It was a howl. There really is no other way to describe it.
When Jimi Hendrix closed his eyes, opened his mouth, hung his head back and laid into a heavily distorted note on his Fender Stratocaster, what came out was a howl – something primal, a pre-language cry from the deepest recesses of the primordial soup from which we all arose and to which we all eventually return.
Which may explain why, more than 40 years after his premature death at the age of 27, we have yet to hear another electric guitarist truly sound like Hendrix.
You can buy all the relevant gear; you can copy the tone; you can grab the officially licensed Hendrix fuzz pedal; you can imitate the fingerings and emulate the chord voicings; you can even play the same notes Hendrix played.
What you can’t do is re-create that howl.
It was at once a deeply personal and broadly universal sound. And though it is an unavoidable and universally accepted rite of passage for everyone who picks up an electric guitar to at least attempt to re-create it, in truth, the howl died with Hendrix.
Hendrix remains as popular today as he was in his lifetime, if not more so, and his music will be celebrated with a sold-out stop on the eighth edition of the Experience Hendrix All Star Concert at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts. Billy Cox, Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Dweezil Zappa, Eric Johnson, Doyle Bramhall II, Chris Layton, Eric Gales, Ana Popovic, Bootsy Collins and Mato Nanji are among the performers.
It is an awe-inspiring realization when you accept that Hendrix created a canon of such game-changing magnitude in four short years.
The Hendrix legacy is formed by three studio albums, one artist-approved live album, one nearly finished collection aborted by his untimely death, and reels and reels of incomplete tracks that will keep Experience Hendrix, LLC, busy with new compilations and updated releases for years to come.
Oh, but what magnificent recordings these were upon their release, and how magnificent they remain today. The albums – “Are You Experienced?” “Axis: Bold As Love,” “Electric Ladyland,” “Band of Gypsies” and the posthumous “First Rays of the Rising Sun” – wore the ephemera of late ’60s psychedelia – one might even argue they created that late ’60s psychedelia. They employed electricity, volume and the wonderful accidentals of high-decibel dynamics in service of a sound that simultaneously boasted a raw, animalistic, highly sexual fury and a calm and confident virtuosity.
But beneath the ephemera, what Hendrix played was the blues. His own blues, of course, a highly personalized sound that was propelled into the stratosphere by an ingenuous understanding and manipulation of electricity – but the blues, nonetheless.
Watch footage of Hendrix on stage, and imagine that you are viewing it in real time as the Vietnam War rages, Martin Luther King is assassinated, racism still reigns, and the values of the staid 1950s are obscured behind a cloud of a fragrant herbal smoke. Here is an impossibly sensual African-American man strutting about the stage like a possessed shaman, employing the guitar as a libidinous vehicle and playing a form of America’s music rooted in despair and the rage of inequality.
Let’s face it: Hendrix had to be freaking people out. There had been nothing like him before.
To hear Hendrix transform “The Star Spangled Banner” from an ode to nationalism into the electrified threnody for a nation’s promise – as he did most famously on stage at Woodstock in August 1969 – was to bear witness to an incredibly loud encapsulation of terror, despair, destruction and somehow, hope. It was a howl.
Hendrix captured a specific period in history through the sound of his guitar. He also connected those who truly listened to him to a bit of their own history, via the blues. Sadness and the indomitability of the human spirit shared space in that sound.
That’s why Hendrix still matters today, as much more than an icon, or a mere poster boy for a long-gone era. He connects us to something that is deep inside of us, even if we never knew it was there.