That Time When Hendrix’s New Album was a Soundtrack and an Epitaph
Jimi Hendrix – “Rainbow Bridge” soundtrack (Reprise – 1971)
by A. Scott Galloway (Special to RFFocus )
When Blues Rock guitar master Jimi Hendrix perished in Kensington, London on September 18, 1970 – at a mere 27 years of age – he had been chiseling away on a double album to be titled First Rays of the New Rising Sun…a double album to follow the double album Electric Ladyland he had released in October 1969. The difference was that Electric Ladyland marked the end of the group via which he slingshot into rock consciousness, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. That band was revolutionary as an interracial power trio featuring two White Englishmen – Noel Redding on electric bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums – being led by Black American wunderkind Jimi Hendrix from Seattle who was rewriting the vocabulary of what could be done and said on an electric guitar. Visually and sonically, the trio comprised a combination that thrilled and titillated the music world as much as it upset it and threw it off its intended axis of White supremacy.
Jimi Hendrix was a boundlessly curious soul, ever-evolving and constantly creating. His meteoric rise to international superstardom was first and foremost due to his astounding mastery of the guitar – years spent with one in his hands – played upside down/left-handed – as he not only learned to play it but play it with flash, showmanship and sex appeal. A lot of musicians and music lovers came out to get their minds blown by his electrifying manner of covering the songs of others as well as his own trippy compositions. But there were also a lot of audiences coming just to trip off the psychedelia of his sound, big hit records like “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady,” and sideshow tricks such as playing with his teeth, behind his back and lighting his ax on fire in a voodoo like ceremony of sacrifice. Hendrix had come up on the chitlin circuit playing with R&B bands and crossing paths with everyone from Wilson Pickett to The Isley Brothers who he played with off and on. He understood the value of a good show. But he was tired of feeling like a sideshow himself. He had serious new music and messages on his mind to share, and it was pouring out of him at an astounding rate in between the hot girlfriends, the partying and the incessant touring. Jimi also had many of the world’s finest musicians lining up for opportunities to jam, record and/or create with him including drummer extraordinaire Tony Williams and jazz legend Miles Davis.
Before Jimi died, he was not only writing and demoing songs, he was doing them in a studio of his own design and investment to be called Electric Lady – a sexy space for music creatives looking to make their records in a sacred hip space that was also state of the art and that catered to the needs and lifestyles of rock royalty. Toward the end as the studio was nearing completion, it was truly the only place Jimi really wanted to be…but obligations awaited in the form of concert engagements, contracts and lawsuits…this at a time when anything Jimi so much as plugged in on was finding its way into the just burgeoning market of bootleg vinyl and cassettes.
In the haze of his final days, Jimi Hendrix was trying desperately to complete some music to the satisfaction of how he heard it in his head. Sadly, when he died, much of it was not in completed form. To Jimi’s rescue came his engineer of choice, Eddie Kramer, and some of the last musicians he recorded and jammed with in attempts to see his visions through.
The first rush-released posthumous LP of Jimi Hendrix arrived in 1971 titled The Cry of Love, released by his American company Reprise Records (a division of Warner Bros.) and featuring 10 studio recordings, all of which had been intended by Jimi for his proposed First Rays of the New Rising Sun double LP. Many of these songs went on to become Hendrix classics: “Freedom,” “Ezy Rider,” “In From The Storm” and “Angel,” plus the serene “Drifting” and the novel “Belly Button Window” (about a baby questioning whether he actually wants to come out of his mother’s womb into the world he’s spying from inside her belly).
Kramer and company did the best they could under the circumstances back then manipulating raw analog tape in the finest studio environment they could muster. This was decades before endless multi-tracks, digital manipulation and any number of other studio manipulators had been created which make that work much faster and easier. In the end, though the album was gobbled up by a sad and starving fan base clamoring for anything by Jimi that the industry had to offer, The Cry of Love was still, at best, a mixed bag. They would get the recipe a lot more right for the second official posthumous Hendrix album…if only the way it was marketed had been different.
That album became known as Rainbow Bridge, brought to market as the “soundtrack” for a strange documentary about a convergence of counterculture figureheads meeting on the Hawaiian island of Maui to put their heads together about how best to help people get their heads together. Overlong and often preposterous, the documentary was supposed to be saved by the inclusion of on location Jimi Hendrix concert footage with hopes of recapturing the massive audience that thrilled to his history-making performance in the concert documentary “Woodstock.” Unfortunately, the concert Jimi did on the island was to a paltry number of people and did not inspire one of his finer shows. Still, because Hendrix’s manager Michael Jefferey had cut a deal to prominently feature his client and his music as part of this celluloid disaster, Jimi Hendrix music had been dubiously promised to the production. After Jimi’s death, that meant some previously unreleased masters from the vault had to be coughed up.
Though this was a horrific scenario in which to be compiling an album of precious Jimi Hendrix music, it set the stage for Kramer and company to piece together what was ultimately a highly cohesive and variety-filled affair – eight songs with not one ounce of filler including one live recording (NOT from Hawaii) for the ages. Best of all, it was a highly soulful collection that showcased just how strongly Jimi had been determined to reconnect with his R&B roots with the dissolving of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and his more recent experiments with the all-black power trio Band of Gypsys and more expanded studio assemblages.
That is evidenced off the bat with the opening number “Dolly Dagger,” a sexy and phantasmagorical homage to Jimi’s Black girlfriend Devon Wilson, a foxy woman Jimi depicted as a good-good witch with hypersexual and dominatrix tendencies. She’s directly name-checked near song’s end! The power trio formatted electric blues-rock is augmented by the congas and percussion of Juma Sultan and male background vocals by brothers Arthur & Albert Allen, a.k.a. The Ghetto Fighters, singing on the outro vamp, “Dolly / Heavy Mama / Get it on, Get it on, Get it on!”
Along the same lines groove wise is the equally soulful “Earth Blues” featuring backing vocals by none other than The Ronettes and Buddy Miles.
The next track, “Pali Gap,” is a laidback exotic blues instrumental inspired by a mythical place Jimi retreated to in his mind based on a coastal cavern…further reflecting his desire to just be in natural spaces that inspired his creative muses.
The track features multiple overdubbed guitar parts, all played by Hendrix, lending the piece an otherworldly vibe.
“Roomful of Mirrors” is arguably one of the greatest songs Jimi Hendrix ever wrote, if certainly the most optimistic and liberating. The lyrics speak of him wrestling with demons and a nagging narcissism that he ultimately overcomes in a blast of righteous fury. The opening verse reads, “I used to live in a room full of mirrors / Where all I could see was me / Well I took my spirit and I crashed my mirrors / Now the whole world is there for me to see.”
That declaration of independence – following a “slight return” of Buddy Miles’ pounding drums played backwards under celestial guitar sounds that is out of this world – leads symbolically into a studio tour de force of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the anthem he had already turned completely upside down in his now legendary set at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in Upstate New York (gloriously documented for the “Woodstock” film that bottled it for the world to witness again and again. Where the live version was brilliant as Jimi played the song utilizing feedback and distortion to simulate the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air, this studio take is a mini-symphony of overdubbed guitars. Some critics dismissed it as overboiled, preferring the spontaneously combusted concert version, but it reveals the lengths to which Hendrix and Kramer were utilizing the mixing board as an instrument unto itself.
Side 2 of Rainbow Bridge kicks off with “Look Over Yonder,” the one song that is a left over from the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Jimi, Noel and Mitch). This writer currently reflects upon this chugging rocker as what Jimi, if he was still here, might pull out of his sack to hurl at America’s sitting president.
Lord knows we don’t need a devil like him beating us around
Well, he’s knocking on my door
How my house is tumbling down
Now don’t you come no closer
The path is keeping me bolder
Wait by my door
Unless you want to start another war
The piece de resistance of Rainbow Bridge is an 11-minute live version of the darkly prophetic masterpiece “Hear My Train a Comin’,” taken from a May 1970 concert at the Berkeley Community Theater, NOT the Rainbow Bridge concert. A 5-star rendering through and through, Jimi lights into this blues with an all-knowing spirit and an all-seeing third eye over Mitch Mitchells rolling drums and Billy Cox’s firmly planted bass that places it squarely in the Top 5 must hear Hendrix performances of all time.
Rainbow Bridge closes with “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun),” visions of a Utopian future in a blissful place with an exquisite soulmate. Perhaps Jimi found his Pali Gap on the other side…
Jimi Hendrix created and achieved unprecedented amounts and levels of lasting music and art in his all too brief lifetime. Though compiled under compromising circumstances, the too-often overlooked Rainbow Bridge nevertheless stands triumphant as the soul album that sets his spirit free.
A. Scott Galloway
December 7, 2017
[The writer dedicates this essay to Jimi Hendrix on the occasion of what would have been his 75th birthday, November 27, 2017, and to the memory of French pop star/actor Johnny Hallyday who died December 6, 2017 (age 74), for whom The Jimi Hendrix Experience performed their first gigs opening his concerts in 1966.]