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Rewinding Jimi Hendrix’s National Anthem

The summer before seventh grade, I started wearing my dad’s Stetson hat and paisley bathrobe, which I believed approximated the bell-sleeved garment that Jimi Hendrix wore in the poster on my bedroom wall—a strange rendering in iridescent pastels, with Jimi looking like a dandified cowboy, playing a righty guitar lefty so that it was, fascinatingly, upside down. I wore the outfit for a class presentation that fall, brought in my own electric guitar and amp, and did the opening ten or twelve bars of “Purple Haze.” The amp was way too loud for the room, the window casings rattled, my classmates looked frightened. But I had put work into learning the song and was determined to share the entire solo. A vinyl copy of “Are You Experienced?,” found at the public library the year before, had led to hours spent hunched over a turntable, slowing down the r.p.m.s to make it easier to parse the solos on “Hey Joe,” “Third Stone from the Sun,” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” By going full Talmud on Hendrix, I’d taught myself to play the guitar, and had become an indefatigable Hendrix proselytizer. Kids had spray-painted “Clapton Is God” on the walls of the London Tube station, I explained to anyone who would listen, but the real God was Jimi.

I knew that he had performed at Woodstock, that mythic experiment in living free from status-quo strictures held on a farm somewhere in New York (I tried to imagine the farms in the Wisconsin village where I lived holding such an event), and soon I was able to acquire a VHS cassette of Michael Wadleigh’s epic documentary of the festival. After all the footage of scaffold assembly, the interviews with stoned pilgrims, the endless P.A. announcements (watch out for that brown acid), the rain and mud, and the often great music, there came, near the end, footage of Jimi playing “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” a tune I knew well, which then segued into “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There are lots of examples of song renditions whose power and uniqueness make them definitive versions: Miles Davis doing Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight”; John Lennon’s ecstatic run through Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music,” from “Beatles for Sale”; Judy Collins’s harpsichord-drenched take on Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”; Willie Nelson’s near Sprechstimme “Stardust”; John Cale’s demolition of “Heartbreak Hotel”; Devo’s cubist “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” (Feel free to make your own list.) What Hendrix did with “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, in August of 1969, was something else altogether. It was, among other things, an act of protest whose power and convincingness were inseparable from its identity as a fiercely nonconformist act of individual expression.

Hendrix had been a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne (from which he was honorably discharged), and the young men fighting and dying in Vietnam are evoked in the sounds that start eating away at the tune at about the place the words “rockets’ red glare” would be sung. Bombs, airplane engines, explosions, human cries, all seem to swirl around in the feedback and distortion. At one point, Hendrix toggles between two notes a semitone apart while burying the guitar’s tremolo bar, turning his Fender Strat into a doppler warp of passing sirens, or perhaps the revolving blades of a helicopter propeller. A snippet of “Taps” toward the end makes explicit the eulogy for those left on the battlefield, transcending Vietnam and becoming a remembrance of all those lost to the violence of war.

The solo might also be registering a different war, one that had been going on at home. The previous year, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, and the blow delivered to the civil-rights movement—centrally inspired by King’s dream of a time “when people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”—seems somehow part of the rage flying out of Hendrix’s amplifiers. All the exalted ideals of the American experiment, and the bitterness of its contradictions and hypocrisies, are placed in volatile admixture through an utterly American contraption, a device you might say is the result of a collaboration between Benjamin Franklin, Leo Fender , and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the mongrel machine that Hendrix made into a medium for a new kind of virtuosity. In the Woodstock performance of the national anthem, we find that an electric guitar can be made to convey the feeling that the country’s history could be melted down, remolded, and given a new shape.

Read entire article at The New Yorker