“Damn, I wonder where my head was at when I said all those things?”
Jimi Hendrix confessed to being a little surprised at some of the lyrical tangents he’d taken when he re-listened to his band’s stunning debut album in 1970, three years after its release.
In an interview with NME’s Keith Allston just one week before his death, he concedes he must have been “a bit high or something”.
From ‘Third Stone from the Sun’, an interstellar jazzy psychedelic jam which depicts an Armageddon survived only by chickens, to the scratchy, stretchy backwards loops of the title track persuading the listener to get their mind together so that one can ’watch the sun rise from the bottom of the sea…’, there’s no shortage of escapism on Are You Experienced.
“I just write with a clash between reality and fantasy mostly,” he explained in the same NME interview. “You have to use fantasy in order to show different sides of reality, that’s how it can bend.”
There was no shortage of drugs, booze and women who provided lusty, hedonistic inspiration for this debut too. Known for his energetic attack and erotic guitar stage antics, songs like ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘Fire’ came to define an unshakable macho image the public had of him.
There was, however, another much deeper side to the female characters in his songs. UK journalist Charles Shaar Murray, author of Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix & The Post-War Rock 'N' Roll Revolution, said there were two linked fears emerging in Hendrix’s writing at the time.
“One is of rootlessness, of always being a stranger, and the other is of feeling trapped,” he told triple j’s Richard Kingsmill in 1990.
“Hendrix always seemed to be trying to escape that contradiction. He never found anywhere where he felt at home. Whenever he spent too much time in the same place or with the same person he began to feel trapped and I don’t think he ever resolved that.
“And the only way out that he could imagine was through this female archetype that drifts through his songs (like in ‘May This Be Love’, ‘Love or Confusion’). Somewhere was this woman who would rescue him.”
His exposure to societal limitations and prejudice added to this rootlessness and restlessness too. He would tell stories of being pointed out and jeered at within his own community in Harlem for the way he dressed.
“I remember when I got thrown out of church because I had the improper clothes on,” he told Nancy Carter in 1969. “I had tennis shoes and a suit and they said ‘well that’s not proper’. I had no money to get anything else, but I got thrown out anyway. It’s nothing but an institution and so [young people] are not going to find nothing in there. So, then it moves on to trying to find yourself.”
Hendrix knew that music was the pathway for him to know a vital part of himself. But he also had a strong vision for how his music could help break down barriers and contribute to change in the world. He said each of his songs “should have some kind of a solution at the end”.
When Carter asked Hendrix the one thing that he was trying to get across to people with his music, he replied without hesitation.
“We’re trying to get across communication between the old and young,” he said. “I think some are finally starting to understand that part of it. Plus, we’re trying to get across laziness on anybody’s part, I used to see a lot of people just sit around get stoned all they do is protest and not really do anything about it.”
Jimi Hendrix had dreams of many more wonderfully ambitious things he would do with his music and we can only wonder what might have been.
His band’s astonishing debut reveals a lot.
Its clever title simultaneously evoked sexual, social, occupational and generational connotations which, although woven from his own life experiences, were also a reflection of society at large.
It showed a broad range of influences, and his ability to fluidly move, mould and shape his songs using all that he’d soaked up in his short lifetime.
Are You Experienced also displayed, with blazing technicolour and unique dexterity, his innate understanding and relationship with music. By breaking down the boundaries and conventions in music, he forged for music fans everywhere a common language with a universal message which continues to ring out resoundingly five decades on.