2017 October 04—Jimi Hendrix, the Devil’s Tritone & the Countercultural Politics of the Uncategorizable

talk for love and then some: 1960s protest & liberation panel @ block museum, northwestern university, 4 october 2017, 6 pm.

Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore West, February 1968. Photo: Baron Wolman.

Can you squeeze liberation out of a guitar string? Jimi Hendrix tried to. Refusing to be pinned down to any conventional ideology or identity (Black Panther, New Leftist, former Army paratrooper, guitar-god superstar, hippie utopian), he instead fingered the limits of freedom in his musical performances by quite literally noting the pain and dissonance involved in pursuing a countercultural politics of the uncategorizable—even as he also amplified the emancipatory drive at the heart of 1960s protest.

I will be speaking (briefly, but with music and pictures) on Wednesday, 4 October 2017, 6 pm at “Love and Then Some: 1960s Protest and Liberation, Civil & Human Rights” panel as part of the Block Museum’s programming for the exhibition William Blake and the Age of Aquarius.

Addendum: You can now hear the talk, or view a slightly revised text of it.

5 thoughts on “2017 October 04—Jimi Hendrix, the Devil’s Tritone & the Countercultural Politics of the Uncategorizable

  1. First, Jimi Hendrix was not an infantryman; he was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles. He would tell his fellow paratroopers that he wanted to capture “air sounds” on his guitar “like he heard in jump school training: the droning roar and rumble of the plane’s engines, the rush of wind cascading past the ears on the journey back to solid ground.” I think he succeeded.

    We do him (and his art) a great disservice, however, when we try to fit him into the mold of “politics” – even if it is “the countercultural politics of the uncategorizable.” There was no dogma or demagoguery to him. His belief was that “music is stronger than politics.First and foremost, he was an artist, who was working in a new form of electric poetry and should be treated as such. We also should be careful not to automatically affix the label of protest to the music of the mid to late ‘60s. More often than not the artists were affirming rather than rejecting something.

    Hendrix said of himself “Music is my religion.” And he embraced that belief with all his being.

    He took the matter further saying: “I believed in myself more than anything. And, I suppose in a way, that’s also believing in God. If there is a God and He made you, then if you believe in yourself, you’re also believing in Him…That doesn’t mean you’ve got to believe in heaven and hell and all that stuff. But it does mean that what you are and what you do is your religion… When I get up on stage—well, that’s my whole life. That’s my religion. My music is electric church music, if by ‘church’ you mean ‘religion’, I am electric religion.”

    Many of his contemporaries – musicians or not – felt the same way. The Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh remarked:

    “I’ve always felt. . .that we could do something extra musical, but something where the music would be only the first step, something even close to religion, not in the sense that the Beatles are more popular than Jesus, but in the sense of the actual communing.”

    The impact of that communing often could be profound as the Dead’s manager Rock Scully explained:

    “We’ve seen the audience all stop, stand dead still, two thousand people in a little old theater not flinching, not moving a muscle because what was going on was so electrifying. I remember after those wonderful shows at the Fillmore East where it would be almost a spiritual thing and people wouldn’t even be clapping. I’ve seen audiences get up and walk out without saying a word. What was there to say?”

    An attendee of a Jefferson Airplane concert experienced something similar: “I don’t remember the encore numbers. I do remember “Pooneil” ending, and the band leaving the stage. It seemed that there was an “awed” hush over the crowd for a while as if the force of the music had left people drained. Then they started clapping and stomping their feet and the sound of that started to build. It must have been 5 minutes before the band came back to the stage . . .the people just would not let them leave! Usually at a concert, people start applauding and shouting as soon as the concert ends. In this one, it felt like the music had knocked you flat out on the floor and you first had to pick yourself off the floor before clapping and shouting. Truly a unique experience!”

    The Dead, according to Phil Lesh, ultimately, would come to “believe that every place we played was church. But the core of followers is not the reason it feels like church; it’s that other thing – “it.”

    As Lesh intimated and band mate Jerry Garcia confirmed, this was a new and different kind of “church”:“We’re not saying what it is; we’re not creating. There
is no central thing that is absolutely true that everyone can know about. . .I don’t want to assign a word to it [religion]. Why limit it. I want it to continue to surprise me.”

    Mickey Hart had a sense of this the first time he heard the Dead play: “The feeling was incredible. I couldn’t tell where they were going; it was so unusual. I thought I really would like to play with this band. I thought this would be an incredible challenge. I thought it had great spiritual content. Whatever hit me at that moment wasn’t within the realm of logic or understanding. – It felt like some kind of force field from another planet, some incredible energy that was driving the band and pulling you in at the same time. This was what music should be like. It was very special – not your normal entertainment fare. It was prayerlike music.”

    When he finally got a chance to play with the Dead, Hart “wound up sitting in for the second set and we went someplace totally unique. It was like getting mainlined with this incredible life-giving serum. . .This was a spirit that was moving everybody, even if everybody was on LSD.”
    Hart retained that feeling after he joined the Dead, saying, “It wasn’t songs, or entertainment. Most of the time we were playing for salvation. . .playing for it. We weren’t playing for the $3.50, we were playing because that’s what we had to do.”

    “Music for me has always been a substitute for religion,” Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane explained. “It’s exciting and illuminating, and it affects people on some deeper level. It’s really a mystery to me. I don’t have an idea on how or why it works. I’m not sure I want to know.”
    Dancer Carl Franzoni caught some of this feeling as he witnessed and participated in early performances by the Byrds: “There was no question that when you got on the dance floor with The Byrds, those five guys, that was like heaven. It was like going to church.”

    Luria Castell, one of the founders of the Family Dog commune, commented on the spiritual aspect of the psychedelic experience saying: “Not only did we want to have a good time, we felt a potential, a positive change in the human condition. . . almost a religious kind of thing but not dogma.”

    That attitude was to lead to new altered-consciousness rite[s] such as the Mime Troupe Benefits, early Family Dog Tribute Dances, and the Acid Tests.

    Participants in the Acid Tests such as Sara Garcia were moved to call them the place where “we’re just brothers and sisters and join God here on earth.” Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead observed: “The Acid Tests are, I think, by and large, misunderstood. They were a lot like parties but it was much more than that. People would take LSD but that was back when LSD was really an adventure rather than a diversion. Back then LSD wasn’t a drug, it was something else. People would call it a sacrament.”

    We shouldn’t try to fit new things into old molds or outmoded ways of thinking. It’s not fair to turn them into anachronisms. Instead, they require new approaches and tools. Because we are dealing with an experiential reality our task becomes all the more difficult. We shouldn’t give up because of that. Rather, we must try precisely because it is difficult.

    As James Parker tells us in his essay “The History of Rock and Roll in 1 Song”:
    “To write about the sound of Jimi Hendrix, the actual noise of him? Wow. There’s a theme to beggar your lexicon and freeze you at the frontiers of sense. Still, what’s writing for, if not to fling itself at the unwriteable? So here we go. It’s axiomatic, really: All art aspires to the condition of music, and all music aspires to the condition of Jimi Hendrix.”
    This is the lesson we must take to heart: Things are what they are and not what we wish them to be. This is the reality we must deal with.


  2. I’m in agreement with almost all of this: the religious orientation of 60s rock, which flowed through a secular commercial vernacular art form, and so on. The goal isn’t to fit Hendrix into conventional politics, as if he was a card-carrying member of SDS, but rather to enlarge and adjust and rethink what we mean by politics. Which is to say I do think it’s an opportunity to, as you suggest, rethink what the political is and how it works…in this case, through this kind of electric church Hendrixian sonic experience. That’s the uncategorizable part. Oh lord, thanks for the correction on infantryman vs. paratrooper. I always mistakenly think of the former as a kind of all-purpose term, and I meant the identity of a US serviceperson more generally (but not in Vietnam, where Hendrix did not go, although many thought he had did, as I’m sure you know), but of course within the military these differences of role matter tremendously. I appreciate your efforts to keep all of this accurate on all levels. Yes, important to do that. One last thing your rich, thoughtful comment made me wonder about: should we only think of protest as negation? What are the affirmational dimensions of protest? Are negation and affirmation even satisfactory terms to describe the meditations and uses of power, electric and otherwise, that Hendrix explored?

  3. Thanks for the reply.

    I would argue against the use of the word “religious” when describing or explaining what happened to America in 1960s. During that time, an entirely new spiritual experience was created in the form of musical electric poetry (for lack of a better descriptor at present). This new form demanded and deserved a name commensurate with and derivative of its uniqueness instead of being tied to a context that would make it an anachronism. If it isn’t religion (as we knew it) and defined it then why should we call it so?

    The same goes for the word “politics” and the need for an identity and context all its own. Again we don’t wish to create more anachronisms so if its not politics (as we know them to be), we shouldn’t be calling them such and create a new name.

    The fact that rock may be a secular commercial form is meaningless. The music would be what the music was despite the delivery system (records, concerts, and other sorts of events.) Hence, Allen Ginsberg could say: Ginsberg later remarked: “Dylan has sold out to God. That is to say, his command was to spread his beauty as widely as possible. It was an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox.” And Mickey Hart would say, “It wasn’t songs, or entertainment. Most of the time we were playing for salvation. . .playing for it. We weren’t playing for the $3.50, we were playing because that’s what we had to do.”

    Should we only think of protest as negation? No

    What are the affirmation dimensions of protest? Depends

    Are negation and affirmation even satisfactory terms to describe the meditations and uses of power, electric and otherwise that Hendrix explored? Probably not
    Jack Kerouac laid out the affirmational roots of the Beats in The Origin of the Beat Generation, Playboy, June 1959. Excerpt here:


    The electric church is what the various people I quoted were talking about in their various accounts and observations. As far as terms to describe the meditations and uses of power, electric and otherwise that Hendrix explored, we again, have got to develop some new way of looking at and hearing in new ways if we wish to be successful in our search for answers to questions such as:

    What made this music what it was?

    What was inside of it?

    Why was it special?

    (Masters and Johnson do some good and important work in this area in their Psychedelic Art.”)

    I believe the best way is metaphorically. To find the proper metaphor for the music will do much to explain it. I think I have.

    Hope this makes sense.

  4. Yes it makes sense to me, right down to the goal of finding new metaphors to describe the phenomena. I think we are mostly just disagreeing about terminology here, but not the idea that this was a powerful experience for many, many people that occurred in ways that do not easily fit into analytical slots. That’s part of what’s so important about it. Writing or talking about, describing it and analyzing it…no easy task, even for those involved in shaping it. Which is fine.

  5. I would be more likely to say we are looking at the same thing, i.e., poetry (in a new form), but seeing a much different thing in a much different way. (c’est la vie)

    As for the defining metaphor of let’s call it “psychedelic”music, I have found it. my next step will be even more challenging as i face the status quo,convention, and retrenchment. oh well what else do i have to do.

    I started with the basic question – why was the psychedelic music of the mid-1960s so different in such seemingly important and exhilarating ways than anything that had come before or after

    What made it so?
    Where did it come from?
    Why was it the way it was?

    I agonized over these and other questions for years before the flash came.

    Yes, it is difficult to talk about music’s effect and impact in the ’60s. and as you said it’s even a problem for those who shape it is borne out in this exchange between jerry garcia and charles reich:

    Reich: Well then if we wanted to talk about “Dark Star,” uh, could you say anything about where it comes from?

    Garcia: You gotta remember that you and I are talking about two different “Dark Stars.” You’re talking about the “Dark Star” which you have heard formalized on a record, and I’m talking about the “Dark Star” which I have heard in each performance as a completely improvised piece over a long period of time. So I have a long continuum of “Dark Stars” which range in character from each other to real different extremes. “Dark Star” has meant, while I’m playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine, so all I can do is talk about “Dark Star” as a playing experience.

    Reich: Well, yeah, talk about it a little.

    Garcia: I can’t. It talks about itself.


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