Jimi Hendrix: The Making of an Icon

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Jimi Hendrix and the Making of Are You Experienced
Sean Egan
A Capella Books
ISBN 1556524714

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 rules—and, 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 punctuation—the 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.


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