A Bad Experience

The new Jimi Hendrix box offers too much of a not-so-great thing

The cynic won't care, the skeptic won't understand, and the true believer will be overwhelmed: Nearly 30 years to the day of Jimi Hendrix's death, here come 56 more unreleased-unavailable-unattainable tracks from a man more prolific in death than in life. Three studio albums before his death, three hundred or so after -- the man has been bootlegged more often than whiskey, and his back catalogue fills more pages than a phone book. And, yes, the familiar fills a good chunk of the four-disc box set The Jimi Hendrix Experience, even if the songs are alternative versions that sound more or less the same: “Purple Haze” kicks off disc one, followed in quick succession by “Hey Joe” (twice, live and in studio), “Foxey Lady,” “If 6 Was 9,” “Little Wing” (again, two times), “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Star Spangled Banner,” “Stone Free,” “Voodoo Child,” and on and on, until you have in your possession an alternative history of a proverbial past.

The completist will no doubt regret the years spent paying dollars on the nickel for piss-poor-quality boots, now that the best has been cleaned up and kicked out into the streets. Some of these tracks could even be found, a long time ago, on essential and official pieces of vinyl such as Hendrix in the West, Loose Ends, and Stages. But only the completist will get it; only the same die-hard who collects Charlie Parker box sets full of dozens of takes of “Ko-Ko” will revel in the glorious excess of a cardboard tombstone such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience. That's because only the fetishist knows what it means to get off on a musician's secret history, the recordings made for the privileged handful in the studio. It's like getting the key to the cerebral cortex, getting invited to the world's most exclusive jam session, getting a hit off a man's clandestine genius. The magician shows his hand and the trick is revealed.

But The Jimi Hendrix Experience (not to be confused with his first band, since bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, together or separately, don't appear on a good helping of the tracks) is for the casual fan as well, the listener with ears big enough to absorb the entirety of the box, not just the random, aberrant cut. In some ways the box is like a backward story line, a history lesson drenched in feedback and distortion and, finally, beauty. It begins with a January 1967 recording of “Purple Haze,” featuring slightly altered guitar parts and backing vocals, and ends with an August 1970 song titled “Slow Blues,” a languid, balmy jam that cuts out a mere one minute and forty-five seconds into the recording, which was to be Hendrix's finale.

The box begins with chaos and ends with calm; it begins with an assault and ends with a caress. (The final disc, cut with Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles or Mitch Mitchell on drums, is far funkier than its three predecessors; it's the calm after the storm.) In between it makes the case that Hendrix was indeed the last great bluesman, the man who shepherded Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker into the spaceship and launched them into the avant-garde, acid-fueled, flower-power future. Listen to “Earth Blues” and “Country Blues” on the fourth disc, or “Catfish Blues” (a redo of Muddy Waters' “Still a Fool”) on disc two, and you will hear a man who revered history enough to destroy it; you will hear a man who spoke the blues in his own tongue -- when he wasn't using it to lick his guitar. If nothing else the box now makes it impossible to “surgically amputate Hendrix from the broad swath of black culture,” as Charles Shaar Murray wrote eleven years ago in Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Rock 'n' Roll Revolution. His version of “Johnny B. Goode,” available for the first time in 25 years, is the ultimate homage: It's at once faithful and furious, a blend of nostalgia and impertinence. Hendrix plays it so fast he can barely keep up with it; the words are always a split second behind the music. Two songs later he all but mutilates “Blue Suede Shoes,” scuffing up Carl Perkins's footwear until they become paisley thigh-highs; it's all but unrecognizable without a scorecard.

Apparently Hendrix went nowhere without a tape recorder far behind him; producer Eddie Kramer insists that after all these years, there still exists enough significant material to release at least one disc every decade without scraping barrel's bottom (though one presumes in 2030, we'll get a collection of Hendrix's orgies and bowel movements, currently selling for top dollar on the black market). But it's hard to imagine anything out there more thoughtful or necessary than “It's Too Bad,” a plaintive ballad that addresses both Hendrix's soured relationship with half-brother Leon and, more important, where Jimi fit in, on the black or white side of the tracks. Backed by Buddy Miles on drums and jazzer Larry Young on organ, “It's Too Bad” is Hendrix at his most stirring and striking; he sounds so frustrated he can't tell whether to howl or cry. “So I go way across the tracks, and man, they treat me the same way as you do,” he sings, a plaintive blues moaning behind him. “They say, man, until you come back completely black, go back from where you came from too.” That is the long-missing chapter from the story of this man's life.

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