The Lost Year: The Story of the Final Months of Jimi Hendrix
All in all, it’s an interesting alternate take, although fans of mid-Sixties rock may still favor the original. What’s puzzling is why Hendrix would be sufficiently obsessed with this early composition to devote four sessions to the song. While a decent enough tune, it’s certainly not on the order of mature Hendrix songwriting triumphs like “Castles Made of Sand” or “House Burning Down.” Nor was it likely that the record company would be very interested in releasing an alternate version of a song that had already appeared on two previous releases. In all of this, one senses the lack of Chandler’s guidance in identifying and developing Hendrix’s most promising material.
Nor was Eddie Kramer always on hand. While the Record Plant sessions were taking place in 1969, Kramer was hard at work supervising the construction of Hendrix’s own studio, Electric Lady, downtown in Greenwich Village. At the board for many of Hendrix’s Record Plant sessions were the studio’s co-founder Gary Kellgren, a superb session and audio design engineer in his own right, and staffer Jack Adams, among others.
“I wasn’t always available to be with Jimi in the studio,” Kramer explains. “He’d basically call me when he was in trouble. Because, quite frankly, I think a lot of the other guys were sort of letting him loose, which in one way was a good thing. But in another way, there was no structure. And I know he always responded much better when I was there, because I kept him focused. We had a good rapport.”
Many of Hendrix’s activities in mid 1969 certainly bear out Kramer’s contention that there tended to be a lack of structure once Jimi was left unsupervised. Perhaps nothing illustrates this tendency better than the short-lived band Gypsy Sun and Rainbows.
Even before the Jimi Hendrix Experience officially disbanded—following their final gig at the Denver Pop Festival on June 27, 1969—and up until the time of Hendrix’s death, there was really no stable band lineup behind Hendrix. Cox was pretty constant, but other people came and went. Players drifted over from the Steve Paul Scene and elsewhere. Sometimes Mitch Mitchell was on the drum kit; sometimes it was Buddy Miles.
So it was that in the summer of 1969, Hendrix assembled a ramshackle group of buddies in his upstate New York retreat near Woodstock for the purpose of performing at the upcoming Woodstock festival. For the first time since his breakthrough in 1966, Jimi had a second guitarist in the lineup, his old pal Larry Lee, then fresh out of the army. Pursuing his love of congas even further than he had in the past, Hendrix recruited two conga men, Jerry Velez and Juma Sultan. For a while a keyboardist named Gerry Guida was in the picture, although he didn’t make it to the actual gig at Woodstock. Up until the last minute, nobody was sure if Mitchell or Miles was going to be on drums. (Mitchell ended up making the gig.) All things considered, it was not a recipe for musical triumph.
“We tried to get it together,” Cox says. “We practiced, learned the parts and had fun. Some days we would take off and not do anything. But we practiced more than we didn’t do anything, because we knew that we had a purpose and reason for being there.”
Hangers-on had always been a problem for Hendrix, a guy who was, by all reports, too kind-hearted and shy to turn anyone away. This became a further distraction at the retreat house. “The fans and the groupies, they always seek you out no matter where you are,” Cox says. “If one person knows you’re there—whether it’s a cook, a driver, a bodyguard or what have you—then everybody knows. That goes with the territory.”
So the scene was far more chaotic than even the wildest jam night at the Record Plant. Some of the rehearsal tapes Hendrix made at the retreat were stolen. “I asked for a two-track [recorder] to be sent,” Cox says. “They sent us one, and we recorded a lot of stuff. But someone broke into the house one night, and a lot of that stuff was taken out of there.”
Bootlegs that have surfaced offer scant evidence of musical magic being wrought up in Hendrix’s wooded retreat. This impression is borne out by the uneven Woodstock performance. At times it’s almost painful to watch. Hendrix barely holds the thing together, through sheer force of will and his own prodigious talent. His iconic solo rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” was a huge success precisely because it was a solo turn. Hendrix simply cut his substandard backing band loose and took off on his own.
“On that song,” Cox says, “Jimi started, and I played five or six notes and realized, Wait a minute, we never rehearsed this before. And I stopped playing. It was the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ I didn’t know he was going to do that. He didn’t either.”
Not surprisingly, then, when Hendrix returned to the Record Plant, post-Woodstock, on September 23, 1969, he did not bring the full complement of Gypsy, Sun and Rainbows with him. He’d stripped the lineup back down to Mitchell, Cox and Juma Sultan on congas.
With these musicians, he began work on “Valleys of Neptune,” which has now become the title track of this latest posthumous Hendrix CD. From a songwriting perspective, “Valleys” is up to Hendrix’s highest standards, a recording that wouldn’t have been out of place on Electric Ladyland. This is no fragment or sketchy jam but a fully realized song with verses and choruses all in place, plus a catchy chord progression and a first-rate melody married to some of those interplanetary cosmic bluesman lyrical tropes that Jimi did so well. It’s a pity he didn’t overdub leads in the breaks, middle breakdown and outro segments that were so clearly left open for a little Hendrix guitar magic. You can almost hear them in the silence—little curling tendrils of backward guitar and bursts of liquid fire.
Cox says, “We ultimately did not finish ‘Valleys of Neptune,’ but we had what you’d call a basic work track. We would always try to put down a work track and go from there. And we knew there were some more things we had to do on there to make it more musical.”
So those final overdubs and guitar leads on “Valleys of Neptune” must forever be those that echo only in the imaginations of Hendrix’s listeners and fans. Who knows? Jimi himself might have even grooved on that idea.
And there is every indication that Hendrix’s music will live on to excite the imaginations of music lovers not yet born, reaching the ears of fans in far corners of this world and maybe even worlds yet to be discovered. Experience Hendrix’s new deal with Sony Music would seem to guarantee that.
McDermott says, “All of us at Experience Hendrix were impressed with some of the digital initiatives and approaches that Sony are planning with respect to Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan. It seemed like a good opportunity to expose Jimi’s music to as broad an audience as possible, particularly internationally. Going forward, this is a changing market for music, which is in itself a challenge. I think the cool part of that is being able to make Hendrix immediately accessible to younger generations, especially in their native languages, so that, through the web and other digital initiatives, people can learn about Jimi in Dutch, Japanese or Italian. Jimi is truly a global artist. It’s important that that part of his legacy be allowed to thrive.”