Jimi Hendrix: The Making of an Icon
A Capella Books
Everyone who's passionate about music has a soft spot. For this listener, it's John Coltrane and Stefan Betke. (Who can argue with Sun Ship or [komfort.labor] ?) A close friend has a peculiar obsession with Thelonious Monk and Tim Berne. There's no point in celebrating the music without celebrating the artists we love. Of course, devotion implies the inherent danger of nerdiness, the insistent trap of High Fidelity -type minutiae.
Journalist Sean Egan has a thing for progressive pop. He's written books about the Verve and the Animals. His latest effort examines Jimi Hendrix and the events that led to his debut record, Are You Experienced. Egan places his fascination on open display, and its magnetic quality cannot help but draw readers in. At the same time, he dwells on details to the point where you have to ask, "What's the point, really?" The point is that Hendrix was one of the most influential pop icons of the '60s, or ever, for that matter. If you want to celebrate the guitarist with Egan, you must be prepared to comb through all the tiny bits of information only a devotee can gather.
Hendrix was a powerful iconoclast who rewrote the rulesand, ironically, established a new paradigm that persists to this day. We've celebrated him amply in these pages, recognizing his towering influence on guitarists of any persuasion. Naturally these feelings inspire an irresistible curiousity about what got him started. Egan stands ready with the details.
The title of Hendrix's debut offers a poignant example. You learn right away from this book that the "correct" title of the Experience record had no punctuationthe original UK version lacked a question mark. When the album went stateside, Reprise Records took certain liberties, including turning the title into a question. The star's contemporaries certainly understood the record this way (the Animals, for example, recorded "Yes, I Am Experienced" in 1967). The comprehensive version MCA put out in 1995 retains the "error." In the end, who cares? Honestly. Either way works.
But the details make the story. The events that led to the making of Are You Experienced will surprise and confound readers of all stripes. Born in Seattle and having finished a brief stint in the US Army (!!), Hendrix struggled to receive recognition. Sure, he was a young man and it's only fair to expect a certain period of obscurity on the path to fame. The paucity of recordings from this early period render his efforts mostly unknowable, except through word of mouth.
But then Animals bassist Chas Chandler saw something special in the man and chose him as the artist who would bear the flag for his debut as a record producer. Hendrix went to London, despite not having the required work permit. Chandler's access to people and places allowed the guitarist a chance to make himself known to the real players in the business. Hendrix developed his incendiary style (with certain specific debts to Pete Townshend of The Who), playing upside-down guitar to accomodate his left-handedness. Within a short period, Chandler had him auditioning bass players and drummers to form a band. Guitarist Noel Redding was the first pick, switching from his usual six-string instrument to its deeper four-string relative with relative ease. Drummer Mitch Mitchell came later, chosen over Aynsley Dunbar by the mere flip of a coin.
With the formation of the Experience came an urgent need to establish a group sound and develop the kind of recognition that would sell records. Chandler was rapidly running out of cash (and selling his bass guitars as a last ditch effort to make more). Hendrix's partner at the time, Kathy Etchingham, makes it clear: "By November 1966 we were completely broke." Everyone knew the only way to break even was to make a hit record, since the constant gigging was not paying much more than the rent. So the Experience released the single "Hey Joe" on December 13, 1966 (with "Stone Free" on the flip side). British critics warmed to the intensity of Hendrix's slowed-down version of the classic.
The guitarist gradually accepted the need for vocals on his music, after a long period of reluctance and shyness that often led to him recording lyrics in the dark. The Experience assembled at odd intervals to assemble the record piecemeal, between gigs and traveling, regularly recording Hendrix's tunes without any rehearsal or preparation. Hendrix would often show up at the studio and sketch these pieces to Redding and Mitchell, and then a few takes later Chandler would have something to work with. ("The Wind Cries Mary" was introduced to the band and recorded in its entirety within 20 minutes.) The freedom afforded by his intuitive mates allowed Hendrix the opportunity to take his guitar playing to a frightening level of virtuosity, and it also encouraged his budding efforts at songwriting.
When Are You Experienced came out in May of 1967, it met excitement and confusion among British listeners who had never heard this kind of color and intensity from a rock band. Experience shows were incendiary, Hendrix developing a stage persona that was overtly sexual and unflinchingly emotional. Later, Hendrix took it over the top at the Monterey Pop Festival. A coin flip decided who would lead off, and the (still-unknown) Who took the lead. The Grateful Dead filled in as a spacer, and then the Experience took the stage. The rest is history.
Egan handles the many ins and outs of this story with relative fluidity. The author invested a more-than-diligent effort to interview everyone he could find, including rock stars, industry people, and personal friends. His thoroughness pays off throughout the book, with an abundance of direct quotes explaining the situation. When sources disagree, Egan generally takes sides, which helps a lot in putting together some semblance of consistency in the story. Chandler, for example, has a tendency to embellish his version of the early Experience days; Egan indulges him but draws the line where necessary. Perhaps most revealing is the regular commentary from Kathy Etchingham, whose no-nonsense explanations reveal more than the flip excitement of her contemporaries. Listeners curious about the personal relationship behind tunes like "The Wind Cries Mary" will learn exactly what went down.
Since Are You Experienced was assembled in such an erratic, piecemeal fashion, the intimate details of its construction are labyrinthine indeed. Egan takes no prisoners when he gets down and dirty on the studio sessions, resolving what tracks were recorded when and where and under what circumstances. He describes the essential roles of Jim Marshall (amp designer of eternal Marshall stack fame), Eddie Kramer (an engineer uniquely attuned to Hendrix's loud idiosyncrasies), and Roger Mayer (inventor of various fuzzboxes and the Octavia). He reveals the Experience as more than a platform for Hendrix's wild extravagances. Since Mitchell's drumming owed significant debts to the jazz tradition and Noel Redding's bass playing came right out of rock and roll, Hendrix was positioned to expand his blues experience in a context where experimentation and improvisation had the support they needed.
After the basic storyline is laid down, the excitement of this book subsides a bit. Egan is absolutely fixated on what tracks were recorded on what days, and what overdubs were used on the final record. These details work well as reference material but they make for painful reading. I suppose it all depends on your angle, and what inspires you to read this book. Studio niggling is not the sort of thing that gets this reader excited.
But in the end Egan takes this project very seriously, and he deserves forgiveness for being such a rabid completist. There are, after all, a zillion books on Hendrix. Sean Egan has carved out a place at the very beginning, and his efforts render unique relevance for this documentary. Take some time to check out the extended liner notes of the '95 MCA reissue and you'll see exactly how thorough Egan's approach is.
And let's make it absolutely clear, with no equivocation: Hendrix was a real man, with real problems and real talent. Around the time London grafitti artists were painting "Clapton is God" all over the place, Hendrix was coming of age. There's no need to translate the maxim.
Jimi Hendrix was most definitely not God.
Note: this book represents the second installment in A Capella's Vinyl Frontier series, after Revolution: The Making of the Beatles' White Album. Expect more to come.