NPR logo Earth, Space, Hendrix: The Most Significant Album Ever

Earth, Space, Hendrix: The Most Significant Album Ever

Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970. Evening Standard/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
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.