Monterey Pop: Sometimes You Really Can't Go Home Again
The conflict between The Who and Jimi Hendrix, and who would go on first, is well- documented. Given Hendrix's meteoric rise in 1967and his clearly revolutionary style it's no surprise that The Who's Peter Townshend didn't want to go on after him. Nor did Hendrix want to go on after The Who who, at the time, were ending their sets in a blaze of glory as Townshend and drummer Keith Moon would trash the stage. But a flip of the coin settled the score, and The Who went on first, delivering a blistering version of "My Generation that ended with the requisite chaos. But as extreme as The Who were, this was a band that had woodshed considerably, and consequently deliver one of the most powerful performances of the film.
Putting Country Joe and the Fish after The Who just made them look even worse. Thankfully, when Otis Redding hit the stage with a crack band that was completely rehearsed, tight as a drumin tune, evenand exciting in a completely different way than The Who, it became easy to forget if not forgive Country Joe's multiple transgressions.
But when Hendrix hit the stagehis first major North American performanceit becomes clear that the audience fortunate enough to be thereand those, years later, fortunate enough to remember itwere in the presence of true greatness. Hendrix's performance of the perennial garage band classic "Wild Thing was incredible enough even before he burned his guitar. Placing oneself back at the time, seeing a left-handed guitarist, who literally flipped a regular right-hand instrument upside down and restrung it, playing in a completely unorthodox fashion, was stunning enough. But to hear the sounds he managed to pull out of a Fender Stratocaster and a wall of Marshall amplifiers was more than most could understand.
While other bands were loose in ways that had nothing but negative connotations, Hendrix was loose in the way a jazz artist is looseappreciative of the song's form, albeit, in this case, a very simple formbut treating it with complete fluidity where anything was possible and nothing could be predicted. Drummer Mitch Mitchell was like Elvin Jones crossed with Keith Moon on steroids, while bassist Noel Redding managed to anchor the trioa difficult task considering the maelstrom going on around him.
At this point Hendrix was being pushed to be a theatrical performer, something he'd distance himself from in relatively short order. So his guitar-burning antics were really something he had to do; but had he not, his performance would have been no less stunning and paradigm-shifting.
Jimi Plays Monterey / Shake! Otis at Monterey
Directed by D.A. Pennebaker
The Criterion Collection
While Jimi Plays Monterey could be considered a money graba thirty-minute performance fleshed out by some low-fi British footage, it's absolutely worth the watch. What his performance of "Wild Thing in Monterey Pop failed to express was just how revolutionary he was.
There's no doubt Hendrix was completely stoned out of his mind at the performance. His between-song patter was the stream-of-consciousness meanderings of someone on a cocktail of mind-expanding drugs. But like jazz guitarist Lenny Breauwho was equally high most of the time, but also able to play with crystal clarityHendrix did things that had simply not been heard before. With a bluesy-edge that made peers like Eric Clapton sound tame, and a fluid, unencumbered approach that made absolutely everything possible, the complete Monterey footage is as exciting now as it must have been then.
Playing three tunes from his debut, Are You Experienced? (MCA, 1967), a terrific cover of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone and, of course, "Wild Thing to close out the set, Hendrix's set was like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. Others would follow and use some of the same showmanship devicesplaying with the guitar behind the back, playing with one's teeth. With Hendrix it wasn't shtick though, because they were his.
Still, these feats of showmanship didn't affect his ability to play one iota. Whether tearing out his own unique blues languagepossibly largely due to the very unorthodoxy of playing a right-handed guitar flipped around and restrungeliciting huge bursts of controlled feedback from his amplified or using his wammy bar to make his guitar growl and scream, Hendrix's performance at Monterey was the opening salvo to what would, sadly, turn out to be a tragically short career.
Still, between that summer and September, 1970 when he would die from drug-related complications, he went from the pop showmanship of Are You Experienced? (MCA, 1967) to the expansive Electric Ladyland (MCA, 1968) and, finally, the incomplete First Rays of the New Rising Sunfinally released in 1997 and signalling a new move towards greater lyricism and soul that makes his death even more tragic.