The Lost Year: The Story of the Final Months of Jimi Hendrix
Also onboard, in an advisory role, was Billy Cox, another figure who, like Kramer, knew and worked with Hendrix during his lifetime. Cox’s bass playing is heard on three of the 11 tracks that comprise Valleys of Neptune. “It’s always refreshing to hear Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “And individuals who are truly Hendrix fans should eat this CD right up, because it really is good.”
Valleys of Neptune is sequenced for maximum listenability, with the strongest and freshest material upfront. But if one really wishes to use this disc as a study in Hendrix’s creative process throughout 1969 into 1970, it’s best to consider the tracks chronologically. Fortunately, the liner notes provide full documentation of the dates, studios and personnel for each track.
With the exception of “Mr. Bad Luck,” from 1967, the earliest material here dates from February 16 and 17, 1969. On the eve of his historic concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Hendrix brought the Experience into Olympic Studios, the London facility where elements of Are You Experienced, Axis and Electric Ladyland had been recorded and which was one of the capital’s hottest recording studios at the time, home to the Stones, the Who, Traffic and even the Beatles for a few sessions. Joining Hendrix, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell at Olympic was conga player Rocky Dzidzornu, perhaps best known for his signature percussion work on the Rolling Stones’ classic “Sympathy for the Devil” (where he was billed as “Rocky Dijon”). “Rocky was a session guy,” Kramer recalls. “He was a friend of Traffic. And of course Steve Winwood and Dave Mason of Traffic were close friends of Jimi and recorded with him.”
While recording Electric Ladyland in 1968, Hendrix had employed conga player Larry Faucette on “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining Still Dreaming.” But on those tracks, congas were part of an extended, jazzy ensemble that included organ and saxophone. But on the 1969 Olympic dates, Dzidzornu’s conga work is the sole augmentation to the Experience’s usual stripped-down, power-trio lineup, which is interesting from a rock history perspective. Cream had made the power trio the hottest instrumental configuration of the late Sixties. With only guitar, bass and drums in the lineup, each player had maximum improvisational freedom. But by 1969, the power-trio thing was starting to feel played out. After Cream’s marathon live workouts on their 1968 album Wheels of Fire and post-breakup Goodbye/Best Of/Live Cream releases, there seemed nowhere else to take the format.
Hendrix’s canny strategy was to employ congas, a percussive instrument with limited tonal range, thereby adding new instrumentation without sacrificing improvisational freedom. In this way, Hendrix and Redding were still free to roam and improvise harmonic structures at will. And while the typical musical role of congas is to provide syncopations and rhythmic subdivisions, as in “Sympathy for the Devil,” Dzidzornu often plays more of an anchoring role on these Experience dates, holding down the beat while Mitchell takes off.
“Mitch was such a unique player,” McDermott says. “There was so much going on with Mitch, particularly with his cymbal work. A traditional percussion player needed to be sensitive to that, and not just clanging away. And I think Rocky did a fine job.”
Tracks from the February 16 date included on Valleys of Neptune include “Lover Man,” a 12-bar blues that Hendrix had frequently assayed and recorded, and “Crying Blue Rain.” The latter track was so sketchy, in fact, that Chas Chandler brought Redding and Mitchell back into the studio in 1987 to rerecord their drum and bass parts, bumping the original four-track masters up to 24-track, the prevailing format in 1987. “But the original four-track master still exists,” Kramer says, “and I used bits of both [the four- and 24-track masters] in the rhythm section on that song.”
Also taken from the February 16, 1969, session at Olympic is a cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” which had become part of the Experience’s live set. This inclusion is a testimony to Cream’s pervasiveness in the late Sixties, and Hendrix’s mid-jam quotation of another Cream track, “Outside Woman Blues,” indicates that he was definitely a fan of Eric Clapton and Cream. Meanwhile, Dzidzornu’s conga work does much to enliven Redding’s obligatory extended bass solo segment.
The material from the 17th is even more familiar, with performances of “Fire” and “Red House” that are lively, if not exactly revelatory. If Hendrix had some cosmic new direction in mind in 1969, it certainly isn’t in evidence on the February sessions at Olympic. Presumably the dates were a rehearsal for the impending Albert Hall performances. But why commandeer a world-class studio to record a rehearsal? Was it just rock star extravagance? Or was Hendrix attempting to find a new direction by pushing the limits of his earlier material. Clearly he was fond of jamming as a form of creative exploration, but on these tracks the playing also seems a working out of interband tensions, as McDermott suggests: “I think you can sense the aggressive nature of these sessions. The dynamic between Jimi and Noel permeates the whole thing. They’re not on the same level. They’re playing very well, but they are certainly, at times, playing at one another. There’s a lot of drive and anger in that playing.”
It’s hard to understand today the almost sacred esteem in which jamming was held during the late-Sixties rock era. Extended instrumental improvisation didn’t have a place in rock and roll of the Fifties and early Sixties. It only entered the music circa 1966 via English groups like the Yardbirds, Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience along with San Francisco bands like the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. But once jamming hit the scene, the nascent hippie counterculture embraced it with the kind of naïve enthusiasm that only a neophyte can muster.
The practice of jamming had, of course, been adopted into rock from African-American jazz and blues, so for the primarily white hippie-era rockers and their audience, a jam had the aura of some ancient and venerable rite. It isn’t at all too extravagant to say that jamming was regarded as a kind of spiritual exercise in the late Sixties, a perception further fostered by the spiritual raga traditions of Indian classical music that had been brought into rock by George Harrison and others. Jamming was a way that a band could immediately demonstrate its authenticity or “truth.” It was believed that you could jam yourself to a higher state of awareness.
Hendrix certainly had great faith in the power of jamming. But the role of extended improvisation in the studio eventually set him at odds with both Chandler and Redding. Earlier in the Experience’s career, Hendrix and Chandler had shared a flat in London, where they spent much time together carefully routining and arranging Hendrix’s compositions. By the time they got to the studio to record Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold As Love, very little was left to chance, improvisation or the impulse of the moment.
But all that began to change during the making of Electric Ladyland. On the one hand, Hendrix’s approach became more improvisational, which of course led to the creation of Ladyland’s more extended, jammy tracks like “Rainy Day” and “1983”/“Moon Turn the Tides.” At the same time, Hendrix became obsessed with audio layering, but he did so in a very intuitive manner, allowing each new overdub to suggest a direction for subsequent enhancements, rather than planning everything out in advance. This seemed a supreme waste of precious studio time to Chandler, who’d come from the old-school, “bang ’em out quick” aesthetic of the mid-Sixties British Invasion era. This was part of the reason he walked out midway through the Electric Ladyland sessions.