Local Current Blog

Jeremy Ylvisaker: Inside the genius of Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix (Hulton Archive/Getty Images) and Jeremy Ylvisaker (Luke Taylor/MPR)

This February, The Current is celebrating Black History Month by celebrating four artists chosen by our listeners. We’ll be playing their music on the radio and sharing features online. This week, we’re featuring Jimi Hendrix.

The Blues

“…while your ears are still ringing, we’d like to go on and do another little tune called ‘I Don’t Live Today,’ dedicated to the American Indian,” Jimi says matter-of-factly.

A black American in London in 1969, the Vietnam War still burning, himself a trained paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, tossing hundreds of years of weight into the room like a Frisbee, but also like a prayer before a fight. The cameras scan the crowd. Beautiful young mods taking in a concert, hippies having their minds properly blown, and bobbies with manicured mustaches and flag-pole posture maintaining order. Mitch Mitchell, on drums, takes his time setting up the feel.

Good lord, this riff. The studio version is a mush ball of distortion with feedback overtones trying to grow and go off on their own as descendants of fuzz, the riff itself starting on the 7 and climbing its way down to the tonic. So Heavy. “No sun coming through my window, feel like I’m livin’ at the bottom of a grave.” So Heavy. Verse, chorus, solo, chorus, and then, well, time melts.

Back at the London show, the drums and bass drop out. Jimi steps on a couple of pedals and his guitar becomes a flying saucer looking for a place to scream. “Nothing but existing.” He works the air between his pickups and his speakers like a magician twisting creatures out of ghost balloons. Creatures in pain, without a home, “Nothing but existing.” Slowly the sound winds down to nothing. Silence. The hippies, the bobbies, the beautiful mods, Jimi, Mitch, Noel, the whole place in stillness.

He brings the verse riff back, much faster this time, and with just his fretboard hand as his pick hand is in the air like he’s doing rope tricks for the British cowgirls. Wink. Sip of beer. Next song.

“I’d like to dedicate this one to, um, sorta drag in the scene that’s going on, all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago and Milwaukee and New York, oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Like to do a thing called ‘Machine Gun.'” Fillmore East Jan 1, 1970 with Band of Gypsies, his new, funkier group with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles. “Evil man make me kill ya, evil man make you kill me, evil man make me kill you even though we’re only families apart,” he sings. Yep. Still true. But his playing that night, man. Sometimes words ain’t it. Now for instance. Let’s listen instead.

Magnets and waves. Physical but invisible. What the heck is music, anyway?

The United States of America, home of Jimi Hendrix.

Jeremy Ylvisaker is a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist with Alpha Consumer, the Cloak Ox, and other bands.