There's Nothing Hazy About Jimi's Last Jams

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Thirty years from now, is anybody going to want to buy a boxed set of Britney Spears outtakes? Three decades from today, are young musicians going to trek to the studio where Matchbox Twenty used to record so they can get that "Rob Thomas vibe"? You don't have to answer these questions now. Let's talk in September 2030.

But that's the future — let's discuss the present and the past. September 18 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of rock-guitar great Jimi Hendrix. When he was alive, he was bigger than life, asking his fans to "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky" on his 1967 song "Purple Haze," transforming the "Star-Spangled Banner" into an anthem of alienation at Woodstock in 1969. In death he has become a standard by which to judge the pop stars who have come after him. Although he died at age 27 of asphyxiation brought on by a sleeping-pill overdose, and has now been dead longer than he was alive, he's still releasing attention-getting CDs.

Hendrix's popularity has never really waned (earlier this year, a rock museum inspired by him, the Experience Music Project, opened in Seattle), but the coming weeks will see a notable surge. In 1995, after a long legal battle, the Hendrix family regained control over the bulk of his music and has been systematically releasing archival material. Hendrix-catalog manager John McDermott says there are some 1,500 tapes — almost all as yet unheard by the public — left in the vaults. On September 12, Experience Hendrix/MCA will release "The Jimi Hendrix Experience," a four-CD boxed set featuring 56 previously unreleased or unavailable songs. And on Sept. 17, Showtime will air "Hendrix," a dramatic retelling of his life, starring little-known actor Wood Harris in the title role.

The "Experience" CDs take the listener out on the road, into the studio and almost into the head of Hendrix: There's an early version of "Hey Joe" in which we hear him tell his producer to turn down the backing vocals; there's an instrumental called "Slow Blues," which is billed as the last multitrack recording he ever made. The song cuts off suddenly and too soon, like Hendrix's life. It's fascinating to compare early versions of songs like "Foxey Lady" with the takes that became famous. Hendrix was a wild spirit onstage — sometimes playing guitar with his teeth — but in this set we see his meticulous artistic side, making hard decisions about the direction of his music, churning out multiple takes.

Whereas the boxed set offers more of Hendrix, Showtime's movie serves up less. It doesn't use any music that Hendrix wrote, leaving the filmmakers free of his family's creative control. Instead we hear Hendrix-sorta-soundalikes playing his most famous covers, including a couple of Bob Dylan songs. But the problem with the movie isn't the fact that it's missing Hendrix's original songs; it's the fact that it's missing his original originality. Harris is onto something with his voodoo-chile spaciness, but the scriptwriters give him little to do or say, and his intriguing impersonation is wasted in tensionless scenes. Hendrix, in this movie, drifts through his life, and we're left wondering how a man so weightless could make music of such gravity.

Janie Hendrix, the guitarist's half sister and president and CEO of Experience Hendrix, says the family hopes to do its own movie at some point and that a proper film can't be done without his music: "Jimi's music was him."

Hendrix was a terrific vocalist, with a gift for phrasing and interpolation. But he was above all a guitarist who created a new vocabulary of noise. Hendrix in his day was sometimes criticized for making music that was too "white" (i.e., too rock- infused), when in reality he was reaching past the pop-soul styles of his time and drawing on African-American blues traditions. The new boxed set features a blues rocker called "It's Too Bad" that touches on the subject. "They say until you come back completely black," Hendrix sings, "go back where you came from too."

Hendrix's triumph over artistic typecasting has struck a chord with some of today's cutting-edge soul and hip-hop acts such as Erykah Badu, D'Angelo and Common, who are, with increasing frequency, booking time at Electric Lady Studios in New York City, Hendrix's recording facility, hoping to conjure his spirit. Hendrix once told a reporter, "If I'm free, it's because I'm always running." He's still running. And he's still free.