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Hendrix Experience: Beyond Sound, Fire

Pop music: Decades later, Jimi Hendrix ranks as the most innovative and influential rock guitarist of his era.

June 21, 1997|M. DION THOMPSON | THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Yeah, brother! What's happening?"

It is Jimi Hendrix, high and giddy on the Monterey Pop Festival stage. It is June 1967, long enough ago for the concert film to have become part of pop culture's endless reel. There's Jimi, nervous, 24 years old, throaty-voiced, hair wild even for the time. You know the lasting image: Hendrix on his knees, summoning fire from a flaming Stratocaster guitar.

He was one of the last acts of a three-day show. The headliners were Johnny Rivers, the Association, the Mamas and the Papas, performers who "just dropped off the face of the Earth" after Monterey, says Joel Selvin, author of "Monterey Pop." The Jimi Hendrix Experience would be one of the first acts in a new, angrier, franker time.

"In those three days," Selvin says, "the whole face of the pop music scene shifted."

Disc jockeys were going to play a different type of music, and Hendrix's guitar would be one of its most identifiable sounds. "It was as if a door opened and a whole new room was on display that nobody knew was there," Selvin says.

For rock 'n' roll, the performance that Sunday was as important as the debut of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" to the classical world, or Louis Armstrong's and Earl Hines' recording of "Weatherbird" to the jazz world. It heralded a new approach. Hendrix did not invent the use of feedback or sound-modulating boxes. But he used them in new ways, akin to the discovery of a new set of notes.

(The performance can be seen in current reissues of "Monterey Pop: The Video" and "Jimi Plays Monterey" and heard on "The Monterey International Pop Festival Box Set," all from Rhino.)

Hendrix was virtually unknown in the U.S. Born in Seattle in 1942, he left home at 17 to join the Army's 101st Airborne Division, then became a rhythm and blues sideman. In 1966, Chas Chandler of the Animals took him to England with the promise of making him a star.

His first single, "Hey Joe," flopped in the United States. But the Brits loved him. Paul McCartney suggested him to Monterey's organizers. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones introduced the band, calling Hendrix "a very good friend, a fellow countrymen of yours, a brilliant performer and the most exciting guitarist I've ever heard."

For 40 minutes his speakers crackled, snarled and growled as if fed by a violent electric storm. He rolled, tumbled, played behind his back, with his teeth, pulled out every "chitlin' circuit" trick in the book.

"It's really one of the great performances in rock 'n' roll," says John McDermott, author of "Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight." "He had been on the road. He understood how to bomb a crowd."

It was a sensual assault, appealing to the eyes, the heart and the ears, says Eddie Kramer, engineer on Hendrix's albums. "The sound on stage? It was just so awesome, and his technique was so impressive it was jaw-dropping," he says. "Jimi was a musical sponge. He would take in sounds, influences from jazz, rock and pop, blues and classical. He takes in all of these influences and forms his own sound."

First, the mechanics of that sound: a Fender Stratocaster with tremolo bar; strings tuned a half-step low to make them more pliable for bending; Marshall amplifier and speakers because they could produce the right highs and lows, could sustain notes for a long time, and they could take a beating.

Second, the roots of that sound. Blues, pure and simple. His first number that night was "Killing Floor," an old Howlin' Wolf number. McDermott sees a purpose in that selection. To him, Hendrix is saying, "This is where I come from and this is where I go with it."

"He really psychedelicized the blues, and bless him for having done that," says Jeff Kalis, a San Francisco-based music critic. "It hadn't been done much before. Needless to say, the hints of it are in the great bluesmen of the '50s and '60s, but they weren't doing it with that sort of amplification."

Hendrix was flat-out loud, every dial pushed to the maximum. So? The Who was loud. Cream was loud. Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck and other guitarists had been toying with feedback and massive volume. The ideas were in the air, bouncing from brain to brain.

"Hendrix was the first person to harness [feedback] and almost make it part of the blues vocabulary," says James Rotondi, features editor for Guitar Player magazine. "He was certainly the master of it. Not only did he make feedback, he manipulated it. He got the sound and he did something with it."

The first real hint of the new sound comes after "Killing Floor." Hendrix goes through a giddy moment, then settles down.

"My fingers won't move as you can see," he tells the crowd. "You don't hear no sounds as you hear. But, dig this."

*

A single note builds, rises in pitch, then drops to an explosion leading to "Foxy Lady." What had been noise is now a tool. What sounds like an unearthly roar is just a mind at work.

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