Monday, July 4, 2011

Star Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix (1969)

For baby boomers, no rendition of our national anthem is more potent than the one performed in the final set of Woodstock by Jimi Hendrix. I don't know what people encountering his Star Spangled Banner for the first time might think about it now, but then, it was the very personification of the socio-political conflicts of the era from whence it came.

I have already written about how Hendrix's cover of All Along the Watchtower represented the chaos of that time period in a way that Bob Dylan never anticipated - and himself applauded. That was the thing about Hendrix - he channeled mayhem in a way no one else could, or dared to.

One can hardly imagine what Francis Scott Key might have thought about this particular cover. Hendrix had been performing it in live shows throughout the year before Woodstock, and not always to appreciative reception. There were concerns about whether he should perform it at all in a venue that was supposed to be all about peace, love and understanding. But he did - albeit 10 hours behind schedule from all of the technical difficulties the event had contended with.

In fact, the sun was rising on the new day as, with the instrument that gave him voice, Hendrix contorts and bends the anthem into submission, with and without a wah wah pedal, screaming feedback alternating with melodic interludes that had the audience utterly rapt for four minutes - then he transitioned without a break directly into Purple Haze. There's even a few seconds of the bugle call from Taps thrown in for good measure, a requiem if there ever was one.

All of this played out against the backdrop of an ever-escalating undeclared war in Vietnam. In just a few more months, President Nixon, by executive order, reinstituted the draft, and young men I knew personally began to quake in their boots as the "lottery" that was devised to handle this put them squarely in the crosshairs.

Was the Star Spangled Banner, Woodstock edition, an act of pure contempt or a clarion call for everyone to face up to what was happening in the world? On this 235th American Independence Day, I only know that we are allowed to decide the answer to that for ourselves.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

She's A Rainbow, Rolling Stones (1967)

"I looked up at the sky and said, "Brian, you fool. Why did you have to take it all so seriously? You should have stuck around for the good time."
- Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, in an interview in the UK's The Independent in 2001

This post is in tribute to Brian Jones, who died on this day in 1969, in his own swimming pool, only a few weeks after being given his walking papers by the Rolling Stones. Accounts vary on whether the circumstances were suspicious or entirely his fault. Regardless, he was widely believed to be the soul of the Stones at one time, the one who shaped the general direction of their career at the outset, and probably the most accomplished of them as a musician. One can only imagine what might have been different if his drug- and alcohol-addled story had taken a better turn.

Jones was a multi-instrumentalist, taught to play piano by his mother, a piano teacher. He was into jazz at first, but in 1962, he placed an ad in a London-based jazz publication seeking musicians for an R&B group. That London scene was very tight knit, and with Jones making regular trips to the city to sample what was coming out of the clubs, the kids who would become the original Rolling Stones landed a gig at the Marquee Club, soon becoming a premiere live act anywhere they appeared. Their first record deal followed in 1963. (See previous post on Satisfaction for more history.)

It could have been so right, but for Jones, it all went wrong. He was ultra-sensitive and moody, he had a hard time living in the shadows of Mick Jagger's theatrics, and when Jagger and Keith Richards began writing their own material (which Jones did not, at least not well, according to their longtime manager Andrew Loog Oldham), the Stones parted the ways from their blues roots and became the embodiment of rock and roll. Jones became difficult, distant and downwardly-spiralling. Since their early output was covers of mostly American R&B material, it's hard to say where Jones thought they might have been headed.

Getting him to write was a goal of Loog Oldham's, according to one interview. "You looked at the likely lads ... the ones who were not confused by the game and that was Mick and Keith. I did try and get the songs out of Brian he professed to have in him. I put him in a hotel room with Gene Pitney, who was no slouch in the song-writing department ... and the results were C sides. You cannot write down to pop music, it smells out the fake. And in that department Brian was a fake ... he wanted the rewards of pop, but viewed himself a purist, and Mick and Keith's early efforts junk ... A convoluted, talented, very talented, tortured annoying human being."

Talent he did have in spades. In addition to guitar, harmonica and several other instruments, Jones played the organ, harpsichord and the polyphonic Mellotron. It was the latter which, combined with Nicky Hopkins' deliberate, gorgeous piano stylings in She's A Rainbow, help make it the stunner it is, and a favorite from this psychedelic time period.

There was a camp that felt She's A Rainbow was going way off the reservation for the Stones, or that they were just copying Sgt. Pepper. I never felt that way at all (vastly preferred it to Sgt. Pepper, truth be told), and found the musicality of the song to be as delightful then as I do now. Another multi-instrumentalist and former session musician, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, developed the string arrangement. 

Jones also knew talent when he saw it, and was one of the people responsible for launching Jimi Hendrix in the U.S., having been an avid follower of his career in Britain to that point. Although the Stones did not perform at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, it was Jones who got up onstage in the dead of night and introduced 200,000 attendees to Jimi and his Experience, their first significant American exposure, after suggesting to Festival organizer John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas that Hendrix was not to be missed. 

To a young girl not sophisticated in who was a brilliant musician and who was just window-dressing, my thoughts of Brian Jones back in the day ran to his beautiful smile and sleek mop of hair. I always thought he looked almost angelic at times. He wasn't even close, but he left an indelible mark on music nonetheless. Check out some of his other great moments here.