In January of 1968, I drove from Chicago to New York to see my girlfriend. I was enrolled at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and she was working on a degree at Hofstra on Long Island. I had little idea what I was doing in Chicago except hoping to avoid getting drafted and shipped off to Vietnam.
I was accompanied by an angelic underclassman whom I called “Little David.” He looked like Sal Mineo fresh out of “Rebel Without a Cause.” He had a friend at Oberlin College, and we stopped there around 10 PM.
My ride was a Navy blue 1966 Ford Fairlane. It was a monster. Its trunk would have accommodated five dead bodies if it were owned by Tony Soprano. My friends kidded me that it was a used cop car when I bought it. Maybe they were right.
We hit the Pennsylvania Turnpike just outside of Hubbard, Ohio around midnight and picked up a New York AM radio station via the facilitation of ionosphere-created skywave. It was faint at first, but soon it became clear that the station had just gotten hold of a radically incendiary album called “Are You Experienced” by an artist I’d never heard of, Jimi Hendrix.
It was immediately clear to me – and I mean from the first note – that this album and the artist behind it were going to be in my life forever and that he would have a great impact on me. The deejay on the station must have been as excited about the album as I was because he played it nonstop till we crossed the Holland Tunnel and entered NYC at Canal Street at around 6 AM.
Little David got out and, although I never saw him again, I’ve never forgotten him. We shared a magical mystery ride together and met one of the pathways to the future of the rock ‘n’ roll music that was being created in that period.
The Flash, my car, wasn’t really a wonderful automobile. It was overheated from the long ride. This had happened before, and I needed to wait around for a couple of hours before I could drive it again.
Fortunately, it died right across the street from a record store, and I absolutely could not wait to get in there and buy the album, which I still have with me.
To my way of thinking, Hendrix with the Experience opened a phenomenally psychedelic vista, a portal through which many have tried to walk through.
I read Charles Cross’ biography of Jimi, Room Full of Mirrors. Talk about living the blues! Abandoned by his mother essentially at birth, beaten and harassed repeatedly by his crazy father, living in abject poverty, ripped off by unscrupulous producers, and constantly assaulted by the needs of needy and/or manipulative people, it is painful to know that such a great talent had to live with a torrent of demons.
I have a tee shirt displaying Hendrix’s image and emblazoned with the words “Voodoo Child” on the front. This is probably his most famous recording. Camille Paglia sums up a popular impression of Hendrix in her comment on the song, in which she describes him as a shaman:
In “Voodoo Child,” Jimi Hendrix aspires with drug-induced titanism: “I stand up next to a mountain, and I chop it down with the edge of my hand.” Shamanistic peaking is aggressive and self-destructive.
Unlike Paglia’s belief that Hendrix owes his impact to drugs, my view is that Hendrix was and remains a profoundly charismatic leader, which makes him and his energy important to me in considering the dynamics of the Anthropocene.
The Experience’s Electric Lady Land double album included two versions of “Voodoo Chile,” the extended version, which runs for about 15 minutes, and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” which runs for about 5 minutes. “Slight Return” is played more frequently because it’s shorter, and one could argue that a couple of the solos in the longer version feel as though the band got lost.
But for me, the opening 45 seconds of "Voodoo Chile" establish Hendrix’s authority immediately and unquestionably. One knows that it is definitely time to pay attention, that a master is standing in front of one’s concentration, and that it is a moment to erase all distractions to listen and take in an undeniable communication.
Hendrix (and quite a few other artists, musicians, writers, and politicians) was a powerful rhetorician who spoke a transformative language through his guitar, his singing, and his lyrics. He was a commanding figure who communicated and still communicates with millions of people either looking for direction or for affirmation and insight regarding a direction they were already embarked upon. He demanded and got respect.
The Anthropocene is an era in which many - perhaps most of us - are confused, adrift, and lost. We are all drinking information from multiple fire hoses simultaneously, even if we don’t want to. It is a time when hucksters and freedom peddlers of multiple varieties are fleecing good people out of a lot of money by promising that they have answers for questions that can hardly be posed, let alone resolved. We are grasping at straws and there are many fakirs who have gone into the straw-making business.
...there are rare people like Hendrix who will be imperfect humans, but who possess a real truth in spite of their limitations...
But then there are rare people like Hendrix who will be imperfect humans, but who possess a real truth in spite of their limitations, a truth one can hear in those first 45 seconds of “Voodoo Chile*.”
Such mythic figures are important in the Anthropocene and will continue to become even more so as this epoch unfolds.
Hendrix’s technological wizardry was one of the keys to his lasting influence. Around 1966 he went from being a strong blues guitarist to expressing psychedelia through his instrument. His playing created synesthesia, combining senses that are typically isolated and, therefore, inventing an intelligence that few have ever known. He saw as he played and so did we see as we listened.
Masters of technology who live poetically and speak from their hearts will make this 'Cene. They exert a magnetic force.
Cross and others noted that Hendrix always carried The Book of Urantia and The Bob Dylan Song Book with him wherever he traveled. Urantia, not so much.
* "Voodoo Chile" is a 15-minute improvised structured jam recorded at the Record Plant in New York City by Hendrix, Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, organist Steve Winwood, and bassist Jack Casady. (Songfacts.com)