Lenny Kaye Walks Through Hendrix’s Last Years

Lenny Kaye

By Lenny Kaye

on 03.14.13 in Spotlights

People, Hell & Angels

Jimi Hendrix

Loaves and fishes. Out of a foreshortened lifeline and a relatively small body of work, it seems there is no end to the many miracles wrought by Jimi Hendrix to feed our insatiable hunger to hear every lick he played. For someone who did his fair share of burning the candle at both ends, as well as in the middle, he never lost sight of his work ethic and fascination with music’s byways — ceaselessly experimenting, recording and jamming with his peers. Even now, when the sea-scrolls of recording tape he magnetized have been scrupulously parsed and excavated, especially in the hands of his long-time extra-sensory engineer, Eddie Kramer, with People, Hell and Angels, there is still more to discover, savor and put in the context of his time on this Earth.

His every note bears a hand-stamp of tone and bend, Marshall amps shuddering to keep up with his sonic overload. Snapshots of work-in-progress are mingled with the sheer joy of playing. Despite the fact that Hendrix owns the spotlight, the hook of the album is collaboration — his readying to take a step into his next music, the one that we can only tantalizingly hear in these tracks. The sounds he would have made for the next 40 years, and then some.

He entwines easily with his rhythm section, whether it be the straightforward and propulsive Buddy Miles, whose mighty whack on the snare goes with his insistent right foot; or Mitch Mitchell, always the most airy and spatial of drummers, skittering around the kit. Hendrix mostly relies on his old army buddy Billy Cox to underpin the bass, when he’s not assuming the low frequencies himself. Others who drop by are Steven Stills, saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood and members of assemblages that he is exploring new textures with, especially his percussive Woodstock “band,” Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. The level of commitment in the studio is high, and no matter whom he’s interacting with, Jimi doesn’t change so much as usher the chosen players into his spatial universe.

Some of it is remarkably straightforward, caught before the afterthoughts of overdubbing. “Earth Blues,” which leads off the album, can be heard in more fleshed-out form on Rainbow Bridge, with Mitch Mitchell replacing Miles on drums, but I prefer this no-frills alternate take where the psychic interplay between the Band of Gypsies can be felt as they prepare for their Fillmore East New Year’s Eve extravaganza. The trio had been recording since the previous May (1969), and two blues-drenched cuts — “Hear My Train A-Coming” and Elmore James’s “Bleeding Heart” — show Jimi’s vision of what might be done with blues’ traditional formalisms. As always, the focus is on his truly inspired guitar playing, and his solos range free, filled with quick-draw tangents and asides, losing themselves in the passion of the moment.

Sometimes the seams show. “Let Me Move You” is a showcase for Lonnie Youngblood, but the results are somewhat perfunctory, especially given what someone like Sly Stone was doing with the concept of funkification. Hendrix, however, plays through with rhythmic confidence and grits-and-cheese chop-chording. “Izabella,” with the Gypsy Sun ensemble, is more assured, a stepping-stone to the Band of Gypsys version that would be captured a year later. “Crash Landing,” another early idea-in-the-making (later to provide the dominant riff of “Freedom,”) was previously heard only in a severely post-overdubbed version; but here, with original instrumentalists Rocky Isaac (of the Cherry People) on drums, an unknown organist, and the ever-reliable and underrated Cox on bass, comes as close as any of Hendrix’s compositions to crossing the funkadelic line. The well-developed “Inside Out” — with Jimi’s guitar lines doubled and himself on bass — is an instrumental overlaid with the whirligig sound of a Leslie speaker in full rotation. Add the contemplative “Villanova Junction Blues” for Hendrix at his most serene, and, yes, People, Hell and Angels is a listenable and fascinating tour of Jimi’s thought processes in the last years of his life.

There will always be debate on how these tracks would have been finalized had Hendrix lived, and the worthiness of what, in the end, were takes that were discarded for one reason or another, or posthumously embellished. But as the years recede, even Hendrix’s toss-aways take on added significance, and in truth, sometimes more polished productions are not as revealing of his magic as these moments when he is at his most vulnerable, stepping out from his persona into his great unknown, to see what might be revealed.