There are moments in my life in which I snap out of the greyness and the sadness for brief seconds. Lemon sponge cake with raspberry sauce. A good margarita. Doctor Who episodes. A record store that sells vinyl. Proper Sunday Roast dinners. Call of Duty marathon playing sessions in which I actually improve on my previous best ( I still suck at it). Guitars. Guitar solos.
I don’t believe in God. I believe in Hendrix.
I’ll be using the original U.S. version of this record, as it’s the first one I owned. And it has “Purple Haze”.
Ah, yes, “Purple Haze”, a song with a riff and chord progression so Jimi that you can never mistaken it for any other song. “Purple Haze” isn’t Jimi’s best song, but it’s his most famous original, and the contrast of the squealing guitar and Noel Redding’s steady, mirrored bass line is perfection.
The song is just so phenomenal. Part psychedelic drug trip, part love song, part sci-fi theme song, it chugs along, with Hendrix’s incredible guitar work leaving you both baffled and breathless. Excuse me while I kiss the sky. Indeed.
The fact that the guitars on a Jimi Hendrix album does smack of the obvious. The pure innovation of Hendrix remains singular, and no one has touched him. Not Clapton, not Richards, Page, Young, Iommi- they’re all fantastic, but Hendrix still stands out. It’s not the onstage antics, it’s the virtuosity, and the fearlessness. But it’s also his ability to serve the song and step back. “Hey Joe”, an old song of unknown origin, goes loping along, grounded by a fantastic bass line by Noel Redding, but is not embellished by Hendrix. The guitars are lovely but quiet, and the focus is actually on Hendrix’s vocal. He was a great rock singer, something ignored as his musical skills as a guitarist have been beatified. But he had a fantastic tone to his voice, and his musicality allowed for some great phrasing and intonations.
There was a band that I went to college with that played a mean cover of “Foxey Lady”. Their originals were pretty weak, and they never went anywhere. But their Stones and Hendrix covers were pretty fantastic. “Foxey Lady” relies on “the Hendrix chord”, and the similarities with “Purple Haze” are obvious, but while “Purple Haze” remains his signature, “Foxey Lady” has a sense of fun that the former song lacks. There is a cheekiness in Hendrix’s vocals, a wink and a grin. But make no mistakes. He means every word. I have never felt this lyrics are predatory in any way. But maybe it’s because I firmly believe Hendrix was a nice guy.
I always loved the mournful quietness of “May This Be Love”. Hendrix’s vocals are forward in the mix, but there is a world of inventiveness by the band under that loveliness. As Hendrix sings about love, he plays a guitar that relies on restrained feedback and changes measure a few times. It lopes along, then urgently builds, before once again waltzing along towards a quiet end. It’s sweet, warm, and elegant. Let’s put it this way-Daniel Lanois has covered it.
Also in the “restrained and elegant” class is “The Wind Cries Mary”, it’s gentleness, and it’s bass driven melody gives this lament a hymn-like quality. It remains a personal favourite, and Noel Redding’s bass line remains my number one bass line ever in rock and roll.
I admit having a hard time now listening to “Manic Depression” ever since Sandra Bernhardt put out her mash-up cover “Manic Superstar”. It might also be my constant struggle with bipolar disorder as well. With its unusal meter and speed, it feels like a song written in the throes of a manic episode, with all the pounding, repetitive drumming, the range of the guitar sounds, the hiccup of the band as they wind their way through the instrumentals. My manic episodes feel like this song as I go up and down. The ultimate peak feels like I’m in a Slayer album. But that’s another discussion for another day.
The Sandra Bernhardt mashup cover, though, remains one of my favourite things ever, because it feels ike it was ripped from my brain.
The rest of the album continues to be amazing. There is a country feel to “Love or Confusion”, which speeds along steadily. “I Don’t Live Today”‘s staccato drums propel the death march of the lyrics to a ferocious speed metalesque finale, descending further into feedback until it just stops. “Third Stone From the Sun” is a sci-fi soundtrack. “Are You Experienced?” is a psychedelic masterpiece, a genuine music trip, complete with backwards guitars. And then there is the pinnacle of “Fire”, the rich blues influenced song about Jimi telling… a dog to get away from the fireplace so Jimi could warm himself. Move over Rover and let Jimi take over. Sometimes, we don’t need to know the origin of the song. It ruins it a bit.
It remains one of the great GUITAR albums, but teaches us more than that. Jimi Hendrix was a great songwriter, a good singer, and mostly, a genuine talent in a world that would soon forget how to invent and master how to copy. Hendrix remains the greatest because so few of his disciples actually learned the most important lesson of all- don’t mimic. Find your own way.
Then you’ll write something as great as “Purple Haze”.