The dark heart of 1960s flower power was Vietnam. The anti-war struggle changed pop-culture into counterculture and there was no more striking embodiment of that shift than Jimi Hendrix.
Where my previous post showed the gentle side of Jimi, below are two clips from my unused archive which reveal the underlying pain and anger – his crash-and-burn pyrotechnics that spoke more vividly than words ever could of the intense horror and violence of modern industrialised warfare. His towering achievement was to place all this sonic dissonance alongside moments of melodious – even transcendent – beauty and thereby attain, to my ears, a profounder poignancy.
Easy listening it ain’t and there will always be a few who find incorporating the sounds of conflict and civil strife within a national anthem disrespectful. But one would hope there are many more who understand that freedom of expression is a basic right and recognise the bold artistry and brave sincerity on show here. It was, after all, public opinion that brought an end to the war.
Between the clips is the best description of Jimi’s playing technique I’ve ever read. If anything this increases my appreciation of what I’m hearing. How astonishing to venture so close to the edge of chaos and come back with so much order!
Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man …
Marshalls weren’t just louder than anything that had come before, they were also more sensitive; their preamps sucked up more of the sound of the guitar’s pick-ups than Fenders or Voxes. For Hendrix, this meant that the guitar was, literally, ‘alive’ all over; he could produce sounds by lightly tapping the instrument’s neck or body (or, of course, by banging them as hard as he could), generating his unique onomatopoeic guitar language without playing an actual note. At high volumes, the impacts would jar the guitar into feedback (the sound of the amplifier’s speakers reintroduced into the pick-ups, instantly transformed into a hum or a scream), creating tones which sounded more like a synthesizer than a guitar. The resulting pitch could then be raised or lowered with the tremolo, giving Hendrix access to sounds unobtainable by anybody else before the introduction of affordable synthesizer technology …
… Habitually, Hendrix would run his Marshalls with all tone and volume controls turned full up to 10, adjusting the levels directly from the guitar. From years of experience, he would be able to position his body and his guitar relative to the amplifier’s speaker cabinets so that the resulting feedback would modulate to the precise tone he wanted: a high harmonic, a low fundamental or a tone transitional between the two. For crash-and- burn extravaganzas like the climax of ‘Machine Gun’ [above] or the intro to the Monterey version of ‘Wild Thing’ [click link to see this], he would summon up a raw explosion of sound by clouting the guitar, ‘select’ the required frequency by moving back and forth until it emerged from the mêlée, move it up or down by raising or lowering the tremolo arm, and ‘interrupt’ it or make it ‘flutter’ by interposing his body between the guitar’s pick-ups and the amplifier’s speakers. When he wanted to return to conventional playing, he could do so by turning the guitar’s volume down to manageable levels, and then moving out of feedback range.
from ‘Crosstown Traffic’ by Charles Shaar Murray