If you’re tired of hearing about Hendrix, skip this chapter. And fuck you.
His stature continued to grow during the next school year. “Electric Ladyland” nailed him down as the most unpredictable psychedelic cosmic guitar explorer of all time. I first heard the album before gym class one day, sitting there on my bed with my gym clothes on trying to fathom what he was up to next.
Let’s get our bearings. The Peace Ball was the February before and romance blossomed that spring. Rebecca knew music was a big part of me, a reason why she was drawn to me, I reckon, and I needed for her to know how big Hendrix was to my music. In the spring of 1969, a bunch of us—Tim Tyler, his girlfriend (now his wife, Kathy), Rebecca, me, Reid, Bill, Gene—motored to Baltimore to see Jimi for the third time. Can’t recall the opening acts, but Buddy Miles’ Express played right before the Experience. We had awful seats, way to one side and literally in the very top row of the Baltimore Civic Center. But we had binoculars. I was a little anxious because I really wanted Rebecca to dig Jimi, but I was more excited than anything. And stoned, the only time I saw the man in an altered state.
Jimi came on like a Japanese pirate, or a gypsy, I guess—fuschsia headband with long ties and very cosmic bell-bottoms. Noel Redding had on black leather pants, sunglasses and beehive hair. It was immediately apparent that Jimi had come to play, for in the opening numbers, where previous he’d been like a windup gymnast, he concentrated mainly on generating this huge sawmill sound. There were moments of gratuitous flash, but Jimi was there mainly to play guitar. In “Red House,” his trademark slow blues, in the first 16 bars he’d touched on nearly every stock riff in the recorded version and leapt into realms of blues riffs we’d never heard. In another section, “Spanish Castle Magic,” he incorporated the classical “Malaguena” into the solo. That night he had perfect control of his feedback and filled the hall with moans and shrieks. I also recall the density of Redding’s bass (he as playing a Fender bass through Sunn cabinets), how solid a foundation he and Mitch Mitchell laid for Jimi.
I believe the show closed with “Voodoo Child, Slight Return,” the first time we’d heard it live. A monster, and Jimi cut loose with the body language, not to impress but because mere notes couldn’t convey the spirit of the song. He looked so lean and played with such obsession that I recall worrying that he might die onstage—that in fact he intended to die onstage (did I mention I was stoned?). “If I don’t meet you no more in this world, I’ll meet you in the next one, and don’t be late.”
He had fully embraced the Voodoo Child persona, and the coliseum was his cosmos. We were fellow gypsies for the evening, riding with him through the whirlwind of images conjured up by his black magic guitar.
As we left, a young man exclaimed loudly to his friends, “Take me away, take me away. I’ve seen it all now.”
In one sense, we had seen it all, for Hendrix was never to play like that again, at least not for us. In another sense, though, there were many surprises in store for us that summer. Cue Beethoven No. 5—duh, duh, duh DUH. THE SUMMER OF 1969.
Before we get into that, a little aside. At some point I read an interview with Robert Plant in Musician magazine (which no longer exists). The article ended with him talking about his son’s taste in music and how his son liked Guns ‘N’ Roses. “At least GNR has conviction, 10 times more conviction than their nearest rival. They’re the nearest thing to the real thing. The real thing isn’t here anymore.”
Well, Robert, now there’s a thought to ponder. The real thing isn’t here anymore. Then what is/was the real thing? Let’s set aside the possibility that Plant was being vainglorious about his own past—after all, he is saying in effect that his own solo work isn’t the real thing either—and follow that thought.
Perhaps the real thing is to be so consumed inwardly by the music you hear in your head that the necessity to release it—to let the ego step aside and forget judgment, forget memory, forget consequences—becomes undeniable, and that the talent exists to communicate the inner vision. Transcendence. The real thing is transcendent. Think of The Who, Janis, of Led Zep, of Jimi, The Doors. The real thing makes time stop. You wake up at the end of a song or a show and realize you have been taken someplace, shown something by some musician, an artist, who himself has been transported. The paradox is that today the technical level of musicianship is so much higher. Professional standards are extremely high. But few musicians can rise above their own technique. They are too conscious of the craft, of impressing with gazillion note riffs. I recall two great guitarists—Robert Fripp of King Crimson and John McLaughlin of many bands—discussing how the musician must work on technique and build it until he can let it go and become a (not their words) subconscious conduit for the inner vision. Coupled with that is the release of energy—raw, Dionysian energy—the TUG. The transcendent TUG. Is that the real thing, to straddle the primal and the cerebral, to pull your guts and fill your mind? To see God with the volume turned up to 11? You expect me to answer that, huh, Robert?
Now, do I agree with Robert’s sentiments, expressed before this was originally written in 1991? Is there still no more real thing? I think it’s unfair and impossible for an icon of one generation to judge another. But the way that classic rock has endured tells me one thing—it was real and it was good back in the day, and it’s still really good now.