was surpassed by the players he mentioned. Certainly Fripp, Harrison and Page were great in their own right, but they hardly moved 'beyond' the blues vocabulary. More to the point, one is as deeply musical as Hendrix was, what's there to surpass? Another thing, so far as the blues go,
Cecil Taylor's 'vocabulary' is to me pure blues. It all depends on who is expressing it

Sent by Mark | 11:59 AM | 11-1-2007

you guys have it all wrong.... Jimi took RIGHT HANDED fender Strats and "flipped" them over for left hand playing. His first guitar was not a strat. And just for your general information, Jimi "invented" the five way selector switch by filing notches into the three way switch' thus improving the tone options on a strat.
Also, the fender company is doing a disservice to all guitar players by not offering flipped strats to replace their current pieces of junk. You can get about 15% more out of each piece of the instrument this way. Don't believe me? Go argue with stevie ray and Jimi.

Sent by .w.worrell | 5:36 PM | 12-8-2007

Why don't black folks reconize Hendrix as a true American Icon. He was one of the first to cross racial barriers and bring a generation together. His music lives to this day and future generations to come.

Sent by eddy l | 9:39 AM | 3-7-2008

Was ten the first time I heard the album, changed every notion I had about music. A music freak friend of mine and I, started to write an outline for a book about what would have happened to music had Jimi lived.

Sent by John Berg Jr. | 1:27 PM | 8-18-2008

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