Was Jimi Hendrix Out of Control During His Final Days in the Studio? Evidence Emerges on 'People, Hell and Angels'
Hendrix was clearly searching for the right rhythm section sound for the material he was developing. A lot of the 1969 recordings seem like an effort to arrive at a definitive basic track over which Jimi could record vocals and the filigreed layers of guitar overdubs that were essential to the Hendrix magic.
But was the material really worth that much effort? Most of it is blues-based stuff or blues covers, which was not unusual for the time. Blues records were extremely popular in 1969, and blues-based artists like John Mayall, Canned Heat, Johnny Winter, and the Al Kooper–Mike Bloomfield tandem were enjoying major success. Traditional blues artists like B.B. King, Albert King and John Lee Hooker were also crossing over to the rock audience in a big way.
But the preponderance of blues-based material among Hendrix’s final recordings seems to disprove theories that he was onto some bold, new progressive jazz-rock direction. And if the folks at Reprise were expecting another Hendrix hit on the order of “Foxey Lady,” Purple Haze” or the guitarist’s popular cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” they would have been disappointed; there is certainly nothing of the sort to be found among the tracks on People, Hell and Angels. If anything, at the end of his life Hendrix seemed to be heading back to his bluesy roots. And few people had more of a right to go back there than him.
“By the time I got onboard, I’d say his direction had kind of changed,” Cox confirms. “Some of his songs from that time, like ‘Freedom,’ ‘Up from the Storm’ and ‘Dolly Dagger,’ were based on little riffs that we’d come up with together back in the early Sixties. Some of them were insane at the time. Jimi would say, ‘Man, if they heard us play some of this stuff, they’d lock us up.’ We didn’t write any of that stuff down. We remembered it. Jimmy called them ‘patterns.’ I call them ‘musical riffs.’ We had a lot of them in our heads.”
Another virtue of the Record Plant, complementing its great gear and a penthouse vibe, was the fact that it was right around the corner from the Steve Paul Scene, at the time one of New York’s hottest rock and roll clubs. Hendrix would drop by to jam with artists on the bill, including one notable run sitting in with the Jeff Beck Group. He’d also round up musicians from the club and bring them over to the Record Plant to hang out and cut some tracks, perhaps most famously tapping Steve Winwood (Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith) and Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna) to play on “Voodoo Child” from Electric Ladyland. But that kind of thing went on all the time, according to Cox.
“We’d start at eight P.M. but maybe stop at around 12 or one in the morning and go out. And at that time, the Scene, Ungano’s and a lot of clubs like that had a lot of the big artists playing there. Jimi would say, ‘I’m recording over at the Record Plant, come on by.’ And we’d go into studio B at four A.M. or so and just have fun for a couple of hours. I was the new kid on the block. Didn’t know a lot of people. And all of sudden I’m jamming with Stephen Stills, Johnny Winter, whoever.”
Or even some lesser lights of the rock fraternity. On the evening of April 21, 1969, Hendrix and Cox stopped by the Scene and ran into members of the Cherry People, a group that had got to Number 45 on the 1968 pop charts with the psychedelic bubblegum track “And Suddenly.” They were in town to get out of their deal with Heritage Records and had dropped by the Scene to console themselves, having failed to secure a meeting with the head of the label. Their road manager, Al Marks, himself a guitarist, had met Hendrix backstage on a few prior occasions. On the strength of this, Marks made bold to approach Hendrix’s table. Marks has vivid recollections of the evening.
“Jimi said, ‘Sorry I don’t remember you. But hey, you play in a band? You got a drummer?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he’s right here.’ He goes, ‘You wanna do a session with us tonight?’ I looked at him: ‘You gotta be kidding. You serious?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, man, meet me at four o’clock at the Record Plant.’ He meant four A.M.”
Marks, Cherry People drummer Rocky Issac and guitarist Chris Grimes couldn’t believe their luck when they were buzzed into the Record Plant building and shown into the studio. Gary Kellgren was already in the control room setting up for the session. The three Cherry People were even more amazed when Hendrix himself turned up at around 4:20. He sent Marks out to park his Corvette while he set up the recording room to suit his requirements. Marks recalls Hendrix using a pair of Acoustic amps and cabinets for the session, which may have belonged to the Record Plant.
Once everything was ready to go, Jimi asked, “Okay, who’s the drummer?” Issac was duly installed behind the studio’s kit; Marks and Grimes were assigned to play percussion. Both Marks and Issac recall working through versions of “Roomful of Mirrors,” the Elmore James song “Bleeding Heart,” “Stone Free,” a freeform jam called “Drone Blues” and “Crash Landing.” But things didn’t go particularly well. Issac was extremely nervous and not at all used to Hendrix’s practice of just kicking into a song and expecting all the players to follow him.
“I went over to Billy Cox and said, ‘Billy, I’m used to learning a song first,’ ” the drummer recalls. “I don’t know what’s going on here, and I’m scared.’ And Billy said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on either, but I’ve got the advantage of having played with Jimi quite a bit and I’m able to follow him.’ I said, ‘Well, he’s not cueing me in or anything, and I keep messing up.’ He said, ‘Do the best you can.’ ”
The evening went downhill from there. “I think it was around 10 or 11 in the morning when we got done with ‘Roomful of Mirrors,’ ” Marks says. “Meanwhile, we’d gone back into the control room after every take while Jimi stayed in the studio. He wouldn’t come out into the control room. And Gary Kellgren had a bowl full of rolled joints and an ashtray filled with cocaine. After every take, we’d light up a joint and pass it around.”
“Anything you wanted to take was available,” Issac adds. “Alcohol, coke, speed, pot everywhere. There was plenty of everything. The whole time I’m having an anxiety attack. I couldn’t drink enough. I couldn’t take enough speed. I was falling apart. But Jimi was so generous and gracious. I felt he was disappointed. But he took me in the control room where he was mixing down ‘Stone Free.’ He sat me down at the controls and showed me how to pan the drums from left to right. Pretty soon I’m sitting there with him doing a mix.”