Slight Return: A Psychedelical Classical Tribute to Jimi Hendrix
Phonecard from Deutsche Telekom (1991)
Thanks in part to the wonders of YouTube, my CD collection remains stuck where it was roughly around the fin de siècle. Most of the recordings are in three-ring CD binders, alphabetized by “main author” (to use librarian jargon). Composers for “western art” (or “classical”) music, performers for “popular” music, all interfiled long ago per my belief in the equal status of all types of music. The same goes for my Bigso Box of CD booklets, which excludes the thicker librettos and liner notes from boxed opera sets.
Flipping through the booklets is sometimes like a walk back in time. Between The Best of Isaac Hayes and Bernard Herrmann Film Scores, I have five booklets from a musical enthusiasm I developed in the mid-1990s. It has cooled somewhat for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but my respect for one of the greatest guitarists ever remains. This posting commemorates him, Jimi Hendrix, who would have turned 70 this year on 27 November.
It was during my third year at university, spring term in 1994, when I first became acquainted with Hendrix’s virtuosity. Not that I had never heard of him prior to that. Like Mozart and Beethoven to people who shy away from classical music, Hendrix was that way to classical- and opera-obsessed me. (And, I’m sad to say, there remain a number of rock bands that still have that status in my mind, including Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.) In a high school art class many years before, my oldest brother made a clay sculpture of Hendrix’s head. I remember it resting in either my parents’ living room or in our nominally “finished” basement for some time, its almond-shaped blank eyes lending the head an air of mystery. If memory serves correctly, one of my suitemates from my first few years at university had a poster of Hendrix on his side of the suite. That said, I don’t recall him ever playing anything by Hendrix. For some reason, I also remember a snippet of a conversation where one of my more sober-minded and witty friends talked about Hendrix being “awesome.” Of course, some of the legends that formed around Hendrix had become almost as big as his music, including the one about him playing guitar with his teeth.
Not too long after that, a student from Pakistan named Kamran decided that I should become acquainted with Hendrix’s genius. I was visiting his apartment, a high-ceilinged and dimly-lit place above a storefront, in a building likely constructed a century before. Regarding the recording he selected, for some reason I remember it being from a live performance in California. Possibly 1967 or 1968, maybe from the Monterrey Pop Festival or Winterland in San Francisco. For whatever reason, my ears were receptive to this music, even though it seemed “very different” from my more “cultured” listening habits. It might have been the right combination of good recording practice and the spontaneity of the live performance. No controlled substances were consumed, either.
As I listened, I kept thinking about how this was from the ‘60s, man. That Hendrix’s guitar playing was appropriately “freaky,” while also demonstrating a very keen talent. “Psychedelic,” to employ the overused (and abused) word, whose mind-expanding nature has fallen into ill-repute and caricature. Transcendent, almost extraterrestrial, perhaps even spiritual. This was like nothing I had heard before. How did he get the guitar to make all these weird and wonderful noises? To go all over the scale? To screw up the tension towards a satisfactory release? To sound, I daresay, almost romantic?
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. It took some time for me to make the connection to the blues, along with other genres one could perceive as flowing to and from Hendrix. Leonard Bernstein talked of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde as being “the central work of all music history, the hub of the wheel” (and to which I will return at a later point). Albeit from a different genre and time period, one could set aside some space within the hub for Hendrix as well. Liner notes tend to play up the work of the artist in question, but I can believe the claim made by Rob Partridge in the booklet from the first Hendrix CD I purchased (Jimi Hendrix: The Ultimate Experience, MCA, 1993):
In the two decades since his death, Hendrix’s legacy can be heard across an extraordinary range of musics, from funk to jazz, rap to soul, blues to rock. Hendrix is a cornerstone of modern music (Partridge 1993, 3).
In addition, as Butt-head points out (I believe from the Ensucklopedia co-authored with his compatriot Beavis), “Some radio dude said heavy metal owes a debt to dudes like Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Beavis says it’s only, like, five dollars.”
In other words, Hendrix didn’t achieve renown just by being some crazy guy who did weird things with his guitar during the 1960s, likely under the influence of a constant high from hallucinogens supposedly hidden in his headband. Granted, it’s difficult to eschew that image completely, but there’s so much more. Otherwise, why would musicians continue to remain in awe of him, and draw upon him for inspiration? When I finally became acquainted with U2 roughly 10 years ago, I immediately picked up the strong Hendrix influence on The Edge. Especially in “Bullet the Blue Sky,” one can almost imagine Hendrix himself returning to possess “David Evans” during a performance.
A year after getting into Hendrix, I purchased Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix. The new versions generally provided some excellent renditions. One of my favourites is Belly’s erotically-charged rendition of “Are You Experienced.”
Personally, I actually prefer Belly’s rendition over the diligently trippy original, which would probably get me in serious trouble with Hendrix purists.
But then, any creation is always open to reinterpretation (even in terms of extra-musical meaning, as seems the case here), and may at times transcend the original. For the most part, however, many of the other songs on the album are pretty faithful updates and re-imaginings of the Hendrix “sound,” even if they aren’t from the master himself.
Funnily enough, the one track I find weakest is the tribute to “Fire,” led by violinist Nigel Kennedy.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “But, Jason, you’re a classical fan, and you’re into cross-genre similarity. Why aren’t you keen?” Of course, my big purpose on this blog is to emphasize similarities between “very different” types of music, most especially “classical” and “popular” as they’re generally understood within a “Western” cultural context. That doesn’t mean I like the execution, and I have in fact written already about my problems with many crossover albums, as a number of them try too hard to bridge the classical and popular gap.
Released in 1995, In from the Storm makes such an effort, with various popular musicians like Sting, Carlos Santana, Stevie Vai, and Brian May playing Hendrix-associated songs with the London Metropolitan Orchestra. I recall it being an okay effort, but I still got just enough of the nagging sensation of caricature in the convergence of popular and classical realms.
Granted, explicit examples of genre crossover are relevant to my research interests, providing solid evidence for my central point. Nonetheless, I’m actually more interested in the more subtle currents of similarity that can exist, whether consciously or (even better) unintentionally. As far as I can tell, aside from the liner notes for In from the Storm, there’s a paucity of information about the connection between Hendrix and classical music. One interesting story I do recall, however, comes from Humphrey Burton’s excellent biography of Leonard Bernstein (like my first encounter with Hendrix, also from 1994). It mentions the conductor and composer attending a Hendrix concert in 1969, before flying off to Vienna to conduct Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio.
More recently, from Johnny Black’s Eyewitness Hendrix (1999) and John McDermott’s Setting the Record Straight (1992), I learned that Hendrix’s manager Michael Jeffery arranged for the Jimi Hendrix Experience to perform something called “An Electric Thanksgiving” in 1968. The deal stipulated that someone from Experience would play classical music with the New York Brass Quintet, with a performance by the band itself afterwards. In Black’s book, drummer Mitch Mitchell describes having tea with Leonard Bernstein, as well as being the only member who agreed to perform with the ensemble (170). McDermott writes that bassist Noel Redding simply refused, while Hendrix “soured on the idea… upon learning that Jeffery had helped set it up” (156). Nonetheless, McDermott also suggests that Hendrix “may have been flattered by the offer.”
The liner notes for In from the Storm, also by McDermott (1995), illuminate this possibility. Several months before Hendrix’s death in September 1970, construction finished on his Electric Ladyland Studios. The quality of the facility provided him with an opportunity to expand his musical scope, and he had begun to meet with such jazz legends as Al Brown, Gil Evans, and Duke Ellington as part of the process. In addition, McDermott quotes classically-trained audio producer and engineer Eddie Kramer in describing Hendrix’s interest in classical music. According to Kramer, “’We talked about classical music and, to my surprise, he told me that a lot of his inspiration came from listening to it’” (McDermott, 14). The paragraph that follows is worth quoting in full:
Like his firm grasp on other styles of music, Jimi’s appreciation and understanding of classical music helped to form his own unique synthesis. While it is unlikely that he would have undertaken a traditional symphonic production, performing with a symphony orchestra… had long been a dream of Jimi’s. Classical music, as seen through Jimi’s prism, had a decided role to play in the grand design he envisioned for his future sound. Typically, Jimi offered few specifics, opting instead to describe his plan in cryptic by colorful language, perfectly content to let the music speak for him (McDermott, 14-15).
Interestingly, Hendrix’s timing would have been just right to go in such a direction. The Beatles became one of the first rock bands to draw upon Western art music, old and new, for inspiration. Furthermore, progressive rock began coming to the fore, with bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer incorporating classical elements into their songs… even going so far as to quote classical pieces directly.
But what did Hendrix listen to? McDermott mentions some of the canonical names more readily familiar to a broader public: Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Interestingly, however, McDermott also includes a massive quote from the man himself, which mentions some other names. It begins thus:
I dig Strauss and Wagner. Those cats are good. I think that they are going to form the background of my music (15).
Given my penchant for both composers, I was floored upon reading that. Perhaps that explains the affinity I developed for Hendrix when I first heard the live recording in Kamran’s apartment many years before. Maybe subconsciously, I picked up on specific attributes that somehow put me in mind of Strauss and Wagner. (That is, assuming Hendrix referred to Richard, and not a member of the Viennese waltz family… although Manic Depression, with its portrayal of “a cat wishing he could make love to music,” is in 3/4 time.) While I didn’t buy In from the Storm until 1998, when I first encountered the intriguing quote, I did make some personal connections between 1994 and that time.
In terms of Strauss, the Hendrix song that really puts me in mind of his typical composition style is “Stone Free.” The first few minutes of this 1969 performance from Albert Hall provides a perfect example.
It starts somewhat audaciously, followed by a quieter section that simultaneously manages to maintain and contain the initial excitement. As the music builds, there are a number of apparent key changes that emerge over increasingly shorter periods of time, building to a satisfying payoff that brings us to the song’s “hook.” The vocal range of Hendrix only adds to the song’s Straussian aspect.
In terms of Wagner, the affinities I see with Hendrix are highly specific, relating to his opera Tristan und Isolde. Now, how can one associate that with a psychedelic mindset? Tristan is, after all, the central musical work according to “classical” musician Leonard Bernstein. On the other hand, this is the same Leonard Bernstein who apparently had an interest in Hendrix, as described earlier. Furthermore, Michael Long’s Beautiful Monsters (2008) recounts an interesting story about a supervised LSD trip taken by Allen Ginsberg back in 1959, which inspired his poem Lysergic Acid. His choice of music to accompany his journey: Tristan (Long, 111-114).
On The Ultimate Experience, I usually skipped “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” to get to songs I liked better. For whatever reason at the time, the opening drove me to move on. However, while engaged in a politically-oriented activity one weekend at Ohio State University, I stepped into a quiet on-campus café with another student who had come along on the trip from Ohio Wesleyan University. I sensed some indications that she might have been interested in me, but I wasn’t sure, and she was already with someone. While we were there, “Burning” appeared on the café’s speaker system, and I ended up hearing the whole thing.
Perhaps due to the overall context in which I heard it, the post-introduction elements within the song brought forth a strong Tristan connection for me. It was a brief notion that entered my head, but I found it best to dismiss the possibility. While I somehow thought of it as being kind of like the opera’s Liebestod, or “Love Death,” I knew a direct overlay would not work.
Contemplating it now, I think my dismissal was valid, but still off the mark in a sense. It wasn’t until 1996 when I first got a complete box set of the opera (Karl Böhm’s white hot 1966 version from the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Birgit Nilsson doing what she did best). Now I realize that the connection might have been with the overall soundworld of Tristan, more specifically the ethereal and nocturnal Act II Liebesnacht (or “night of love,” pardon the hamfisteffed translation).
While not similar in terms of melody, just jumping in and listening to both together at various points brings forth some intriguing aural affinities.
On a related note, I also imagined years ago what it would sound like if Hendrix shredded the Liebestod. Considering Hendrix’s performance of The Star Spangled Banner, Wagner purists would likely have protested in horror about “brutalization” of one of opera’s most sacred moments. While I love a good note-for-note rendition of the Liebestod myself, and have great respect and love for Wagner’s creation, I also think it would be perfect raw material for something else profound. What would’ve happened if Hendrix had the opportunity to improvise from Wagner’s original notes? Would he have amplified the already soul-crushing / life-affirming aspect of the work? Following Ginsberg’s Tristan-tinged trip, would Hendrix have brought out the potentially psychedelic elements of Wagner’s piece? Even if someone decides to take up the challenge, we will unfortunately never know what Hendrix would have done with it. But anyone who enjoys both Hendrix and Wagner can always dream. Although not right in terms of mood, the structure of one of the main themes from “Manic Depression” might provide a few surface clues.
As this tribute to Hendrix comes to a close, one extra-musical theme seems to have emerged. He has not only the readily-acknowledged strong ties with many forms of popular music. He has less apparent, but very strong, connections with classical as well. Had he remained with us, getting ready to celebrate his 70th birthday, who knows what he would have accomplished over the past four decades. Based on what we do know, however, one can readily say that Hendrix stands as a central point among many kinds of music, their similarities more intriguing than their differences.