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Wednesday, November 28, 2007.


By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


Jimi Hendrix slung the guitar low over swiveling hips, or raised it to pick the strings with his teeth; he thrust it between his legs and did a bump and grind, crooning: "Oh, baby, come on now, sock it to me!" Lest anybody miss his message, he looked at a girl in the front row, cried, "I want you, you, you!" and stuck his tongue out at her.

—From a Time Magazine article quoted in Steve Waksman’s "Black Sound, Black Body: Jimi Hendrix, the Electric Guitar, and the Meanings of Blackness"


In 1967, at the height of Jimi Hendrix’ popularity as a pop icon, the British press dubbed the young American musician ‘The Wild Man Of Pop.’ At first, Jimi did nothing to discourage that perception, in fact, he did quite a bit to encourage it.
Onstage, he sometimes smashed and even burned his guitar and performed solos with one hand or with his teeth. He'd played up his notoriety as a well-endowed and prolific lover by pausing from playing to rub, lick and thrust his guitar at breathless female fans.


Offstage, Jimi seemed just as intent to act out his image as he did while onstage. He was arrested on drug charges, which he beat by claiming that the drugs weren’t his, and he was arrested again after he destroyed a hotel room in a drunken rage.


Jimi was also one of the most obsessively flamboyant dressers of his time, known not just for his colorful clothes, but also for his huge, half-permed Afro. One very funny, possibly even true, story is that Jimi refused to travel any where without his trusty plug-in hair curler.

Eventually though, the wild-man act grew stale. Not to the public—they still wanted the guitar burning, the flamboyant feeback-laden solos and, most of all, the hit songs. But for Jimi, the image—the same one that he’d so gleefully taken part in creating—had become a trap. He was developing as an artist and he wanted to play what he felt. Increasingly, he was feeling other styles of music, including blues, R&B, jazz and more progressive styles of rock.


But concert-goers still want to hear the three-minute pop tunes that had made Jimi famous. When audiences insisted that he perform old hits like “Fire,” “Foxy Lady,” or “Purple Haze,” Jimi would either ignore the requests or he’d introduce those songs as ‘oldies’ or ‘dinosaurs’ and then speed through them with obvious disinterest.

Forty years later, Jimi’s ‘wild-man’ image persists. Mention Jimi Hendrix to the average music fan and the first thing they think of will probably be a very, very loud electric guitar.


But Jimi’s catalog belies his reputation. Along with all of his famously loud moments, Jimi wrote and recorded many quiet, elegant records. It’s the latter group of songs that I return to most often when listening to Jimi.


Listen to some of his calmer, more introspective recordings and it becomes obvious that Jimi wasn’t just the wild-man he was portrayed as, and at first, portrayed himself as. He was also a sensitive, thoughtful artist capable of both poetry and subtlety.
Exhibit 1: “Up From The Skies” – from
Axis: Bold As Love (Reprise - 1967)

Mitch Mitchell’s smooth, jazzy drumwork (I think he’s using brushes instead of sticks) make this a great opening song for a mellow Hendrix mix. Lyrically, “Up From The Skies” concerns a long-ago Earth dweller who, upon his return, discovers “families living in cages tall and cold,” “the stars misplaced” and “the smell of a world that’s burned.” Commentary from an extra-terrestrial or supernatural visitor was a repeated theme of Jimi’s music.
Exhibit 2: “Third Stone From The Sun” – from
Are You Experienced (Reprise - 1967)

Let’s stay with both themes. “Third Stone” features both a jazzy swing-type groove and an outer-stellar theme. This song is a lot more playful than “Up From The Skies” though. Jimi plays a space traveler attracted to “the third stone from the star called the sun” because of its “beautiful grass of green” and “majestic silver seas” as well as its reputation for “some form of intelligent species.”


Upon arriving though, the traveler finds himself disinterested in Earth’s people but fascinated by our “superior cackling hen.” Somewhere there has to be outtakes of this one with Jimi laughing through the whole thing.
Exhibit 3: “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” – From
Electric Ladyland (Reprise - 1968)

The (almost) title track from Jimi’s third and final studio album. During his brief career as a headliner, Jimi only recorded four official albums, the fourth is the live album Band Of Gypsys. Every time I hear this song, I think of Earth, Wind & Fire. In addition to all his other talents, Jimi actually had a workable soul falsetto.
Exhibit 4: “Little Wing” – From
Axis: Bold As Love (Reprise - 1967)

Hendrix’ most famous mellow moment. It’s a song that expresses sentiments so gentle and pretty: “When I’m sad she comes to me / with a thousand smiles she gives to me free.” That several former girlfriends later claimed the song was written just for them. And given Jimi’s reputation, he may well have led each one of them to believe that it was.
Exhibit 5: “Rainy Day, Dream Away” – From
Electric Ladyland (Reprise - 1968)

A laid-back R&B shuffle number that never actually begins or ends. It just sort of rambles in and three-plus minutes later, it meanders to a fade-out. By this time, Jimi was successful enough that he recorded whenever and however he wanted. Since he didn’t have to concern himself with the usual limits of booked studio time, he’d simply gather a bunch of friends in the studio, roll the tape, and play whatever he wanted. We’re a long, long way from “Foxy Lady.”
Exhibit 6: “
Electric Lady Land – From the out-of-print compilation Loose Ends (Polydor - 1973)

We’ll close with a little reprise of my all-time favorite Hendrix melody. I’m not sure when this was recorded or for what purpose, but for me, it captures everything Jimi’s mellow side is about.

* * *

Note too, that this is just the tip of the iceberg. During Jimi’s surprisingly brief recording career (he died less than four years after the release of his debut LP, Are You Experienced), he recorded an amazing amount of music. The deeper you dig, the more you’ll find that the reality of Jimi Hendrix’ musical legacy is much deeper, more multi-faceted and interesting than his one-dimensional public persona.


Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.


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