When Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) hit the rock scene in late ’66, every guitar player took notice. That included Eric Clapton, then considered the cream of London’s crop. After jamming onstage with Hendrix at a club frequented by the top musicians, Clapton knew he had serious competition.
Around that same time, Hendrix’s Experience began hitting the airwaves with “Hey Joe,” the blues that became his debut single. From there, music fans got a taste of Hendrix originals, starting with his second single, “Purple Haze” (March ’67).
In those days, before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was still unusual to hear lyrics such as “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” And listeners got much more when Hendrix’s Are You Experienced LP arrived in May. On the title track, the narrator watched a sunrise “from the bottom of the sea.”
Looking back at that time in an interview he gave Keith Altham just before his death, Hendrix couldn’t say where he came up with those ideas. “It seemed like I must have been high,” he cracked.
Jimi Hendrix wondered ‘where his head was at’ when writing lyrics for ‘Are You Experienced’
The psychedelic strain in lyrics didn’t stop with Are You Experienced, of course. In Electric Ladyland (1968), the final Experience album, Jimi sang about chopping down a mountain with the edge of his hand, among other things.
But by 1970 he was onto different things. In “Ezy Ryder,” written in ’69, you hear Hendrix singing about someone riding down the highway free but simply “dyin’ to be loved.” And on the brilliant “Machine Gun,” you heard Hendrix addressing the very real evils of violence and war.
Speaking with Altham in late ’70, Hendrix tried to recall composing his early lyrics. “When I heard [Are You Experienced], I said, ‘Damn, I wonder where my head was at when I said all those things?’” To Altham’s question of whether or not Hendrix “invented” psychedelic music, Hendrix laughed at the idea he was “a mad scientist.”
“I don’t consider that the invention of psychedelic music,” Hendrix said. “It was just asking a lot of questions. The way I write things, they are just a clash between fantasy and reality. You have to use fantasy to show different sides of reality.”
Hendrix previously said the original ‘Purple Haze’ had 1,000 words and got much trippier
In 1968, after he’d broken through on both sides of the Atlantic, Hendrix spoke to the DJ known as “Meatball Fulton” about his original idea for “Purple Haze.” As Hendrix described it, the song could have been much longer — and far stranger — than it turned out.
“It had about a thousand words,” he said (via Hendrix on Hendrix). “You should have heard it, man. It was about going through this land, this mythical [place]. Because that’s what I like to do, write a lot of mythical songs. You know, like the history of the wars on Neptune.”
While the version that listeners got was far more commercially viable, Hendrix still made his point with “Purple Haze” and other early records. Judging by the last recordings he made, Hendrix could have taken electric guitar music in any number of exciting directions. Of all the early deaths of rock titans, Hendrix’s may sting the most.
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