Perfect Sound Forever

That was the Day

Hendrix and Santana at Woodstock revisted
by Josh Coe
(September 2006)

August 16th, 1969. "Three Days of Peace and Music" has turned from a trendy slogan to a valid description of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival. The peaceful sentiment somehow keeps the event flowing in its own sloppy accord. The roads have become parking lots around Bethel, New York. Hundreds of thousands coalesce around the sprawling dairy farm. The irrepressible crashers eventually push down the gates in accordance with the communal atmosphere, and promoter Bill Graham suggests filling the ditches with flaming oil. The fire would have made a fitting backdrop for the set of guitarist Carlos Santana, who's taken the stage with his band
Sometimes before you hit a note, and it's a perfect note, you've got to hear it and feel it inside before you press on it on your guitar.
These are the words of guitarist Carlos Santana, always honest, spoken in such a simple, universal way. His music comes from that spiritual place within where he always seems to hit his own perfect notes. Today though, it seems he'll need a miracle. It's the second day of Woodstock, and the performers before his band were pop newcomers Quill and English blues man Keef Hartley. Neither sparked the crowd into any sort of appreciation. It's 92 degrees and the crowd is hot and restless. Many have stripped naked to swim in a nearby lake. Others remain trapped in the mud, waking up anxious and disoriented. Getting high only gets you so far.

Young Santana's band does manages to push them a little farther. The band's energy is such that it's hard not to be influenced. By the time vocalist Gregg Rolie announces their last song, "Soul Sacrifice," the fans are right in there, eager to clap a 2/2 beat. "Just keep that going," Rolie tells the crowd as Michael Carabello's congas keep time with the clapping. A few seconds later, Michael Shrieve joins the mix on snare-happy drums. Then David Brown chimes in with a trotting bassline, and Santana joins him with some shimmery opening chords. Everything builds up until Rolie shouts, "Ohhh, n-n-n-n-noo!"

They break into this mad, shredding riff, pounding it into the crowd until Santana begins a solo on his red, devil-horned Gibson SG. Rolie plays phrase after phrase on his smooth organ, and Santana answers each musical question with his guitar, keeping the tension level high. His solo continues as he looks up into the sky, closes his eyes, opens his mouth, feeling the notes surging up from within, jerks spastically, and his fingers go crazy. Yet, in the context of the song, it all makes sense. The Latin rhythms and funky bass combine with the guitar work, and it rushes forward until… BOOM, it breaks away and abandons the rhythm to itself, but still pushes forward. Rolie picks up three maracas, as if any less would be tragic, and then the bass kicks in again, and everyone's waiting, begging for another guitar explosion, but Santana waits… and waits… and waits, letting the anticipation swell up through that hot rhythm, through a drum solo that, while impressive, still seems to go on far too long.

Posing as if he were curious, one greenhorn reporter asks Santana which animal he'd like to be. "I would be an eagle," he says. No kidding. Santana's guitar shrieks like it's swooping down for the kill. He can take one riff and rip it into the crowd, over and over, for nine minutes, and they won't get tired. When Michael Shrieve goes into his disjointed, superhuman drum solo, they'll sit there wondering when Santana's going to come back with the hot-blooded guitar. They'd let him go on forever. When he finally slams the finale home, the Woodstock crowd screams, "More! More!"

Santana's energetic, straightforward approach works with his fans. He has stopped listening to critics. "They started calling me psychedelic mariachi rock," he explains. "I said, ‘What the hell is that?'"

Still, although Santana prefers the straightforward approach, he understands the complexities behind the guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix. He explains Hendrix's mystique: "He would open up certain channels and let certain demons and angels dance together."

The ironies were murderous: a black man with a white guitar; a massive, almost white audience wallowing in a paddy field of its own making; the clear, pure, trumpet-like notes of the familiar melody struggling to pierce through clouds of tear-gas, the explosions of cluster-bombs, the screams of the dying, the crackle of flames, the heavy palls of smoke stinking with human grease, the hovering chatter of helicopters...

- Charles Shaar-Murray on Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock

Despite the heat, John Morris pops back onstage in yet another white safari jacket. At 8:30 AM, already eight-and-a-half hours behind schedule, the exhausted man introduces Gypsy Sun and Rainbows to six hundred acres of mud and scattered bodies. The mud has been the home of three- to five-hundred thousand music fans for the past three days, but most of them have drifted back to their lives. Thirty thousand remain to watch bassist Billy Cox, rhythm guitarist Larry Lee, drummer Mitch Mitchell, percussionist Juma Sultan, and lead guitarist Jimi Hendrix take the stage. Gypsy Sun and Rainbows is the last act performing at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. It would be the band's first and only public appearance.

Mitchell gives his bass drum a few trial kicks. Aside from that, the band leaves Hendrix alone with his angel-white Stratocaster. Sultan looks like a bird, perched over his congas in his shiny copper shirt. He stares down at the stage as if he knows his role. The crowd isn't there to appreciate his percussion skills. They've come for the man wearing the white hippie rug-shirt with blue beads and long fringes; the red bandana wrapped tightly around his modest afro; the jade pendant, outlined in gold, dangling from his throat; the gold bracelet sticking confidently to his chord-forming hand; two fat gold rings adorning two immortal hands that slither through the intro to "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)".

The bodies frown or stare blankly. They've heard this before. Hendrix improvises a bit, but the drug-laden three-day battle of survival has pummeled the crowd into a jaded state. The only way to break the trance is to energize and electrify.

The classic riff becomes quiet, almost hesitant. Hendrix abandons it halfway through the fourth repetition. He moves to the highest string and pierces through the lethargy with a D note that instantly bends up to E. He spits out a blast of high notes and winds his way down the pentatonic scale. Smiles form in the audience. He has them now. For a few beats, the notes dip away entirely and the remaining timbre sounds submerged in water. This feeling seems to transfer to the crowd, as if they're all underwater with the sound. Something's about to happen.

This watery sound is the work of the Uni-Vibe, a guitar pedal effect. Roger Mayer initially designed it for electronic organs to replicate the chorus-like rotary speaker effect found in more expensive organs. However, two years earlier, the effects guru developed a sort of collaboration with Hendrix that exposed the guitarist to new sonic terrain. Now, Mayer's electronics help form the guts of Hendrix's signature sound.

Two weeks after Mayer met Hendrix, they were at work in the studio. Hendrix was putting together his immortal piece "Purple Haze," using Mayer's baby, a secret weapon called the Octavia. Mayer was helping him create new sounds with the device. True to its name, this guitar pedal was designed to double a guitar part with an octave-higher harmony. It's not as ordinary as it sounds, though, especially in Hendrix's hands. He hooked the pedal up to some grimy fuzz distortion, and the circuits joined to form a writhing beast. It screeched and howled at the subtleties and harmonic overtones of his guitar. Between each measure of the "Purple Haze" riff, Hendrix pounded a note and slid it down the fretboard. The Octavia altered the tone into a zipping UFO squelch.

Hendrix connected with Mayer because they were both pioneers in sound. He even invited Mayer to tour with him. Perhaps Hendrix wanted as much support as he could get, as he tends to be self-critical: he will later insist that his set at Woodstock was sub-par. But now, standing before the pit of fans divided between those too hardcore to defect and the rest too stoned to move, Hendrix has the added confidence of his friend's Octavia and Uni-Vibe at his feet. He's ready to ride "the waves of music and/ Space," as he would later write in his poem about Woodstock, "500,000 Halos."

The guitar only dips into Mayer's electronic water for a second. In that second, Hendrix raises the white axe above his head, as if he's about to chop off an invisible head. Finally, he whips the guitar back down, bringing with him a cascading wall of ever-ascending distorted chords. His audience erupts with applause as his hand creeps up the fretboard. Mitchell's also going crazy on the drums, but he might as well be pounding on the kick drum. Hendrix owns this field of mud.

Single notes start to materialize through the fuzzy insanity. Mammoth church-bell feedback rings out into the crowd. Hendrix uses the guitar's whammy bar to give the notes a fierce vibrato, stretching the pitch into a bow-wow-wow-wow freak-out. It's as if Hendrix is holding the sound itself in his hands, not just the instrument of its inception.

With his fuzz-drenched, Octavia tone, Hendrix plays the first notes to "The Star-Spangled Banner." He looks up in Mitchell's direction and smiles. The man is playing his heart out with snare rolls and crashes. He's providing the energy, and Hendrix is providing the electricity. The crowd is awake.

Hendrix strikes the notes with conviction, playing each one for as long as he deems necessary. He disassembles the structure of the song, reforms it with the blues scale, and accentuates certain parts to claim the music as his own. The notes he holds are bent, restruck, twiddled between fingers, anything to get across the emotion. He winces, grimaces, as if feeling a painful, passionate connection with his axe. Groove-oriented bassist Billy Cox remains silent, musically left behind. How do you form a groove when Hendrix is ripping the fuck out of every semblance of rhythm and song structure?

As Hendrix plays the notes for "our flag was still there," he looks directly into one of the cameras filming the event with a serious, knowing expression. After he plays "the rockets' red glare," he breaks away from the melody. He pulls the guitar back into his body and makes an anguished face, as though he just got shot. Meanwhile, his fingers emulate a dropping bomb: a high note gradually falls into a mess of low-note Octavia explosions. The notes whip, heave, dive-bomb. It's unclear which sounds are coming from the effects and which from his fingers. It doesn't matter anymore.

Hendrix hits a few high notes, mouthing "Ohhh" every time, with that same look of anguish. Every note seems to get higher and pierce deeper, although the actual pitch may stay the same. He follows that with a flurry of percussion-like picking that crunches like a machine-gun blast. Then, without touching the guitar again with his pick, he slams his right hand on the fretboard for one more explosion before commencing with another series of bombs falling. This set freaks out more than the first though, with the effects providing a surreal, outer-space sheen and texture and the whammy bar being horrendously abused. It's a small miracle the strings don't break. After a few more high bends, Hendrix slams back into the tune. He plays a few notes calmly, then switches some amplifier settings and dives into a quick rendition of "Taps." He finishes the anthem with a flurry of string-bending and sustained notes, then slides the guitar against the mic stand and explodes right into "Purple Haze," his own anthem of sorts.

It's unclear whether Hendrix's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a flag salute or an obscene anti-war gesture, but most of these listeners clearly prefer the latter interpretation. By cutting into the anthem with Taps, Hendrix seems to honor troops killed in Vietnam while ripping apart the country they served. Perhaps it is just the war in general, or the specific aspect that black GIs, who make up only 2% of the officers but have been assigned 28% of the combat missions. Hendrix stood for peace but against communism, so his position on the Vietnam War remains debatable: in a recent Charles Cross biography, it's said that he joined the army to avoid jail time for car theft but left prematurely to pursue music. However, when he smashes the national anthem's notes apart, it’s hard not to relate the action to burning the flag, as writer Allan F. Moore suggests. Perhaps it’s simply his dramatic gesture in a finale to an awe-inspiring set, political or otherwise.

Hendrix had enlisted to be a part of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, but he was honorably discharged after feigning homosexuality (again according the Cross biography). He doesn't need a gun or a plane; he lets the guitar do the screaming for him. But as Hendrix makes clear in "500,000 Halos," his ultimate message is one of peace to come: "Hand in hand as we lived and/ Made real the dreams of peaceful men--"

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