Rant N Roll: Jimi

There’s a fascinating interview with Jimi Hendrix as the last track of the last of four CDs of the new Winterland boxed set (Experience Hendrix/Legacy Recordings) in which Jimi seems at odds with both Jeff Beck and Frank Zappa, defending his right to turn the blues inside-out. “It’s my notes,” he argues before starting to complain about why he shouldn’t have to just play the traditional blues. The interview is fascinating and, for a few brief moments, Jimi is thrillingly alive, intellectually combative, refusing to talk about certain subjects, extrapolating about why he left the employ of Little Richard and the other rhythm ’n’ blues stars he backed during his formative years. “I couldn’t imagine myself for the rest of my life in a shiny mohair suit, with patent-leather shoes and a patent-leather hairdo to match.”

If the interview is revelatory, the music in this box is a stunning reminder of the scope, power, majesty, chops, drama, fury, soul, improvisation and surprise that emanated from his stage. Six shows. Three days. October 10, 11 and 12, 1968. San Francisco’s hippie haven: Winterland Ballroom, Bill Graham’s venue for world-changing music. The Jimi Hendrix Experience had two albums out at the time, Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold As Love. Electric Ladyland was waiting to blow everyone’s minds, just days before release. The band was two years old and the chemistry between drummer Mitch Mitchell, bassist Noel Redding and Hendrix was magical. All the shows were sold out. The capacity in the building—built in 1928 as an ice-skating rink—was 5,400.

Besides material from the two existing studio albums and the preview of the new stuff, Jimi covers Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” an interesting choice as it was Cream who Jimi first jammed with the very first time he played guitar in public in Great Britain. The audacity of this young black kid from Seattle who nobody ever heard of to bum rush a stage inhabited by the Great Eric Clapton took more than guts. It took a foolhardy recklessness. It might have proved musically suicidal. But Clapton looked on bemusedly at this kid who stole his show. Anyway, that was then and this is now: Hendrix covering Cream is a natural. Then, Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane takes over on bass as Jimi covers Howling Wolf’s “Killing Floor.” The big-time cover, though, was Jimi tackling Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” which seems so suited for Jimi’s voice that its 11 minutes goes by in a flash and you just want to hear it again.

I could only imagine what it must have been like to be in that audience or to interview him backstage. The closest I ever got to Jimi Hendrix was at the entrance to The Electric Circus in Greenwich Village, New York, when I was standing in line for a Sly & The Family Stone show and I saw Jimi walk in with a beautiful blonde on his arm. I never even got to see him play at Woodstock in 1969 as I couldn’t make it to the end and just had to leave before his set, which was so late Sunday night, the last night of the festival, that the sun had risen on Monday morning already. Hey, I was tired, cold, hungry, tripping, wet, muddy and had to go to the bathroom. But that’s another story.

Jimi Hendrix got out of the Army in 1962. He played guitar for a number of soul reviews before hooking up with Chas Chandler of The Animals who produced and managed him. Admittedly, he’d get bored with whatever music he was working on, constantly wanting to move on to other avenues. These four discs, though, have him at an artistic peak.