I just read Adam Shatz’s review/essay “The Beautiful Sounds of Jimi Hendrix” in the New York Review of Books for 9 January 2014, so today’s song is a Hendrix song.
My introduction to Hendrix was the Reprise LP Jimi Hendrix Experience Smash Hits, which was released in the US in July, 1969. I heard the album, when my brother bought a copy while we were at the beach in Ocean City, MD, in June 1970 (Hendrix died that September). It was very rainy for our week vacation, I recall, and we sat on the large open porch with a crappy portable record player and this record. For me, there were four standout songs on that album, though there wasn’t a mediocre song on it (I loved the whole thing): “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Hey Joe,” “All Along the Watchtower,” all on the first side, and “Red House,” on the second.
It was hard to choose a song for today, and my first thought was to go with “Hey Joe” because that was the one I loved best at first, and it was the first single by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the last song played at the first Woodstock Festival the same year I first heard this album. But the song that best recalls to me sitting on the porch and watching cars hydroplane on the highway is “The Wind Cries Mary.” Something in the pace of the song recalls windshield wipers to me. It’s in that slow intro before Hendrix, in his most sensitive vocal, opens with “After all the jacks are in their boxes / And the clowns have all gone to bed . . .” It’s also Hendrix’s most overtly Dylanesque song—except of course for his majestic cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” which I heard years before I heard Dylan’s version, so that, to me, the song was Jimi’s before it was Bobby’s.
I’ll add that the way I heard the first verse of “Mary” differs from the lyrics as they appear online: “you can hear happiness staggering on down the street”—we all agree—then: “footloose, dressed in red,” I heard. “Footprints dress in red” the internet (and Hendrix) says. My version gave me a vision of “happiness” dressed in red and staggering home after a party. This is not the only time I would edit lyrics if I could.
Anyway, we can all agree that this is a beautiful and evocative song. It out-Dylans Dylan, to some extent. The other line that always got me was “the tiny island sags downstream,” and, of course, the one we always used to cite: “A broom is drearily sweeping.” And that lyrical and so precise and restrained guitar break that you wish would go on forever, and yet it’s probably more satisfying because it so perfectly fits the time allotted to it. This was in the day when long, “exploratory” guitar solos were becoming the norm (again, editing helps, often) and to hear a guitar passage that was truly “a statement,” like this one, stays with you. Hendrix is painting in sound.
“Mary” is a perfect example of Hendrix’s ability—the thing I admire about him more and more as the decades peel away—to create sonic landscapes or soundscapes. Each song has a particular guitar sound which creates the mood and colors of the song. In his review Shatz mentions how Hendrix developed his technique through technology, using “feedback, sustain, effects pedals” that were “integral to his music, adding an expressive swirl of timbres that lent his work a symphonic richness; Hendrix, a believer in synesthesia, often compared sounds to colors.” And I’ve often tried to capture the palette of this song, in my mind. There is red of course, and orange and yellow, but also crimson and purple, and when “the traffic lights turn blue tomorrow” that blue is so electric, played right up against a thin line of red to jump out more.
The song is one of the great songs of 1967, a pretty good year for music that stretched beyond what had seemed the basic format of guitar band pop. From this distance, it’s absurd to put Hendrix into that category. The blues, jazz, R&B, rock, psychedelia, and whatever it was that Dylan had done—Hendrix used it all and was sui generis like no one else on the scene, and, if one dwells on it, one feels robbed by the fact that he didn’t make it past 1970, alive. The Seventies with Hendrix recording would’ve been revelatory, no doubt.
“The Wind Cries Mary” (with its echoes of “the answer, my friend, blowin’ in the wind” and “they call the wind Mariah”) is an elegy, finally, “’Cause the life they lived . . . is dead.” It’s a melancholy song but the imagery keeps it away from bathos. There’s something very “after the carnival” about it, like party streamers in the mud and deflating balloons and face-paint all patchy and smudged. Like much from 1967, there is a built-in sense of the end of an era, audible enough here and, by 1970, when I heard the song, readily apparent. Woodstock had already been and gone. Apotheosis, and staggering on home afterward. “It whispers, ‘No, this will be the last.’” We were already borne back ceaselessly into the past. Where Jimi forever shines.