Saturday, January 17, 2015

I’ve Been Looking for a Song That Feels Like You For Some Time – My Top 10 Jimi Hendrix songs

Let me start off with a story.

Two and a half years ago Mari and I were riding a shuttle back to Cusco. We had just visited Machu Picchu. Our tour guide, Simon Puma, must have asked about our impressions. I told him that I thought Machu Picchu would be the most epic place to hold a rock concert at night. I could imagine thundering power chords, pounding drums and resounding wails echoing off of Huayna Picchu, the wave of sound cascading about El Valle Sagrado de los Incas for a thousand nights. I didn’t tell all this to Simon, but I thought something like it. I did tell him that I thought it would be awesome to blast some Hendrix from Machu Picchu at night.

“¿Quien?” he asked.

“Hendrix,” I said. “Jimi Hendrix?” (though I gave his name Spanish inflection and pronounced it “Yimi.”) 

 “Never heard of him.”

My eyes widened. My jaw did not figuratively drop. It dropped. Simon was my age. He wasn’t born yesterday. He cavorted with tourists from around the world on a daily basis for many years. How could he possibly have never heard of Jimi Hendrix.


Still is.

Although Hendrix left the third stone from the sun nearly 45 years ago, I still can’t fathom how someone in my age range has never heard any of his songs, or even heard of his past existence. Hendrix is still a god. As long as we’re around to remember them, gods never die. I suspect James Marshall Hendrix never will.

Now that I’ve got Hendrix’s mythically-proportioned dong and balls out of my mouth, let’s get down to brass tacks—my top 10 Yimi songs on my 35th pony ride. And if you really dig Jimi, please do your brain a kind favor and check out my homie and fellow blogsmith Justin Goldman's Top 10 Hendrix list. It's a beaut.

10. If 6 Was 9
Number #10 is always a brawler, a seducer in order to muscle past other strong contenders. For me, this song fits that bill. For a Jimi Hendrix tune it’s a strange one. No typical inferno of a guitar solo. Jimi’s spoken words two-thirds of the way through. The Indian flute in the outro. The musical disintegration at the end, which is the perfect ending. (It was Noel Redding’s idea to end the song with all three of them going into separate time signatures.) It was an excellent song to tie up Side A of Axis: Bold As Love. And it has one of my favorite Hendrix lyrics: “Fall mountains, just don’t fall on me,” which could serve as the song’s thesis statement, akin to one of George Carlin’s most sage beliefs: “It's important in life if you don't give a shit. It can help you a lot.”

To boot, one of my memoir chapters is a riff of this song title. It’s gonna be fucking cool to see that chapter heading in print, like a teeny homage to my boy, Yimi.

9. Hey Joe 

In my early twenties Hendrix’s The Ultimate Experience was on steady rotation while I drove around my hometown of Fremont. One song I typically skipped was “Hey Joe.” I think it was played out for me. If I wasn’t listening to my CDs I often listened to the hard rock on 92.3 KSJO; “Hey Joe” was one of the few Hendrix tracks they would play; maybe that’s why I felt like the song was played out?

But now that I’m encroaching borderline old-fart territory I can hear and feel the sheer emotional power behind this song. There is something haunting about Hendrix’s opening guitar play. I think “Hey Joe” is arguably one of Jimi’s best vocal performances; he sings the lyrics with heartfelt emotion. My arm hairs sometimes stand up when he wails “I’m goin’ way down south, way down where I can be free.” It’s easy to see how this was the song that brought Hendrix to Britain’s attention. And the rest is history.

8. Highway Chile
“Highway Chile” has one of my favorite all-time intros; the first note is instantly recognizable. And the first verse; it’s fucking awesome:

His guitar slung across his back 
His dusty boots is his Cadillac 
Flamin' hair just a blowin' in the wind 
Ain't seen a bed in so long it's a sin

I’ve always dreamt of this song being a film. Probably the closest Hendrix ever got to penning an autobiography. And I have no idea how many times I sung this song while I used to cruise around in my piece-of-shit-but-steady Toyota Corolla. It was a lot.

And the solo—man. It’s not a piece of virtuoso work but it’s perfect. Every. Single. Fucking. Note. After all these years I am still in awe of its simplicity. I know I’ll be ready to bow out if I ever listen to this solo and don’t feel my spirit revved up by it.

7. Red House
Jimi showed he could play some mean blues licks with this song that debuted on the UK version of Are You Experienced. I love “Red House” because it’s Jimi playing straight blues. A self-proclaimed half-Tejano/half-redneck friend of mine once astutely noted a key difference between Hendrix’s playing and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s; he said you could hear the blues inevitably creep up in Jimi’s playing while rock was Vaughn’s default even when he was torching a Hendrix solo. I think he’s right. “Red House” feels like a fluid, effortless attempt at a traditional blues song. And Yimi’s solo is gorgeous (and I promise I will talk about Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell.)

6. Angel 
Growing up this was one of my favorite Hendrix songs to sing along to while I cruised around in my tin can with wheels. From beginning to end I think it’s his greatest ballad. (I really, really love “One Rainy Wish”—until the chorus arrives at the 1:14 mark. That chorus just ruins the song for me.) Mitch Mitchell’s flurry of hi-hat notes beautifully accompanies the airy chords that open the song. And I love how the lyrics and Jimi’s graceful singing makes it sound like a song about a mythic female spirit—or possibly the world’s sweetest girlfriend. (The good people at Wikipedia tell me the song was in reference to a childhood dream Hendrix had about his mother, Lucille, who died two years after his dream.) It’s a purty song.

5. Purple Haze 
Since I was born well after the 60s, and, thusly, have always been reliant upon books, films, photography and music to conjure that era—the penultimate turning point in this country—I can’t imagine a full portrait of that intriguing decade without “Purple Haze.” No matter what the song is about—the psychedelic experience or the purple and white colors from Hendrix’s high school in Seattle—it feels like one of those rare period-defining tunes.

From a musical standpoint alone, gadfuckingzooks, 1967 was something else. The Doors debut album was released in January 1967. “Purple Haze” was released in the UK in March 1967; a few months later The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band AND Magical Mystery Tour later that year. In November, Cream put out Disraeli Gears. Jesus fucking Christ, man. Nowadays, we get, what, Taylor Swift, the latest Beyoncé tripe and hipster bands with stupid names that don’t try to mean a goddamn thing like Spoon or Real Estate? Shit, if humanity keeps cranking out mass mediocrity like this, I’ll personally beg a wrathful, vile God to wipe us out.

Anyway, I’ve wildly swerved off on a tangent. But back to “Purple Haze”: it’s a game changer. I suspect the world’s never been quite the same since The Jimi Hendrix Experience birthed it. Our realm of musical possibility was single-handedly raised within those two minutes and forty-four seconds.

4. Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
Speaking of single-handedly raising the realm of human possibility, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” really does that. Hendrix’s otherworldly outro solo sounds like it was directly miked into The Big Bang, the force that created everything. Just straight up unreal playing. No one but Jimi Hendrix could have conjured that song, that sound, that playing. Just give it a listen if you don’t believe me.

3. House Burning Down
By this point of the list my only rational attempt at ranking these songs is by treating it like a Stranded on a Desert Island scenario—like if I was stranded on a remote island for the rest of my life and could have only one Jimi Hendrix song on a music-playing contraption, which one would it be?

This is a worthwhile time to mention that I’m an atheist—in practice (agnostic in theory). Why do I mention this now? Because I don’t believe in an afterlife. I think the afterlife is a custom-tailored concept for wusses. Death hurts. A lot. It’s confounding and horrible for the mind to think that a loved one will never ever be present again. But come on, life is full of pain; it’s what makes life. Consider the meaning powering the phrase, “That’s life.” I’m fairly sure once we’re dead that’s it: kaput. End of the show. Thank you very much ladies and gentleman; I hope you had a fun ride. Please exit the theater. The show is over. No encores. I imagine it’s like turning a television off (or shutting down your computer to that blank, black screen if computers happen to be your preferred household appliance).

Well—with all that said—I really, really wish my last moments could feel exactly like 3:44 to the end of “House Burning Down.” I really, really wish it could feel like that though I’m sure it will be exceedingly less astounding, or pleasureful. It’ll probably be quite the opposite, but you know what, I don’t care! With a touch of a button I can play this song as much as I want and feel like I’m listening to a universe implode to make way for a new one. (Did I mention Noel Redding’s bass playing is fantastic on this song?) It’s songs like “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” “Purple Haze” and “House Burning Down” that gives some credence—as far as my atheist ass is concerned—that Jimi Hendrix could have been a fucking alien.

2. Little Wing 
I think everyone’s top 10 list of Jimi Hendrix songs has this gem. It’s, you know, just another otherworldly Jimi Hendrix song but in a far different manner than his other ditties. The twinkling glockenspiel is a whimsical touch throughout. Slow songs and Jimi’s playing go well together like homemade waffles and powdered sugar. “Little Wing” feels like a two and a half minute lullaby from the heavens, from a place sundered of all the suffering humans cause one another. At its highest, music is like magic. “Little Wing” = magic.

1. All Along the Watchtower
The cover of Bobby D’s classic is a song that always gives me pep. What an astounding cover. Hendrix sings Dylan’s lyrics as though he penned them. His guitar playing—particularly the fills between verses—evokes the fable-like lyrics in a way Dylan’s original musical composition couldn’t. And Hendrix’s solos are just exquisite. Mitchell and Redding provide a rhythm section on par with Yimi’s clinic on What an Electric Guitar Can Do; the bass line, in particular, is pretty sick. (I’ve seen the tablature. And the good people at Wikipedia tell me that Hendrix recorded the final bass part after a dissatisfied Redding left the recording session so who knows how much of it is all Jimi and The Mitch.) And those sliding guitar notes between the 2:00 – 2:15 mark: sweet baby Jesus! Listening to them always makes my head feel wobbly, like it’s about to float off into the nebuli.

If an extraterrestrial life form ever visited us on Planet Earth—or if I could’ve played one song to Simon Puma to fully demonstrate the musical capabilities coursing through Jimi Hendrix’s veins—without question “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” or “All Along the Watchtower” would be fine choices.

The Honorable Seven: 

Hear My Train A Comin’ - BBC Sessions: I love the boisterous energy from all the band members on this track—and from their “friends laying around here in the studio.” It sounds like Jimi, Noel, and Mitch were on epic-full-on-fucking-horndog mode for this recording—like they’re playing with titanic hard-ons whilst thinking of all the fuckin’ they’re about to have in a matter of minutes once the recording session is finito. (In fact, it sounds like Noel Redding creams himself at the 2:01 mark.)  Their fun is absolutely infectious. And Jimi’s solo is fucking searing. All live. All one take, man.

Machine Gun: So, um, my name is Juan. I’m 35 ½ years old and I just listened to “Machine Gun” for the first time in my attempt to compose this list. It’s an astounding live recording. Buddy Miles: fuck, man. Motherfucker should have sung the entire song. Just when the song could peter out his vocals take the song to another level. And the drums at the end coupled with Miles’ helicopter-machine-gun fading out—it’s performance, it’s music, it’s simple, and it’s raw. Sent a shiver through me the first time I heard it.

Spanish Castle Magic: God I love this song. Mitchell’s drumming is on. And the first verse pretty much has my favorite Hendrix lyrics: It’s very far away / It takes about half a day to get there / If we travel by my—drag ‘n fly. ¡QUE TREMENDO! Oh, how I love you, veiled 60s drug references! I bow to you! (My favorite subtle 60s drug reference will always be the Getting-Stoney-Baloney 1965 version of The Beatles recreating a drag from a joint throughout Lennon’s “Girl”—which they follow with the backing vocals of “Tit tit tit tit tit tit tit tit” during the chorus. Oh, John, you bad, bad boy!)

 Oh, and the rest of the song is pretty nifty—while riding a dragonfly or not.

Gypsy Eyes: Though ridiculously simple, Mitch’s drum track is snappy. The bass and guitar swagger and swerve throughout. Jimi’s distorted vocals are a neat change—and the unusually clean guitar sound during the verse makes this song further distinct in the Hendrix catalogue. Jimi’s soloing on this song sounds like Albert King at times. This is all good in my book.

Stone Free: Fucking love the opening bass line. It’s got a seductiveness to it; it’s a few notes shy of being a top-shelf porno bass line. Jimi’s scaled-back guitars perfectly accentuate them. One of my favorite Jimi tracks to shout along with. (In fact, I’m penciling this onto my fading karaoke go-to list.) Though he’s never gonna be inducted into any Hall of Fame for his singing, Yimi’s vocals on this track are solid and vigorous—as though they alone could impregnate a fertile woman within sonic proximity.

Foxy Lady: Dude, what more needs to be said: The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Foxy Lady.

If Hendrix never wrote another good song this one alone would’ve gotten him plenty of dick action for the rest of his life. Even if he lived well past 27.

Purple Haze - BBC Sessions: Live renditions that match an astounding studio recording of a song are rare, in my humble opinion. In some ways, I feel like this live version surpasses the one recorded on Are You Experienced. The raw power of The Jimi Hendrix Experience is on full display here; just three young chaps in a studio, and just listen to what they create. They were the real deal. And they arguably had the coolest hair of any rock band. Just look at these motherfuckers! (The only band that could give them a run for their money in the Bad-Motherfucking Hair Department was Lenny Kravitz’s lineup with Craig Ross and Cindy Blackman.)

Jimi’s live vocals are surprisingly strong (which they often aren’t in live recordings compared to his studio work). Hendrix’s guitar sounds so nice ‘n nasty on this track. His post-solo playing—especially from 2:55-2:59—is sick; been causing my head to shake in awe while I whisper “Fuck, man” for about half of my lifetime now.

And counting.

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