The Sound and the Fury

January 15, 2021

Hendrix in (mostly) 1970


New releases, books and documentaries detail the guitarist’s life and career

By Gillian G. Gaar

1970 was a busy year for Jimi Hendrix. On January 1, he played the second of a two night stand at the Fillmore East in New York City with the Band of Gypsys, then worked on the album of the shows that would be released later that year. But the Band of Gypsys would implode after a disastrous performance at the Winter Festival for Peace at the end of January. A short-lived reunion of the Jimi Hendrix Experience followed, the group disbanding before playing a single note together. Hendrix formed a new group, with Billy Cox from Band of Gypsys and Mitch Mitchell from the Experience, that toured the US from April to August. In between live shows, Hendrix was in the studio, working on his fourth album, often recording at his own Electric Lady Studios. After attending the opening party for Electric Lady in August, he flew to the UK, where he performed at the Isle of Wight festival, then went on a short European tour. He’d planned to finish his album, and according to interviews at the time was considering pursuing new musical directions. But everything came to a crashing halt when he died in London on September 18, of acute barbiturate intoxication. It was a sad end to one of the most storied careers in rock. 

A half-century after his death, Hendrix is still regarded as the greatest of all rock guitarists. Due to the many hours he spent in the recording studio and playing live, there’s been a steady stream of new releases and reissues, along with numerous of books detailing his life and career. This year has been no different, seeing the publication of a new Hendrix bio, and two new releases that nicely bookend his career.

Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix (Liveright Publishing) is the latest rock bio from Philip Norman. It’s something of a starry-eyed, romanticized look at the subject, as when Norman describes Hendrix’s “spectacular beauty,” or describing London’s Scotch of St. James club as having “harboured more alabaster pop-star faces per square metre of darkness than any of its main rivals.”

If you’ve read other Hendrix bios, you’ll find some interesting discrepancies. Model Linda Keith, who discovered Hendrix in New York and introduced him to producer/manager Chas Chandler, describes a fight that broke out at the Scotch between her and another woman when Hendrix first played there. Yet in Charles Cross’ 2005 biography Roomful of Mirrors, she’s quoted as saying the story of the fight was “‘ludicrous’ and [she] denied it occurred.”

Similarly, Hendrix’s brother Leon is quoted as saying Jimi spent high school “dating all the prettiest middle-class girls” and that he played with Ray Charles. Leon cooperated with Cross extensively on his biography, interviewing him over the course of five years, yet these anecdotes don’t appear in the book. As the years pass, it’s not uncommon for dead artists to become increasingly mythologized. 

Norman’s book also feels like it was rushed out to take advantage of the 1970 anniversary; there are a number of typos, misspellings  and errors, from small (Heart is not, and never has been, an all-female group), to larger (the description of Hendrix’s mother’s death is muddled and inaccurate). In my view, the best book on Hendrix’s childhood and youth is Cross’; the best book on Hendrix’s career is John McDermott’s Jimi: Setting the Record Straight.

2020 was also the 55th anniversary of one of the most ill-fated events in Hendrix’s career; signing a contract with Ed Chalpin’s PPX Enterprises. It was the period when Hendrix was working as a session or touring musician for hire. In the fall of 1965, Hendrix met R&B musician/singer Curtis Knight, and ended up recording with him, the recordings released under Chalpin’s auspices. When Hendrix became a star in 1967, Chalpin produced his contract, claiming he still owned the rights to all of Hendrix’s recordings.

It was the start of a legal battle that continued to Hendrix’s death — and decades beyond. Eventually all differences were settled, and Experience Hendrix, the family-owned company that oversees Hendrix releases, gained ownership of all PPX’s recordings. Their 2015 release, You Can’t Use My Name: The RSVP/PPX Sessions (Experience Hendrix/Legacy) drew on a July 17, 1967 session that Hendrix thought was a jam among friends; instead, Chalpin licensed the songs to Capitol for release later that year as Get That Feeling, subtitled “Jimi Hendrix Plays and Curtis Knight Sings.”

Now comes No Business: The PPX Sessions Volume 2 (Dagger Records, Experience Hendrix’s “official bootleg” label). This release goes back to Hendrix’s first recordings with Knight in 1965 and 1966 (including demos), as well as presenting recordings from an August 8, 1967 session. 

The demos feature two of Hendrix’s earliest known songs, the semi-autobiographical “Taking Care of No Business” and “Working All Day.” The doo-wop influenced “Two Little Birds” was co-written with Curtis Knight, and there’s an exciting alternate version of “Hornet’s Nest” that runs longer than the single version and has Hendrix in full-on surf guitar mode. You’ll also find the infamous “Suey,” a novelty single released in 1966 that has a bit of surf swing to it. After the backing track was recorded, DJ Douglas “Joko” Henderson and actress Jayne Mansfield overdubbed jokey dialogue (sample from Mansfield: “I’m doin’ it good like I knew I could!”); Hendrix and Mansfield were never in the studio at the same time, alas. The following year, he sounds a lot more like the Hendrix we know in the jamming heard on “Hush Now” and “Love, Love.”

Another exciting release is Live in Maui (Experience Hendrix/Legacy), the first collection to fully document Hendrix’s impromptu show in Maui on July 30, 1970. Hendrix flew to the “Islands of Aloha” to perform an August 1 show at the Honolulu International Center on Oahu. But on the way, he stopped in Maui to put in an appearance in the film Rainbow Bridge that his manager, Michael Jeffery, was producing. The loose knit storyline had model/actress Pat Hartley exploring the byways of the counterculture, from surfing to yoga to spiritual enlightenment. Hendrix played two sets on the slopes of Maui’s Haleakala volcano for use in the film, and later filmed a brief speaking part. 

In the set’s liner notes, co-producer John McDermott calls Rainbow Bridge “a ragtag novelty, at best; a hippie-era curio,” and only around 20 minutes of Hendrix’s show made it into the film. Live in Maui marks the first time both sets have been officially released. This was Hendrix’s penultimate US show — the Oahu gig was the final US date — and he played a number of songs that had yet to be released: “Lover Man,” “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun),” “Dolly Dagger.” And however much he complained about having to perform his hits show after show, he nonetheless delivered, playing “Purple Haze,” as well as other crowd favorites, “Foxey Lady” and “Spanish Castle Magic.” The second set is especially engaging, the musicians now fully in the groove.

And there’s more on the Blu-ray that comes with the set (available on 2 CDs or 3 LPs). The new documentary, Music, Money, Madness…Jimi Hendrix in Maui unravels the complicated history of the project, from its chaotic filming to the release of an ostensible “soundtrack” that included none of live material recorded for the movie. McDermott, who directed the documentary, does a great job of putting it all in perspective, tracking down many of the people involved with the film, including the lucky concert attendees. The Blu-ray also features all known footage of the concert itself.

There may not be much more to say about Hendrix in books. But though his career was cut short, releases and reissues continue apace and continue to dazzle us. 


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