Now It Catches The Gleam/Of The Morning’s First Beam

(Public domain, hopefully? Let us know if this is a problem)

After the fact, he would simply refer to the performance as “beautiful” in an attempt to deflect accusations of controversy in the face of a divided nation. A few months after that, around the change of the calendar, he would roll out his true protest, the finest electric guitar symphony ever conceived, in what would end up being the only showcase for his talents that were actually on his terms. He would be dead within the year, nobody the wiser.

But in this moment, at 9 am the morning after the damn thing was supposed to end on the saturated grounds that were never as good as they looked on film long after the fact to the millions upon millions who were nostalgic for something that never was, he was free. He hoped only for as much as that for everyone else. Fifty years ago today, at right around the time this post is publishing, Jimi Hendrix played the longest set of his career at Woodstock, a sloppy, convoluted mess which nevertheless gave us an interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that has confounded and inspired ever since.

He was tired. Everyone was tired. Just listen to PA announcer Chip Monck’s voice – overrun sets and weather delays had pushed Hendrix and his band[1] to a Monday morning start, by which time only around 20,000 of the estimated 400,000 attendees remained. Who knows when any of them arrived, or when they would leave.

But for two and a half hours, Hendrix commanded the crowd’s attention, spiraling through a weighty list of old favorites (“Red House,” “Foxey Lady,” “Fire”) and new (“Message to Love,” “Lover Man,”[2] “Izabella” and a song with which he never seemed to be fully at ease, “Hear My Train A Comin’”[3]). His band, comprising old Experience mate Mitch Mitchell, future Band of Gypsies bassist Billy Cox and an expanded roster of odds and ends[4], were underprepared and cold.

As ever, Hendrix was brilliant. He wasn’t about to let the fact that he was playing for a relatively small cadre of what had been with a gaggle of his loosely-connected friends, nor that he was following the likes of Sha Na Na at a time when everyone else was diving into their second cup of coffee, deter him from excellence. It was his standard. His rendition of “Spanish Castle Magic,” for instance, ranks among the best performances of that song in his live career.

Toward the end, however, he really lit it up: “Fire” gave way to an all-time medley of otherworldly guitar technique. His “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” was fourteen minutes of distilled virtuosity – which, yes, fourteen minutes is a long time for guitar playing to be referred to as “distilled,” as anyone who has ever been around a white guy in a college dorm can tell you – but in it you hear visions of Miles Davis, of Parliament-Funkadelic, of Prince, of the Black Keys, of St. Vincent.

All of which, naturally, gave way to the national anthem. Feedback-laden, fraught with effects pedals and a meticulous approach to sonic quality that calls to mind the possibilities of outer space. Man had landed on the moon only a month prior. While always displaying an immense respect for the capabilities of those who sent mankind to space, Jimi Hendrix seemed to aim higher than that.

His “Banner” reflected the then-current situation in Vietnam, however inadvertently, and his deflection on The Dick Cavett Show weeks later offered a dual reading in what music could be. Either you thought Hendrix’s performance of the national anthem was disrespectful, or you thought it was a protest. I’m not totally convinced Hendrix himself thought either to be true.

*    *     *

In the seventh or eighth grade, thereabouts, I went to a dear friend’s summer party. There, on the back porch of his parents’ house and in the company of our other cronies, I heard most of the Experience Hendrix album and thought that my world had collapsed around me.

“Purple Haze” was the familiar one, as were a few others courtesy of 95.7 FM “The Ride” in Charlotte, North Carolina, but something like “Castles Made of Sand” or “If 6 Was 9” was not elementary school fodder, generally speaking. I left that party mesmerized, went home and returned to the instrument on which I’d played Green Day and Blink-182 as a learning vehicle two or three years before, desperate to catch up and figure out how he, this Hendrix fellow, had made those sounds.

Sometime after that, my oldest, not older, brother lent me a copy of Hendrix’s BBC Sessions record, which includes perhaps the greatest Beatles cover of all time, something at which Jimi was particularly adept. Similarly, that changed everything.

Right around then, the Woodstock film aired on VH1 Classic. I forced my family into watching it because, in my own pre-Wikipedia days, I only knew that I would encounter Hendrix at some point without knowing exactly when[5], and in doing so, became exposed to the various stylings of Sly & the Family Stone, CSNY and Ten Years After[6]. And then, hours past the brown acid and mud people and Jerry Garcia toking and smiling, Jimi emerges: a battered angel cast in white, simultaneously shot from below and above, in command and in control for as long as he could muster.

I’ve encountered the very guitar Hendrix was playing that morning in Bethel, New York, a 1968 Fender Stratocaster, on two occasions in the past year. The first was in his hometown, Seattle, with a different dear friend of mine whose musical sensibilities largely mirror my own[7]. The second was in my adopted hometown of New York City, with the same friend. I was struck by the appearance of the guitar in both instances.

Photo courtesy of the author

Jimi Hendrix served in the military, jumping out of helicopters and serving in the military band while a member of the hallowed 101st Airborne Division. I can never tell if this fact is little-known or well-known, but I adore it for what he became. Though the circumstances of his discharge are a matter of dispute, he forever after maintained a dutiful respect of those who served. It was his own version of the Jungian thing.

As a black man, Hendrix encountered enough racism, even on the military-chitlins and then strictly-chitlins circuit, to give him with a unique perspective. If his musical career is any indication, he laughed it off and moved on to the next new, exciting thing without too much thought.

Looking at the guitar itself can be an overwhelming experience. From its color – Olympic white on a maple fretboard, an astoundingly neutral colorway for such an astonishing performance – to its setup, complete with a whammy bar ready for his impressionistic echoes, the guitar is an artistic masterpiece, something that designers would tout as a potential outfit to the Met Gala given the proper theme.

 

At some point, Billy Cox came along; once Noel Redding left the Experience in 1969, Hendrix called up his old military buddy Cox and expressed his interest in getting after it again. Being the competitive exhibition that it is, music once again overlapped with conflict, and Cox would remain Jimi’s primary bassist for the duration of his career and life.

 

Looking at the guitar itself can be an overwhelming experience. From its color – Olympic white on a maple fretboard, an astoundingly neutral colorway for such an astonishing performance – to its setup, complete with a whammy bar ready for his impressionistic echoes, the guitar is an artistic masterpiece, something that designers would tout as a potential outfit to the Met Gala given the proper theAt some point, Billy Cox came along; once Noel Redding left the Experience in 1969, Hendrix called up his old military buddy Cox and expressed his interest in getting after it again. Being the competitive exhibition that it is, music once again overlapped with conflict, and Cox would remain Jimi’s primary bassist for the duration of his career and life.

Along with Buddy Miles, Billy Cox was in the band properly entitled the Band of Gypsies for a New Year’s run at the Fillmore East on East 6th Street in New York City in 1969-’70. In four shows there, they played four renditions of a song Hendrix played on Cavett a few months earlier that has come to define his all-around ability on the instrument he loved, “Machine Gun.”

“Machine Gun” is the perfect amalgamation of Hendrix as an artist – he wrote about what he knew, or at least as much of what he knew as he could muster, and then he riled himself up and unleashed a dog that has hounded every single person to pick up a guitar thereafter.

It is a protest: to war, to inequality, to the circumstances that divide us and force us into the corners we occupy in the name of, what, of superiority? Of money? Of militaristic ambivalence, but at the behest of people who would never, could never, actually be directly involved? Of all of the above?

Photo courtesy of the author

All of this is to say, I don’t know what was going through Jimi Hendrix’s mind the morning of August 18, 1969[8]. His national anthem could have been impromptu; it may have incidentally been something he felt like doing[9]. Given his talent and wherewithal, though, I have to think he was thinking about the totality of it all, what he and we were facing, what everyone would end up facing, the things that only Chuck Yeager, George Clinton, Blood Orange and Young Thug aspire to. He was looking at the sun-glazed moon and wondering why we, the moon and the rest, weren’t orbiting something else.

Hendrix followed his “Star-Spangled Banner” with “Purple Haze,” the one palette-cleanser he knew could satiate anyone who had a problem but stuck around for the aftermath. While not necessarily despising the song, he’d grown to a point of vacillation with it, chastising calls from his fans to play the hits in the midst of his expanding a rapidly-growing musical arsenal.

*     *     *

Maybe he encountered God. He’d already encountered fire. It’s something I think about when I listen to his performances post-Experience, but particularly at Woodstock. He approached Wes Montgomery right before encoring with his initial hit, a cover of “Hey Joe” that he has owned ever since if only in memory, and left the stage looking like he felt he should’ve done more. He closed the most noted music festival of all time with a grin, a shrug and a promise to do better next time, whenever that time should arrive.

Jimi Hendrix is the reason I play guitar as fervently as I do. He’s also the reason I take care to learn, to see, to try and understand what I can when I am incapable of replicating anything other than what I’ve lived. I know he had his foibles, particularly with women and drugs and many of the things he figured would fell him anyway. I won’t defend him in that capacity.

But Hendrix believed in what this country could achieve – that much, I feel comfortable affirming. He knew of what he was capable, and to some extent, whether it be his own management or his neuroses, he kept that from us. Maybe he thought we were keeping that from ourselves.

[1] Which he dubbed both Gypsy Sun and Rainbows as well as Band of Gypsies, but we’ll get to the latter

[2] His take on BB King’s “Rock Me Baby”

[3] You can hear the echoes of what would become “Machine Gun” in the intro there

[4] Shout out to Juma Sultan, Jerry Velez and Larry Lee, who got fired from Albert King’s band for outplaying Albert King. THAT is a grown-ass human being.

[5] Forcing family members to do anything is always cool and good, especially when you are a middle schooler raised by Boomer parents who have certainly had enough of this shit and two older brothers whose devotions to your bullshit border on antimatter

[6] Woodstock, both film and festival, would’ve benefitted from a tad more female inclusion–

[7] Hello, Kelsey

[8] I’m not totally sure he was either, but his guitar playing doesn’t reflect that; in any case, fellow Woodstock performer Carlos Santana thought his guitar was an electric snake, so I digress

[9] Mitch Mitchell certainly seemed to think so

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