Friday, April 21, 2006
Jimi Hendrix & The Band of Gypsys: When Earth Meets Space
Editor's Note: September 18, 2005 was the 35th Anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) in London, England. The article below, written by Oscar J. Jordan III, provides a perspective on Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys. Hendrix was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. His legacy lives on three and a-half decades after his untimely death. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Pan-African News Wire.
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Jimi Hendrix and The Band of Gypsys...
Or That's What Happens When Earth Fucks With Space
By Oscar J. Jordan III
"Buddy Miles claims that Michael Jeffery, in a deliberate effort to sabotage the Band of Gypsys' s performance, slipped Hendrix LSD backstage. "Both my sister and I saw Jeffery slip Hendrix two tabs of acid, and I personally saw Hendrix take them. He looked so scared."
Jimi Hendrix wasn't stupid but he was naive. On October 15th 1965, he signed a three year exclusive recording contract with producer Ed Chalpin for PPX Inc in New York. At the time he was just a squirrel looking for a nut. A year later he would be discovered by Chas Chandler and the world would be introduced to fire breathing guitar and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Chas was smart enough to buy up all of Jimi's outstanding contracts but Jimi neglected to tell Chas about one in particular. PPX Inc. After Jimi got a record deal with Warner Brothers, Chalpin demanded huge sums of cash for breach of contract. They went to court and it was eventually agreed upon in June of 69' that Jimi would record a live album not featuring The Experience, since nobody wanted to give PPX new studio material. This album would be given to PPX and be released by Capital records. Warner Brothers added a stipulation that the album not be called The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but something else as to disassociate the release from their name.
This is how Jimi would satisfy Chalpin who was selling inferior recordings of Jimi from his pre-Experience days. The recordings were of low quality, other instruments were added, then sold as bonafide Jimi Hendrix recordings. Ironically in July of 67', Jimi showed up at Chalpin's studio oblivious to the legal maneuverings taking place. He just wanted to hang out with friends and show off his 8 string Hagstrom bass and new wah-wah pedal. "Wait until you hear this wah-wah pedal". Oh yeah, Chalpin recorded that too. They recorded him and later put it out on the market as a Jimi Hendrix recording.
Check out this recorded dialogue:
Jimi: You can't, you know...like if you use it you can't put my name on the er...thing...right?
Curtis Knight: No, no, no. Hell no.
Jimi: Now, listen, huh...he can't do this, all right...ok?
Chalpin: Go ahead.
Jimi: Edward (Chalpin), can you hear me?
Chalpin: I can hear you loud enough.
Curtis Knight: You can't use his name for any of this.
Chalpin: Oh don't worry about it.
Jimi: No, but...no seriously though, seriously though..
Chalpin: It's our own tape, don't worry about it.
Chalpin: I won't use it. Don't worry.
Of course he would use it! Chalpin wasn't crazy, he was a businessman. Something with Jimi's name on it meant duckets in the bucket. The question is; "why did Jimi go back in the first place?" He was probably trying to smooth things over with Chalpin with the idea that he could use the tracks without his name. But what good would that have been if he couldn't use Jimi's name? He had to be unaware of the details of the suit. No, he wasn't stupid just naive.
By the later part of 1969 drummer Mitch Mitchell had already performed with Jimi at Woodstock and was back in England to spend some time at home. He later joined up with Jack Bruce and Larry Coryell. The band was called Jack Bruce and Friends. An agitated Noel Redding had already left the band after a Denver show in June of 69'. Bassist Billy Cox, an old Army and R&B band buddy had already replaced Noel and performed at Woodstock. Billy and Jimi went way back, playing together between 1961 and 1965 with The King Casuals. Buddy Miles and Jimi had met years before when Buddy was Wilson Picket's drummer. He joined The Electric Flag and later fronted his own band The Buddy Miles Express. With Buddy Miles in place as the drummer, The Band of Gypsys was born.
As early as September of 69' the three of them were jamming or in the studio working on a new album that was overdue for Warner Brothers. For all their hard work they had not completed any new material that was presentable. Hours and hours of studio time was spent jamming with out any finished songs. These sessions yielded early versions of "Room Full of Mirrors", "Ezy Rider", "Stepping Stone", "Izabella", "Dolly Dagger", "Burning Desire", "Message to Love", "Power of Soul", "Who Knows", and "Machine Gun".
Albert Allen: "Hendrix was trying to find a way to get to the black audience. He felt that if he put together a band that could reach that audience, he would please them. He wanted to be liked by blacks but I don't think he knew what ingredients he needed."
The bottom line was that after wading through all the so-called political and social ground-breaking aspirations for the band, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles were merely helping their friend out of a serious jam. They were great friends and musicians, and happened to be at the right place at the right time. They would book four shows at the Fillmore East over two days, record it, mix it, take the best stuff and give it to Ed Chalpin as a pay off. Yes, Jimi wished he had more Blacks in his audience. He wanted to please and not alienate his own people. But finding that elusive magic bullet that would get him in the good graces of an audience who was more attuned to Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Smokey Robinson, was low on his list of priorities. It seemed that everyone else had higher expectations for the band than Jimi did. In the beginning he wasn't fully committed. He felt pushed into the situation but he had agreements to fulfill. He really just wanted to play and write good music.
Electric Gypsy: "It has become part of the Jimi Hendrix mythology that he was under pressure to form a black band. There may well have been demand from black nationalists that he should do this, there is no evidence that he actually complied. With his next venture (The Band Of Gypsys) the presence of two black musicians in a new trio format was sheer expediency.
Can you imagine the pressure he must have been under? While acknowledging responsibility for making the mistake of signing with Chalpin, he was getting pressured by various Black nationalist factions to be their spokesperson. This was during the Black Power movement of the 60's and if you weren't part of the solution you were considered part of the problem. Not only that, but he needed to give something to Warner Brothers and Capital, and at the same time prepare his new band for the Fillmore East shows. He had to whip the band into some kind of cohesive unit that would work. The tapes from the rehearsals at Baggys studios reveal a rough R&B band struggling to play together as a tight rhythmic unit. Creative ideas flowed constantly but were later jettisoned. Even Alan Douglas stepped in to organize rehearsals and recording, but Jimi's expensive and time consuming way of coming up with ideas through non-stop jamming was too frustrating for Alan to continue. It also created a power struggle between him and Mike Jeffrey with Jimi in the middle. Then there was the record company to deal with.
Johnny Winter: The white guys and managers would say, "Don't play with these niggers, man; the 14 year olds can't relate to all that space stuff. Get the cute English guys back." And the Black guys would tell him he was selling out to whitey. Jimi was a pretty sensitive person, plus he was loaded all the time, and he didn't know what to do.
Jimi just wanted to create music, but he was a Black star with a white audience. Insecure white kids could go see Jimi without having to worry about being seriously outnumbered by Blacks, as they would at a show by someone like Jackie Wilson. Jimi had no exposure to Blacks on Black radio because his music didn't fit into their Motown heavy format. Without this introduction to his own people he was a skinny ass freaky mother fucker who sold out to whitey.
Hendrix: "Black kids think the music is white now, which it isn't. The argument is not between black and white; that's just another game the establishment set up to turn us against one another..."
He may have thought that, but Black stations would not play his music anyway, regardless of the establishment. It wasn't about skin color, it was about where to place his music. What he was creating was just so outside of everything that was going on, even some white stations wouldn't play him. To add to his dilemma he was caught in a river of Black nationalist groups, record producers, musicians, women, drugs, and businessmen all competing for his money, his celebrity, his time, and his music. In addition, Mike Jeffrey couldn't stand Buddy Miles and did everything he could to turn Jimi against him. Jimi needed more time. But in December things started to look up. Jimi was very slowly beginning to regain his creative juices, and the band was coming together. The word on the street was that Jimi had a brand new bag. More earthy.
Funky. Machine Gun was the talk of the town, and the band was all Black now. What gives???
Charles Shaar Murray: "It's generally received a fairly unenthusiastic press, but the Cox/Miles rhythm section has a heavy rolling fluidity which brings out a very different dimension in Hendrix's playing from the more familiar Redding/Mitchell team, which hinged on Redding's stiffness and Mitchell's flamboyant extroversion. For the record the Gypsys remain Miles Davis's favorite Jimi Hendrix rhythm section. ...The way Hendrix locks into the thick, lazy twitch of Cox and Miles's groove on the opening "Who Knows", creates a brand new funk which he never attained with any other combination, and one which found it's truest echoes in the seventies of one of Hendrix's sixties influences."
The story goes that on December 31, 1969 at the first show at the Fillmore East, Jimi pulled out all the stops and did his full stage show. The audience went wild. He later asked Bill Graham what he thought. Graham said it stunk, and that the audience would love him no matter what he did. All the stage antics simply made his performance under par. He could do push ups and the audience would love him because he was the great Jimi Hendrix. He did everything but play the music. Jimi was down about it, but for that second show Jimi just stood there and played, and played brilliantly. Graham describes the second show as "The most brilliant, emotional display of virtuoso electric guitar playing he had ever heard".
December 31, 1969 New Year's Eve
Power of Soul, Lover Man, Hear my Train A Comin', Then Changes, Izabella, Machine Gun, Stop, Ezy Rider, Bleeding Heart, Earth Blues, Burning Desire.
Auld Lang Syne, Who Knows, Stepping Stone, Burning Desire, Fire, Ezy Rider, Machine Gun, Power of Soul, Stone Free, Sunshine of Your Love, Them Changes, Message to Love, Stop, Foxy Lady, Voodoo Child, Purple Haze.
"Happy New Year, goodbye 69'. Would you can do for me, is kiss my behind." Two incredible shows but the reviews were mixed. But you know how critics are...
Chris Albertson - Down Beat magazine: "Hendrix never really has considered himself much of a singer, and he is right. Perhaps that is why he let his guitar drown out his voice each time he sang while he did not allow it to interfere with Miles' vocals. Miles is a good blues singer, and I think Hendrix would be wise to let him handle that department. His work on the drums is not bad, but it cannot stand comparison with numerous jazz drummers."
Mike Jahn: "His playing is so loud, so fluid, and so rife with electronic distortions that it resembles that of no other currently popular performer."
Never before had Jimi sounded more funky. This was hard progressive funk. It was ground breaking music that pointed the way to where R&B was supposed to go. As opposed to the music of The Experience, The Band of Gypsys were earthy, very funky, and in the pocket. In my mind this is the band where Jimi rediscovered the "one"! The "one" is a hard accent on the first beat of a bar that is the key ingredient to funk. James Brown was the architect of this monster groove and it was later adopted and pulverized by George Clinton and many others.
January 1st 1970 New Year's DayFirst Set:
Who knows, Machine Gun, Them Changes, Power of Soul, Stepping Stone, Foxey Lady, Stop, Earth Blues.
Stone Free, Them Changes, Power of Soul, Message to Love, Earth Blues, Machine Gun, Voodoo Child, We Gotta Live Together, Wild Thing, Hey Joe, Purple Haze.
Loraine Alterman: "Unfortunately A Band Of Gypsys doesn't quite measure up to Hendrix's art. Cox, an old friend of Hendrix, provides solid support on bass, but Miles insists on grabbing his share of the spotlight as a singer. The drummer seems to suffer from the delusion that he is another Otis Redding when neither his styling nor his voice have anything to distinguish him from the run of the mill R&B singer."
Alfred G. Aronowitz: "By the time the second set ended, at 3 this morning, the audience was on it's feet, clapping to the music and singing along "We got to live together, We got to live together."
John Woodruff: "To my mind Hendrix always had soul - it wasn't the Sly Stone or the James Brown type - it was the Hendrix type and it was rich. Now it is the Buddy Miles type with a lot of fast guitar work on the side. Give me Mitchell any day. He pushed Hendrix into new ideas all the time. ...Mitchell is incredible. Miles, well, he's a drummer."
The Song "Machine Gun" in my opinion has to be considered his masterpiece. Nothing before this with The Experience even comes close (except for possibly the Live at Berkeley version of "Hear My Train A Comin'"), particularly the version from the first set on New Years day. This version was chosen by Hendrix and Eddie Kramer to go on The Band of Gypsys album. It starts out with a dedication.
"Happy New Year, first of all. An' I hope you have about a million or two million more of 'em, if we can get over this summer. Nyeh heh, heh. We'd like to dedicate this one to, uh, sort of a draggy scene that's goin on, all the soldiers that are fightin' in Chicago and Milwaukee and New York...oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Like to do a thing called Machine Gun."
While the other versions of this song over the four shows were brilliant in their own right, this particular version seemed to bring together all the elements in the right place. It displayed the most feeling, dynamics, musicianship, band interaction, and the pain of the Vietnam war on a personal level. Not just pain for the American Soldiers who were there dug in deep in terror, but the plight of the people of Vietnam.
"Well I pick up my axe like a farmer, and your bullets keep knockin' me down."
Hendrix reminds us that there were people who lived there who were either being killed or traumatized. The post modern delta blues groove that Jimi sets up for Cox and Miles to take over, becomes relentless, heavy, and thick as a brick. This is stone cold slow funk with a delta blues sensibility! This song is a 20th Century American masterpiece joining the works of Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. "Machine Gun" out weighs other great songs because it is so deep, yet so simple, and when it's done you feel like you've just watched a very intense movie in THX. The song is played using one chord. One chord! With this one chord and his maple necked Fender Strat tuned down a whole step to D, he blurs the gap between major and minor. This piece of work also happens to be the Encyclopedia Brittanica of everything that is possible with the electric guitar. A master class in feed back, whammy bar usage, sustain, over bends, double stops, effects, behind the neck tapping, spring manipulation, and how to create the sound of air.
Cinematic, Jimi's guitar cries, wails and moans, displaying pictures of rice paddies, despair, screaming victims, bullets cutting through the thick humid air, and the pain of unjustified death. Jimi shows us through sheer sound that farmer on his knees, screaming at the top of his lungs, kneeling in a rice paddy, with a defiant fist in the air and a snarl on his lips. Then he is cut to pieces by a spray of bullets. Rat-a-tat-tat!
"The same way you shoot me down baby, you'll be goin' just the same, three times the pain. And your own self to blame."
Groove wise this songs is as hard gut bucket as it gets. Buddy Miles plays the shit out of those drums! Ladies and gentleman the monster is walking! When you hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the machine gun, Buddy Miles makes you feel it hitting you in the chest. Billy Cox had ESP with Jimi. All they needed was a look from each other and they were together like Siamese twins.
Holding down that groove and keeping it alive and steady was his gift. Few can match his ability to make his bass surge, breath, and pulsate all at the same time. It's that deep southern R&B vibe he puts forth that makes this song so deep and earthy. Billy Cox grounds us with deep southern R&B, Hendrix takes us to the outskirts of infinity, and Buddy Miles beats the shit out of everybody. It's almost performance art but the song lets your mind see all the action. Like Hitchcock, Hendrix pans the camera away from the subject to allow you to imagine the absolute worst. Yeah, I like this song alot. But opinions varied in regards to Buddy Miles's drumming.
Charles Shaar Murray: "Whereas Mitch was all fire and air, with one foot in the jazz world of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams and the other in the flamboyant Britrock double-bass-drum tradition of Keith Moon and Ginger Baker, Miles was earthier to the max with on-the-one roots in deep heavy funk. He was incapable of soaring into the up-and-out as Mitchell could, but he could anchor Hendrix as Mitchell couldn't. The Experience rhythm section was wiry; the Gypsys were solid, meaty and muscular. It wasn't just the musicians' skins that were blacker; the music was too."
After the last Fillmore shows while Jimi rehearsed the band, Mike Jeffrey was plotting to bring The Experience back together. That last Fillmore show was the only show that The Band of Gypsys were committed to and in Mike Jeffrey's mind it was time to move on. The Band of Gypsys was simply a project Jimi put together to take him to the next project. The Jimi Hendrix Experience became Gypsys Sons and Rainbows, which became The Band of Gypsys, which would later evolve into something else. This something else might have been a project with Steve Winwood. Lots of ideas were up in the air and all this could change at any time because in an interview with The Record Mirror Jimi stated that he would "play with Mitch maybe, but not with Noel for sure". So then you have to ask yourself, what's wrong with Buddy Miles?
Robert Wyatt: "Buddy could be pleasantly messy. He wasn't as tight as a Stax drummer. He was no drum machine; his rolls would clatter about a bit."
Mike Jeffrey, with his knee in Jimi's back, put on the pressure to get rid of Miles. He did whatever he needed to do to get his way. The effects of coercion and alienation took their toll on Jimi. Jeffrey simply did not want The Band of Gypsys to exist. Noel Redding got a call to reform The Experience! Things got worse when Jimi's drug abuse worsened, and he and Miles got into a few arguments. Jimi was the star, but Miles though dedicated to the project, had a large ego. He wanted to be a star in his own right. After all, Miles's last album "Electric Church" had done very well for Mercury Records and they wanted him back. He was a successful player in the music industry and had his own core audience that he brought to The Band Of Gypsys' shows and to the record stores. This could cause some conflict.
Mike Bloomfield: "Buddy is Superspade. If you melted down James Brown and Arthur Conley and Otis Redding into one enormous spade, you'd have Buddy...he is the quintessence of all R&B amassed in one super talented human being. His singing is just superb, his drumming is just the best. He's the superman."
Electric Gypsy: "...Jimi was not happy having Buddy Miles as his regular drummer because he wasn't good enough. Jimi wanted someone like Mitch to play against. Buddy was fine for jamming at the Scene and socially he was great fun - he and Jimi had some good times together.
But as Gerry Stickells observed, Buddy was a solid, lay down the beat, rock'n' roll drummer. Mitch had a certain bit of jazz background there that allowed him to move around a bit, around what Jimi was doing.
Jimi didn't handle this situation at all well. He needed to make some hard choices and voice them, but he could not come to a decision. He knew what he wanted to do but couldn't look Buddy in the eye with the truth. To add to all of this, Jimi had a run in with Mike Jeffrey.
Jeffrey demanded that he fire Buddy Miles or he could tear up his contract. As usual the record company had their own ideas of what was best for Jimi.
Billy Cox: "Buddy and I thought that because they had successfully marketed the Jimi Hendrix Experience as being these two white guys, with Jimi in the middle, they didn't want to change horses midstream and go with three black guys up there."
On January 28th 1970, The Band of Gypsys were to play last their show at Madison Square Garden for the Winter Festival For Peace. It was organized by the Vietnam Moratorium committee with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary running the show and getting all the talent to play for free. Jimi showed up too stoned to play.
Johnny Winter: "When I saw him it gave me the chills. It was the most horrible thing I'd ever seen. He came in with his entourage of people and it was like he was already dead. He just walked in and even though Jimi and I weren't the greatest of friends, we always talked, always - and he came in with his head down, sat on the couch alone and put his head in his hands. He didn't say a word to anybody and no one spoke to him. He didn't move until it was time for the show. He really wanted to do that gig, but he never should have."
As he walked on stage a woman yelled out "Foxey Lady!". Jimi responded with "Foxey Lady is sittin' right over there, in the yellow underpants stained with dirt and blood." People in the audience were mortified! He then performed terrible versions of "Who Knows" and "Earth Blues", then stumbled to the mike and said "That's what happens when earth fucks with space, never forget that." He then sat down on the stage near the drums and refused to continue.
Buddy, trying to take control of the situation, addressed the audience. "Listen it seems as though we are not quite getting it together here. Just give us a little more time because it has been hard. Give us a few minutes and we'll try to get something together." Jimi unplugged his guitar, went back to his dressing room, and bent over with stomach cramps.
Sacha Reins: "Jimi picks up his guitar again, and he tries to start another song, but it is even worse. Then he throws his guitar on the floor and leaves, his body shaking from sobbing. Apart from a few fools who are booing, everybody is silent. They are getting up and stand in silence, unable to comfort a friend, the idiots."
Billy Cox: Buddy and I walked over to Madison Square Garden, went into the dressing room, and there was Jimi. He was not in the best shape. Jimi was sitting next to Jeffery, and we knew it wasn't going to work. Jimi was in bad shape. We thought about not going out there, because someone was trying to make assholes out of us, but we did. We thought Jimi might be able to make it, but we only got through that one song before it started coming apart. What went down was very embarrassing, and it left Jimi angry and disillusioned. It was unfortunate."
From the book Setting the Record Straight : "Buddy Miles claims that Michael Jeffery, in a deliberate effort to sabotage the Band of Gypsys' s performance, slipped Hendrix LSD backstage. "Both my sister and I saw Jeffery slip Hendrix two tabs of acid, and I personally saw Hendrix take them. He looked so scared.""
We'll probably never find out the truth. Some say Jimi accidentally did it to himself. After all, this had happened before in Germany. Others say that Jimi was already high and Mike Jeffrey made it worse by giving him acid before the show. The popular belief is that Mike Jeffrey gave Jimi bad acid as a "Final Solution" to destroy the band publicly. This was backed up by Buddy Miles' statement.
Whatever the cause, it was the end of The Band of Gypsys. Backstage Mike Jeffrey confronted Buddy Miles and told him he was fired. Billy Cox didn't feel welcome and went home to Nashville. Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell would be soon on their way to New York from England. The next day in the press, Jimi made a statement to the effect that he was not happy with The Band of Gypsys. He singled out Buddy as having too much "earth" for his taste.
Throughout my research for this essay that word kept popping up. Earth. What does that mean? Maybe there was a little too much James Brown and not enough Tony Williams. Too much funk and not enough of Jazz? Too much earth fucking with space? I've always sought that magical drummer who could combine Mitchell's unadulterated fire, flash and mayhem, with Miles's earth, weight and gut bucket funk. Imagine a drummer who could fill that position for Jimi, fulfilling his most urgent musical and emotional needs. The later rhythm section of Cox and Mitchell effects a groovalistic compromise between the two radically different feels. Buddy Miles and Mitch Mitchell were two sides of the same coin. Both brilliant musicians. Whenever I hear a Hendrix tune I always wonder what the other would have brought to the table.
Oscar J. Jordan III
For more of Oscars' essays, go to:
Soul Patrol: The Jimi Hendrix Black Experience!