Wednesday, November 6, 2013

American Masters: Jimi Hendrix (PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was a two-hour PBS American Masters documentary on Jimi Hendrix, given the name of one of his lesser known songs, the blues “Hear My Train A-Comin’” (though given the protean character of Hendrix’ music another, even more obscure Hendrix song, “Room Full of Mirrors,” might have been a better title). The film was directed by Bob Smeaton, who’d made two Hendrix documentaries previously: Jimi Hendrix: Band of Gypsies (1998) — interestingly he normalized the spelling of “Gypsys,” the version Hendrix actually used in the name of his second band — and Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child (2010), which like this one is a bio-doc on Hendrix’ entire career. (This probably is the source of the interview footage with the other two members of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, who both died recently.) What’s interesting about this film is what it leaves out: it runs through the basics of the Hendrix life story — his childhood in Seattle (mostly raised by his father, Al Hendrix, because his mom Louise drifted in and out of the family — like her son, she refused to be tied down to any one environment or any one romantic or sexual partner), his interest in music (he was five when Al bought him his first guitar — an acoustic — though it was later, when he got an electric guitar, that he became the obsessive practicer described throughout the film; one interviewee recalled Hendrix as carrying a guitar everywhere — even into the bathroom! — and continually strumming it whether it was connected to an amp or not), his stint as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army (one writer on Hendrix suggested that some of the “whooshing” sounds he made with his guitar were an attempt to duplicate what you hear when you rush through the air in free fall before your parachute opens), his discharge for medical reasons after he broke his leg on a jump landing (one of the occupational hazards of parachuting; the chute slows you down enough so the fall doesn’t kill you but you don’t always land with all your body parts intact), his attempts to put together a musical career, his stints on the “chit’lin’ circuit” with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, his discovery by former Animals bassist Chas Chandler while he was playing in Greenwich Village at a skuzzy coffeehouse (not a bar, as it’s described here) called the Café Wha?, and Chandler’s taking him to England, putting two white musicians behind him, and winning the praise of such established rock “names” as John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger to promote him and get him prestigious gigs (he made his official British debut at the Savile Theatre, run by Brian Epstein in the last year of his drug-shortened life).

The film is already almost half over before Hendrix makes his triumphant return to the States at the Monterey Pop Festival (Paul McCartney, whom Smeaton landed for a fresh interview, recalled that the Monterey Pop organizers contacted him to see if the Beatles would play the festival; Paul told them that the Beatles were too busy in the studio to consider a live gig, then said, “But I know who you should get — the Jimi Hendrix Experience!,” to which the organizers responded, “Who?”), where he set his guitar on fire, and then mentions the abortive experiment of having him tour with the Monkees as their opening act. “Someone thought that would be a good idea,” the film’s narrator says rather snippily — in fact the “someone” was Micky Dolenz of the Monkees, who had seen Hendrix in the U.K., fallen in love with his act and wanted to do what he could to promote it. (Ironically, Hendrix would later fall victim to a similar attempt to boost an act he liked by having it open for him; the band was the British pop-rock ensemble the Move, and their concerts together failed for the opposite reason Hendrix had flopped as an opening act for the Monkees: Hendrix’ audience wasn’t interested in a group as pop-oriented as the Move, even though they took a pretty twisted attitude towards pop, and the Move wouldn’t become major international stars until the 1970’s, after they changed their name to Electric Light Orchestra.) According to the PBS Web site, Smeaton was originally inspired to make this film by the discovery of a complete (or nearly so) film of Hendrix’ performance at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival and his desire to make this available after 45 years — which, if true, would probably have been better served if he’d merely released the Miami film as is rather than build yet another talking-heads movie around it. (We can hope, can’t we?) The Miami Pop Festival was an open-air affair in a stadium and it was supposed to present Hendrix two days in a row, but the second day was rained out (and inspired Hendrix’ song “Rainy Day, Dream Away” on Electric Ladyland) and it’s hard to get much of an idea of the performance that did take place from the film we have, with the camera miles away from the stage and Hendrix, Mitchell and Redding as little silhouettes against a big sky (though at least the sound quality was excellent; Hendrix’ engineer, Eddie Kramer, recorded the show on fully professional multitrack equipment).

Among the things omitted from this documentary that are crucial to understanding Hendrix are his mixed-race ancestry; he was actually part African-Amerian and part Native American, and while his music mostly reflected his Black roots, his lyric writing was clearly colored by Native American spiritual traditions, and at least two of his songs, “I Don’t Live Today” (which he deliberately intended as a portrait of life on a reservation — “Will I live tomorrow?/Well, I just can’t say/But one thing’s for sure/I don’t live today”) and “Castles Made of Sand,” directly reference Native lives and traditions. I found it interesting that Smeaton deliberately chose photos of Hendrix that emphasize his Blackness — which wasn’t the case when he was alive; the group photo of the Experience on the U.S. release of Are You Experienced (the official title does not contain a question mark at the end) seems to have been distorted and processed to minimize the visual racial differences between Hendrix and his white British bandmates. He also doesn’t mention that the reason Hendrix broke up the original Experience in 1969 was under pressure from Black drummer Buddy Miles, who argued that as the leading Black rock musician in an era of Black nationalism, Hendrix should fire his white musicians and work with his own people instead. (In one respect that was an asset — Redding’s replacement, Billy Cox, was not only an old Army buddy of Hendrix’ but a truly great bass player, whereas Redding was a guitarist who had learned bass to play with Hendrix but was clearly more comfortable on guitar and didn’t supply the formidable bottom to Hendrix’ sound that Cox did. In another respect that was a liability; Buddy Miles himself was a dull, plodding drummer that didn’t send the sparks flying the way Mitch Mitchell did — ironic given all the racist crap about Blacks having “natural rhythm” that Hendrix’ white drummer should have so much better a sense of time and be so much freer and more inspirational than his Black one.) The show demonstrates the band Hendrix had at Woodstock, where he expanded his basic guitar-bass-drums heavy-metal lineup with conga players and other percussionists (including Juma Sultan, who had also performed with John Coltrane at his last concert — to my knowledge Sultan is the only musician who ever recorded with both Coltrane and Hendrix), though it didn’t alter the sound much because, especially under the wretched conditions of a disorganized open-air festival, whatever the percussionists were doing was virtually inaudible. He called this ad hoc group “Band of Gypsys, Suns and Rainbows,” shortening it to “Band of Gypsys” when he made an official live recording with it (or at least with just himself, Cox and Miles) in the New Year’s concert at the Fillmore East in New York in 1969/1970.

For a documentary aimed at focusing on Hendrix the musician rather than Hendrix the celebrity, it’s a bit surprising that Smeaton offers almost nothing about the music beyond a few obvious observations about Hendrix’ blues roots; there’s nothing about his interest in jazz, which was quite apparent as early as Electric Ladyland (indeed, I read that two-LP set as a deliberate attempt by Hendrix to show his musical versatility and command of various styles: side one is blues, side two is soul, side three is jazz and side four is rock) and even more so on his later recordings and jam sessions. Instead, much of the footage Smeaton shows is Hendrix in public performance at his least interesting, doing openly and blatantly sexual moves with his guitar and coming off (at least to my mind) as the stereotypical smiling Black entertainer, emphasizing his sexuality and playing to white stereotypes — I wrote a column for my high-school paper about Hendrix when he was still alive comparing him to Louis Armstrong as a Black musical genius who sucked up to white expectations and stereotypes in his performances. Indeed, my views about Hendrix when he was alive were surprisingly mixed; I liked some of his songs (notably the blues “Red House,” inexplicably left off the U.S. version of Are You Experienced even though it was not only on the British version, it opened it; “House Burning Down” from Electric Ladyland, in which he quotes the famous opening of Louis Armstrong’s 1928 “West End Blues”; and his majestic cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” a magnificent song that did what a cover version should do: expand on the original by showing a different, equally valid way of approaching the material) but I didn’t own any Hendrix LP’s and I wasn’t a fan. Part of the reason was that I thought Hendrix’ virtuosity was studio-manufactured — in one clip from 1967 Hendrix is understandably defensive about the charge that he used “gimmicks” to make himself sound like a better musician than he was — and frankly it was only when a lot of live, undoctored, un-gimmicked Hendrix recordings came out after his death that I listened with fresh ears and said to myself, “Hey, he didn’t need all the gimmicks; the man could really play all that guitar!” (Indeed, Hendrix’ posthumous career is still going on; “new” Hendrix recordings continue to appear — one gets the impression he had a tape recorder going every time he practiced — and there was a spurt of posthumous releases when his father Al Hendrix regained control of his estate after protracted litigation with the estate of Hendrix’ manager, Mike Jeffery, and a lot of people who’d been sitting on unissued Hendrix recordings allowed them to come out once it would be Hendrix’ family, not some anonymous “suits,” who’d be getting the money.)

Jimi Hendrix’ career is one of the great enigmas of music — like Franz Schubert, he left a lot of his work unfinished and seems to have created in an explosive burst of energy that drained him and led to his early demise (and one good thing this show makes clear is that though his death was certainly drug-related, Hendrix did not die of a heroin overdose the way Janis Joplin did; he choked on his own vomit following an ingestion of unusually strong barbiturates — like Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson, Hendrix was killed not by a drug he took to get high, but a drug he took to get some sleep). Like James Dean (or Vincent Van Gogh), Hendrix seems in his short life to have accomplished all he could have — it’s virtually impossible to imagine an aging Hendrix doing MTV Unplugged shows and getting a Grammy award for an acoustic album the way Eric Clapton did, giving normal-sounding interviews about his career (in the interviews he did give, he speaks in this rather spooky “stoned” voice and is as elliptical as he was in his song lyrics) and maybe even writing a best-selling memoir like Keith Richards. One commentator on the Dean cult in the late 1950’s noted that it was missing a key element that usually forms around the fans of artists who die young — there was virtually no speculation about what he could have accomplished if he’d lived longer — and one could say the same thing about the Hendrix cult: it almost seems as if he had more music in him than could possibly be contained, and that no matter what was the technical cause of his death, he really exited early because the pressure of all he had to give blew him up inside.

And yet at the time of his death he was nearly finished with the magnum opus he’d been recording in bits and pieces between tours, First Rays of the New Rising Sun (a CD of that title exists, pieced together by Mitch Mitchell and Eddie Kramer — in the film Kramer recalls the arguments he had with Hendrix over the sound mixes of his records; Hendrix always wanted his vocals buried in the texture and Kramer wanted them front and center, which explains why in the posthumous releases Hendrix’ singing is clearer and more audible than in the three studio albums released in Hendrix’ lifetime and with his approval — but Mitchell and Kramer both said in the notes that it was merely a compilation of some of the material and exactly what songs Hendrix would have wanted on the album, and in what order, were secrets Hendrix took to his grave), and he seemed to be expanding his musical horizons beyond what rock could contain. Indeed, I’m convinced that had Hendrix lived he would have been one of the leaders in the jazz-rock “fusion” movement, which started impressively with fine, energetic, highly emotional performances by Miles Davis and guitarist John McLaughlin but soon degenerated into the antiseptic form that later got renamed “smooth jazz.” Maybe Jimi Hendrix would have been able by the sheer force of his personality to keep “fusion” honest — and one of the great might-have-beens is a recording that would have paired Hendrix with Albert Ayler, the avant-garde jazz saxophonist who died only a few months after Hendrix and whose last albums contained tracks he recorded with mediocre rock guitarist Henry Vestine of Canned Heat — which are O.K. but tantalize with the thought of what Ayler might have been able to accomplish with a genuinely great rock guitarist like Hendrix, Clapton or Zappa. And by the way, the film describes Hendrix as the first Black artist to front an otherwise all-white rock band, which he wasn’t; Black singer Arthur Lee and his band Love were already appearing and recording together in Los Angeles a year before the Jimi Hendrix Experience debuted in London.