MUSIC BY JIMI HENDRIX
Listening to Hendrix’s People, Hell and Angels was like listening to SRV’s Texas Flood. This was to have been his fourth record, after Are you Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland – to which it was supposed to have been a follow-up album of sorts. This is as bluesy as Hendrix has ever been, for me, where I’d hesitate to throw an insinuation as saying “this is as bluesy as he can get!” – you’d never know. It has been four decades, almost, since an untimely death and record producers and sound engineers have made sure he’s heard every now and then, ever since. It had me wonder what sort of time-testing they ought to be doing in order to conclude that the world was/is/would be ready for something like People, Hell and Angels.
When Valleys of Neptune (2010) was released, I thought they were selling memorabilia. I mean, come on. That was Hendrix as the world knew him, sold at re-sale value. Like a wobble-head; or, in his case, an action-figure, maybe, that sang and played guitar at the press of a button. Kind of like Buzz Lightyear.
A common trend I have observed in all posthumous Hendrix records is that they tend to lean more towards the Blues than he had done in his lifetime. It is popular knowledge that Hendrix personified psychedelia and drove the hippie movement ahead in his small ways. Here, I think, it is important to quote a line from Bertolucci’s the Dreamers, an inimitable cinematic treatise on adolescence, culture and revolution, set in the early ‘70s.
Clapton plugs in a guitar, he plugs in an electric guitar and he plays it like an acoustic guitar. Hendrix plugs in an electric guitar, he plays it with his teeth! There are soldiers in the Vietnam War right now. Who are they listening to? Clapton? No, they're listening to Hendrix. The guy who tells the truth.
It is like the film to be dialogic about any given topic, even though it might not limit itself to the same. The aspect in discussion here is the musician’s contribution to/with the electric guitar. The two people discussed are Clapton and Hendrix. What could be restricted to a discussion on guitar techniques slowly morphs into a debate on political/cultural relevance. To Matthew, who speaks these lines, Hendrix was not only a guitar-revolutionary, he was also an on-stage activist who spearheaded a cultural movement not restricted to the skill itself (which, in this case, is guitar-playing/songwriting).
This, I think, is precisely the problem when you are an artist like Hendrix. Whether part of a movement or not, there needs to be a bridge between the musician they want you to be, and the musician you want yourself to be, where the plane of compromise is clearly defined with your intentions. This is not to say that Hendrix would choose popular demand over personal gratification. For all I know, it could’ve been the opposite, let alone being just a fine blend.
Musical direction defines an artist’s success in a given cultural paradigm. Time has come and time has gone. So have dinosaurs. Why has someone like John Mayer enjoyed his position in the realm of the Blues when there are stronger contenders to carry the sacred flame ahead? It is because he plays the love songs that people listen to his Blues as well. It’s the rock/pop side of someone like John Mayer that attracts attention towards something normally construed as ancient, as the 12-Bar blues. A song like Something like Olivia is in good faith, even if not blatantly so.
I don’t know if Hendrix could have released this record in 1969, the year it was originally intended. It was perhaps at the peak of psychedelic rock, where this record is almost puritanical with its relationship to the Blues. A song like Easy Blues is, of course, psychedelic, and so is Hendrix’s version of Elmore James’ Bleeding Heart. But that’s it. Which brings me back to my original point. Listening to this record was like the first time I listened to Texas Flood (1983) – something I can say without fear of being anachronous. Youtube has been generous with the number of comments on videos that criminalized SRV as a copycat of Hendrix. I have never seen how. With this record, however, I get closer to accepting that statement, even if not entirely.
This is to never deny the prowess of someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan. If Hendrix can be called crazy, SRV is aggression. There is a quantum of control in the way he lets loose, a trait which I – curiously – saw in People, Hell and Angels. Here was Hendrix showing the world he can care, not just at heart, but also through carefully executed licks on a guitar that’s as close to ‘clean’ as he has ever been. I have read about Hendrix cite the likes of Elmore James and B.B. King as influences. Again, I have never seen how. People, Hell and Angels, in that sense, helped make a Martian a Man.
Careful, I reiterate. Careful. That’s the best I could come up with to describe this record in a word. Superlatives can rule another world – you get mine with the care you show. Every track is like a handicraft, for a wanderer who finds himself tamed by home-cooked food. For the span of about an hour, Hendrix ceases to be the devil, the incomprehensible craftsman; the man who played the electric guitar with his teeth.
Which brings me to an important aspect – production. This might be the best-produced Hendrix record I’ve listened to. I’ve never tried vinyl, my sources have been digitized versions – mp3 tracks – where there ought to be a significant amount that’s lost in translation. Analog in a digital world, like people say, which – incidentally – is also what creativity is about; what dreams are about. This record is like a sweet pill without a sugar coat, achieving compaction like a high-density solid in a solid load of more in less. It’s a kind of joy when every note is crystal clear without becoming an excuse for mediocre guitar-playing. It has always been a fantasy to hear Hendrix like he actually played, as far as recording goes. This record, I think, is as close as we have ever gotten.
Why this record? I couldn’t answer. Thematically, Hendrix is in good hands. We are not discussing things right now that they hadn’t discussed in the ‘70s. Sound-wise, it is rich and inviting. But it is as out-of-sync in terms of musical direction now as it might have been in the good old days. It is for an entirely different reason that Clapton seems to be doing full-time with the Blues these days. It’s his pilgrimage. But when we talk about Hendrix, we talk about a man who has been dead for four decades, leaving behind a stockpile people didn’t know what to do with. Timing is everything, nostalgia can only work so much. Popular acclaim needs more than that.
People, Hell and Angels could compete to be an artist’s creative best. It is a posthumous album unlike any other I’ve heard before. Every time I think of it, there is something stranger about it - it is as contemporary an effort as it is obviously not; nerve-wracking. John Mayer, in a one-minute review, said it sounds like a Black Keys album – this, coming from a man who said ain’t it a drag to say, at least I’ve still got yesterday. People, Hell and Angels renders time circular, that way.
You’d better love me like it’s gonna be my last time, Hendrix sings, in Earth Blues. I think I love him like he’s going to live forever – which doesn’t sound too far-fetched, given the weight of this record - something I didn't know before.