Experiencing Jimi Part II : John McDermott
BR: We talked about the first disc in the West Coast Seattle Boy box set, which takes us through the sideman days. The three discs that follow present a great timeline of Jimi’s career as a bandleader. How did you decide what to include on those?
JM: Our focus with West Coast Seattle Boy was to show the music as it was being created along an arc of time. You’re hearing take one of “Are You Experienced”; you’re hearing an interesting version of “Castles Made of Sand” or of “Freedom”. We’re trying to give you a look inside the music to see how some of these songs were developed. You have Jimi in his apartment or in his hotel room … it shows you different ways of how he brought these great songs to life and, in some cases, gave them an entirely different feel. I think that’s the interesting contextual opportunity this new record gave us. It was a project we spent a long time – a number of years, actually – pulling together.
We knew we wanted Valleys of Neptune [released this past March] to showcase the period of time between the completion of the Electric Ladyland album and before Electric Lady Studios. It was like, “Okay, where was Jimi in ’69?” – that was Valleys of Neptune.
For this project, however, we wanted the arc of the story to be from Seattle to his passing. We wanted him to tell his own story. The documentary DVD that’s included in the box set, “Voodoo Child” is Jimi, in his own words, telling his story.
For the four CDs, I began by wading through all those many releases by other artists, trying to get a sense of what Jimi sounded like before he became famous. So, as we already discussed, that was the first disc: the 15 best examples from that period. Not every single example, because that would water down the approach – we wanted to distill it to the really great examples of Jimi as a developing artist.
From there, on the remaining three discs, we really wanted to provide alternate views of music you knew and loved that you’d be totally blown away by – both studio versions you’d never heard before and live things that would knock you out. So those were our goals, and I think we were fortunate; we had the material and we certainly didn’t have to stretch it. There was so much that we could’ve easily done seven discs. But a four-cd set was where we wanted to go.
BR: Were there any pieces in particular that just tickled you personally?
JM: Well, there were a bunch of things … (laughter) For instance, there are some great hotel room recordings that give you a look at just how much Jimi dug Bob Dylan. If you recognize the timeline, he’s doing “Tears of Rage” before it was even on The Band’s debut album.
BR: I double-checked the dates myself, actually. (laughter)
JM: Jimi’s publicist, Michael Goldstein, also worked for Albert Grossman, who was Bob’s manager. Michael had access to those tapes that had been floating around and became The Great White Wonder and all that stuff back in the day. It just shows you how open-minded Jimi was to music. He loved the blues; loved Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and all those guys – but he also dug The Beatles and Dylan. Jimi was just free; he wasn’t afraid of what was happening around him – he just dug what he heard. So I thought that version of “Tears of Rage” was particularly great.
But there were many other things in there that I just absolutely loved. For example, his live recordings with the Band of Gypsys at the Fillmore East are wonderful. And I really enjoyed the version of “Are You Experienced” that’s on there: just three guys on the floor. This is it; this is how it started – it’s all right there. All those other things that got added later – the piano, the backwards guitar – embellished what was clearly a fabulous song to begin with; a tremendous idea that existed literally as soon as Jimi started strumming those chords at the beginning of the song.
BR: The very last cut, “Suddenly November Morning”, is just Jimi and his guitar, bare bones and beautiful. It makes the hair stand up on your arms.
JM: Yeah, that was really an important piece. We knew so much of what Jimi was doing at the time of his death, but we don’t know where it would have all gone. “Suddenly November Morning” is an example of even though we have all this music and we’ve put out all these releases, there’s still more. And more we don’t know about yet. And that’s what’s amazing.
“Suddenly November Morning” is a wonderful example of what I’m sure Jimi would’ve been working on had he lived. It’s how he approached writing: trial and error; play it; play it. “I’m not happy with it; I’m going to try it this way.” By making that effort, Jimi was able to make songs be what he wanted them to be. In that particular example, he had the “Drifting” melody – he dug it, but it just wasn’t what he wanted yet.
We just thought it was a good way to end the album: here’s what the future was looking like; here’s Jimi on his own, still creating.
BR: In your opinion, John, what’s Jimi’s legacy?
JM: The great contributors to culture stand the test of time – and I think Jimi has done that. For 40-plus years, he’s been seen as the innovator he was. His songs remain as amazing works that people are still interpreting in their own way. As a guitar player, there are innovations that have been modeled on things that he did with his own hands; now you have processors and all kinds of gear that try to create sounds that Jimi made with a piece of wood, six strings, and an amp. He’s rightfully acknowledged as the unique artist that he was.
If anything, I think the respect for Jimi has grown – he was once an outlaw counter-cultural hero. Now you can’t think of a Fender Stratocaster without thinking of Jimi Hendrix. You can’t mention an _electric guitar _with him being part of the subject. And we’re 40 years on from his passing.
BR: It’s true.
JM: Jimi’s music is still seen as special and unique; the legacy is so strong that it still has that effect. It’s like The Beatles: not that many people saw The Beatles play, but the music endures and people are still inspired by it.
Jimi was a special person; a special artist. When we’re putting these releases together, we’re aware of how much he is beloved. You always have to pay heed to that.
BR: You really love what you do, don’t you?
JM: Oh, absolutely. How could you not love doing this? It’s such a wonderful opportunity to share this music.
And the best part? There’s still stuff to learn.