Excuse me while I kiss this guy - IN SEARCH OF SPACE #49

[NOTE – last night I saw spectral nightfighters Earth for the second time, got a cracking audio interview with Dylan Carlson too, that will be on next week’s post because I have been so busy. Sorry folks for neglecting you a lil’ but this week you get my collected Hendrix failures. I’ve never been able to sufficiently explain myself when I hear Live at Woodstock, just an hour and a half of mad kaleidoscopic genius. I’ve written on the album many times and always tucked the result away, so here I’ve pasted them all together for your dereliction. It’s long, lysergic and hopelessly flawed but I’ve just been so busy it may be some time before the misery finally abates. I shall return, in the meantime, stick on Live at Woodstock for me y’all.]

This'll be the fourth time I've contemplated the titanic spectral transcendent uncategorisable genius of Hendrix's set at Woodstock from 1969. Upon listening to it I become filled with emotions, perhaps more than any other record, yet when I come to sit in front of the keyboard it all fades away. It's that old cliché: If the artist could have said it in words, he would have. The music can't be expressed in text. But I can't even get close to this masterpiece with words, usually I can give you a kinda touch of what actually spinning this or that sonic titan will bring about in your fragile finite human soul but not with this thing. It defies all explanation which I guess is description in itself. It is such a common and available record that to cover it almost seems churlish; like that brief and flawed idea to do a series on the first four Sabbath albums. A great idea if they were some kinda underground band and I'd bring audio enlightenment to somebody, but they're pretty much core listening material for anybody interested in the slightly nosier side of music. I did Neil Young, but later-period stuff the undiscerning listener might have skipped over while looking for something with a few more teeth.

I've explained before that the best Hendrix song by a stone mile is Star Spangled Banner live at Woodstock, and I've written about it once generally and the most recent attempt I tried to do a ur-HST interpretation of what Woodstock meant through this one record. All were miserable failures but some people seemed to dig 'em. Might put them up here at some point, who knows? If you guys really want to read my 3am drunk caffeine ramblings then holler and I guess I can satisfy your twisted and curiously specific desires (I guess you wouldn't still be reading if you didn't have an above average tolerance for self-indulgence and my particular brand of bullshit).

I guess the genesis of my interest in Hendrix came as he was one of the first artists introduced to me as I got into music. I'd never heard music like it at all and still haven't grabbed anything that can sustain that Hendrix penchant for improvisational feeling ultra-cool professional rock. Hendrix makes you forget the words 'arrogant' and 'smug'. Never once does he lapse into self-parody or self-congratulations. His quest is an honest one and that's something I value. He was famously the only man who could make a guitar sing or make it weep. From a technical standpoint his music is flawed, his most flawed piece also being the one I consider the most transcendent (Star Spangled Banner), but then from a technical standpoint banal Grammy-sweeper and probably Brit-sweeper Adele is excellent - which kind of lays all the required nails in the coffin of the 'technical standpoint' having any fucking relevance at all. His music may be badly produced, the recording on the live tracks pretty abysmal and all the instruments are out of tune; but the spirit is the most pure it has ever been. His spirit is pure and overriding. At all times he is pushing the limits of creativity and ability and soul-transcendence. His guitar is more than just a terrific noisemaker played by a gifted genius, it's a gateway to pleasures and connections. Sexual and social; Hendrix is a way I met some of my greatest friends and had the best times with my good lady wife (we's a gettin' hitched, woman). While this sounds like a terribly artifice-laden phrase, he is a force of nature. The wind and the rain and elemental in his conception and execution. A radical like this, who shows exactly how much music is worth really oughtn't have become such a central figure, but somehow he has. I guess it is okay to write about Hendrix huh? 'Cause the point of this blog is to help others come to grips with sonic trips they might otherwise discount or just miss, and I want you to go and listen to whatever Hendrix you have or can find and fathom if you can what sort of a faster-that-light intellect and mad genius he must have been to so aptly make instruments and songs that reflected everything. The many lights, they are a'glitterin'. As you can see, I am kind of scrabbling to put such powerful existential thoughts into a form one can understand, I'll need to put these pages through some spiritual coffee filter and maybe come out with something readable.

September 2010

You and your band are playing a festival. It isn’t your first by a long way but it could well be the biggest. The drugs have started to kick in so your memory isn’t working too good. You’re playing last, closing out the festival. It’s nine a.m. on a Monday morning in New York State but it’s pretty warm. You’ve been hanging out at the festival for only a day or so. You came in sitting in the back of somebody’s station wagon; a lot of other bands got helicoptered in. You knew this was going to be a special festival, but it might be very special. Just by being here we were showing them, me and you, we were showing them what we could do. Young people all over the world with heads full of ideas and dope. Everything hinges on you. You’re the frontman. If you fuck this up everything might be wasted. The festival has to end right or all this positive energy will be scattered. You look down and your hands are shaking. You’ve only had two sound checks and they were a long time ago. You want people to hear your music. You want to make the last minutes of this historic weekend memorable. You want to change the world but you can’t remember the words. You rub your hands together like you’re washing them. Feeling satisfied and tired and nervous as hell. Never felt this nervous at Montreal... You know what those doped up kids are looking for. You don’t know if you can deliver. 

You step out onto the stage, watching as a couple more people walk away past the stage. Only a handful of hardcore fans are still there, maybe less than a quarter of all those from Saturday. The hardcore doper kids. People who didn’t have jobs or fit into society. These are your biggest fans. You feel pretty high. You look out over them and the battlefield beyond. All that you come out with is “I see we meet again... hmm”

Jimi Hendrix’s Live at Woodstock set is a musical marvel. Outside of any pretentiousness, it’s a wonder it was made at all. The Woodstock festival was plagued by technical difficulties, the officious weather and the rookie roadies combined to mean some sets were simply not recorded at all. Most of the people expanding their minds at the festival had to leave before Hendrix’s historic closer to get back to their jobs. Hendrix himself was rapidly going over the hill by this point, it wouldn’t be long till that fateful Isle of Wight performance that would mark the fatal bullet in his career that would lead to his fatal overindulgence. Of course, the truest bravery is to know how scared you are, the truest confidence is in retrospect, and this isn’t about slotting into history, this is about a fateful two hours which has thankfully been preserved forever and like the greatest of things, the flaws and floral embellishments in Hendrix’s deeply flawed performance and the god-awful recording quality become the supporting walls holding up the roof of this infinitely repayable trip for all generations to experience. They immediately separate this set from any other live Hendrix recording and ensure it survives just by its uniqueness.

Hendrix, as the platitude goes, could make a guitar sing, or make it weep. He put feeling into the vibrating of strings over pickups that most vocalists can’t hope to match with their voices. For generations, his guitar tones, self taught and usually rendered by motor-responses that were operating through a haze of hallucinogens. His savant grasp of conducting emotions through the electric guitar is something that has scarcely been bettered and never truly copied. Aside from having the rare honour of being recognised only by his first name, Jimi is also one of the few guitarists in the world who is instantly recognisable. These are the facts, and facts can no more explain an experience than words can describe a love.

Hendrix’s liquid, frenetic, sexual, sensual, soulful. Above all else, unlike Live at the Albert Hall, or Live at the Fillmore East (the only other two live Hendrix trips I possess) Hendrix himself sounds so much more human. The music has all of its traditional foibles but also betrays a lack of confidence, a fallibility that simply didn’t come across in the scant drugged professionalism of his other work. Like all Hendrix, the entire live set weaves a subtly detailed tapestry of kaleidoscopic mayhem through US counterculture. From the haunting notes of the national anthem being satirised by their bastardisation by a black drug user, on an electric guitar to a field of kids who hated that song but hungrily drank in Hendrix’s masterful rendition. Star Spangled Banner is the antithesis of Live at Woodstock. Hopelessly flawed, repeated, stuttering. Between all of these errors and flaws emerges something truly astonishing. We aren’t hearing noise made by a man playing an instrument, what occurs right from when Hendrix plucks away his first tentative sound test before launching into infectious Message to Universe, what manifests itself is not a man and an instrument but music being used as a conduit directly to the soul. Whatever trip is happening, Hendrix transcends himself. Especially through Star Spangled Banner, he gives the impression of a man possessed, stopping to make sure ‘it’ is done right. It not being the correct recitation of the nation anthem but it’s successful ruination. That this soul transference happens not through magic or rigorous science but through one man, a sweeping tide of mind-altering substances and a single cheap mass-produced tool, the electric guitar. It seems only right that the first act of a soul directly connecting with the corporeal world is for the purposes of music. Hendrix renames most of the tracks, and even the band, so really this is the only release of Gypsy Son and Rainbows.

The most staggering thing about it is the atmosphere. Despite and indeed maybe because of the poor recording quality, the questionable performance and the mountainous weight of all that history the album is not only listenable but is one of the most accessible musical experiences around. Immediately putting all listeners into the trip, down front of the stage. The calls of the crowd, Hendrix altering his setup mid-song, it all adds to this irreplaceable sense of atmosphere. A feeling of presence which combines with knowing you’re listening (second hand, admittedly) to one of the great moments of rock and roll unfold in the songs, all of which rightfully hold classic status. This is the way to get into music.

“The cops stood out on the highway and looked across the creek at a scene that must have tortured the very roots of their understanding. Here were all these people running wild, bellowing and dancing half-naked to rock-‘n’-roll sounds piped out through the trees from massive amplifiers, reeling and stumbling in a maze of psychedelic lights... WILD, by God, and with no law to stop them.”
            Hunter Thompson – Hells Angels

June 2011

Forty years ago something incredible and radical happened, but nobody cared. It was radical not only because of what it espoused, but how it was fighting. There was no violence. There were no bombs or guns or snarling inhumanities. The battles of the sixties were fought with positivity and creativity. It was the Woodstock music and arts festival. A half a million heads converged on a rural corner of New York State to see the most important event of the twentieth century in terms of human advancement, and the centrepiece of that revolution, standing fore as a disciple, was Jimi Hendrix.

I am not writing about the album, although this moment has been expressed as an album. I am not writing about the film, although this moment has been expressed as a film. I am writing about the moment. A massive mantle tremor through the whole of the world, a silver bullet through the hearts of every downer, fake hipster and head not wired into the trip. It was like a mushroom cloud on the horizon for all of those too caught up in their day to worry about their life. The exhalant son of Gaia, who in person was shy and retiring and hid behind the veil of substances, and who only ever expressed himself through the strings of his axe. With that corporeal strumming humm-dinger he would take celestial flight, his soul would surf the audience on a wave of reefer smoke and good vibrations. He was a man sure enough, but he stood for far more. He was more than an icon, he could well have been the one true deliverer. He held his guitar upside down, had his amps deliberately mis-tuned and y’know what? He played with his fucking heart, not his fingers or his mind, his fucking heart. And for the most part, for the importance of his message, he was ignored. A man who was the seraphim of the true calling, playing in a distorted kaleidoscopic madness and a haze of psychedelic colour should have his music broadcast from all speakers for just ten minutes. Just ten minutes. Like the Hitchhikers Guide Vogons, if we could just seize control of every surface capable of amplification and utilise them as one voice rising up from the sewers and from the streets in in every room and every stadium and every car and every tannoy, and give all the pathetic wallpaper-paste sludge-heads a ten minute blast of something which is still so utterly unique, memorable  and puts a warmth into the soul in a way nothing else could; with any luck, their lives would be irrevocably changed.

The towers are long gone. So are a great many Iraqi children. Janis Joplin left us forty years ago. The Grateful Dead are now just the Dead. As Hunter Thompson eloquently put it: Horrors that would have been unthinkable ten years ago are now almost commonplace. Woodstock failed. The world kept fighting and kicking and dragging our idiot selves back down into the mud. He was preaching to the converted, sadly; not to the powerful and not to the people who needed to hear his sermon. If one thing characterises humanity, it is wilful ignorance, gleeful violence and joyous hatred. I watched my copy of the Hendrix film. It’s the closest I can get to him, to his message; the nearest I can feel him to my soul. It is a pathetic shiny disk, sickening really. I watched it tonight to try to connect; to, in as humble an explanation as I can concoct, to cheer up. Instead I realised the complete depressing hopelessness of everything rock and roll stands for. Rock and roll has been neutered. It has become filtered like a bottle of whiskey in an IV drip into the masses. Instead of one single triple shot that blows their minds as sure as a loaded twelve bore shotgun, it hasn’t had any noticeable effect. Rock and roll backs fucking adverts. Killer songs written by great people with a plan have been reduced to soundtracks. Nobody stops to appreciate music save for the few that already accept it; we few happy drunks try to help the others understand and yet we can’t because we too have become caricatures. Too much noise and too much booze, it’s ruined our minds. Well motherfucker, my mind is so sharp I can cut you any time I want. Rock and roll may be neutered but it isn’t dead. Thankfully our few ready heroes have fashioned us weapons far stronger than any rifle or howitzer. A rifle jams, a howitzer runs out of explosive shells, but Jimi Hendrix’s planetary collision sex climax Star Spangled Banner ridicule/recital/rebirth at the zenith of his set is indestructible, it’s bulletproof. It will never run out of sonic bullets, the heart-stopping thrum of electric noise is not subject to erosion by the march of time or the neglect of man, it cannot be bent or broken or changed or ignored. All at once it scrambles the head of anybody square enough to have stumbled upon it. We watch bombs we pay for kill children and some of us cheer. We allow crimes against our own populace, crimes against our human rights to be free to choose, we let these go unpunished and unnoticed but scream for blood on Saturday night talent shows. Our world is no longer psychedelic colours. We’ve swapped out the heady green of the jungle and the yellow petrol explosion napalm-genocide for muddy deserts and dirty bombs. Our cities are grey, the neon needs cleaned. Hendrix’s two hour set is a syringe with eight kilos of hee-hee shot straight into the heart. You should die. You ought to overdose but all it does is open your eyes. So wide you can see in all directions at once and everything is high-contrast. Stumbling through an electric world, mortal concerns far behind you, not worrying about the past or the present or the future. It is the sound of the most important moment of the twentieth century and mankind’s greatest failed experiment. We failed to paint it black.

In one movement, in one voice, a generation rose. Through a constant program of psychic expansion and realistic realisations of how completely false all the barriers of our ‘world’ are. What bountiful and perfect visions exist for us all across experience if we would but open our eyes and cast aside the faux walls of law, complex morality and social destruction; an entire generation had individually come to the collective realisation that the world was not as they wanted it. Millions stood, and led by their rock and roll heroes said at once to the world: “We want the world to be better”. Quickly they were crushed. The dawning adulthood meant that a dream can only last as long as the night. New falsities were launched from all angles. Fear once again became the universal currency. An alloy of fear, hatred and insularity held the family unit preposterously together; the real binding factors of community, love and shared understanding and peace were forgotten – cast into the rock and roll vocabulary and afraid to be used lest you be the laughing stock of the office party. A revolutionary struggle for a better world is no place to raise a drone. Psychedelic substances stopped being a way to get your world altered and became fun on the weekends, interchangeable with orgy-porgy, golf or watching the latest foreign war in super-slo-mo-replay highlights, each Technicolor explosion washing across the tube another few lives vaporised, now to Tom for the weather. The loud generation fell silent. After all, the apple cart upset of the sixties was nice, but we have families now. Jobs. Responsibilities.

The world will never change. Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock set won’t change a damn thing. It isn’t just about a king-hell bastard of a record that will literally shift the world on its axis, it needs a listener, and you’ll never be one. It’s some sound to play into your ears to take up another two hours of miserable existence from cradle to grave. All of the soul and passion, the spontaneity and love that brought all of those men together on that stage, compelled their hands to beat the drums and carefully pluck the strings. Their higher purpose, playing the music for the soul so that we could use it as the rhythmic soundtrack to the laying of the foundations of our better world; a place where peace, love and empathy are the founding values. All of that is wasted now. Reduced to a binary code, a set of ones and zeroes interpreted by tiny earphones. A security camera can see my window. I can see it as I type this.

“Go to work, send your kids to school,
Stop smoking, act normal,
Keep off the grass, save for your old age
If you have seen this person contact the police,
Watch TV, repeat after me: “I am free”

Written under extreme duress three times by Steven.

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