It’s a sunny day and I’m sitting in the living room at the home of my friends John and Barney Hill in Durrington, West Sussex. We come here in our lunch breaks because their house is just a few hundred yards from the Sixth form college.
It’s 1980 outside. Punk rock is sputtering out. We barely register its death throes. We’re inside listening to a man who died ten years before. To be accurate, we’re listening to a man sing and play his guitar. Because when you strip it down, that’s all it is.
But that’s not what it is.
I’m trying to remember when it started. I think it might have been the guitar solo in Stone Free. It seemed to rip out of the speakers. Even in 1980 it sounded so much more awe inspiring and forceful than other guitar solos of its time - or those that came after.
We have a copy of an album called Smash Hits at home, picked up for 50p from an antiques shop around the corner. There is nothing antique about the music it contains. Purple Haze might seem of its psychedelic time but there is something off-kilter, futuristic, unworldly about it. The riff feels broken, disjointed, but when he sings “Scuse me while I kiss the sky” I can’t help feeling that’s exactly what he did.
I buy my own compilation, a cut-price cassette aptly entitled Stone Free. It contains an embarrassment of riches across 12 tracks. There is the beautiful, tender Angel on one side, the equally lovely Castles Made Of Sand on the other. People call him a guitar virtuoso and Hendrix proves it by realising the work his guitar does supporting the songs is more important than overloading either with a solo.
“Angel came down from heaven yesterday
She stayed with me just long enough to rescue me.”
There’s an unintended extra poignancy in the fact that Angel, inspired by a dream about his mother before she died, was released after his own death.
I have a dream about Hendrix. I meet him in a dilapidated tower block, the rooms are bare, there is water on the floors and the paint on the walls is peeling. He is carrying a guitar and he says we should find some people to have a jam with. It’s a dream so neither of us remarks on the absurdity of a novice just starting to learn guitar playing with Jimi Hendrix.
We chat amiably as we traipse up several floors of the building until we come to a room where we can hear a band is playing. My childhood friend is playing guitar. We ask if we can sit in and jam along with them.
He says: “No.”
It is one of the most desolating dreams I have ever had.
The other side of the cassette starts with arguably one of Hendrix’s finest performances, All Along The Watchtower. I love the fact that Hendrix was, like me, such a huge Bob Dylan fan. I think it’s wonderful that hearing Dylan sing gave him the courage and confidence to sing his own songs. I can’t imagine Hendrix playing without his voice, stranded in the role of guitarist in a four piece band instead of the apex of a triangle in the trio of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Dylan’s recording of All Along The Watchtower is sparse, spare, menacing, biblical. Hendrix makes an epic out of it, a blockbuster full of sound and fury. The guitar work is immense, the three contrasting breaks building the tension and menace of impending catastrophe.
“Outside in the cold distance a wild cat did growl
Two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl.”
That is followed by his live version of Johnny B Goode, an epic of a different kind that transcends the original Chuck Berry version, accelerating the momentum of the song, taking it down new paths and lifting it to unforeseen heights when the guitar break arrives. Each of the three guitar solos goes off in a completely different direction, all of them starting from the established roadmap of a solo for a Berry song before Hendrix takes it up into the skies and off into space. He takes the blueprint The Rolling Stones and others have followed so studiously and faithfully and makes something truly unique. It’s 1980 and I am completely blown away by what he does. In 2021, I still am.
Something different happens with Red House. The live versions are sprawling extended journeys through the 12-bar blues into rock and back, some of them magical, some of them messy and weary. The studio recording is much more succinct. Two verses, solo, verse. It sounds like a homage to the music that forms so much of what he is but there is something more than that. It’s like a statement to those inclined to dismiss him as a circus show or a freak rather than a guitar player. It deserves respect. It says: “Listen to this. I can play the blues and I can play it fantastically well. I can play all the licks you think you know and put in a great solo, I have mastered this form and I can encapsulate it all in under four minutes. Thank you. Now let me do my own thing.”
As John Lee Hooker said: "That Red House, that'll make you grab your mother and choke her! Man, that's really hard, that tears you apart. He could get down, he could mash it, yeah, Lord!”
The last song on the compilation is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard. It’s a live recording of Little Wing from The Royal Albert Hall in 1969. You can find a video of it here. It is magical from the fingerpicking at the beginning, the tenderness of the singing, the uplifting, soaring, graceful and consoling guitar solo to the final gentle wah wah that brings it to a close.
And as for the second verse…
When I’m sad she comes to me
With a thousand smiles she gives to me free.
“It’s alright,” she says, “now it’s alright.
Take anything you want from me,
If Red House is a homage to what the 12-bar blues was, Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is the epitome of what it could become. Hendrix takes the blues and turns it into a tank, the guitar riff is a crunching, overwhelming sonic blast that threatens to demolish everything in its path. The sound is so powerful that when he sings “Well I stand up next to a mountain and I chop it down with the edge of my hand”, you truly believe he can. That guitar can smash anything to pieces.
Joe Satriani described it as “the greatest piece of electric guitar work ever recorded. In fact, the whole song could be considered the holy grail of guitar expression and technique. It is a beacon of humanity”.
He may be right but the true beacon to humanity is Hendrix’s version of Star Spangled Banner from the Woodstock festival. It is a performance for which the phrase tour de force was invented. In the space of 3 minutes and 43 seconds, he launches an all-out assault, not on America but on the myth of America. He demolishes the plastic patriotism and moral superiority America has deluded itself with, drowning it out with a tidal wave of screams, wails, exploding bombs, machine guns, death and destruction. He takes the song that charlatans, cowards and armchair generals hypocritically mouth like a sacred text and turns it into a truthful anthem that tells the real story of America and laments for what it could have been.
Sitting in John and Barney’s living room, 11 years later, I am awestruck. In 2021, I still am.
We hear a rumour that Hendrix once played in Worthing. For us, it attains mythical status. How could this sleepy conservative retirement “resort” on the south coast of England have hosted our flamboyant hero back in the sixties? We are certain that there was nothing ever “swinging” about Worthing in the sixties. We spend hours poring over microfiches of back copies of the local newspaper in the library trying to find evidence of the gig. To no avail.
Now, thanks to the internet, I know that he did. According to the Jimi Hendrix website, he was playing at the Worthing Pavilion on 23 February 1967. I was three years old and living in Glasgow at the time. But it feels strangely comforting to know that a man we all loved so much once played a gig only a few miles from where we were sitting, listening to his music on that sunny day in 1980.
It’s a tragedy that he died so young. It’s a wonder he left so much good music behind. I can’t tell anyone what’s so special about Hendrix. Only their ears can. And their hearts.
Sure enough this morning came unto me,
Silver wings silhouetted against the child's sunrise.
And my angel she said unto me:
“Today is the day for you to rise.
Take my hand, you're gonna be my man
You're gonna rise,”
And then she took me high over yonder.
Fly on, Jimi, fly on.
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