WEST COAST SEATTLE BOY Jimi Hendrix

The guitar god’s legacy is reopened, reexamined and
reappraised via a new 4-CD/DVD box. That legacy never felt fresher.

 

BY MARY LEARY

The guy (called, or
calling himself, James, Johnny, Buster, Maurice, or Jimmy before Chas Chandler
suggested “Jimi”) hurtled from one place or activity to the next so often from
the early to mid-‘60s that only a flea could have stayed close enough to track
his evolution. Otherwise, at least to Americans, the being known as Jimi
Hendrix seemed to manifest from thin air, shooting down from the heavens around
the release of Are You Experienced at exactly the right moment for his
unique persona to be embraced by hippies and other open-eared listeners.  

 

Hendrix’s Smash
Hits
collection provided a soundtrack to homework I did or didn’t do on my
bed after school. Who could concentrate? Fresh gusts tinged with psychedelic
glamour blasted from my speakers, demanding attention. Jimi’s music screamed of
something I wasn’t – an adult – and of a lifestyle I longed to embody. I might
not get everything the Beatles had been singing about, but the music managed to
engage everyone. If I was ignorant about heroin addiction and withdrawal pangs,
Neil Young still looked almost huggable in his soft flannel shirts. But Hendrix
was howling very directly about lust (“Fire,” “Foxey Lady”) – and the latter
was about a lady; not a girl. Further, this was an African-American,
unapologetically parading desire and virility. “Manic Depression” and
“Crosstown Traffic” spoke of neuroses I couldn’t identify, but I related to the
anger, the restlessness, the drive. 

 

Never seeing Jimi
Hendrix is one of my life’s smaller tragedies. But hold on: There’s a
chance I heard him, at the age of ten, one August night when the sounds
drifting down the shore from some Nags Head soul shack precluded sleep. The
luminous bass lines, marrow-shaking beat and siren calls of the guitar seemed
to reverberate with the sand around the beach house. Since Hendrix was very
active in 1965 on the “chitlin’ circuit;” paying dues as a journeyman with Jimmy
Norman, Don Covey, and others, I may very well have been listening to the juicy
licks with which he embellished Rosa Lee Brooks’ “My Diary” or Covey’s “Mercy,
Mercy.”  Playing The Icemen’s “(My Girl)
She’s a Fox,” one of the cuts on the first disc of West Coast Seattle Boy (Sony Legacy), provided an “aha moment” as it became clear this was the cut I’d
heard on the radio once in 1966, when I was transfixed by its otherworldliness.
I could never figure out who had done it, which makes plenty of sense – living
in South Carolina, I was listening to a Charleston DJ who may have slipped the cut
into rotation only to have it removed – this is before “deep soul” (bawdy,
suggestive, not cosmetically-refined a la Motown) had made its way into white
markets.

 

“(My Girl) She’s a
Fox,” brims with the unmistakable echoes and frothy reverberations of Jimi’s
guitar. Although Hendrix via his own Experience seemed absolutely new, the
first disc of West Coast Seattle Boy provides more than history for rockologists,
as well as the best newly-compiled tunes on the set. Most intriguingly, it
reveals exactly how Hendrix influenced, and was influenced by, the hardworking
pros who signed his paychecks.

 

Packed with quirky
drama rivaling the most outré maneuvers by James Brown and Little Richard, The
Isley Brothers’ “Testify” (’64) and “Move Over and Let Me Dance” (‘65) may have
provided some of the framework for “Crosstown Traffic,” “Fire,” and other
compositions that would combine an urban sense of urgency with down-home
confidentiality. The track’s volatile, all-over-the-place dynamic probably also
played a part in Jimi’s sense of how far music could go. On “Fire,” Hendrix
quotes “Move Over” with the gleeful “Move over, Rover… and let Jimi take
over.”  For everyone concerned, the young
maverick’s association with the Isleys was especially fruitful: On “Move Over,”
in particular, one hears the space and freedom the brothers donated to
Hendrix’s increasingly colorful licks. And Hendrix, who in The Experience had
to overcome some initial shyness about stepping up to the mic, garnered some of
his intonations and nuances from Kelly. Chitlin’ Circuit players were
accustomed to razor-tough crowds. The only workable response was the
bulletproof confidence with which Kelly’s vocal on “Testify” eases over the
song’s stuttering beats: slow when he feels like it; more hurried when
he feels like it, as in gospel/”testifying.”

 

Although he’d be
chomping at the bit pretty shortly, Hendrix learned how to project restrained
emotions from exacting employers like Little Richard, whose “Dancing All Around
the World” (‘65, also sometimes known as “Dance a Go Go”) is one of the disc’s
highlights.

 

In terms of
detecting blueprints for Hendrix’s originals, “(My Girl) She’s a Fox” is the
biggest eye-opener. It throws weight behind Hendrix’s assertion, “I want to do
with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.” The Icemen allowed
Jimmy James (the name he’d adopted at that point) latitude to play circles
around the melody, which appears to be the first time his trademark, delay-echo
and Wah-Wah waves were caught on vinyl. This ambience would be repeated on
“Little Wing,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” and “May This Be Love,” among others.

 

The rest of West
Coast Seattle Boy
‘s audio is given over to alternate and additional takes
of previously-released material, as well as some live tracks and a rather more
digressive set from a ’68 session in a New York hotel room; Paul Caruso
provided harp and back-up vocals for several. Of these, the most riveting is
the duo’s take on Bob Dylan’s “Tears of Rage,” which trundles on too long, owes
a fair amount to The Band’s version, and adds a predictable soulfulness.

 

There’s some good
stuff here, often songs already adored by millions, and often from 1967, when
Hendrix was still basking in acclaim and artistic growth. These include a
blistering, somewhat more meandering (compared to the official release) run
through “Love or Confusion” from a London
studio – the same session yields evocative guitar work on “May This Be Love.”
“The Wind Cries Mary,” from a Stockholm appearance (also available on Stages),
reveals tasty variations. Headphones and/or organic supplementation are not
required but are strongly advised for an extraordinary, six-minute trip into
“Are You Experienced” overseen by Chas Chandler.

Of note is “Little
One,” an instrumental with a bit of a Traffic vibe, partly thanks to Dave
Mason’s involvement on sitar. New to me is the relatively concise (at about
three minutes) shout of “Untitled Basic Track,” which was thrown down in ’68 as
an instrumental; time at the studio ran out before anything else could be
added. Other standouts are similarly grab-baggish, including the “Star Spangled
Banner” that was such a shocker when Hendrix shredded it at Woodstock, a
flaming “Foxey Lady” from the Band of Gypsys at Fillmore East that lends
serious credence to the notion that Hendrix helped sire heavy metal, and the
pairing of “Bolero” with “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” as Jimi intended, a
project overseen by Experience Hendrix (a corporation formed by his family in
‘95) that involved reassembling a multi-track master mysteriously parceled in
‘76. An unexpected pleasure comes via Larry Lee’s “Mastermind.” Lee takes the
lead vocal on the soulful ballad, which is occasionally murked up by
overly-enthusiastic emissions from Jimi. Unless seriously exhibiting signs of
exhaustion or inebriation, tracks like a later, alternate take of “Message to
Love” can reliably bring cold water to a boil.

 

It’s hard to consider the latest mining of Jimi’s trove of
recordings without wondering whether he would have approved. His demand and
need for new material and approaches, along with his perfectionism (he was
known to do exhaustive numbers of takes before being satisfied) throw “No”
votes at the quandary. Also, he might have been dismayed by the feeding frenzy
that’s followed his mortal tenure (even more than the one that raged during his
life). But there’s was a need, coming through records and diary entries
concerning his family, to be a hero and provider.

 

Jimi Hendrix Voodoo
Child
, WCSB‘s other big selling
point, reveals a young man who repeatedly took the high road, choosing
positivity in the face of challenges. Also available on paper and audiobook as In His Own Words, the DVD provides a
heartbreaking expose, touching on Jimi’s childhood in Seattle before charting
his movements from guitar-toting Army volunteer (he didn’t want to go to
Vietnam, let alone brook interruption of the musical career he envisioned)
through his demise in London. It’s an exciting collage of stills, photos of
Jimi’s letters and diary pages, and live footage of incendiary performances,
including a “Voodoo Child” from 1970. After the film covers the influence of
Chuck Berry, we see Jimi slashing through “Johnny B. Goode.”   Bootsy Collins fills in for Jimi’s voice,
relating a surprisingly amusing account of weekly race riots in Memphis, along with his
summation, after shocking audience members’ parents around a misbegotten tour
with the Monkees, “I think they replaced me with Mickey Mouse.”

 

The booklet leads
off with a picture that always makes me start to tear up: the one of an
18-year-old in a red jacket and white shirt who looks thrilled to be holding
his red, single-pickup Silvertone Danelectro in his front yard.

 

I’d
like to think Jimi sees the stream of products purportedly celebrating and
expanding his work and existence as doing exactly that. On the other hand,
after choosing the Experience Hendrix (official) website for a link with this
piece, I repeatedly experienced failure while testing its purchase options.
Every time I tried to click through, whether via “Merch and Music,” “Shop,” or
“Order Now,” I hit a dead page. Since it was on the release date, maybe the
site was just overloaded.

 

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