Sometime in the mid-’70s, one of Rolling Stone’s waggish music critics began a review of one of the pastiche post-mortem recordings that surfaced in the decade after Jimi Hendrix’s death on September 18, 1970, with the words “Scrape, scrape.”
That lede was short form for the widely held belief that Reprise Records was scouring Hendrix’s unfinished tapes for anything they could release to squeeze a few more bucks from the doomed guitarist’s brief career. In those years, Hendrix’s estate was a shambles, fought over by a number of forces, and no one seemed to have a definitive handle on which pieces of music might further the dead man’s legacy. Albums like War Heroes contained studio discards and absolute goof-offs that no self-respecting artist, let alone a perfectionist like Hendrix, would’ve allowed out. Others, like a set of jams called Nine to the Universe, were quickly discontinued, never to reappear. Interesting live sets, like one recorded at Royal Albert Hall in February 1969, appeared as European imports but were never officially released in North America. At the nadir were two albums overseen by producer Alan Douglas, who took a handful of Hendrix guitar tracks and had studio musicians overdub new parts. After ten years or so of that, it seemed high time to let the man rest in peace.
Forty years later, new music flows once more from the Hendrix vaults, which seemed to have been swept clean, judging by some of those tracks that saw the light of day in the ’70s.
But the situation today couldn’t be more different than it was when Reprise and Douglas were running rampant. Hendrix’s stepsister Janie (the adopted daughter of Hendrix’s father’s second wife) long ago wrested control of the estate away from the warring factions on behalf of her stepfather -- renaming it Experience Hendrix -- and while some have winced at the way she has marketed her stepbrother’s image, there’s no doubt that his music is in far better hands now. Since 2009, Hendrix’s music has officially been marketed by Legacy Recordings, the catalog division of Sony Music (a subsidiary of Experience Hendrix, Dagger Records, handles archival recordings that are largely of interest to collectors). Not only has Legacy put some serious money into the packaging and distribution of Hendrix’s music, but it and Experience Hendrix have continued to work with South African engineer Eddie Kramer, who was at Hendrix’s side in the studio from 1966 onward. Kramer, who has also been behind the board for top-level artists like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, was responsible for making Hendrix’s vivid imagination reality in relatively unsophisticated studios, and can still work his magic with music that was sometimes hastily recorded. To a point.
The 13 tracks on Both Sides of the Sky cover a two-year period between January 1968 and February 1970, and include both working sessions by the Jimi Hendrix Experience (with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell) and the Band of Gypsys (featuring bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles), as well as jam sessions with friends like guitarists Stephen Stills and Johnny Winter. Sometimes a full studio crew was on hand; other times, presumably, the situation was more casual. Apparently, a sloppy version of “Things I Used to Do,” with Winter, Cox, and drummer Dallas Taylor, falls into the latter category. While it fulfills the guitar geek’s fantasy of hearing two of the six-string icons of the ’60s in the same studio, it’s ultimately unsatisfying, given the lack of empathy on display. Winter sounds like he’s on autopilot, and Hendrix is definitely not at his best.
The earliest recording sessions represented here show just how shortly after he found fame that Hendrix began to chafe against the Experience format and the hit-making machinery of his management, or at least how early it was when Redding began to disengage. On January 28, 1968, and again in May of that year, Hendrix was alone in the studio with Mitchell, working out new ideas that leaned away from the poppy riffs of “Fire” and “Foxy Lady.” “Sweet Angel” is a sketch of the song that would become “Angel,” released in 1971 on The Cry of Love. While the final version had the tenderness of “Little Wing,” this instrumental approach finds Mitchell in full Keith Moon / Elvin Jones mode and Hendrix using a tone that is more brutal than tender. “Cherokee Mist,” another theme the guitarist would return to, lacks the subtlety and melodic strength of his best work, but provides a view into the different guitar tones he was exploring as he moved out of the pop world into something more nuanced and improvisational.
The wheels really began to come off the Experience just weeks into 1969. Redding hated hanging around the studio while Hendrix created layer upon layer of guitar tracks, entertained friends, and explored ideas for what would become his masterpiece, Electric Ladyland. After a lackluster European tour and the tumultuous stand at the Royal Albert Hall, where Hendrix opened his stage to guests like Traffic reed player Chris Wood and guitarist Dave Mason, Redding was on his way out.
Back in the States, on April 9, 1969, the Experience cut the blues that Hendrix had begun to call “Hear My Train a Comin’.” An earlier version, recorded two days prior, was included on Valleys of Neptune, the first of the Experience Hendrix / Legacy projects. While the early version sounded like a rehearsal, with Hendrix seeming to lead his bandmates slowly through the piece, this take is more forceful and closer to what he would play onstage throughout the remainder of his career. Mitchell drives the song forward with some inventive fills, Redding anchors the beat with a simple bassline, and Hendrix is incendiary, rolling out one of his strongest blues solos on record. This is the Jimi we love: sly, funny, focused, and fierce. This could easily have been considered for inclusion on Electric Ladyland had it not been surpassed by tracks like “Voodoo Chile.”
Two weeks after the Experience’s last studio work, on April 22, Hendrix was working with Cox, who he had first played with in 1961 during his stint in the US Army, and Miles, who had known Hendrix since 1964. The chemistry between the three is immediately evident on the driving version of Muddy Waters’ signature “Mannish Boy.” They lock in on the propulsive rhythm -- although Cox rushes it a bit in places -- and Hendrix shows why he’s unapproachable as a guitarist who could combine rhythm and lead playing.
With the Experience in tatters, but fulfilling some contracted concerts on the burgeoning festival circuit, Hendrix spent the spring and summer of 1969 drifting through a series of one-off collaborations and jam sessions. When he was in New York City, he could be found either in the studio or at the Scene, a club owned by Winter’s manager, Steve Paul. After sitting in at the Scene, Hendrix would frequently head into the studio with guests in tow. On March 29, those guests included a 27-year-old saxophonist named Lonnie Youngblood, an organist named John Winfield, and the rhythm section of bassist Hank Anderson and drummer Jimmy Mayes. Like Hendrix, Youngblood had kicked around the so-called chitlin’ circuit, backing performers like Joe Tex and Jackie Wilson. Together, Hendrix and Youngblood had been featured in a band led by Curtis Knight. “Georgia Blues,” the song they recorded at the end of March, was originally included on Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues, released in 2003, and if nothing else, illustrates how Hendrix could elevate even run-of-the-mill musicians to a higher level. Jimi’s tone and imaginative phrasing are miles ahead of the 12-bar rote playing of the others here.
Along with Winter, Stills was one of the few musicians around who didn’t blanch at the prospect of going head-to-head with Hendrix. Here, he’s featured on organ and vocals in an informal session just a month after Hendrix’s appearance at the Woodstock festival. It’s a rare instance of both Mitchell and Miles being in the studio for a single session. The most striking thing is the take of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” recorded before the definitive Crosby, Stills & Nash version was released. Two things to note: Hendrix plays bass, not guitar, and while his playing is compelling, it shows that tone and volume were important elements of his voice; second, the performance does nothing to contradict those who believe that Miles is a ham-fisted percussionist with little taste. By contrast, the run-through of Stills’s “$20 Fine” is smooth enough to pass for a final take by 1969 standards. Hendrix’s guitar solo is well integrated into the soulful track, and both Mitchell and pianist Duane Hitchings fit in nicely. Odd to say, given that it’s really Stills’s track, but this is a highlight of this set. While it lacks a prescribed ending, that could’ve easily been fixed with a fade-out.
After the Experience broke up for good, Hendrix worked out of a rented house in upstate New York, rehearsing with the musicians who would form Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, the band he performed with at Woodstock in August 1969, but by fall he had returned to the trio format, leaning heavily toward funk with the band he called the Band of Gypsys.
Recorded on December 15, 1969, “Lover Man,” a song Hendrix toyed with throughout much of his post-1966 career, is a rare example of the guitarist stripped to his essence in the studio. Presumably a single-take, live-off-the-floor rehearsal -- recorded in the weeks leading up to the Band of Gypsys’ Fillmore East debut -- its relatively anemic sound stands in sharp contrast to Hendrix’s official studio recordings. Yet despite the fact that it features a thin, dry sound and a single guitar track, its spare nature is also its beauty, as it reveals the raw technical details: Hendrix’s fluid attack, Miles’s concentrated power, and Cox’s ability to lock in with a riff.
“Stepping Stone” is another song Hendrix returned to throughout his last three years, and the version here is patched together from two late-’69 dates. Several versions of “Stepping Stone” have appeared over the years, and this frantic take of it is no better or worse than the others. Miles always seemed to have a problem holding down a simple shuffle beat, and as usual, he rushes things here.
While much of what the Band of Gypsys performed over two nights, four sets, at the Fillmore East as 1969 gave way to the new decade sounded under-rehearsed, those shows did produce one epochal performance of “Machine Gun” -- perhaps the pinnacle of Hendrix’s guitar-as-saxophone excursions. Two weeks after the New Year’s shows -- on January 16 -- the Band of Gypsys were in the studio to record an instrumental dedicated to Linda Keith, the young woman who is credited with bringing Hendrix (then still going by the name Jimmy James) to the attention of Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who became his manager and underwrote the formation of the Experience in 1966. The existence of this track has been known since at least 2010, when screenwriter and film director John Ridley raved about it as “amazing” on National Public Radio. The power of the song and the connection to Keith, who was Keith Richards’s girlfriend when she first saw Hendrix, spurred Ridley to focus on her when he created the biographical film All Is by My Side. This is one of the songs where Hendrix dipped into his Spanish influences during a meandering introduction, but it shows the importance of remembering that Hendrix noodling off-handedly could burn most guitarists down. The opening two-and-a-half minutes are Jimi’s version of a throwaway; his solo for the final 90 seconds is something else entirely. If you’re looking for a finished track, this isn’t it, although it is a perfect example of why guitarists still try for just a touch of the magic he could create when he cranked up his Stratocaster.
While Valleys of Neptune held some significant surprises, there’s little here that hasn’t been previously detailed in one of the many Hendrix books. The only exception is “Power of Soul,” recorded on January 31 and February 3, 1970, and mixed by Hendrix and Kramer. Previously, it’s been posited that Miles was cast out of Hendrix’s orbit immediately following the disastrous Band of Gypsys performance at a Madison Square Garden benefit concert on January 28. That night, witnesses say Hendrix was drugged almost to the point of unconsciousness, and his band left the stage after struggling through just three songs. Hendrix’s manager, Mike Jeffery -- who thought the Band of Gypsys concept was commercial suicide -- is rumored to have seized on the opportunity to fire Miles and lure Redding and Mitchell back. This version of “Power of Soul” seems to put the lie to that, and hints at the fact that Hendrix was still trying to make the Band of Gypsys a studio reality. While the song has the multi-tracked guitar tapestry that graced many of the songs on Cry of Love -- the only posthumous Reprise studio release that Hendrix had a large hand in -- the vocal sounds unfinished, with Hendrix humming through portions and stumbling over some of his lyrics. Then again, maybe this was Hendrix’s attempt at a more intimate, conversational style; who’s to say? It’s just one more mystery that died with him.
So Both Sides of the Sky leaves us seven months before his death, as Hendrix struggled to find the musical footing that had begun to elude him. The haphazard scope of these recordings and the restless energy they betray show a musician who was in pursuit of something that lay just beyond him. While we may quibble over whether his unfinished experiments should see the light of day, we remain thankful that he possessed so much creativity that he continues to inspire young musicians and confound those of us who followed his brief, brilliant rise.
. . . James Hale