Today’s the deathday of James Marshal Hendrix—Jimi—one of the truly great musicians of the Sixties whose career ended dismayingly early. Hendrix arose to prominence in the psychedelic period—1967-68—and didn’t even live long enough to finish and release his post-psychedelic album which was probably going to be called Strate Ahead but which now exists, mostly, as First Rays of the New Rising Sun. That and the performances released as Band of Gypsies (1970) and from the “Cry of Love” tour are the end of the road.
What song to use as tribute? I had a few in mind, not least the song known as “Hey Baby (First Rays of the New Rising Sun)” because, even though the vocal on the track is just a rough demo, the guitar part is one of those bits that gets into the mind and stays, full of moody power. But today I put on Axis: Bold as Love (1967) to hear “Little Wing” (another contender) and “If 6 Was 9” sorta self-selected itself.
In part because it’s a song of fierce individualism and nonconformism and a defiant indifference to what passes for received wisdom, and the way Jimi says “hippies!” in “Now if all the hippies cut off all their hair / I don’t care” has such a sardonic edge to it. Just as telling as the condescension toward “white collar conservatives” (which wasn’t a common phrase yet)—“you can’t dress like me”—as it were shrugging off both their houses. Hip freaks, uptight squares. And sure enough, many of those hippies would become conservatives eventually. Of course the song was famously used in the soundtrack of Easy Rider (1969), helping to add a certain heroism to the exploits of Captain America and Billy.
“If 6 turned out to be 9 / I don’t mind.” Yeah, I guess it’s kinda Zen.
And the shifting sounds of the song are Hendrix more or less overloading the circuitry. The riff is classic, and much imitated, and the phase shifts and reverb and fuzzbox of the mix come at us through distortion due to the fact that the track had to be reconstructed from a tape of the original tape—since Hendrix managed to lose the original tape mix, allegedly in the back of a cab. Now, doesn’t that make you wonder where that ended up?
Anyway, it seems a fitting song for the day when Hendrix didn’t wake up, since it says, with a rather bemused, laconic delivery, “I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die / So let me live my life the way I want to.”
Hendrix, apparently, lived the way he wanted to, recorded the way he wanted to, and played the way he wanted to. Certainly he played like no one else. And his singing on today’s song has such attitude, chuckling—“fall mountains, just don’t fall on me”—as he gives the masses yearning to breathe free some hope in advancing beneath his freak flag flying high—HIGH! The guitar and effects in the long close seem to be happening in an alternate universe, let's call it “Electric Ladyland.”
I got my own world to live through / And I ain’t gonna copy you