The Gift and the Curse of James Marshall Hendrix

Virtually every rock guitarist of the 70s era was influenced somehow or another by Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix defined rock guitar for the ensuing decade, exploring possibilities and expanding its parameters like no one before him. Agreed? Great.

Marty Friedman (ex-Megadeth shredder) recently caused a minor stir when he stated that he ‘never got’ Jimi Hendrix, and further stating that he always found Jimi’s music ‘primitive’. He says he ‘grew up really loving Frank Marino, Uli Roth and Robin Trower’, which loosely translates to ‘I like Hendrix-inspired music, but not Hendrix’s music itself’. It’s a generational thing; those who weren’t able to experience the whole Experience experience got to experience it some years later through musicians directly inspired by Jimi. Hendrix left us just as the decade began, but his music was alive and well throughout the 1970’s, interpreted and re-expressed by others. Here’s how Jimi’s spirit survived his passing, threading through the work of three phenomenally gifted musicians…

Robin Trower
As a member of Procul Harum, Robin Trower played several shows opening for Hendrix in 1970, including The Isle of Wight Festival and the Sept. 4 gig in Berlin. Hendrix died two weeks later; when Trower heard the news, he decided to write a song for Jimi. Trower studied Henrdix’s records for a few days, in order to become more acquainted with his playing, and wrote ‘Song for a Dreamer’, which became the final track on Trower’s last album with Procol Harum, ‘Broken Barricades’. Trower had already been a fan, enthralled as he watched Hendrix from the side of the stage each night on tour. But after studying Hendrix’s style for ‘Dreamer’, Trower’s approach to the guitar was changed forever. He traded in his Les Paul for a white Strat and left Procol Harum for a solo career.

Early Trower channeled the blues/funk/soul elements of Hendrix’s sound. He often drenched his lead playing in effects, but never lost that raw, emotive Strat tone. Check out the intro to ‘Victims of the Fury’, from the 1979 album of the same name, for a sublime example of the kind of atmosphere Trower can summon with his artistic use of effects. His solos can achieve the timbre and cadence of the human voice, meandering in and out of time while searching for hidden microtones. When Eddie Van Halen arrived in 1978, quickly overshadowing the previous generation of guitar heroes, someone wrote to Guitar Player magazine defending the old school, stating (I’m paraphrasing) ‘These new hot shots need a million notes to say what Robin Trower can say with just one’. True dat.

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Trower’s Hendrix leanings were both a blessing and a curse. Comparisons in the press were seldom favorable, with words like ‘mimic’ and ‘clone’ used often. But those searching for more ‘Hendrix music’ found it here. Trower’s writing and playing effectively carried Jimi’s sound forward into the world of early 1970s hard rock. In the UK, Robin Trower was hailed as the second coming; in the U.S. his 2nd LP, ‘Bridge of Sighs’ went Gold in 1974, and spent 31 weeks in the Top 100. But Trower can’t be dismissed as a mere copyist; no mere ‘clone’ could ever deliver the emotional content and depth of feeling infused within Trower’s lead playing.

‘Bridge of Sighs’ is perhaps the obvious choice of album to recommend, so I’m going to go left field and suggest ‘King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Robin Trower’, a live recording from 1977. While most of the KBFH releases are junk, I’d rate this release as the best live RT album ever. Recorded in Connecticut on the ‘In City Dreams’ tour, it features all of Trower’s strongest material to date, the production is mint, and the performances are sublime. Long out of print, but well worth hunting down. Bonus Points: Best guitar-face ever. Oh, and Robert Fripp once took lessons from him. For realz.

Uli Jon Roth
Uli Roth plays like Hendrix… If Jimi Hendrix was a vampire from Mars. Roth’s playing reimagines Hendrix as a neo-classical shredder with a psychedelic streak and technique to burn. A classically trained musician, Roth joined Germany’s Scorpions in 1974, and played up the Hendrixisms to the hilt. Roth borrowed the Aeolian mode from Ritchie Blackmore, married it to the acid rock freak-out of Jimi at his most experimental, and came up with a truly monstrous sound and style that was deeply indebted to Hendrix but also light years ahead of its time.

The four studio albums Roth recorded with Scorpions are, to this day, untouchable rock guitar showcases, thanks to Roth’s fiery playing and forward-thinking creativity. I’ll recommend ‘In Trance’ here, which showcases Uli Roth at his most face-meltingly obnoxious. No doubt this album resulted in many heads exploding back in 1975 (I can guaran-fucking-tee you that Eddie Van Halen had a few Uli Scorps albums as a teen). But over the course of the four Roth-Era studio albums, the Scorpions sound began to split into two ever-more distinct styles: the melodic but crunchy Schenker/Meine material and the Uli Roth-does-Hendrix songs; a divide most evident on Roth’s final studio album with Scorps, ‘Taken by Force’.

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Roth left Scorpions after ‘Force’ and formed Electric Sun, where he let his Hendrix flag fly. All three Electric Sun albums feature heavily orchestrated guitars, ambitious arrangements, and absolutely horrible lead vocals, all sung by the maestro himself. It must be stated here that Electric Sun’s second album, ‘Fire Wind’, contains the worst lead vocals on any rock record in my collection, often achieving extreme levels of unintentional hilarity. His occasional lead vox on Scorps albums were a tough listen, but here they come close to overshadowing Roth’s otherworldly guitaring.

Roth let his worship of Jimi Hendrix spill outside of mere guitar playing. He dressed like Jimi, and even dated Monica Danneman, who was also Hendrix’s girlfriend at the time of his death. Roth wrote several songs with Danneman, notable the outstanding ‘We’ll Burn the Sky’ from the aforementioned ‘Taken by Force’. Danneman committed suicide while living with Roth; perhaps he sings in his sleep.

Frank Marino
Frank Marino’s tale at once comic and tragic. At the age of 14, the Montreal-born Marino was hospitalized for an LSD overdose and admitted to the hospital for several weeks, with only a guitar to keep him occupied. He taught himself how to play the instrument, and at 15, started a band called Mahogany Rush. He turned 17 while in the studio recording the first MR album ‘Maxoom’. These are the elements of the story that Marino maintains are true to this very day. But back in 1972, the story was quite different…

Someone on Frank’s team; manager, agent, or perhaps the young Marino himself (although he denies this) concocted the story that Marino, while recovering from his bad trip, was visited by the spirit of Jimi Hendrix, after which Marino suddenly became a prodigy on the instrument. This myth has morphed and mutated; the version I read (in Creem Magazine!) stated that Marino ‘claimed’ that he was in a car crash and was visited by Hendrix’s ‘ghost’ while in a coma, and that Marino claimed to be ‘possessed’ by Jimi’s spirit. Even as a kid, I knew this was total horseshit. This stunt would haunt Marino and his band throughout the 70s, preventing him from being taken seriously as a musician by the mainstream press.

All of that ‘spirit’ nonsense may have garnered the young guitarist some valuable attention early on; his 2nd and 3rd LPs, ‘Child of the Novelty’ and ‘Strange Universe’, both released on Canadian indie labels, achieved his highest-ever chart placings in the U.S. But when MR was picked up by CBS, both Marino’s music and his unfortunate mythology went worldwide. The backlash came quickly. CBS hooked MR up with hard rock kings Leber-Krebs Management (Aerosmith, Ted Nugent) and secured them opening slots on many primo mid-70s tours and high profile festivals (Cal Jam II in ’78, A Day on the Green in ’79), but Marino couldn’t shake off the bad vibes from that early publicity ploy.

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Sometimes Marino was his own worst enemy. Early on, he dedicated the ‘Maxoom’ album to Hendrix and included a tribute song to Jimi (‘Buddy’), but also years later while on CBS, Frank made Jimi’s ‘Purple Haze’ and a section of ‘Machine Gun’ (retitled ‘Electric Reflections of War’) permanent parts of his live show. Moves like this didn’t make it any easier for Marino to break free of the Hendrix comparisons even as his music gradually evolved away from Jimi’s sound. By the time of 1980’s ‘What’s Next?’, the band had become a jazz-inflected heavy metal monster. The label dropped the ‘Mahogany Rush’ name and their last 2 CBS albums were released as ‘Frank Marino’ solo albums. It didn’t help sales. The ghost of Jimi still haunted.

Several generations of guitar freaks and rock critics have now come and gone, and Marino is just now starting to achieve the recognition he’s deserved for decades. Frank Marino is an absolute master of the instrument, and those who leave him out of discussions of the Great Guitar Gods of the 1970s are either woefully mistaken or willfully ignorant. As much jazz-informed as it is blues-based, Marino’s playing can be astonishingly fast and fluid, while managing somehow to be both unrelentingly fierce and impeccably tasteful. He wears his Hendrix on his sleeve, but a unique voice emerges through his stunning fluency in several different styles of guitar playing. Pick up either ‘Strange Universe’, for the prog-psych Jimi-esque side of Marino’s work, or ‘Juggernaut’, for a sample of his later, shred-tasticly metallic period.

Such is was love of Jimi Hendrix’s music and the grief over his loss that anyone stylistically similar was immediately branded a rip-off, unworthy of our respect and attention. To be sure, Trower, Roth, and Marino flew a little two close to the sun, and each of them paid a price. But by keeping the Hendrix sound alive as a genre all its own, these three were able to influence the Marty Freedman generation with their own Hendrix-infused music, which in turn speaks to the enormity of the Hendrix legacy, and of the depth and power of Jimi’s music. Hopefully Marty Friedman understands that, even if he doesn’t ‘get’ Jimi’s music, he’s been influenced by it all the same, via three gifted and creative guitarists who stood on the shoulders of a giant.

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