Tomorrow, Thanksgiving, is the birthday of James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix. This is my third post on Hendrix and today’s song is one of the earliest he recorded with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, for their first album. The song was worked out in live performances with his earlier bands, so that, in a sense, this is the early sound of Hendrix, using the blues in a way that he would later return to, but which isn’t much in evidence on the first album otherwise. The track I’m mainly referencing, however, is the one that appears in 1969 on Smash Hits in the U.S., not the version that appeared on Are You Experienced in the UK.
I choose that version because that’s the one that was burned into my brain that summer (1970) when I first heard Smash Hits as my introduction to Hendrix. And it’s the vocal I like best of the versions I’ve heard. But the song has many variants, particularly many live versions online. The song is perhaps the quintessential Hendrix song, allowing him to fully work out his distinctive sound within a familiar twelve bar blues format. It’s a song that shows where Hendrix has come from, musically, but it also is full of a dense, rich, almost over-ripe texture that you don’t quite find anywhere else.
It’s also a song that demonstrates that Hendrix, when he’s this hot, is having the time of his life. Learning, to his dismay, that “this key I’m holding won’t unlock this door,” he surmises “I got a bad, bad feeling, my baby don’t live here no more,” then interjects, “that’s alright, I still got my git-tar, look out now!” And then proceeds to tear it up for about thirty seconds, but they are immensely satisfying seconds, showing why he might not be so concerned with being locked out of his former lover’s place. He's got lots to keep him occupied. So, he then reflects, “I may as well go back over yonder / Way back yonder 'cross the hill / Looks like my baby don’t love me no more / But I know her sister will.” No flies on this guy.
That insouciance is what you take away from the song, much more than any sense of the blues tearing this guy’s heart out. It’s not that “Red House” doesn’t live up to the notion, common to the blues, that the guitar playing is the only possible palliative for the sorrow and heartache and mean cussedness that the singer/player is feeling, but it adds a radiance, as the unique complexity of Hendrix’s guitar shows how to rise above the shock to one’s pride and to one’s hopes—of getting laid at least—that are dashed by being, as so many blues songs express it, one way or another, turned away from “your door.” Generally, the idea is, if the woman won’t take the man in he’s doomed to prowl like some kind of locked-out alley cat, getting into trouble and up to no good. Hendrix’s speaker, we imagine, heads on down the road describing graceful arabesques of sound, a kind of Pied Piper ready for to fade into his own parade, heading off to a woman who will be happy to get what her sister doesn’t want any longer, in a lively play of musical beds.
The U.S. release of Are You Experienced is made strong by inclusion of the hits “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” and “The Wind Cries Mary” and I have to say I have a hard time imagining the album without those tracks, but it still seems an injustice that “Red House” isn’t included. Then again, Smash Hits is in some ways the most satisfying collection of Hendrix studio tracks, and would be perfect if it included “Little Wing” and “If 6 Was 9.” The re-packaging of Hendrix runs on apace, and the best bet for a collection of the most essential studio tracks with a few famous live tracks is The Ultimate Experience, from 1992, which is CD only, but even there, I’d trim some of the Axis and Ladyland tracks in favor of a few favorites from the unfinished final album. Anyway, let's give thanks for what Jimi got around to recording in his time here.
Maybe it’s time I got around to my own essential studio Hendrix playlist . . .