Total immersion: Delving into Jimi Hendrix's home recordings
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Musically speaking, it’s no secret that I go through prolonged mood swings. Maybe I’ll get stuck on a particular band (time to revisit Oasis?) or a certain genre (DC punk 1979-91!), but whenever I do, again, I go in head first. I listen to every album I can get my hands on, and, if possible, recordings that have only surfaced to collectors through means nefarious and otherwise. Bootlegs, concert recordings, studio chatter, whatever it might be.
The latest edition of this? Jimi Hendrix, who, in four short years, provided an astounding amout of music for your garden variety fantatic to devour. It’s seemingly endless, and I don’t have everything there is to have, but I make do with a pretty fair amount.
Of course, I started with the main albums, but I moved on pretty quickly to the rare stuff. The Jimi Hendrix Experience box set did an excellent job of putting the scope of Hendrix’s creative process into perspective. Via demos and alternate takes and live performances, it delivered a treasure trove of music for the happily obsessed. David Fricke called it the “Rolls Royce” of box sets, and he was dead on. The original, unaltered spoken word section of “Third Stone From the Sun?” His eight-minute epic version of “Gloria?” That insane live take of “In From the Storm?” Yes, yes and yes. It’s a wonderful boon to the collection, but, of course, it would never be enough.
Through collecting bootlegs and the many fantastic live shows that the Experience Hendrix company has released, the Jimi thing has grown, to be revisited intently from time to time. This cycle of listening and collecting ebbs and flows, and picked up recently to accompany the news that there is a new Hendrix album on the way. Of course, after listening to everything I already owned two or three times through, I got to downloading more rare recordings, and through conversations and e-mails, started talking about him non-stop.
One of these conversations led to my receiving, via e-mail, a rare CD I hadn’t heard before. A legitimate release to accompany the graphic novel "Voodoo Child: The Illustrated Legend of Jimi Hendrix," by Bill Sienkiewicz, a friend sent me an .mp3 copy of Jimi by Himself — The Home Recordings. At six songs deep and settling just shy of half an hour long, it was enough to nearly send me into convulsions.
These six tracks were recorded by Hendrix in his New York City apartment in April (or so), 1968, and reveal him sketching out ideas for the soon-to-be recorded Electric Ladyland, and it’s a look into his creative process I’d never had before.
The warmth and intimacy of the recordings are immediately apparent. Take a listen to “Hear My Train A Comin’,” and you’ll hear Jimi flip through pages of a notebook in between verses, a trick he’ll reprise on “Voodoo Chile—Cherokee Mist.” And, as further evidence to the devotion to his craft, he repeatedly ignores a ringing phone during “Gypsy Eyes.” These little peeks into his private life reveal a gentle, thoughtful side that I always knew was there, but never really got to see (or hear, as it were). “Angel” demonstrates this best. For as much as I’ve listened to the man and dissected his work, I’d never truly had much of a chance to hear him just play quietly. “Angel” is one of his prettiest songs, for sure, and it’s never sounded more delicate than it does here. And it’s obvious that it was a beautiful, heartfelt song right from birth, first draft lyrics and all.
The skeletal nature of these songs will initally draw the hardcore crazies (present!), where the subtle differences in songs like “Voodoo Chile” and “Angel” will be enough to inspire giddy yelps while listening. Before a breakdown in “Voodoo Chile,” Hendrix audibally notes “guitar solo” and continues to riff through another section of the jam. In “1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be),” he sings what will later become the lead guitar line while carrying himself via chords. But the true magic here is that being a complete Hendrix afficionado isn’t necessary to appreciate what’s happening. It’s a fun listen in its own right, and knowing where these songs would end isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying them as they stand here.
Of course, there’s just a great deal of charm in these tracks. Maybe “Cherokee Jam,” beyond the incredible creativity and artistry, best illustrates how much fun he had when he was working. In this instrumental track, through three minutes and 12 seconds, he just jams, quietly but furiously. His fingers flying, he pulls riffs and notes out of the air with the enthusiasm of a third-grader in possession of a new toy truck. And damn it if he doesn’t fill that thing with dirt all afternoon. This quick little ditty, is it the greatest thing I’ve ever heard? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped playing it.
Listening to one of the more intimidating musicians of the 20th century privately flesh out his ideas is, well, kind of intimidating. Even when he was just messing around for the fun and adventure of it, he could play circles around anyone else in the world. But the focus here is his approach to songwriting, trying out words and mapping out the ridiculous musical routes he’ll travel when he gets in the studio proper with his Experience bandmates.
If it were just another enjoyable entry into my Hendrix file, that would have been enough to make me happy. It’s so much more than that. It’s the kind of music that makes me instantly excited, and it gives me a new appreciation for an artist that I’ve loved for so long.
Jan. 23, 2010