Jimi Hendrix’s mystery is something not quite capture-able as an iconographic or intellectual thing. Even knowing some of the details of his background — from his emergence on the chitlin circuit to his being shepherded to London by Chas Chandler — doesn’t explain the lightning the man conjured. The scant year and a half that Hendrix and his Experience released their three albums (May ’67-October ’68) encompassed a sea change in rock music that saw a full embrace of Dylan’s lyrical approach and of Hendrix’s instrumental creativity. It went beyond the firepower, to the belief, the true faith, in what the electric guitar could ultimately offer to rock and other music. Hendrix refracted his surroundings, adding to his electric soul and blues the emerging British fascination with distortion and eastern scales, and beamed them into the very brains of rock and jazz. Since September 18, 1970, his is a persistent ghost, THE example of a technically skilled player and writer who, as importantly, brought imagination and soul and heart to the act of making music.
Electric Ladyland is Hendrix’s great work, mid-wifed by hard-won artistic and financial independence. As double albums of that era tend to, it sprawls, spinning with ambition, noble failures, and grand successes. He’s using the studio as an instrument, stretching the ideas cycling through him. Some of his most radio-friendly hits appear on Electric Ladyland (“All Along the Watchtower,” “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” “Crosstown Traffic”). But buried in the middle, on side 3, is the album’s jewel and centerpiece, “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be),” a proto-prog epic on the art of walking away from the nonsense humanity inflicts upon itself, “not to die but to be reborn, away from the land so battered and torn.” The music is a wild, left-field, Bolero-paced march where Hendrix overlaps his guitars and basses like a string section, affecting oceanic waves and surf, with sympathetic playing by steadfast Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and flautist Chris Wood (on loan from Traffic). In it are sonic echoes from “Third Stone from the Sun” (from 1967’s Are You Experienced?) and thematically Hendrix continues to mine the problem of Earth-boundedness. Of being contained in a place that doesn’t seem to fit. And even as Hendrix’s music transcends and transports, his real and continued gift is the mirror he holds up to those of us listening.