ABOVE PHOTO: Jimi Hendrix
By Chris Talbott
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jimi Hendrix recorded everything. More than 40 years after his death, though, the tape is finally running out.
“People, Hell & Angels,” out Tuesday, will be the last album of Hendrix’s unreleased studio material, according to Eddie Kramer, the engineer who recorded most of Hendrix’s music during his brief but spectacular career. That ends a four-decade run of posthumous releases by an artist whose legacy remains as vital and vibrant now as it was at the time of his death.
“Jimi utilized the studio as a rehearal space,” Kramer said. “That’s kind of an expensive way of doing things, but thank God he did.”
The 12 tracks on “People, Hell & Angels” were recorded in 1968-69 after the Jimi Hendrix Experience disbanded. There’s a changeable roster of backing musicians, including Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, who would briefly become Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies. Stephen Stills, recently of Buffalo Springfield, even popped up on bass on one track.
It was a difficult period for Hendrix as his business and creative endeavors became entangled, and he retreated to the studio to seek inspiration.
“Jimi used that time in the studio to experiment, to jam, to rehearse, and using this jam-rehearsal style of recording enabled him to try different musicians of different stripes and backgrounds, because they offered a musical challenge to him,” Kramer said. “He wanted to hear music expressed with different guys who could lend a different approach to it. And as part of this whole learning curve, what emerged was this band that played at Woodstock in ’69, that little concert on the hill there.”
Many of the songs have been heard in different versions or forms before, but the music here is funkier than his best known work — at times sinuous, at times raucous. Horns pop up here and there. He’s a cosmic philosopher riding an earthbound backbeat on “Somewhere.” He’s a groovin’ bluesman enveloped in a bit of that purple haze on “Hear My Train a Comin’.” He challenges a saxophone to a fist fight on “Let Me Move You.” Then he channels James Brown on “Mojo Man” and ends the album as if shutting down an empty cinder-block club on a lonely stretch of dark highway with “Villanova Junction Blues.”
Hendrix died not long after making the last of these recordings. He’d already disbanded the players and was working with the Experience again in 1970 when he died of asphyxia in September 1970 at 27.
The last of the studio albums was timed for the year he would have turned 70. But in the 43 years that have passed since his death, he’s remained a fixture in American popular culture in much the same way Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash have endured. Still a radio staple, his image and music pops up often in commercials. There’s a biopic on the way with Andre Benjamin tackling the lead role. Even his out-there sense of fashion remains relevant.
Driving that image is the continued importance of his music, inspiring entranced young guitarists to attack his work in an endless loop of rediscovery over the decades. Tastes and sounds may change, but Hendrix always remains close at hand.
Maybe it’s because he was so far ahead of his time, we still haven’t caught up.
“He was a psychedelic warrior,” said Luther Dickinson, Grammy-nominated singer-guitarist of the North Mississippi Allstars. “He was one of those forces that pushed evolution. He was kicking the doors down. He was forcing the future into our ears.”
For Dickinson and his brother Cody, it was Hendrix’s post-apocalyptic psych-rock epic “1983 … (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” that blew their minds. But he means different things to different musicians. He played the chitlin circuit in the South before being discovered as a rocker in Europe and his music was also steeped in the blues, R&B and jazz.
“As a songwriter, he had the thing like Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top) and a few current guys like Dan Auerbach or Jack White,” Dickinson said. “They have the ability to take a near-cliche blues guitar lick and turn it into a pop hook. Hendrix had that. That was one aspect. Also, he wrote some of the most beautiful guitar melodies. His ballads, there’s nothing to compare them to. Obviously he learned a lot from Curtis Mayfield and R&B music, but he took it so much farther.”
It’s that soulful side that first inspired Michael Kiwanuka, a young singer-songwriter who grew up in London thousands of miles away from Dickinson’s home in Hernando, Miss., yet was seized by Hendrix just as forcefully.
He first saw Hendrix in a documentary that was paired back to back with his performance at Woodstock. Kiwanuka was 12 and new to the guitar. He experienced a lot of sensations at once. First, there was the music. He wasn’t drawn to the rip-roaring psychedelia the Dickinsons favored, but the R&B-flavored classics like “Castles Made of Sand” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” The child of Ugandan immigrants also was amazed by Hendrix’s natural hairstyle, which closely resembled his own.
“I’d never seen an African-American, a guy of African descent, playing rock music,” Kiwanuka said. “I was listening to bands like Nirvana and stuff at the time. That’s what got me into rock music — the electric guitar. Every time I saw a modern black musician it was like R&B, so I’d never seen someone play electric guitar in a rock way that was African. That inspired me as well on top of the music. And you think, ‘Oh, I could do that.'”
“People, Hell & Angels” will likely continue that cycle of discovery. And though it may be the last of studio album, it won’t be the last we hear from Hendrix.
“This is the last studio album, but what’s coming up is the fact that we have tremendous amount of live recorded concerts in the vault,” Kramer said. “A lot of them were filmed, too, so be prepared in the next few years to see some fabulous live performances, one of which I’ve already mixed. We’re waiting for the release date — God knows when — but at some point in the future there’s a ton of great live material.”