Mitch Mitchell, who passed away yesterday at age 62, was one of those in the latter category. True, the Jimi Hendrix Experience bandmember never got the kind of props that were afforded the likes of fellow British rockers such as Cream's Ginger Baker or the Who's Keith Moon during their shared late 1960s heyday. But that was largely due to the fact that, unlike those higher-profiled performers, Mitch Mitchell's reputation rested not on any accompanying outsized personality that fit into the wildman image usually associated with the drummer's chair, but simply and solely on his skills as a musician. And as anyone who's ever heard Mitchell's work on any of the three Hendrix studio albums--Are You Experienced (1967), Axis: Bold As Love (1968) and Electric Ladyland (1969)--or seen footage of him with Hendrix in the landmark rock festival concert films Monterey Pop and Woodstock, those skills were prodigious indeed.
Mitch Mitchell's role in the Jimi Hendrix Experience was very much akin to that of a jazz drummer in that his duties often required him to move along with the rhythms of Hendrix's music as well continually propel it. While the jaw-dropping pyrotechnics of Hendrix's guitar playing and equally jaw-dropping flamboyance of his onstage antics often obscured it, the Hendrix trio, as psychedelic and outrageous as it might have been, was at its core an improvisational group that took most of its cues from the progressive and free jazz movements. As such, it fell to bass player Noel Redding to serve as the group's steadying anchor, and it fell to Mitchell to try and work over, under, around and across Hendrix's endlessly adventurous, endlessly probing sonic excursions. Which, of course, he did to maximum effect on such groundbreaking works as "Purple Haze," "Manic Depression," "If Six Was Nine," etc.
Still, for all the acid-dipped envelope-pushing that Hendrix did during his brief time in the limelight before his own untimely death at age 27 in 1970, it's always instructive to recall those instances when Hendrix turned to his roots in r'n'b through songs like "Fire" and "Crosstown Traffic," which leaned heavily towards rocking soul music--and on which, in the best soul traditions, the guitar god made sure to, as they used to say, "Give the drummer some." And it was on works like these that Mitch Mitchell revealed sides of his own masterful artistry that matched those of Hendrix himself.
I had the great good fortune to see the two play together--at (yes) much-fabled Woodstock in August of 1969, where, with the very notable exception of the skyrocketing, Vietnam War-informed rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," Jimi Hendrix played about as straight-laced and "normal" a set of music as he perhaps played during his entire career. Those familiar with Hendrix's biography know that he intended his festival-closing performance to unveil a new, more introspective self, with no flashy clothing and little flashy behind—the-back or teeth-picked instrumental antics. But with the festival backed up so much by its own sheer weight, by the time he played--not on Sunday night, but late morning on Monday--a good 90 per cent of the half-million of Woodstock Nation had already left.
Those of us who remained to see Hendrix that fateful day witnessed something we'd never forget: an incredibly talented, serious musician playing, finally, straight from the heart, with no distractions in the way. And right behind him, doing the same as he'd always done, was his remarkable drummer, Mitch Mitchell. That Mitchell died this week at the very end of a national tour paying tribute to the legacy of Jimi Hendrix's eternal music--music he was such a vital part of, and which he was playing right up to the end with both dignity and honor--seems altogether fitting. Somewhere, the midnight lamp is burning, and brightly so.