a riff on hendrix for “love & then some: 1960s protest & liberation” @ blake & the age of aquarius exhibition panel, block museum.
Are you experienced?: Jimi Hendrix & the countercultural politics of the uncategorizable
Delivered at the “Love and Then Some: 1960s Protest and Liberation, Civil & Human Rights” Panel Discussion, William Blake and the Age of Aquarius exhibition @ Block Museum, with subsequent revisions.
The Blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. — Ralph Ellison, “Richard Wright’s Blues”
We must also see how he managed to overcome tradition’s constraints, twisting them into creative opportunities, electrifying them, blending and bending them into different registers of protest and affirmation. — Paul Gilroy, “Bold as Love? Jimi’s Afrocyberdelia and the Challenge of the Not-Yet”
The way I write things, they are just a clash between reality and fantasy. — Jimi Hendrix
Can you squeeze liberation from an electric guitar string? This is a question that might be worth asking when it comes to the Age of Aquarius, since rock music and its electric guitars were central to that era in so many ways. The simplistic answer was yes, it did: rock liberated millions of people, especially young people, from the constraints and alienations of conformist postwar America. Others, from the time period itself to today, resolutely say no: rock was not liberating, it was, instead, the sound of a faux-revolution; decadent, commercialized, juvenile, coopted if not produced by the very systems it sought to protest, rock was ultimately only sound and fury, signifying nothing. These debates rage on, often framed by how to measure rock and the counterculture’s worth within conventional politics of the 1960s and thereafter.
But rock and roll was hardly conventional as an art form. Nor was the counterculture that arose from it, around it really a conventional kind of politics. No one speaks more to this unconventionality than the guitarist, songwriter, and visionary Jimi Hendrix. Born in Seattle, Washington, in 1942, to a mixed-heritage family, mostly African-American but also with Native American and European American ancestry, Hendrix made some of the most quintessential countercultural music. If we take Hendrix himself as a quintessential countercultural personality, we might picture him as a seeker of spiritual enlightenment in the secular forms of rhythm and blues, a technical wizard interested in the pastoral and primitive, an engineer of Gnosticism, an antinomian with a major-label recording contract, a cybernetic feedback systems analyst of sound who didn’t seek to put the machine in the garden so much as see if there was a garden to be found in the machine—and what kinds of sins lurked there as well as an Edenic paradise. Here was no simple project of political emancipation or ideological protest. We are into something far richer, more complex, more fraught.
Could you squeeze liberation from an electric guitar string? Maybe that’s not quite the right question to ask. Take what is perhaps Jimi Hendrix’s most famous riff, from the start of his song “Purple Haze,” which became a big hit and countercultural anthem in the summer of 1967, the Summer of Love. The riff most certainly does not wear flowers in its hair. This is no call for peace and love here. It’s a fuzzed-out, nasty snarl, a sneering announcement that something is not right. It features a flatted fifth note, suggesting what in Western musical traditions is known as the devil’s tritone or diabolus in musica, the “devil in music.” It’s a dissonant interval that I think William Blake would have liked. If this is liberation, it’s a disorienting, seething, ominous kind, terrifying not soothing, troubling not freeing.
“Don’t know if it’s day or night,” Hendrix sings. “Don’t know if I’m climbing up or down.” “Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?” “Help me, help me.” There may not be liberation here, but there is engagement. Does that engagement involve protest? On the surface, “Purple Haze” is just a protestation about love, about a girl who “put a spell on me.” But the fact that the girl in “Purple Haze” put a spell on Hendrix hardly seems like enough of a problem for the onslaught of psychedelicized power that the tune unleashes. His guitar sounds loud enough to peel paint as he runs across vaguely oriental modal scales that rise and fall out of the song’s main riffs and its pentatonic chord changes. It crunches and bends, metallic overtones wrung from pinched strings, little blurred vibrations hitting the pickups, transformed into a flood of electrons as Hendrix fingers the fretboard, in search of breakthrough, but never getting there. This song seems to encompass so much more than just lost love. As a countercultural anthem, “Purple Haze” aims for something much more immersive, much more ideologically destabilizing. Its theme is not justice and rights, but the groundings of self and society in which justice and rights take place. This is a song that, like so much of Hendix’s oeuvre, like so much of the counterculture’s energies, probed what exactly constituted the human in human rights. The question was not “why isn’t this fair?” so much as, to quote one of Hendrix’s heroes, Bob Dylan, “how does it feel?”
And how does “Purple Haze” feel? What is this song, resonating at high noon during the Summer of Love, about? It is not so much a song of peace and love, but much more of war, the Vietnam War in particular. Hendrix takes us to a sonic realm somewhere between the Mississippi Delta and the Mekong Delta, as if one were a machine gunner at the open door of a chopper in Vietnam, only spraying blues licks instead of bullets. While Hendrix did not serve in Vietnam, he was a former paratrooper in the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne. And many at the time, both in the theater of war and back at home, did think he had done a tour of duty in Southeast Asia. Although Hendrix claimed “Purple Haze”‘s lyrics came from a nightmare of walking underwater into a purple cloud after reading a science fiction magazine story about a purple death ray, there is good reason to believe he also was aware of the US Army’s M-18 colored smoke grenade, which in Vietnam and elsewhere spread a thick cloud of purple cover. So too, American servicemen often referred to going on patrol in the muggy Vietnam countryside as getting “hazed.” Hendrix was very aware of the pervasive presence of Vietnam in American culture, including the counterculture. By 1970, he would dedicate the song “Machine Gun” to, in his words, “all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago, and Milwaukee and New York. Oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam.” “Purple Haze” was not a song overtly about Vietnam, not in any explicit way; but psychically, associatively, Hendrix conveys a mood of war, turmoil, conflict, anger, perturbation, disconcertment, fragmentation, anguish, dissociation.
Even back in 1967, it wasn’t only the flower power love scene at places like the Monterey International Pop Festival that inspired Hendrix. It was something more war-like. After all, he lit his guitar on fire in a ritualistic sacrifice of auto-destructive pop art at that event. Hendrix brought dark and light, flames of love and of hate, together in intensely complex music. It was this quality of confronting the world’s woes with a bluesy ferocity that fired the countercultural imagination. We might remember, for example, that while many thought that “Purple Haze” was inspired by the “Monterey Purple” LSD made by Owsley Stanley III and distributed at the festival, it was in fact the opposite: Owsley named his potent batch of acid after the Hendrix song, which had been recorded earlier the year and was emerging as a hit that May and June of 1967. Which, if you think about it, is to say that the supposedly most liberating drug of all in the counterculture, LSD, a drug that we should remember was secretly researched and perfected by the CIA, aimed to deliver the hallucinogenic confusions of Hendrix’s sonic evocations, not the other way around. “Monterey Purple” was about the power of “Purple Haze” as a song, not the reverse. If the counterculture was all about the drugs, as many claim, then the drugs were, perhaps, all about the music.
And the music in this case was not liberating so much as about entrance, exploration, investigation, engagement. If it protested anything, it protested the idea that liberation itself would be easy or straightforward. Instead “Purple Haze” was the opening salvo in Hendrix’s efforts to imagine what he sometimes called an “electric sky church,” a sonic space of fluid and uncategorizable identities in which music might be able to, in his words, “save the kids…to help them realize a little more what their goals should be.” Not deliver the emancipation, not force liberation upon them, but serve as a resource for the difficult task ahead of even figuring out what they were fighting for.
Refusing to be pinned down to any conventional ideology or political position—Hendrix variously resisted being narrowed down to a Black Panther, New Leftist, former Army paratrooper, guitar-god, a hippie utopian, or any other recognizable position—he instead fingered the limits of freedom, its jagged edges of distortion and electricity. In Hendrix’s musical performances, he landed on dissonant irresolution as his truth and amplified it for all to hear and feel.
Maybe, then, Hendrix…and the counterculture of the Aquarian Age as a whole…were less interested in The Doors’s sophomoric call to “break on through to the other side.” Maybe they were after something else, something more Blakean, still not entirely understood even today, something funkily devilish yet also transcendently angelic, something alive to the moment at hand yet also capable of dreaming of futuristic alternatives. Not liberation so much as engagement—the capability, through music, to explore Blake’s “two contrary states of the human soul,” innocence and, especially, experience.
That seems to have been where Jimi Hendrix wanted to get to when he asked, on the title track to his first full-length album, in a groove close by “Purple Haze,” the question not “have you ever been liberated?” or “have you ever been protesting?” but rather, rising up to the tonic chord on a wave of electronically manipulated, backwards guitar strums and a steady, marching-band drum rudiment, “Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have.”