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Jimi Hendrix is Reborn Again

John Ridley's Hendrix biopic, All Is by My Side, starring dead ringer and Outkast member André Benjamin as Jimi (but without any of Jimi's actual music), premiered last month at the Toronto Film Festival (to mixed reviews). On Nov. 5, Bloomsbury publishes Starting At Zero: His Own Story, a collection of Hendrix's own lyrics and writings — on hotel stationary, cigarette packs and beer mats — stitched together with interviews and lyrics. That same day, Experience Hendrix, Jimi's official estate, unleashes their own double-dose: American Masters: Jimi Hendrix — Hear My Train A Comin', a PBS documentary (beefed up with extras for the DVD), and Miami Pop Festival, a CD and double 12" vinyl release marking the first time the Experience's 1968 performance hits the non-bootleg market.

That's a heap of new Hendrix to absorb, but we're used to it by now. Since his early exit at age 27 in the fall of 1970, we've been bombarded with wave after wave of Hendrix reissues, compilations, documentaries and written biographies, the detritus of a criminally short, remarkably productive life repurposed on LPs, cassettes, VHS tapes, DVDs, Blu-Rays, box sets, probably even flash drives. You can browse through Hendrix iPhone apps, guitar pedals and virtual modelers sampling his trademark tones and Tumblrs (there's a fuckyeahjimihendrix and a fuckyeahjohnnyallenhendrix). Jimi told us he'd see us again in the next world, but he hasn't fully left this one.

We can't all be Hendrix specialists, and that's where Hear My Train comes in handy, as a sort all-encompassing Jimi-primer, aimed at a high-school audience and above. There's surprisingly little mention of his copious drug use, and not even a cursory explanation of how the psychedelic experience factored into Hendrix's sound-world and far-out word-paintings. The film gathers together well-worn clips of a near-dream-state Hendrix with more recent interviews of later-deceased bandmates and associates: Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell, manager and ex-Animals bassist Chas Chandler and Buddy Miles. Newish interviews with Steve Winwood, Paul McCartney, bassist Billy Cox, Dweezil Zappa, Billy Gibbons, Dave Mason, Vernon Reid and others are shoe-horned in throughout the film, but it's tough to suss out their provenance: Are these old or new conversations? It's sometimes hard to tell.

From the beginning, the film adopts a somber tone, with photographs from Jimi's Seattle childhood, as well as his later reunion with his father, Al Hendrix, during a 1968 tour stop, interspersed with footage of darkly-lit clubs and confined dressing rooms. Hendrix's onstage flamboyance, we learn, seldom translated into off-stage confidence. "I think like a lot of artists, he would be unsure of his own worth," Paul McCartney says. "You never got the feeling that this was someone who was going to show off, until he got on stage." The film's big contribution is what we learn from former girlfriends Linda Keith, Fayne Pridgon and fashion maven Colette Mimram about the musician's quieter moments. Keith, who discovered Hendrix at Greenwich Village haunt Cafe Wha? in 1966 and later introduced him to Chandler, says, "I definitely had the impression that [Hendrix] had desires where he wanted to take his music but wasn't capable of actually putting those steps together to attain that… He needed to be looked after." (She also delivers the documentary's most memorable tidbit, when she describes his two areas of expertise: his guitar-playing and his "immaculate and intense sexuality.") Pridgon, who knew Hendrix in the early 1960s and has since spoken to cameras about him on numerous occasions, recalls the musician's reliance on his guitar in social situations: "He was so painfully shy... every time we went out in Harlem, he had that guitar with him the whole time." His demeanor, it seems, was more self-assured around other men. Chandler finally outs Hendrix as an in-studio prankster and cut-up. Paul Caruso, meanwhile, a friend and musician who gets name-checked on "EXP," the quasi-futuristic intro to the Axis: Bold as Love album, suggests Hendrix was more calculating than he's given credit for. "He definitely wanted to look as original as his music was," he says.

Biographical details are balanced out by discussions of Hendrix's recorded output, which was superb and futuristic. Are You Experienced?, maybe rock history's greatest debut recording, was released in America only a month after Hendrix's impactful live stateside debut: his famous guitar-torching performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, captured on film by D.A. Pennebaker. "Cleverly, [Hendrix] made the connection with the English rock and the way English people were interpreting blues," says Steve Winwood. "That was the genius of it." Guitar sounds and feedback effects appearing on that first record, some of which now sound like well-traveled territory, broke new ground. "We tried anything and everything to make the sounds different, because we could," Hendrix's recording engineer Eddie Kramer says. "We were given that freedom to do that, and I think the album represents that."

Not surprising, given the two-prong marketing of the documentary and CD, is the emphasis on the Miami Pop Festival, which took place in May 1968, just as Hendrix was becoming the biggest concert draw in the country. "His arrival was kind of interesting," says Miami Pop Festival arranger Michael Lang (who would later co-organize Woodstock). "We were waiting for him to show up, and he wasn't showing up." Cars Lang sent weren't successful in reaching Hendrix, so he sent a helicopter. "Somebody had slipped him some STP on his way over," Lang remembers. "So they were blasted, but played an unbelievable set. They literally took off like a rocket." It's left to Kramer to deliver the segment's best nugget: Hendrix never played the second gig planned for Sunday because of rain. On the limo ride out of town, Kramer remembers, Hendrix got out a pad and wrote, "Rainy Day, Dream Away" on a pad of paper. (That became a song on his next album, Electric Ladyland.)

While Hear My Train turns Hendrix's four short years of fame into a two-hour gloss, Miami Pop Festival presents an audio slice in time, less than a year after he exploded on Monterey. Most live Experience recordings sound monochromatic — physicality was central to Hendrix's virtuosity, and we need the visuals — though this one, perhaps because it was recorded by Kramer himself on May 18, 1968, is slightly better. Still, Miami Pop captures a road-tested power trio who were willing to toss in an instrumental jam, "Tax Free," among jammed-out hits like "Hey Joe," "Foxey Lady" and "Purple Haze." ("You had time to stretch, and that was the fashion then," as McCartney states in the film.) Though not as compelling as the studio recordings, we glimpse Hendrix's melodic inventiveness and Mitchell's dynamic, polyrhythmic pot-stirring on Miami Pop. But it falls flat next to surviving audio/visual footage of Monterey Pop, Woodstock, the Isle of Wight and other landmark performances.

Hendrix's post-Electric Ladyland period up until his death is the one that still leaves us scratching our experienced heads. First Rays of the New Rising Sun was culled posthumously from his final recordings at his custom-built studio, Electric Lady. (Most of the tracks were released over the years in various forms, with the "official" release finally arriving in 1997.) We'll never know what might have been, and that's part of the fascination. "He was probably the biggest thing in rock and roll at that time, and rock and roll was the biggest thing in music," says record exec Bob Merlis in Hear My Train. "He was at the top of the ladder." Like many of his contemporaries, Hendrix wanted to spend more time in the studio toward the end of his life, and that ultimately caused a rift with Redding and Chandler, both of whom left the fold. The footage of Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock in August of 1969 still stands as one of the defining statements of the era — "He essentially re-scored the National Anthem," as Vernon Reid says in the film — and his genius was great enough to pull it off. Even if we've seen and heard it all before, we're still moved. It's the peak of the Hear My Train; everything that follows, you sense, will be a come-down, and it is. But life after Hendrix can only be a come-down.


American Masters: Jimi Hendrix — Hear My Train A Comin'
Nov. 5, 9 p.m. on PBS

Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival
in stores on Nov. 5.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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