Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Jimi Hendrix Drifting

When Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, over forty years ago this month, I was in high school. It was a time when a number of key pop figures – all in their twenties – never got to see thirty. A year earlier, it was Brian Jones of The Stones, and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison would soon follow Hendrix to the grave. Besides sobering you with a taste of death's final victory (right at that moment when you saw nothing but life straight ahead), you also realized that a person's genius, their gifts, even their youth, could do nothing to protect them.

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.

Although The Cry of Love remains a somewhat uneven record, the working out of his own personal isolation resonates in many of its best tracks like the ripping "Ezy Ryder," the lilting "Angel," the gospel fury of "In From the Storm," his Dylanesque "My Friend," and his tip of the hat to Skip James in the country blues demo of "Belly Button Window." "Ezy Ryder," which was recorded in December 1969, was obviously inspired by the hit counter-culture film (Easy Rider) from earlier that summer. But the song, the only one on the record recorded by Hendrix's funk trio known as the Band of Gypsys (including Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums), strips away the underlying masochism and paranoia that inspired the picture's theme (and made it such a hit) to arrive at something far more poignant. "There goes ezy ryder," Hendrix cries out as Buddy Miles attacks his drum kit as if firing heavy nails into it with a machine gun as he rides wave after wave of Billy Cox's pulsing bass line runs. "Riding down the highway of desire/He says the free wind takes him higher/Searchin' for his Heaven above/But he's dyin' to be loved." While "Ezy Ryder" has all the full-out propulsion of earlier songs like "Manic Depression," "Spanish Castle Magic," or "Crosstown Traffic," the recognition of death isn't brought on by resignation, or the failure of values (as in Peter Fonda's fatalistic proclamation of "We blew it" in the movie), but the desire instead to transcend earthly chains. Martin Luther King would also proclaim recognition of the Promised Land in his final speech a year earlier, a vision that allowed him to face the death he saw coming, so Jimi Hendrix also reaches for the sky in "Ezy Ryder." "He's gonna be livin' so magic," Hendrix sings. "Today is forever so he claims/He's talkin' about dyin' it's so tragic baby/But don't worry about it today/We've got freedom comin' our way."

"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 CorcelliCourrier 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.


  1. "Drifting," from "Cry of Love," I've thought extraordinary (your "exquisite" is perfect) for all the 45 years since I first heard it in Paris, my first year of college. Beyond the lyrics you mention, its harmony and changes seem to take him to high musical level. What could have been, it's beyond poignant.
    "CoL" was the only album I had on reel-to-reel to play on my Wollensak tape deck (which went up in smoke one day when I forgot to use the step-down transformer).
    If there is discussion anywhere available on "Drifting"'s structure I'd love to hear of it. roblingelbach

  2. Thanks. Drifting a favorite song of many. Nice to see insight from someone close to heart and intent of the music

  3. Nice to read from others who have similar understanding of JMH music. Thanks