Treble 100: No. 39, The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?

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jimi hendrix are you experienced

As a Generation X kid, maneuvering through high school and then college into the 1990s, I noticed many musical rites of passage shared by me and my peers. Whether via parents, siblings or mass media, the classics of classic rock earned their adjective (and slots in our collections) thanks to the momentum of sheer repetition. The burgeoning college rock of the time would beget grunge and indie, sure, but you couldn’t throw a rock in the cafeteria without randomly hitting someone with at least one of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or Jimi Hendrix waiting for them at home.

Volumes of rock criticism aside, I sensed the hallucinogenic focus was always slightly different for members of this AOR holy trinity. Led Zeppelin were the fantasy bards, their folk-influenced tales of witchy women and faraway lands lifted from imagined storybooks illustrated in an Art Nouveau style. Pink Floyd were grounded in the recent past and the immediate technological present, introducing comic book and pulp fiction characters from society’s margins: addicts, thieves, rock stars, misguided soldiers. Jimi Hendrix went in two directions at once—retelling the blues’ gritty, dusty history, and reconfiguring its bits and pieces into a launchpad aimed at science fiction.

By now we know the general progression of how Johnny Allen Hendrix became Jimi, how he found the guitar as salvation in schools in Seattle, used it to preserve his sanity during brief service in the Army, made brief work of the chitlin circuit, and served as a creatively frustrated touring and studio musician before leaving for New York City in 1966. The back half of that year was pivotal for the man then playing onstage as Jimmy James, as he hooked up with friends of famous people and moved to London to work with like-minded performers looking for what was the next big thing after the British Invasion.

The rise of blues rock and psychedelic rock made everything about Hendrix feel novel and natural at the same time on the left side of the Atlantic: the self-taught guitar histrionics, the rhythm section forming his Experience, the earliest shows and first recorded single, an insistent rendition of Billy Roberts’ “Hey Joe.” Are You Experienced? would be pieced together until the spring of 1967, then released to top-five success in both the UK and US. Leaving behind an R&B resumé built helping Little Richard and The Isley Brothers, Hendrix would bring bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell into a newly inventive rock conversation dominated at the time by The Beatles, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, and Jefferson Airplane.

Early in the Are You Experienced? sessions, Redding and Mitchell expressed frustration that their input on songs was being ignored. Producer Chas Chandler’s harsh but fair reminder was that Hendrix was a project around which they’d been purposely assembled, and budget issues required an economy of effort and opinions while in the studio. With that in mind, one of the things I like best about the results is how much stuff The Jimi Hendrix Experience could cram into just a few minutes—phenomenal cosmic power in itty-bitty living space, as another magical figure once said.

There’s energy in Led Zep and Floyd, to be sure, but theirs always felt more spread out over time, multiple songs, even entire LPs. This debut ends up flying in a manner not even heard on Jimi’s second album, Axis: Bold as Love. Aided by a move to London’s Olympic Studios, offering financial credit and updated equipment, Chandler and the trio would quickly learn the calculus of mixdowns, multitracks, and overdubs. This would mask the complexity of purposely-distorted workouts like “Purple Haze” and more subdued numbers like “The Wind Cries Mary,” a song that always surprises me with how innocent and touching it seems.

Are You Experienced? shines a brief spotlight on Hendrix’s underrated abilities as a soft balladeer. “May This Be Love,” for example, is both tender and tightly focused, a reminder that his work didn’t really get a long-and-loose reputation until live and posthumous releases built up his guitar-burning, teeth-riffing mythology. But hang around with the album long enough, and you’ll hear some of the sonic curiosities that keep me and millions of others coming back to it and to the perception of Hendrix as a godhead.

The trio’s arrangements were already twisting traditional blues and rising pop, giving a weird hummability to a song like “I Don’t Live Today,” hopping as it does among crunchy peaking chords and Hendrix’ absorbed vocal mumble. Yet it was then-wild production and recording decisions that raised the stakes (and effectiveness) of the Experience’s musical mood-setting in the same manner as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band did. Tricks like mic placement, management of massive-sounding Marshall amplifiers, and manipulation of audio tape and studio boards manifested in a crisp, almost brittle quality to Mitchell’s drums as much as the kneading and shaping of the noise from Hendrix’s strings. 

Some of the defining moments on Are You Experienced? find the band engaging in a mono-channel blitzkrieg movement: an advancing guitar-driven wall of sound in one ear, Jimi telling stories of technicolor malice and laid-back devotion in the other. The title track, meanwhile, closes the album with a skillful execution of reversed playback that few acts since have pushed into modern canon. (Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates,” maybe?)

Yet one of the most important contributions to rock from The Jimi Hendrix Experience might be Hendrix’s control of feedback to create tune and atmosphere. Before Jimi got into harder drugs, “Third Stone from the Sun” was seemingly filtered through mind-altering philosophy and substances, using feedback and generated wind to suggest a dangerous otherworldly presence coming to end Earth. It was also as close to a proper jazz track as the album could hold, given later stamps of approval through covers by Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. Then there are the wah-wahs and squeals of his guitar wrapped around “I Don’t Live Today,” as well as its false finishes, striking out like the tendrils of an alternate reality passing through our current one. 

Throughout Are You Experienced? you can certainly hear where J. Mascis and Kurt Cobain found their balance between technical skill, thematic passion, and societal malaise—the waltz-time, acid-burned enormity of “Manic Depression” might be ground zero for it. It’s an album where some of rock’s most grand experiments were allowed, encouraged, and undertaken. It provided not only new brushes and palettes with which to paint on music’s ever-expanding canvas, but pronounced Jimi Hendrix as its surrealist wunderkind. Therein lies the album’s other vital contribution to pop: from the long-suffering sideman, a template for the singular superstar frontman.

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    • From the official website of Jimi Hendrix: “Jimi Hendrix, born Johnny Allen Hendrix at 10:15 a.m. on November 27, 1942, at Seattle’s King County Hospital, was later renamed James Marshall by his father”

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