My friends and I used to fantasize about a life after death in a rock and roll heaven. Although there would be many guitarists present in the heavenly jam, the guy at the front of them all–sharing leads, riffs and chord changes–would be Jimi Hendrix. His clarion strings would stretch notes beyond the elysian boundaries, challenging Orpheus himself. As if to prove me right, a new disc from the master himself was released from beyond the grave on March 9th. Titled Valleys of Neptune, the disc contains twelve never-before-released songs or versions of songs. The title song, a version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Crying Blue Rain” were recorded in early 1969 with the best-known lineup of Hendrix’s band the Experience (Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel redding on bass) and percussionist Rocki Dzidzornu (who played percussion on the Stones song “Sympathy For the Devil”). The majority of the other material was recorded later the same year.
For those who don’t know much about Hendrix’s brief and fiery career, the year 1969 was probably the most chaotic and cataclysmic of them all. His band The Experience was dissolving in front of him due to a number of reasons–personal and business. Indeed, by the time of the April recording sessions where some of the songs on Valleys of Neptune were recorded, bass player Noel Redding was gone. In addition, according to some biographers Jimi’s drug use was reaching dangerous heights while his management was pushing him harder and harder to tour more and more. This pressure in turn led him to use drugs more, creating a vortex not unfamiliar to the lives of many performers and artists.
By the end of 1969, Jimi would be playing with a new band featuring bass player Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. It would be this group–known as the Band of Gypsies– that played at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day of 1969-1970. The album recorded those nights was the only live album by Hendrix ever released while he was still alive.
Later that year, a reformed Experience minus Redding toured the US and Europe. This tour included the shows at the Berkeley Community Theatre in Berkeley, CA. that were made famous in the concert film Jimi Plays Berkeley. The portion of this film that has the band playing Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” while antiwar protesters fight with police outside is one of those cinematic moments where film captures the zeitgeist of a time. This time happened to be at the end of a month that began with the US invasion of Cambodia and included the murders of four students at Kent State University by National Guard troops, the murders of two more students at Jackson State University and a national crisis.
Most folks who knew Hendrix’s music back then can remember their emotions upon hearing about Hendrix’s death on September 18, 1970. I recall being at home in Frankfurt am Main, Germany listening to the radio. The announcement was made during the regular hourly broadcast of the news headlines. Friends of mine who lived and breathed Hendrix were beyond distraught as they smoked pipe after pipe of hashish with fellow mourners–German and American–at an unofficial memorial service in Frankfurt’s Grüneburg Park the next day.
As for the CD itself, let me discuss a few of the highlights. After opening with a version of “Stone Free” that opens with a contrapuntal syncopation that resolves itself with a classic Hendrix guitar adventure tailspinning to the song’s end. The title song is a psychedelic blues that one can easily imagine dancing to. The lyrics talk about erasing the world’s pain ahead of a new world to come. The guitar work carries the lyrics with an understated beauty that hints at that new world.
The version of “Red House” is a masterpiece in and of itself. Slower than other recordings of the tune, Hendrix’s guitar becomes that lyre invented by Hermes and played to perfection by Orpheus himself. This song has always been one of my favorite Hendirx tunes, from its rendering on Electric Ladyland to the multitude of versions present in the bootlegs and official releases that populate any Hendrix fan’s collection. The guitar work here debates and enhances Billy Cox’s bass playing without ever giving an inch on either side of the dais. The spirit of every bluesman from Robert Johnson to Charley Patton and Son House are present in the lead put forth here.
My other favorite is the reworking of the Cream song “Sunshine Of Your Love.” This tune was a fairly big hit in 1968 after its release in December 1967. Written by bass player Jack Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton, its introductory measures are among rock music’s best known bars. Hendrix and the Experience played this song quite often in 1968 and 1969 in their concerts, so it’s not much of a surprise to find it on this disc.
Now, a cynic might say that it’s easy to recycle some old tapes and make a buck off of them. If they were referring to this collection, they would be completely off the mark. This disc enables the listener to hear Hendrix in a brand new way. The members of the Jimi Hendrix Memorial Project that have committed themselves to maintaining and enhancing Hendrix’s legacy have certainly done the man right with this release. It is definitely worthy of that rock and roll paradise referred to above.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com