The Lost Year: The Story of the Final Months of Jimi Hendrix
As 1969 dawned, Jimi Hendrix had just come through three of the most incredible years of his life.
In 1966, after years of struggling on the black entertainment chitlin circuit, he had been plucked from a New York nightclub by Chas Chandler, former bassist with British hit makers the Animals, and whisked off to London, England, home of the Beatles, Stones, Who, Cream and all things groovy in rock.
There, Chandler fostered Hendrix’s innate songwriting gift, assembled a killer band around him and guided the guitarist through the recording of three albums—Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland—that made him not just an international superstar but also an icon of the emergent hippie counterculture.
Now, however, it was all starting to come apart. Chandler had walked out of his life and career during the making of Electric Ladyland in ’68, and Hendrix had strong suspicions that his new manager, Michael Jeffery, was scamming him.
Hendrix’s relationship with his bassist, Noel Redding, was strained to the breaking point, and the band was disintegrating before his eyes. Years of hard touring and partying had begun to take their toll, as well. Meanwhile, hippies were turning militantly political, and music was becoming angrier and more strident.
In short, Hendrix was going through some heavy changes in early 1969, and change is often both scary and exhilarating. Though the events of the past three years had radically broadened his perspective and creative vision, things hadn’t come clearly into focus yet, and Chandler was no longer around to polish the lens as he had in days gone by.
Part of Hendrix wanted to go back and revisit some of his older songs and do them greater justice; another part of him wanted to move in a new musical direction. He might have been asking himself, “Where is it all leading? Is this love or just confusion? Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?”
Actually it was a little bit of all these things.
What Jimi Hendrix would not have known in 1969 was that he had only a year left to live. His death came on September 18, 1970. He was 27. The final year and a half of his life have always been something of a musical enigma. Was he on the brink of a new creative breakthrough, or had he simply lost the plot? Officially released recordings from the period offer evidence in support of both theories. There was a mixed bag of live recordings (Woodstock and Band of Gypsys) and a half-finished studio album (The Cry of Love) but certainly no masterfully nuanced studio recordings on the order of Axis or Electric Ladyland.
Now, however, a new CD titled Valleys of Neptune offers a fresh and intriguing glimpse into this poignant last chapter of the Jimi Hendrix life story. Containing a dozen previously unreleased studio recordings, most dating from the period from 1969 to 1970, it is the latest in a series of posthumous Hendrix compilations assembled by Hendrix historian John McDermott and veteran producer Eddie Kramer, who have become the de facto curators of the Hendrix legacy in the years since 1993, when a few of the guitarist’s surviving family members regained legal control of his estate.
It is also the first Hendrix release under a new pact between Sony Music and Experience Hendrix, the company formed by the late guitarist’s family in 1993. McDermott hints that there will be many more CDs of previously unreleased Hendrix material in the future. But he wants to be clear about what Valleys of Neptune is and is not.
“People need to understand that this is not a finished, polished studio album,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s more than just one-guitar demos. There are a bunch of wonderful moments here, as long as it’s understood that we’re providing a gander at a great artist’s sketches. There is a really creative period here that isn’t well documented. Here’s a window into it.”
The 12 tracks on Valleys of Neptune cluster around two focal points: a handful of tracks cut by the original Jimi Hendrix Experience at London’s Olympic studios in February 1969, and a more extended body of recordings made between April 1969 and May 1970 at New York’s Record Plant with a revolving cast of backing musicians anchored principally by Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox, Hendrix’s old army buddy and bandmate from his days on the chitlin circuit. The odd track out on this set is “Mr. Bad Luck,” recorded by the Experience at Olympic in 1967, but McDermott justifies its inclusion on the grounds that it later morphed into “Look Over Yonder,” circa 1968, and is thus linked, albeit obscurely, to the period in question. It also doesn’t hurt it’s a tight little slice of funked-up R&B that enlivens the overall package.
Although Valleys of Neptune’s title track is missing lead guitar tracks and has a somewhat dubious fadeout, it’s one of the few completely written and, for the most part, previously unheard songs on the disc. The CD also offers a selection of instrumental sketches, the inevitable 12-bar blues, and reworkings of familiar Hendrix classics like “Stone Free,” “Fire” and “Red House.” There are no great revelations on these cuts, but the guitar work alone makes this set well worth its price.
Many of Hendrix’s solos burn with an almost desperate level of intensity and stand among his most impassioned and masterful passages of lead guitar poetry ever. We hear him trying to play himself into another dimension—or at least into the next phase of his career. Without Chandler on hand to help him articulate his vision, Hendrix in this period fell back on his oldest and truest friend: his guitar. Never a man of many words, he used the instrument to lead his fellow musicians onward, toward the glowing horizon that only he could glimpse. It’s a cliché to say that a great musician can make his guitar talk, but that’s precisely what Hendrix does.
The task of bringing these old analog tape tracks into the 21st century fell, as usual, to Eddie Kramer, the music industry vet who had engineered many of Hendrix’s original recordings back in the Sixties and oversaw the construction of Electric Lady recording studio in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village near the end of the guitarist’s life. Working with the original four-, eight-, 12- and 16-track masters, Kramer employed Burl Audio A-to-D converters to bring the tracks into the digital domain. There he worked on them in Pro Tools, employing Waves plug-ins and a variety of other software and hardware to clear away tape hiss, errant artifacts and sonic grunge accumulated during the tapes’ 40 years in the vaults, giving Hendrix’s music a fresh new remix. He has performed similar restoration feats on Hendrix’s Woodstock material and various other reissues.
Regarding his work on the Woodstock tapes, Kramer says, “In that process, I discovered different ways and means of preserving and enhancing the old analog tapes, to the extent that I now feel very confident that I can rescue stuff that was considered unrescuable in the past. Modern technology has given us some wonderful tools. John McDermott found these great old tapes, and I’ve been able to mix them in a contemporary manner, still holding on to the good stuff that we all love from the past, but incorporating some new technologies.”