Why the guitar icon’s enduring legacy still resonates in 2022
Had James Marshall Hendrix lived to see 80, one can only guess as to what he might have accomplished.
The three Experience albums released during his lifetime — Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland in particular — remain among the most adventurous and progressive-sounding recordings in the modern rock idiom and even now, well over 50 years since their initial release, they continue to set the standard for the possibilities that rock, R&B, jazz, and blues could offer in the 20th century and beyond.
Hendrix’s intentions were never fully explored during his lifetime. Sadly, his death from an accidental overdose of barbiturates and subsequent asphyxiation on September 17, 1970 ended his career far too soon. Several posthumous releases — beginning with The Cry of Love and proceeding through Rainbow Bridge, War Heroes, Loose Ends, Crash Landing, Midnight Lightning, Nine to the Universe, Voodoo Soup, First Rays of the New Rising Sun, South Saturn Delta, Valleys of Neptune, People, Hell and Angels and Both Sides of the Sky — all purported to show the album Hendrix had intended as the follow-up to Electric Ladyland. And while the unfinished efforts, outtakes and other odds and ends offer tantalizing hints of what might have come, after it’s difficult to describe any one of these releases as a final definitive statement on Hendrix’s forward trajectory.
What is clear, however, is that Hendrix’s imagination was leading him well beyond rock and into the outer realms of experimentation. He jammed regularly with other musicians — Miles Davis, Johnny Winter, Stephen Stills and, of course, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, theater of whom became the staples of his backing band. Some say Hendrix was determined to rediscover his “blackness” and return to his R&B roots. Others insist he was eager to move into the more undefined realms of jazz fusion and create a sound that had yet to be imagined.
Sadly, we’ll never know what Hendrix could have achieved had he reached his 80th birthday, a milestone that will be marked on November 27th. Like Lennon, Janis, Morrison and so many others, the greatness never reached its full fruition. The pursuit of ambition and innovation is often spurred by a younger person’s passion and determination, and image of of Hendrix as a fully fueled provocateur runs contrary to that of an elder individual quietly concentrating on his craft. Would age have mellowed him or relegated him to any singular cycle?
Again, that’s hard to say. But one might imagine that he would become a musical statesman of sorts, sharing his genius and quietly encouraging those that followed in his path. Perhaps he would have become a patron of hip-hop or punk or some sort of indie ethos. Either way, it’s hard to believe that he’d go quietly into the dark night, at age 80 or otherwise.
Happily, Hendrix’s music will always be ever present. His influence on other artists like Prince, Stevie Ray Vaughan and any number of blues guitarists that have followed in his wake remains immeasurable. So too, the ever-present flow of new releases — dozens of live recordings, compilations and unreleased offerings — keep his indelible image front and center.
Two current offerings prove to be among the most fascinating. A live recording, Los Angeles Forum – April 26, 1969, offers a fascinating glimpse at the Experience at full throttle, retracing the seminal songs upon which they could rest their reputation — “Foxey Lady,” “Spanish Castle Magic, “Purple Haze, “I Don’t Live Today,” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” its two parts interspersed with a take on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” The lengthy jams on “Tax Free” and “Red House” also reflect the trio’s fire and finesse.
Then there’s Jimi: The Official 80th Birthday Anniversary Edition, a hefty tabletop book that documents Hendrix’s life and career through a history that details each phase of his progression and a wealth of photos, posters, handwritten lyrics, and memorabilia that evoke his presence full incendiary splendor. An introduction by his sister Janie, now caretaker of Experience Hendrix, the company that oversees his output, comments from those he awed and inspired — Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Lenny Kravitz, among them — and a full biographical narrative make this a must for anyone with even a passing interest in his lingering legacy.
Gone, but hardly forgotten, Jimi Hendrix’s presence remains pervasive and present even now. Happy 80th, Mr. Hendrix. May your illuminating influence always remain as radiant as ever.