Each Tuesday in Music Matters, Matthew Linder explores the intersections of music, culture and faith.
“It’s funny how most people love the dead, once you’re dead you’re made for life.” – Jimi Hendrix
People, Hell and Angels, the final posthumously released album from Jimi Hendrix, debuted on the Billboard 200 at the number two spot. Hendrix died over 40 years ago, yet surprisingly, he is still able to garner enough attention to land him on the top of the charts beating out Bruno Mars, Mumford & Sons, and Mackelmore. Let me put it another way, he has been dead since 1970 and music he recorded in the late sixties is still relevant and powerful enough to take down today’s top pop stars. An incredible feat for a dead man in a pop music environment which is more interested in the next big thing than a musician who was popular two generations ago.
As a guitarist Hendrix had immense charisma, tenacity and vitality, something which shines through on this record. It is that passionate love Hendrix had for his instrument that have inspired generations and became for him a religion, as he wrote in a concert program for Royal Albert Hall:
When I was a little boy, I believed that if you put a tooth under your pillow, a fairy would come in the night and take away the tooth and leave a dime. Now, 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. So I think everybody should believe in himself. 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. I can’t express myself in easy conversation-the words just don’t come out right. But 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.
This message resonates through many of the tracks on the album, with wry religious references encapsulated in Hendrix’s search for love and peace. Two tracks, “Earth Blues” and “Somewhere”, are the most explicit in their forays into Hendrix’s “electric religion”. “Earth Blues” with its chromatic fast paced guitar line and gospel-esque call and response bridge evokes the earthiness of this “church” music. People are hurt and what they need is the shining light of love, the answer to all things, which is personified as a woman in the song. Love, according to Hendrix, is currently in chains, far away, dead and the first part of God’s creation. But when love is found again that is the “promised land” where tears are wiped away for good.
Well, I see hands and I see tear-stained faces,
reaching up, but not quite touchin’ the promise land.
Well, I taste tears and a precious years wasted,
saying, “Lord please send us a helping hand.”
(Love, Love, Love.)
Out of the mountains stands a woman.
(Love, Love, Love.)
A, I feel her shinin’ light
(Love, Love, Love.)
Love! Must be the answer.
Thank you Lord and keep her alright.
Got them earth blues today…
Sometimes my imagination grabs me by surprise
A queen of ebony in chains I visualize
And back on the moon I see her portrait in a tomb
And these words are written, “First woman from God’s womb.”
In “Somewhere” Hendrix plays around with electronic sound, opening with a distorted crunchy guitar flowing seamlessly into a singing guitar solo. In the middle section the guitar comes across crisper and cleaner then ends with a noisy clashing of tones, bordering on pure noise. Again, Hendrix is searching for the “promised land” but now the focus is on desperately seeking peace through “pleas and prayers”. Without this peace people’s souls are frustrated as the “sting of death” is imminent.
I see fingers, hands and shades of faces,
Reachin’ up and not quite touchin’ the promised land,
I hear pleas and prayers and a desperate whisper sayin,
Oh,Lord, please give us a helpin’ hand.
Way down in the background,
I can see frustrated souls of cities burnin,
And all across the water,baby,
I see weapons barkin’ out the sting of death,
And up in the clouds I can imagine UFOs jumpin’ themselves,
Laughin’ they sayin’,
Those people so uptight, they sure know how to make a mess.
Hendrix in People, Hell and Angels and all of his career took on worldly powers, preaching love and peace, but in the end his wrestle was not “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) His “electric religion” ultimately failed him as he died of a drug overdose on September 17th, 1970. As Hendrix’s music is introduced into the cultural milieu of the 21st century, let us remember his musical genius and that while music has the power to heal and change the world it cannot bring us to “the promised land.” Only through Christ, “[m]ay mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” (Jude 1:1-2)