Reconstructing Jimi Hendrix's final album
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
On an otherwise nondescript day at work recently, I sat down and plugged in my iPod to the speakers that surround my monitor, dialed up Jimi Hendrix’s First Rays of the New Rising Sun, hit play and let it sit.
Eight hours or so later, with the album on repeat, I realized I’d let the whole thing run through at least six times in full. As an attentive listener who likes to keep things lively, letting one album soak for an entire day is not necessarily common. I can go on binges with an artist for days and weeks at time, but usually, that means running up and down the catalog.
That’s happened the past couple of weeks with Hendrix, mind you, but that last bit of his oh-so-short career, the months in the studio honing his vision on what was to eventually become First Rays of the New Rising Sun, is arguably the most fascinating of his career, if for not other reason than he didn’t get to finish it himself.
There have been a number of attempts at compiling his final album, intended to be a double LP. The single album The Cry of Love followed shortly after his September, 1970, death, and Rainbow Bridge was next. Scattered tracks appeared on War Heroes, Loose Ends and Crash Landing afterwards, and from there, it’s been a grab-bag of tracks left in the vaults, with some compilations a success, like the recent People, Hell and Angels and 2010’s Valleys of Neptune, and some catastrophic failures, such as the Alan Douglas-helmed Voodoo Soup in 1995.
With notes left behind, plenty of tracks to choose from and no shortage of fan intrigue, there have been a number of guesses, official and otherwise, at cooking up a tracklist that would have been, definitively, what Hendrix would have wanted as his next record.
I’d never thought seriously about it until this week, however. But I have all of these songs in iTunes and elsewhere; why not just make a playlist? Why not make four or five? As much as I love the medium, we’re not bound by the time consumption of mixing all of these songs down onto cassettes anymore. We don’t even have to burn each one to a CD, and if it’s longer than one CD, so be it.
So, with that, I took to the task of making a new Jimi Hendrix playlist, dubbed Strate Ahead in honor of his own poetic license, that casts an alternate vision of what his last album might have been had he not died so young, or had he been better about meeting long-overdue deadlines.
Reading up the past couple of weeks on this (Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight by John McDermott and Eddie Kramer, Room Full of Mirrors by Charles R. Cross and this nicely cited Wikipedia entry were big helps, of course) was a refresher course in his ever-changing plans for the proposed double LP. Such as they were, the final tracklist was never known to anyone outside of Hendrix, and whose to say how many more times he would have changed his mind if given the chance.
The folks at Experience Hendrix took the best and most respectable crack at this on 1997’s First Rays of the New Rising Sun, with all of the original instrumentation reinstated and remastered by Kramer. But even then, there are issues. “My Friend,” for example, was likely only included because it had already appeared on The Cry of Love, and not because Hendrix ever intended on placing it on his next album. The same goes for “Beginnings,” which, while at least dating from the same era as the rest of the material, wasn’t a certainty to find its way onto one of the four sides.
Perhaps the most interesting alternate setlist of the bunch is this one, which includes some in-progress ideas that have yet to be heard by fans. “Sending My Love to Linda” is floating around on bootlegs, but it’s hard to know what “Electric Lady – slow” could have meant, or what “This Little Boy” could have sounded like. But, removing the tracks that can’t be found by normal folks without a torrent client or an obscene amount of money at an auction, I used this tracklist as the skeleton for my playlist.
As it is, it likely couldn’t be considered a “final” version of First Rays of the New Rising Sun, or Strate Ahead, or whatever the fourth studio album was supposed to be. “Cherokee Mist” is included in his notes, which includes elements that would later find their way onto “In From the Storm.” “Valleys of Neptune” is also included, which he had stopped work on for some time — whether or not he’d planned on going back to it in time for this album is anyone’s guess.
Some other tracks listed here come as a point of preference. One example is “Hear My Train A Comin’,” which I pulled from Valleys of Neptune. The version recorded on People, Hell and Angels came later, and another studio take on The Jimi Hendrix Experience is also great, but, simply, I like the version on Valleys of Neptune best. It’s not quite choosing between children, but if that can count as a problem, it’s a good one to have. He also listed it by it’s earlier title “Getting My Heart Back Together,” so who knows when or if it would have made the cut.
Another challenge in assembling such a collection came with “Burning Desire.” Speaking strictly in terms of what was available to me, there were two versions of the track— a live take with the Band of Gypsys on Live at the Fillmore East, and a vocal-free studio instrumental on the West Coast Seattle Boy box set. So, there’s a choice: use the more complete live version, the sonically superior instrumental version or leave it out entirely. Here, I chose the West Coast Seattle Boy take. I didn’t want to start including live tracks when so much of this project was based on Hendrix’s work in the studio, and having another instrumental track certainly doesn’t take away from this in-practice album. If you’re used to the official First Rays of the New Rising Sun, this can be considered an even swap with “Beginnings.” The rules of playlists and mixes, however flimsy, have to be followed.
A couple of exclusions hurt a bit, such as leaving “Drifting” and “In From the Storm” off the list, though the latter is represented in part by “Cherokee Mist.” Also, an early version of “Come Down Hard on Me,” listed on one of the potential versions, appears in rough form on The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but it felt more at home on one of the albums of leftovers rather than the final statement. Improvements, though, came from “Midnight Lightning,” which is one of my favorite bits of Hendrix music, just him and him alone, flying up and down the fretboard, reinventing the blues.
My favorite inclusion came in rejoining “Bolero” with “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun),” a fully realized instrumental that runs directly into the near-title track on the studio reels. This combination was brought back to life on West Coast Seattle Boy, so it lives on again here.
With all that in mind, I pulled this together, titled Strate Ahead and maintaining the happily misspelled name, as an alternative to First Rays of the New Rising Sun, but certainly not a counter to it:
|1.||Ezy Ryder||First Rays of the New Rising Sun|
|2.||Room Full of Mirrors||First Rays of the New Rising Sun|
|3.||Earth Blues||First Rays of the New Rising Sun|
|4.||Valleys of Neptune||Valleys of Neptune|
|5.||Straight Ahead||First Rays of the New Rising Sun|
|6.||Cherokee Mist||The Jimi Hendrix Experience|
|7.||Freedom||First Rays of the New Rising Sun|
|8.||Stepping Stone||First Rays of the New Rising Sun|
|9.||Izabella||First Rays of the New Rising Sun|
|10.||Astro Man||First Rays of the New Rising Sun|
|11.||Drifter's Escape||South Saturn Delta|
|12||Angel||First Rays of the New Rising Sun|
|13.||Burning Desire||West Coast Seattle Boy|
|14.||Night Bird Flying||First Rays of the New Rising Sun|
|15.||Hear My Train A Comin'||Valleys of Neptune|
|16.||Lover Man||The Jimi Hendrix Experience|
|17.||Midnight Lightning||South Saturn Delta|
|18.||Dolly Dagger||First Rays of the New Rising Sun|
|19.||Bolero||West Coast Seattle Boy|
|20.||Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)||West Coast Seattle Boy|
Again, remember that this is just my version. Feel free to copy it, assemble your own or stick with what Experience Hendrix pulled together in 1997. With Hendrix’s career, so much of it winds up being a massive game of “what-if.” With the means, that game might as well be a bit productive and help shine a new sliver of light on his work.
I do feel that the official First Rays of the New Rising Sun comprises about 90 percent of what Hendrix intended. I doubt that “My Friends” would have made the cut, and “Bolero” likely should have earned its spot behind “Hey Baby,” if only to hear the man play more guitar. But, aside from some shuffling, it is at least within a decent radius of what was to be.
But that shouldn’t stop you from dreaming of the last chapter. Construct your own version, or wait a few years and we might see yet another reimagining of his ultimate piece. If nothing else, Hendrix has been arguably the best-represented dead artist of his generation on store shelves and in reissue campaigns. Besides, few artists stand up to repeated re-tellings and re-listens quite as well. Another version wouldn’t hurt.
March 17, 2013
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com