Mojo

Jimi Hendrix Shows His Roots

Released this week, West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology is a revelation, a classy box set with 4 CDs and a DVD documentary that chronologically details the short but unparalleled career of the greatest electric guitarist of all time. (CD1 contains Jimi's sideman recordings with various soul artists.) MOJO spoke to engineer Eddie Kramer, who co-produced the new set with Janie Hendrix and John McDermott, by phone from his Los Angeles home. He's an erudite man who began working with Hendrix in February 1967 on his first album Are You Experienced? and remained his sonic co-conspirator until Hendrix's death in 1970. We also discussed Jimi's work habits, the future that never happened, the commercial success of the "new" Hendrix album Valleys Of Neptune and briefly touched on the mythic Black Gold tape that some fans speak reverently of - though few have heard.

 

MOJO: A previous box set, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, came out in 2000. Why another one?

Eddie Kramer: The "purple box" was the first one and was excellent and still stands up. But from that time till now, there was quite a lot going on, not only in the music industry but certainly with the Experience Hendrix family and myself and my engineering and the way I approach things. We were fortunate that this year we were able to put out the Valleys Of Neptune compilation that did incredibly well. And in the process of putting that together we'd be mining the vaults and we would always find stuff and say, "Ya know, let's put this aside." Also, I think the chronological order [of the new box] really emphasizes Jimi's growth as a guitar player. From the start, when he was struggling to get his sound heard within the strictness of the R&B sessions to the times when he just breaks through and becomes this freewheeling spirit all the way to the very end. I think we've tracked it in a very easy-to-understand way.

40 years after his death, Jimi never sounds dated, always sounds fresh.

That is exactly the reaction we got from Valleys of Neptune. People were saying, "Wow, it sounds like it could've been recorded yesterday." It reflects upon a) the musician and the genius of Jimi Hendrix and b) hopefully I've been able to add something from an interpretive point of view with all the modern weapons of technology that I have at my disposal now, the best of analogue and digital. I'm able to dig in rather deeply into the sonics of Jimi and enhance, improve and focus the clarity of what he was playing and what the rhythm section was doing. With that experience behind us, the same principles were applied to West Coast Seattle Boy. Jimi's music has always sounded fresh to each successive generation, young kids who are coming up. Who are they gonna to go to? If you're 12 or 13, picking up a guitar, listening to guitar players, you go, I think this Hendrix guy would be the one I go to [laughs].

Let's talk about Jimi's work habits. He was legendary for doing an extraordinary number of takes.

I don't think it was extraordinary. Any great musician, I don't care whether it's Hendrix or Clapton or Zeppelin or the Stones, you're gonna find those days or evenings or mornings [laughs], where it's just not coming together and it will take all night and 40 takes. But then there'll be some nights where you can nail it in two takes. "Voodoo Chile's" a classic example. That was done in one rehearsal, one take essentially.

Was Jimi a perfectionist?

Yes, he was a perfectionist, but why was he such a perfectionist? There were many reasons and the first one would be the discipline that was given to him at an early age. His father was pretty strict. Although Al Hendrix, who I knew for a good many years, was a sweetheart of a guy, I guess he was pretty tough on Jimi in the beginning. Then he gets into the army and you couldn't ask for more discipline than that, being a paratrooper. He comes out of the army and goes straight into the next level of discipline where he's on the Chitlin' Circuit and part of a band and you've got to perform as if you're part of a team. In those days, when he was playing for Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, they wouldn't give an inch. If you move a certain way out of sync with the band, you're gonna get fined five dollars - in the early '60s a lot of bloody money to a starving musician. [Then] he comes to London with Chas Chandler, a disciplinarian of a different kind. Chas comes from the pop world where you have exactly three hours in which to get the damn song down on tape and we better get it right - and we'd get two, three songs in the three hours. So when it came time for the first recording sessions, Jimi had to knuckle down and - instead of a 24-bar solo - he'd have to figure out how to make that solo in a pristine 8-bar sequence. There in essence is the guy who would - as sales of the records increased and he's got more time in the studio - [take] more time to make sure the tracks were perfect in his mind. You can make the same assumption about any artist worth his salt - Picasso, Vermeer. They're never satisfied with the end product.

On the box, there are the hotel/apartment tapes. Even when Jimi is alone with his guitar and he's demoing, his playing is orchestral, as if he's working out the arrangement before the proper recording.

This is part of this whole work ethic that we're talking about. We mentioned "Voodoo Chile" earlier on. On the surface it would seem it's a jam. Yes, it is a jam. However it's a jam that is incredibly well prepared. It's something Jimi's been thinking about for weeks on end, putting it all together, making his demos, going to The Scene club around the corner from the studio and picking through the musicians. The guys who are going to be playing and jamming with him on stage, he'll make the notes in his head about who's the cool guy on organ and cool guy on bass. He had his pick of some of the greats: Steve Winwood, Jack Casady. He marches them round to the studio at one o'clock in the morning, we're ready. Everything's prepped, they plug in, rehearse one time, one take, goodnight. But it took weeks of mental and physical preparation by Jimi and this is the same thing you're hearing in the hotel/apartment tapes. It's Jimi preparing for Electric Ladyland and this is the homework. He was always prepared.

The track "Messenger" blows my mind. It feels like an indication of where Jimi was heading had he not passed away.

That's part of it, it's not the whole story. It's an indicator of a direction. Jimi was on a path that had reached an intersection and at that intersection was horns, extra percussion, strings, woodwinds. I could see him doing a big score at some point. He was getting a little funkier but that was just a temporary thing. When you look at the end of '69, going into '70, the Cry Of Love album, which shows all of the signs of what's going to happen potentially in the future. That's the key right there.

Much has been made of the Black Gold tape by Hendrix aficionados.

Oy vay. It's not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What's more important is what's coming up in the future. There's a whole bunch of stuff that we've been working on for the last few years that's gonna come out next year. All I can tell you is that it's pretty damn cool stuff. I will say there's a movie - some moving images - some concert footage.

And you can't say any more?

Nope! [laughs]

 

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