Jul 24, 2011 3
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.