Hendrix's death hit me harder than the others because I came to truly love the paradoxical nature of his music. (In a song that fundamentally came out of the blues like "Burning of the Midnight Lamp," he combined a harpsichord with a wah-wah electric guitar and a chorale section to create a powerfully intense emotional soundscape.) Although Jimi Hendrix was always fully recognized as a virtuoso and theatrical guitar stylist, he was rarely discussed in any great depth in terms of his gifts as a poet, singer and music innovator. (For those insights, it's best to read David Henderson's 1978 biography 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky which still hasn't been equalled.) But John Morthland, writing in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, captured key aspects of those many gifts that Henderson elaborates on. "As a guitarist, Hendrix quite simply redefined the instrument, in the same way that Cecil Taylor redefined the piano or John Coltrane the tenor sax," he wrote. "As a songwriter, Hendrix was capable of startling, mystical imagery as well as the down-to-earth sexual allusions of the bluesman." Those sexual allusions though also led to a particular kind of theatricality that the artist himself was growing tired of indulging. Joni Mitchell, who met Hendrix in Ottawa towards the end of his life, recognized immediately his frustration about the public and critical perception of him based on those sexual allusions. "He made his reputation by setting his guitar on fire, but that eventually became repugnant to him," Mitchell told The Guardian in 1970. "'I can't stand to do that anymore,' he said, 'but they've come to expect it. I'd like to just stand still'."
The last album he was preparing when he died, which first came out posthumously in 1971 as The Cry of Love, features plenty of songs where he is indeed 'standing still.' The material on it draws essentially from tracks he had been recording between March 1968 and August 1970. While he was then preparing a visionary double-album work to be titled First Rays of the New Rising Sun (which would eventually come out on CD in 1997 with additional tracks not included on The Cry of Love), his death and various contractual issues prevented the release at that time. John McDermott in his liner notes for the First Rays CD, acknowledging the unfinished state of the album, clearly outlines Hendrix's intent. "With full faith in his music, Hendrix was primed to introduce his audience to a new frontier, where the triumphs of his past would merge freely with his unique blending of rock with rhythm and blues." As McDermott states, the work from these sessions were split up among three albums: The Cry of Love, Rainbow Bridge (1971) and War Heroes (1972). Of the three albums, The Cry of Love is the more sustained and satisfying work.
"Angel" with its more blatant recognition of death's final victory ("Angel came down from Heaven yesterday/She stayed with me just long enough to rescue me") became the biggest hit from the album, especially when Rod Stewart covered it in 1972. But the track, as lovely as it is, is too obvious in its meaning, the metaphors too easy to read: the pop song as obit. The tune that left me wondering if he indeed saw it all coming was the exquisite "Drifting." He'd written beautiful ballads before like "May This Be Love" and "Little Wing," but "Drifting" was essentially a spiritual, a contemporary interpretation of one that offered a poignant reckoning of the fact that he knew he was moving on. "Drifting on a sea of forgotten tear-drops," he sings with a delicate lilt, a soft crooning that anchors the watery texture of the various guitar melodies keeping him afloat, "On a lifeboat sailing for your love." No doubt the wistful qualities within this spiritual were borne out of its tonal resemblance to Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." In the song's last moments, where his guitar loops sound like seagulls taking flight over the water, they echo the cries of liberation those same loops once called out for in the conclusion of "If Six Was Nine." But to a different effect. In "Drifting," you can practically see him waving goodbye as he flies away. Liberated.
John Morthland concludes his piece on Jimi Hendrix contemplating not only his continuing influence, but also the endless albums and repackages of both finished and unfinished tunes. "[A]s the years go by, it also becomes increasingly apparent that Hendrix created a branch on the pop tree that nobody else has ventured too far out on. None has actually extended the directions he pursued, but perhaps that is because he took them, in his painfully short time on earth, as far as they could go." It also may be true that he took those innovations with him to the Promised Land.
– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.