Matthew T Grant

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Tall Guy. Glasses.

Six Views of a Machine Gun

Inspired by Chuck Klostermann’s inspiring analysis of Led Zeppelin’s last performance at Knebworth. Thanks, Chuck.

1. Jimi Hendrix kicked off the last year of his life (1970) playing a series of shows at the Fillmore East with the Band of Gypsies. It is from one of these shows, recorded for posterity and released first as the album Band of Gypsies, that we have the definitive performance of his only overtly political song, “Machine Gun.” While the band played this song several times during their engagement, and Hendrix continued to play it until his death that September, this is the keeper:

2. When I was a kid, the off-handed political militancy of Jimi’s intro to this song was one thing that made it especially cool, even subversive and dangerous. Quoth Hendrix, “Happy New Year, first of all. I hope we have a million or two million more of them, if we can get over this summer [Foreshadowing!]. Ha, ha, ha. We’d like to dedicate this one to the draggin’ scene that’s going on: All the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago, Milwaukee, and New York. Oh, yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. I’d like to do a thing called, ‘Machine Gun.'”

Now, Hendrix wasn’t particularly political and, if the Ghetto Fighters are to be believed, his interest in the Panthers, or any other “soldiers” fighting in on the streets of America’s cities for that matter, was really more about his search for an identity that was more “black” and less, um “British.” Nevertheless, this kind of talk fit perfectly my (admittedly fantastical) view of the Sixties as a time of revolution with Hendrix’s music as the soundtrack. Indeed, though I didn’t see it until much later, the version of “Machine Gun” from Jimi Plays Berkeley, intercut with images of rioting in Berkeley, captured this quite literally.

Then, at the end of the “Machine Gun” at the Fillmore, after wringing various sounds of battle from his Strat and bringing the song to a close, Jimi brings us up short with this, “That’s what we don’t want to hear any more of.” One could dwell on those words, spoken at that moment, in that context, for a long, long time.

3. I’m no gear-head, so I can’t tell you exactly how Hendrix produces the guitar sounds he uses to begin “Machine Gun.” I can tell you, however, that the atmospheric monumentality of those sounds lend the song an almost sci-fi aura and mark the peak of the psychedelic drone blues that Hendrix pioneered.  The song swims along in a murky, miasmal, vibrato-laden soup teeming with primordial riffs, hyper-focused bent tones, and the occasional space-war sound effect. Then, at around the 7:21 mark in the video posted here, Hendrix unleashes an insanely fluid run, culminating in surprisingly articulate wah-wah and whammy bar work, which serves to pull the song deep into an inter-dimensional vortex emerging onto a molten funk-scape. Or so it has often seemed to me.

4. Back in 1991, I spent a month in Berlin doing research on my dissertation, reading Moby Dick (which was, oddly enough, a favorite of the incarcerated leaders of the Baader-Meinhof Gang), and feeling lonely. At one point, though, my friend Dan arrived from Amsterdam and one afternoon he and I and a mutual friend sat around the apartment in which I was staying and listened to “Machine Gun” on a little clock radio. In spite of the tinny mono speaker, the song wove its magic and I was once again lost in its surging, mind-bending strains. The song that came on after was “Praying for Time” by George Michaels. It was not an incongruous coda.

5. In his play, “Dutchman,” LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) has one of his characters say, “Charlie Parker?… Bird would’ve played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-Seventh Street and killed the first ten white people he saw. Not a note!” I’ve often thought of this quote while considering how different the world might be if, on that star-spangled morning at Woodstock, Hendrix had stepped onto the stage, machine gun in hand, and emptied a clip into the throngs of mud-caked hippies.

6. In my pantheon of musicians, Jimi Hendrix ranks high. In fact, when I was younger, the only musicians that were even close to him, in terms of my levels of obsession and adulation, were Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. When I learned that Hendrix tended to have a violent and abusive temper with his girlfriends, with some even speculating that Monika Dannemann hesitated to call an ambulance when Jimi was dying of a drug overdose because she feared his wrath when he awoke (he never did), I was bummed.

I mention it here because reality is my religion and it’s important to me that, rather than mythologizing our idols, we choose to view them in the full flush of their flawed humanity. It was for this reason that, when we played “Foxy Lady” with my band “The Crazy Iris,” I introduced it with, “This song is by Jimi Hendrix, who was an abuser and beat his girlfriends.” Our drummer protested, but the truth is the truth.

And while I don’t agree, thanks to Hannah Arendt, with Mao’s famous dictum that power comes from the barrel of a gun, I do believe that, under certain circumstances, a machine gun may speak the truth.

Jimi Hendrix

I’ve been listening to Hendrix ever since I bought a 45 of “All Along the Watchtower” back in 1978. I’d like to write about the waxing and waning of my obsession with him but, instead, I’ll just post this video of his appearance with the original Experience in Stockholm in 1969:

http://youtu.be/TeZ9OOAe1Ho

Can Academic Inquiry Justify Itself?

At the end of Stanley Fish’s review of Naomi Schaefer’s “The Faculty Lounges: and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For,” he agrees with her critique of tenure and the principle of academic freedom by disagreeing with her.

According to Fish, Schaefer claims that tenure and academic freedom are anachronistic in an academic environment in which research and teaching are beholden either to vocational or to political goals. Her conclusion is that we should do away with these anachronisms for said reason. His conclusion is that the academy needs to go “back to a future in which academic inquiry is its own justification,” thus simultaneously justifying tenure and the notion of academic freedom (understood as the freedom to pursue the truth on its own terms rather than in the service of a particular practical or political goal) and aiding the academic resistance to “monitoring by external constituencies.”

My question is: Does Fish’s argument make any sense?

On the one hand, the utopian vision of an academy that can ignore external constituencies, while appealing, seems absolutely ridiculous. Setting aside the problems that would thereby arise for academics interested in studying “external constituencies” (I’m thinking of economists, linguists, humanists, sociologists, anthropologists, biologists, zoologists, etc.), wouldn’t this in essence be an academy without students (since, before and after there time within its hallowed halls, they would be externally constituated) and, frankly, faculty?

On the other hand, while inquiry may be able to justify itself (though I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean), justification is always for an other. In the case of academia, researchers need to justify their inquiry to a host of others if they want to get an academic appointment, get published, or simply get funding. In fact, it is this latter reality which Schaefer explicitly references in the title of her book.

As long as someone is paying you to pursue research, your research will have at least some relationship (in this case, monetary) with an “external constituency” and cannot be “its own justification.” Right?

More Ragged Glory and Wild Virtuosity

In general, the guitarists I’ve liked the best tend to be kind of raggedy. Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix are perfect examples of this. Their playing was kind of sloppy, kind of slurry, and, at the edges, out of control. For some reason, to my ears, that has always sounded better than the textbook, super-fluid shredder (the best example of that being somebody like Al DiMeola).

I was thinking about this when I attended a bar mitzvah the other week. It was a very intimate and, as far as bar mitzvah’s go, very restrained and modest affair. The service was conducted in someone’s home by an Israeli rabbi with the assistance of a cantor lady.

My wife thought the cantor had a beautiful voice, and I guess it was in its way, but it was too perfect, too trained, really. I like to hear the human in a singing voice, and not simply pure notes generated by a disciplined vocal apparatus. It’s why I’ve tended to admire singers like Frank Sinatra or Scott Walker or, more recently, Karen Dalton.

It’s also why I prefer early sixties Coltrane (1960 European tour with Miles, 1961 Village Vanguard sets with Dolphy)—where he starts overblowing and veering into the noise—to the immediate, post-heroin sheets of sound you hear on Soultrane or the stuff with Monk at Carnegie Hall (recorded in ’57, discovered in 2005) or even Giant Steps.

It’s also why I’ve always preferred John McLaughlin (Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire, Love Devotion Surrender, Emergency!, etc.) to DiMeola and Slayer to Metallica.

What do you prefer?

Photo Credit: Jungle_Boy