Jimi Hendrix Experience
Are You Experienced?
Axis: Bold As Love
First Rays of the New Rising Sun
By J.R. Jones
Of all the 60s icons to die before their time, few have been disinterred as often or as crassly as Jimi Hendrix. The ultimate guitar god had released only four albums of original material when he choked to death on his own vomit in September 1970, but since then at least 22 posthumous releases have appeared on Billboard's album chart. In total more than 100 records have appeared since Hendrix's death; they range from the superb (Live at Winterland) to the dreadful (Isle of Wight), and from the serious (The Cry of Love, assembled from his last sessions) to the preposterous (Two Great Experiences Together, a compilation of early session work that featured Hendrix-style solos overdubbed by another guitarist).
In 1993 the Warner Brothers imprint Reprise lost the license for Hendrix's catalog to MCA, and with great fanfare, MCA remastered and reissued his original studio albums--Are You Experienced? (1967), Axis: Bold As Love (1967), and Electric Ladyland (1968)--adding extensive liner notes and garish new cover art. Two years later, after a protracted legal battle with his former attorney, the guitarist's father, Al Hendrix, reclaimed the rights to his son's recordings from a tangle of foreign companies; he then created a new organization, Experience Hendrix, to administer them and named as president Jimi's 34-year-old stepsister, Janie Hendrix-Wright, a soft-spoken former schoolteacher and mother of four. Having renegotiated its license, MCA is now mounting another publicity campaign for another reissue of the same three records as well as a supposedly definitive version of the album Jimi Hendrix was recording when he died, First Rays of the New Rising Sun.
Unfortunately, in the continuing saga of Jimi Hendrix, "definitive" no longer means much, and this new set of releases has only escalated the war of words between Experience Hendrix and the production team responsible for his recordings from 1974 through 1995. In March, Guitar World and the CD newsletter "Ice" ran stories on the new remastered releases, quoting Hendrix's original engineer Eddie Kramer and Hendrix historian John McDermott, both employed by Experience Hendrix. They asserted that these discs would be the first derived from original master tapes--a key selling point for MCA--and that some previous releases had come from fourth- and fifth-generation tapes.
The next "Ice" featured a full-page response by Joe Gastwirt, who engineered Warner's 1989 and MCA's 1993 reissues for producer and longtime Hendrix curator Alan Douglas. Gastwirt insisted that the previous releases had in fact been drawn from the original masters (except Axis: Bold As Love, for which he used the best available substitute, a "flat," or nonequalized, second-generation tape). He also accused Experience Hendrix of using "disinformation" and "mean-spirited, self-promoting tactics," concluding, "I hope the new Hendrix regime can find better marketing tactics than misleading the public about the work of the old regime (especially considering that Al Hendrix, Jimi's father, was involved in both)."
The history of this feud extends all the way back to Jimi Hendrix's death. Al, a self-employed gardener, was declared Jimi's sole heir; knowing nothing about the music business, he hired attorney Leo Branton Jr. to oversee his son's estate. "My father always held tight to the rights," says Janie Hendrix-Wright, "and always made it clear that he was not selling, and if there was any deal he was signing that was a sale, he wasn't signing it. And Leo always told my dad, 'No, it's not a sale, it's just a license agreement. Just trust me. I'm not gonna sell you down the river.'"
But according to Al Hendrix's 1993 lawsuit, Branton engineered a web of international companies in order to do just that. For many years, the suit alleged, Branton had worked through the "Margolis System," an organization that created offshore trusts and processed sham transactions to help its clients hide assets and escape taxation. Clients would "sell" assets to the system for a nominal fee, allowing its attorneys and managers to move them through various affiliated companies. In 1974, the suit alleged, Branton arranged a paper sale from Hendrix to Presentaciones Musicales, a Panamanian corporation Branton also represented; included in the transaction were stock in Jimi Hendrix's publishing company and hundreds of hours of tape that Branton claimed was "highly speculative as to having any value for further master recordings."
The suit claimed he later arranged for the transfer of these assets to corporations in the British Virgin Islands and the Netherlands, and set up a variety of production companies to exploit the tapes for the benefit of himself and his associates--and at the expense of Al Hendrix, to whom, the suit went on, Branton failed to disclose his conflicts of interest. "It doesn't matter how you slice it," says Hendrix-Wright of the various companies, "because Leo Branton was either the president or the vice president of it, his son was an officer, his wife was an officer, and they were all benefiting from Jimi." While the Hendrix estate was maturing to an estimated value of $60 million, Al Hendrix was receiving a pretax stipend of $50,000 a year.
For Hendrix fans, the most critical business development was Branton's choice of Alan Douglas to administer the unused tapes. Douglas had befriended the guitarist during the final year of his life, and at Hendrix's invitation had briefly tried to impose some order on his chaotic recording sessions. But the depth of his relationship with Hendrix is a matter of debate: in his "Ice" piece, Joe Gastwirt describes his old boss as "the only person in the music business that Jimi trusted"; McDermott and Kramer, in their 1992 book, Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight, recount a visit Hendrix paid to his former manager Chas Chandler two days before he died, during which he reportedly said of Douglas, "I don't want that guy to have anything to do with my music."
Hendrix had spent the last two years searching for a new musical direction, recording countless demos, unfinished tracks, and aimless jams, first with his power trio the Experience (bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell), then with Band of Gypsys (bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, among others). In the summer of 1970, with Mitchell on drums, Cox on bass, and Eddie Kramer in the control room, Hendrix had finally begun to make progress toward his fourth studio album. After Hendrix died Kramer assembled the fruits of these sessions on The Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge (both 1971) and War Heroes (1972); he declares in Setting the Record Straight that by the time Douglas took control of Hendrix's tape library, the "bottom of the barrel had been scraped clean."
But under Douglas, the barrel would prove bottomless. He sifted through the jams and incomplete songs, editing them together rather shamelessly. As described by engineer Tony Bongiovi in McDermott and Kramer's book, on one song a Hendrix solo was lifted from one take and chopped up to fit a different one; on another, incomplete Hendrix rhythm-guitar tracks were finished by a session man who aped his sound and style. A Warner Brothers public-relations blitz, trumpeting the discovery of Hendrix's "lost tapes," sent Douglas's Crash Landing (1975) to number five on the Billboard chart, but the record's lack of explanatory liner notes, coupled with Douglas's public pronouncements that it revealed a new direction in Hendrix's music, constituted an appalling act of musical duplicity. Defending the project to Guitar Player in 1989, Douglas said, "It sold a million-and-a-half records." Midnight Lightning (1975) and Nine to the Universe (1980) followed, and on each Douglas showed slightly more restraint, but even in 1995, with Hendrix universally acknowledged as a historic figure in rock and his family struggling to win back the tapes, Douglas was adding tracks by drummer Bruce Gary of the Knack to concoct Voodoo Soup.
Al Hendrix began to doubt Leo Branton in late 1992, after the attorney sent Janie a letter on his behalf, offering a payout up front to assign her father the copyright ownership that would eventually revert to the family according to federal law. As part of the deal, Branton would be the irrevocable "attorney-in-fact" (and Douglas his designated successor), with complete control over copyright renewal. Hendrix-Wright hired another attorney to look over the proposal. "That's when they started uncovering some things," she says. Finally, she says, her dad got a call from a niece who worked at Fortune and had read a forthcoming story about Branton negotiating with MCA for an outright sale of the Jimi Hendrix catalog.
Hendrix fired Branton in January 1993, won a court ruling to halt the MCA deal, and filed suit against Branton, Douglas, and the various companies, charging fraud, legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, and violation of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 (RICO), among other things. In return, Branton filed suit against Hendrix and his new lawyer, O. Yale Lewis Jr., saying they'd made libelous statements about him in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. He told Billboard that Hendrix had received $750,000 for the sale of the albums and publishing. "Al Hendrix had already disposed of his rights," he said, "and he knew it and he understood it."
The suit dragged on for more than two years; according to Jet, the Hendrixes covered their staggering legal bills with a $6 million loan from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, whose interactive Jimi Hendrix museum is slated to open in Seattle in 1999. When asked about Allen's motivation, Hendrix-Wright replies, "I don't clearly know. He stopped funding six months before the litigation was over. He pulled out. We had to second-mortgage homes to make sure the lawsuit was paid for."
In July 1995, less than a month before the scheduled trial date, a settlement was reached that awarded the family all rights to the bulk of Jimi Hendrix's recordings, publishing, merchandising, photos, films, and writings. (Capitol still owned the live album Band of Gypsys, which Jimi Hendrix gave the label in 1970 to settle an unrelated lawsuit; his early session work with various R & B acts also remains out of the family's reach.) Douglas agreed to turn over to the family every reel of tape in his possession and to submit for their approval two current projects, a live album and a documentary. Jet reported that, as part of the settlement, the family would make good on the loan from Allen and pay Branton and the other defendants between five and ten million dollars. While not a total victory, the settlement unequivocally granted the Hendrixes what they claimed was most important to them: control over Jimi Hendrix's artistic legacy.
But the hard feelings remain. While the lawsuit was unfolding, Branton licensed Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love, and Electric Ladyland to MCA, and Douglas proceeded with the 1993 remastering project and four more compilations. Despite Gastwirt's claim that Al Hendrix was part of the old production team, Wright-Hendrix says her father was never consulted, that the family had to go out and buy its own copies of the new releases. When Voodoo Soup appeared, the Hendrixes lashed out at Douglas in Billboard, and now that they own the recordings, Douglas's work is being purged or, in the case of live compilations, undergoing careful revision. "Right now," says McDermott, "the catalog begins with these new releases. Everything else previous is coming off the market." Pursuant to the settlement, Douglas has submitted to Experience Hendrix an album tentatively titled On the Road and a film and book called Room Full of Mirrors; Hendrix-Wright says none of these projects has yet been approved for release. Despite the fact that MCA had been sleeping with the enemy, the Hendrixes granted it an exclusive 11-year license, but their terms made clear that the Alan Douglas era was over: there would be no more overdubbing, the original album art would be reinstated, and no effort or expense would be spared in presenting the work as closely as possible to the way the artist had intended.
Gastwirt's parting shot in "Ice" may not rehabilitate Douglas's reputation, but it does add an extra wrinkle of ambiguity to the complex history of the Hendrix legacy. Gastwirt, owner of the highly respected Ocean View Digital studios in Los Angeles, detailed the history of the Hendrix catalog on CD, explaining how he knew that both the second Reprise reissue series and the first MCA series had used the original masters: "These were easily identifiable from the multitude of splices found between and during songs; copies of master tapes generally don't have any splices....
The original master of Axis has been missing for as long as I've been involved." (The Ultimate Experience, a compilation that accompanied the MCA series, was mastered in Europe from second- and third-generation tapes; while Gastwirt later remastered this release for British Polydor from the originals, he says that MCA has never bothered to correct the U.S. version.)
Experience Hendrix submitted a rejoinder to "Ice," but according to editor Peter Howard, it provided little new evidence regarding the master tapes, and because each party had already been given a forum, he chose not to publish it. In any case, MCA took out a full-page ad in the May issue, reiterating that "each [record] is re-mastered, for the first time, from original master tapes."
A blind comparison of the 1993 Are You Experienced? and its 1997 replacement reveals no striking difference in sound quality. Compared to Gastwirt's 1989 version for Reprise, his 1993 release is sharper but less dynamic; it seems compressed--a process that attenuates the louder signals, in effect raising the average volume level. Experience Hendrix's 1997 version sounds heavily compressed, almost gaudily so. Next to the new disc, neither the 1993 nor the 1989 version betrays the level of tape hiss one would expect from a second- or third-generation copy. All three editions seem to be from the same source material; certainly there's no evidence to support Experience Hendrix's assertion, repeated like a mantra by all involved, that "a veil has been lifted."
McDermott is sensitive to the notion that fans may consider this series another shakedown: he too went out and bought each successive reissue, hoping for better sound but continually being disappointed. "But these people own it," he pointed out, "and the way they look at it is, from this day forward we're restoring Jimi's vision, his intentions; we're working with the people he worked with; it's gonna be done right. If fans don't want to buy these, and they're happy with all of the other CDs that they have, that's fine. For them, they feel that it would be invalid to not start by fixing the core foundation of the Hendrix appeal, which is these albums that he personally authorized." The packaging of the new reissues bears out his claim: gone are 1993's ugly covers with their stupid retrospective blurbs; the 24-page booklets feature full-color art and song drafts in the guitarist's flowery script. Though fatuous essays by Dave Marsh and Derek Taylor prove less illuminating than the 1993 booklets, McDermott's notes for the new First Rays carefully document the sessions that yielded its 17 tracks.
Whether Janie Hendrix-Wright can navigate the shark-infested waters of the music industry more successfully than her father remains to be seen; certainly her stewardship of the Branton suit, the MCA deal, and the reissue project is promising. But future releases will test her commitment to her stepbrother's memory: Experience Hendrix, she reports, will release "several albums as he would have intended them to go out, because there's a lot of songs that have not been released that are fully completed."
Given the history of Hendrix's catalog this assertion is troubling, to say the least. McDermott reports that since the family took over from Douglas, people around the world have come forward with some 200 tapes; but then Douglas made similar claims in the 70s when he took over from Hendrix's previous management. Hendrix's family members might be more inclined to honor his wishes than the hucksters who preceded them, but their perpetuation of the myth that this material constitutes more lost albums strains their credibility. During his last two years Hendrix labored to perfect a new, funkier sound, ignoring his label's pleas for more product and rejecting hundreds of performances he considered substandard. His death vastly inflated the commercial value of all that discarded tape, effectively obliterating the high standards he had set. "You know, Jimi's the only deceased artist people actually anticipate a new release from every 18 months or 24 months," says Hendrix-Wright, "and that's kind of our plan, to continue that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited Photos of Al Hendrix with Jimi, Jimi Hendrix with his stepsister Janie Hendrix-Wright, and album covers.