The History of Rock and Roll in 1 Song

What else can you hold in your hand? Infinity, according to the visionary lineage of which Hendrix is undoubtedly a part. “To see the world in a grain of sand,” wrote William Blake, “And heaven in a wild flower/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour.” Hendrix half-quotes Blake’s preface to Milton, in the manner that he might half-quote an Elmore James riff, on 1968’s Electric Ladyland, during the 15-minute galactic blues jam “Voodoo Chile:” “Say my arrows are made of desire, desire/ From as far away as Jupiter’s sulphur mines.” Mixing old tropes—the blood-red moon, the gypsy’s curse—with space-age lyrical junk, “Voodoo Chile” is a kind of bluesman’s “Ancient Mariner,” an imperiled soul-voyage up and down the neck of the guitar. Steve Winwood’s Hammond organ spookily swirls, and Hendrix takes us on what the critic Charles Shaar Murray calls “virtually a chronological guided tour of blues styles, starting with earliest recorded Delta blues and travelling through the electric experiments of Muddy Waters in Chicago and John Lee Hooker in Detroit to the sophisticated swing of B.B. King and the cosmic blurt of John Coltrane.”

“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is the final track on Electric Ladyland, and structurally a reprise in double-time of “Voodoo Chile.” But it is as if the electrified compression of the earlier, longer piece has forced Hendrix through another level of change, and he hails us now—in ringing, supernaturally authorized tones—from the far side of transformation. The intro, those snickering accents flicked from deadened strings, is almost pre-musical—it sounds like something scratching at the inside of an eggshell. Tentative at first, it resolves into a rhythm: aboriginal, radical. Dub from the back of a cave. Miles Davis hears it and falls over backward into a pile of ‘70s funk guitarists. The melody is announced, in notes opulent with wah-wah; Mitch Mitchell flexes his hi-hat; then, with a rattlesnake shake of maracas, Hendrix takes the snarling plunge into distortion—tuned down, E7 sharp 9, the “Hendrix chord.” Noel Redding meets him on the bottom string; rock and roll gapes at the impact, heavy metal kicks at the womb-wall. After three bars the guitar rears up, pluming monstrously with energy; after four Hendrix time-travels, flipping his toggle switch back and forth to create a sound like passing space-freight. Well I stand up next to a mountain, he sings, his voice supremely doubled by his instrument, chop it down with the edge of my hand. No more passivity, acid overwhelmings; no more hanging in the purple haze, not knowing if you're going up or down. The mind-fragments have formed a new shape. Pick up the pieces and make an island... Noel Redding is rumbling fixatedly; Mitch Mitchell has forsaken his customary top-of-the-kit clattering and fluttering for a kickdrum-driven, Bonhamesque downbeat. If I don’t meet you no more in this world, I’ll meet you in the next one, don’t be late. Farsightedness, death-prophecy, transdimensional challenge—Hendrix is standing outside of music. The mix pans wildly, desperately, as if overwhelmed by its own information, sizzling up into near-deafness before widening downward in a welter of noise.

We haven’t caught up to this yet. We're limping after it with handfuls of melted fuses. It’s too much, still.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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