Perfect Sound Forever

Jimi Hendrix

Coming Down on the One: Band of Gypsys
by Mike Wood

Band of Gypsys turned a lot of people off when it was released in 1970. Hippies wondered where their beloved Jimi Hendrix had gone- his usual psych-freakout replaced by funk and soul jams. Some of the black audience saw this project as Hendrix's too-late attempt to be relevant in his own community, a hype. Record-industry insiders saw it as a cynical contractual thing, a one-off made to satisfy the demands of a lawsuit related to one of the worst contracts ever signed by an artist.

These complaints had their merits, but they missed the point. During the period in mid-1969 when he was formulating this project, Hendrix was not only listening to free jazz and funk, but was deeply involved with them. Many artists in those scenes, from Miles Davis and John McLaughlin to the Last Poets, were jamming with Hendrix or planning to jam with him. Hendrix, in the midst of the lawsuit, a pending drug case in Toronto, and the throes of a nasty heroin habit, made some of the greatest music of his career, music that pointed to the future as well as reflecting his then current explorations. It is now possible to talk about this period in his creativity without the usual "what if?" that overshadows all rock star deaths, nor with 40-year-old hip prejudices. By looking at the record and some of the related bootlegs, and by reassessing Hendrix's Woodstock gig, it is possible to see Band of Gypsys for what it truly was. This was not a one-off before crawling back to the Experience's bassist Noel Redding and producer Chas Chandler, but a bold step toward artistic maturity, one that musically and lyrically began to address black music and black issues.

In 1965, when he was still "Jimmy" and playing guitar for Curtis Knight, Hendrix signed a recording contract, for $1, that gave the agent full control over any future royalties. At the time, it probably didn't seem to matter, since Hendrix wasn't recording and no one could have guessed at the mega-success he would enjoy only a few months later. To avoid a judgement that would have cost him a huge chunk of his fortune, Hendrix agreed to record an album from which all the proceeds would go to the agent who had signed him to that pathetic contract. By this time, the Experience had disbanded and Hendrix was looking for new musicians, as well as new inspiration. The former he found in bassist and army friend Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, and the latter he found in funk and the emerging free jazz scene.

The immediate effect that Cox and Miles had on Hendrix was to provide a hard funk bottom to Hendrix's newly fluid lines. While Buddy Miles certainly had his own star power at the time and contributed to the sound, he did so as a bandmate, not as a huge ego elbowing for the spotlight, as Noel Redding was. The Experience's drummer, Mitch Mitchell, had also pushed Hendrix, but not so much to share the limelight as to call the guitarist's bluff. That tension had worked wonders for the group's sound, and Hendrix missed Mitchell's goading. Mitchell's drumming, similar to Keith Moon's in the sense that he played like a soloist over the riffs, contrasts with that of Buddy Miles, who provided the reliable beat down on the one, the first sharp accent on the chord in most classic funk. As reflected in rehearsal tapes, those with John McLaughlin and those produced (or overproduced, depending on who you talk to) by Alan Douglas, Hendrix was feeling his way around his new ideas, using as always the blues as a base, but stretching out his lines under the influence of the new jazz.

Hendrix keyed in immediately to what free jazz was trying to accomplish spiritually, and saw it as a way to articulate some of his new ideas. He was especially into Rashid Ali and Rashaan Roland Kirk, whose extended improvs with drums and percussion would have a huge effect on his new musical ideas. The jams with McLaughlin were oddly strained, however, and a proposed collaboration with Miles Davis never happened because Hendrix could not read the music Davis had written for them. There was also some talk of neither being that willing to share their new visions with someone else, especially someone who could do something magical with the ideas.

The first fruits of this new direction would be seen at Woodstock, though the recording of the event failed to accurately reflect that direction, especially its percussive experiments.

A larger band, more emphasis on rhythm and percussion, more musicians of color working with Hendrix, not pushing him to give themselves space--almost the entire conga performance was lost in the official mix of the soundtrack. Especially on "Woodstock Improv" and the extended "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," Hendrix gave space for his new band to work out driving rhythms, funk, and soul percussion that served as counterpoint to his guitar and drove him to extend his lines. Here his playing was still full of psychedelia and chittlin circuit antics, but beneath, in the groove, were hints of a new direction.

Band of Gypsys' rehearsals for the New Year's Eve 1969 shows at the Fillmore reveal a band trying to become larger than itself. Hendrix had always preferred to develop ideas through hours of jamming in the studio, an expensive method that drove producers crazy but that allowed him and his bands to get to know each other by taking risks. While funk and soul are highly structured forms, particularly in the stress they place on the first chord stroke--"coming down on the one"--they not only allowed Hendrix to play with new musicians who brought their own ideas, but also allowed his ideas to flow from rhythm, rather than from lead. He did not have to carry a band with his guitar when playing soul and funk, and this made for a looser style and added a directness to his increasingly personal lyrics. A recent Dagger Records release, Baggie's Rehearsals, reveals his growth. In addition to hours of blues and funk jams with Cox and Miles, Hendrix recorded several versions of "Burning Desire," which trace its development into a raging funk tune; "Message to Love," which grew out of earlier jams with Douglas, explores more expanded soul grooves. "Changes" and "We Gotta Live Together" were in the studio mere ragged blueprints of what they became on stage at the Fillmore.

The jams produced by Alan Douglas, available on bootlegs, explore similar rhythmic themes but are oddly safer. "Nine to the Universe" and "Cherokee Mist," both of which appeared posthumously in wretchedly produced versions, show Hendrix playing with ideas but in an unsure, muted way. Only on "Strato Strut" does he really let it rip and create a hardcore funk groove. As the Band of Gypsys prepared for their debut, they were a potentially powerful but shaky work in progress.

The legend surrounding Hendrix's run-in with promoter Bill Graham and its influence on his performance the first night is overblown. According to the legend, after the first set Hendrix came backstage with the crazed applause from the crowd still echoing in the hall. After Hendrix asked Graham for his opinion of the show several times and received no response, Graham laid into him, saying that all of Hendrix's theatrics were bullshit and that real artists just stood there and played. Shocked, then pissed, Hendrix played his second set, the one that rang in 1970, standing dead still. It was from this set that the definitive version of "Machine Gun" was recorded, a version many guitar freaks consider the greatest single performance ever on the instrument. After the set, Hendrix went backstage and received excessive praise from Graham. After telling Graham to fuck off, Hendrix played most of the encore with his teeth and behind his back, all grind and schtick.

Missing from this story is the revelation of a new world of ideas in the music of those two sets. The first set, for example, featured a solid, brutal version of "We Gotta Live Together" and a full, nuanced "Changes." The band had found its groove and was tight. Word spread, especially about "Machine Gun," to the point that by the second day lines stretched around the block to get inside for the first show.

Tunes from the January 1, 1970, shows did not turn up officially until 2003, in a two-CD reissued Band of Gypsys, but the version of "Stone Free" from the second day, second show, may even surpass "Machine Gun" and Hendrix's Woodstock version of the National Anthem as the most emotionally revealing of his performances. Defiant yet fragile, his playing and singing turn one of his more forgettable tunes into a declaration, or at least the hope, that his new music will help him overcome his current problems and pains.

Unfortunately, the rest of Hendrix's life was a whirlwind of grief and outside pressure, with only some relief. His acquittal on drug charges in Toronto spared him a long prison sentence, but it did nothing to ease his addiction. Black Nationalists questioned his commitment to the political struggles of his race. A Harlem concert shortly after the Fillmore shows, like the press conference he had held there shortly after Woodstock, only created more confusion.

While his drug habit prevented Hendrix from taking much else seriously—including politics and his own new direction in music—he attempted to placate the Black Nationalists by playing a Black Panther benefit in Harlem. Always more of a favorite of white hippies than blacks, Hendrix faced the weird prospect of playing before a neighborhood of people who were totally unaware of his music. Though he was moving in the direction of funk and soul, listening to free jazz, and even recording with Lightning Rod from the Last Poets ("Doreilla Du Fontaine"), he was still seen as a black man playing white music, disconnected from the issues affecting his own people. While the concert was a musical success, he never fully embraced the activism that the Panthers and others urged on him. His final year was a haze of drugs, aborted performances, and sad plans to reunite the Experience. Perhaps even he did not recognize the power of his new direction and explorations.

Much has been made of Band of Gypsys lately. Rising esteem for the performances has only added in some quarters to the cliched musing about what Hendrix might have accomplished if drugs hadn't killed him. Lost in this myth-making and pining is the truth, which is available within the myriad releases, from the shoddily packaged unreleased material to the bootlegs to the new, better issues from the Hendrix family. Hendrix's last new music was both rooted in black music and full of the free, expressive, inspired daring that was his trademark throughout his short career.

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