Thursday, December 11, 2008

Seminal Listening

It's hard to describe the impact that Jimi Hendrix's third album, Electric Ladyland, had on me when I first heard it in 1969. Suffice to say that it barely left my turntable for several months. I certainly remember the first time I listened to it through headphones, lying in the dark on the floor of my bedroom. Along with the first time I heard Muddy Waters, Kind Of Blue, A Love Supreme and Keith Jarrett's Facing You, the memory still brings a chill. The phasing at the end of "And The Gods Made Love" and the quick cut into "Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)" struck me as anthemic. It was interesting to learn years later that Hendrix created that particular sonic blend in the aftermath of the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the spring of 1968. The working title for Electric Ladyland had been The End Of The Beginning, and that soundscape definitely sounded like change was in the air.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Hendrix's masterpiece – a milestone that will be marked by the release of a deluxe edition of the original recording that pairs the most recent remastering of the CD with an extended version of a "making of" TV documentary. Originally released in mid-October 1968 in the U.S., and on October 25 in Britain (with the infamous naked women cover, which Hendrix hated) Electric Ladyland marked a huge break with Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love as Hendrix took control from Chas Chandler in the studio and brought in engineer Eddie Kramer to try to realize the sounds he heard in his mind.

What moved me most at the time was hearing Hendrix's blues and R&B roots come to the foreground. His main solo on Earl King's "Come On" remains one of my favourite guitar breaks and the primal backbeat of "Gypsy Eyes" introduced a side of Hendrix few of us had been exposed to in 1968. As Hendrix himself described the album: "...electric funk...blues and hard rock, it goes into complete opposite, complete fantasy.... It has a rough, hard feel on some of the tracks, those funky tunes, some of the things on it are hungry."

Hungry? That's going to have to remain one of those mysteries, I guess, although it strikes me as equally tellingly oblique as Miles Davis referring to his work on Sketches Of Spain as "expensive," by which he meant that it had wrung everything out of him and couldn't be repeated.

Alas, Hendrix was not to repeat the peaks of Electric Ladyland, either. It was, of course, to remain his final fully realized studio recording, and the story of its making has all the signposts of his demise less than two years later: the infighting with bassist Noel Redding and manager Michael Jeffery; the lack of a firm hand in the studio; the hangers-on – whose presence Hendrix alluded to at the end of the epochal "Voodoo Chile."

Like Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run, Electric Ladyland documents a musical genius willing something to happen in the studio despite enormous obstacles. And, like Born To Run, Electric Ladyland is all the more remarkable because it was made during the course of a sporadic touring schedule.

When I listen to it today it is with less naive ears, but I still thrill to its majesty and grit; it can still take me by surprise, regardless of how many dozen (hundreds?) times I've heard it. These days, like A Love Supreme, I tend to save it for special times – hoping that each time I hear it a little bit of my own innocence and youth will come back to me. Can you – should you – ask more of a piece of music?

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