There’s a moment in the U2 documentary Rattle and Hum when Bono — in his typical annoying, self-righteous style — introduces a version of “Helter Skelter” like this: “This is a song that Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.”
Well by 1966, the Brits had up and stolen rock’n'roll from us. We needed someone to steal it back. Fortunately, fate provided just such an agent in the person of James Marshall Hendrix.
It was fate that gave Hendrix his middle name, the same as the name of the powerful brand of amp he would one day use to make noises never before heard by humans. It was fate, along with probably some amount of American racism, that made him go to London in 1966 in search of a recording contract. And it was fate (acting through ex-Animal Chas Chandler) that hooked him up with two big-haired British hipsters, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
They just happened to be the perfect backing band for Hendrix: rock enough to match Jimi’s thunder when they needed to, jazz enough to know when and how to get out of the way. I’ve always thought that Redding and Mitchell’s contributions to the Experience were underrated; the band may have been 95% Hendrix and 5% those guys, but still Jimi’s work with other groups never had that same flavor. For this reason, on mixes and whatnot I am always careful to credit the Jimi Hendrix Experience when appropriate.
Fate also conspired to give Hendrix just the right grounding in the rock’n'roll of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard — in fact he played in Richard’s band in his early years, until he was fired for upstaging the star — as well as the blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Albert King. Take this mixture, add bold artistic ambition, spike it with a massive dose of LSD-25, and you get something like this….
After blowing every important mind in the UK — including those of Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, and Jeff Beck — the Experience set out to conquer the U.S. with an appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. It was there, on June 18, 1967, that they gave the (literally) incendiary performance captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Jimi Plays Monterey. If you haven’t seen this movie, then what the hell are you doing reading this? Go watch it immediately. The Internet will still be here when you get back.
Monterey was Jimi’s star moment, his chance to cement a place in rock history. Backstage, he and the Who had flipped a coin to determine who would go on first; neither wanted to follow the other. Jimi lost. A normal person would be nervous under these circumstances. A normal person also would not be flying on acid when performing in front of tens of thousands of people, not to mention movie cameras. Jimi Hendrix was not a normal person. He may in fact have been nervous, but from the moment he hits the stage, tearing into a lethal version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” he is like a force of nature. Look at the audience — they don’t know what to make of this. They don’t even necessarily look happy so much as just stunned.
I don’t want to get into a blow-by-blow of this performance, which includes a stellar (if incomplete) version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” a fantastic run through “Purple Haze,” and a glimpse of Jimi’s softer side with “The Wind Cries Mary.” It’s all great, and it’s all prelude to the big finish, which Jimi introduces thusly:
It is no big story about going, you know, we couldn’t make it here so we go over to England, and America doesn’t like us because, you know, our feets too big and we got fat mattresses and we wore golden underwear. Ain’t no scene like that, brother, it’s just… dig, man, you know, I just [?] around to England and picked up these two cats, and now here we are. It was so, you know, groovy to come back here this way, you know, and really get a chance to really play.
You know, I could sit up here all night and say thank you, thank you, thank you, but…I wish I could just grab you, man, and just [smooching sounds]. One of them things, man, one of them scenes. But dig, you know, I just can’t do that….
So what I’m going to do, I’m going to sacrifice something right here that I really love…. Don’t think I’m silly doing this, because I don’t think I’m losing my mind…last night, man, ooh, God….
I’m not losing my mind, this is for everybody here. This is the only way I can do it, you know. So we’re going to do the English and American combined anthem, together, OK?
Don’t get mad. Nooooo…don’t get mad. I want everybody to join in too, alright? And don’t get mad, this is it, there’s nothing I can do more than this. Groove, look at those beautiful people out there…
With this, Hendrix points to his ears as if to say, Prepare to be damaged, and begins squeezing sheets of feedback from his machine, maneuvering it through the air like a toy spaceship. He humps the guitar, then starts working the tremolo bar with the fervor of a mad scientist, carving texture and shape out of the wall of noise. A light strumming across the surface of the strings, then he winds up and hits a monstrous power chord, then another, then another, and then the second one again, and then there are words…
“Wild thing, you make my heart sing….”
“Wild Thing” had first been recorded a year earlier by English band the Troggs, who are a subject in their own right, the inspiration for Lester Bangs’ famous essay “James Taylor Marked for Death.” The song they made famous, written by one Chip Taylor, has also been performed by everyone from Cheap Trick to X, the Kingsmen (of “Louie Louie” fame) to shrieking comedian Sam Kinison, Warren Zevon to Hank Williams, Jr.
But in truth there are far fewer cover versions than you might imagine; it takes guts, or maybe rocks in the head, to compete with Jimi, whose performance of “Wild Thing” is truly larger than life. He lays it all out there in one orgy of noise, sex, joy, and destruction. He struts, he sneers, he says “Sock it to me” and makes a clicking sound with his tongue. He interpolates a section of “Strangers in the Night.” He humps the stack of Marshall amps with his guitar, then he lays the guitar on the floor, douses it with lighter fluid, and sets it aflame. This is not unpremeditated — Hendrix knew he would have to pull out all the stops to top the Who — but it is terrific theatre. He lifts the blazing guitar and begins to smash it. And when it’s all over, after Jimi’s gone — as he would be gone, for real, soon enough — there’s still a sound. The sound of a guitar’s pickups melting. And that, my friends, is rock’n'roll.
(Update 5/2015: At one time this space was occupied by an embedded video of Jimi’s performance of “Wild Thing” at Monterey Pop, but this has been pulled off YouTube for copyright reasons. I recommend seeking out a copy of Jimi Plays Monterey from wherever you can get it.)