There is an ancient Greek idiom which says “Whom the Gods love dies Young”. Did the Gods love Percy Shelley, or James Dean? It’s hard to imagine they thought much of Jim Morrison, who was someone you wouldn’t want to invite over for dinner, much less spend the rest of eternity with. But I’m sure that they must have loved Jimi Hendrix. But with so many of earth’s best and brightest being taken, one would think that it’s about time someone had a serious word with all these celestial talent scouts.
When an artist moves on, there is always the inevitable ‘lost album’ or ‘unfinished masterpiece’ waiting to be unearthed by the record company, ever hoping to squeeze a few more dollars out of their deceased investment. But most dead artists, at least when it comes to rock, are not Jimi Hendrix, who left behind him a seemingly inexhaustible treasure trove of exotic jewels and precious gems. Many of which were simply rough sketches or explorative jams. Yet out of the hundreds of hours of tape, a little gold would present itself, a shining nugget, which might offer further insight into the mind of a creative genius. However the times they were indeed a changing, where from the pop cemetery of the ‘60’s, new sounds and sensibilities were fast emerging. Kids were more interested in hearing the latest Bowie and Led Zeppelin or, dare I say, Gerry Mungo, than they were in the posthumous inventions of some late guitarist. Fortunately not so much anymore.
South Saturn Delta, released in 1997, is a compendium of material that was issued on a variety of albums in the immediate years following Hendrix’s death, along with a healthy number of tracks never released before (unless one counts bootlegs. But let’s not go there).
“Look Over Yonder” dates back to October 1968, hot off the heels of his final sessions for Electric Ladyland. It’s the blues, but of the V-8 variety, and as far as openers go, it’s a scorcher. Why Hendrix relegated it to the ‘do not use’ section of his ever growing tape library is inexplicable to say the least. Next is “Little Wing”, a muscular but modest outtake from the Axis sessions, in 1967. Although it’s raw, it provides a fascinating insight into how Hendrix would constantly try out new ideas in the studio.
Whether it was the Small Faces or the Velvet Underground, almost any musician of the time would have given their left testicle to record what to Hendrix himself were simply outtakes, and nothing more. “Here He Comes (Lover Man) is one such example, where after a full after-burn guitar intro, he masterfully and seamlessly segues into the song proper. This also stems from the fabled TTG sessions which spawned “Look Over Yonder”, and like that song, it was also put aside, never to be revisited.
When it came to jazz, Hendrix might not have played with the precision of a George Benson or Kenny Burrell, but he had a style which was kind of earthier and far dirtier than most exponents of that field. The title song of this album came about while Hendrix was making Electric Ladyland. Jimi felt that the basic track required something more in order to bring it to completion. Hence Larry Farron, a well known jazz composer, was brought in. The results offer a tantalising glimpse into what might have been had he lived beyond his 27 years.
Fast forward 18 months and we have “Power of Soul”, recorded by the Band of Gypsys. But this is not the version that appears on the album of the same name. Presented here is the studio incarnation, in all its multi-tracked psychedelic glory. Listening to it is akin to having LSD pour out of your speakers while they lift and float around your living room with seemingly no direction or purpose. In other words, it’s about the most Hallucinatory excursion this side of Thomas De Quincey without actually being high.
“Message to the Universe” bears little resemble to “Message to Love”, although it’s essentially the same song. Hendrix obviously had the basic idea and structure, but considering it was the “Gypsy Sun and Rainbows” band in tow, it’s not surprising it comes across as unrehearsed. What does come across is a group without focus, as hard as Hendrix must have tried. However the most notable thing about it is at the end, where he plays some Arabic motifs, which in themselves have their moments.
“Tax Free” is another Electric Ladyland outtake, and might well have made a better fit than “Little Miss Strange”. I’ve never really enjoyed the mix on this, but that’s ok. Think jazz meets hard-rock. It definitely sounds like nothing from 1968. And speaking of that year, “All Along the Watchtower” is undoubtedly the most well known track on this compilation, and one which needs no introduction, much less any detailed description of its musical merits. Based on the liner notes any justification for its inclusion here is that this is the early mix prepared by Chas Chandler, and has more of an acoustic feel than the final version we all know and adore.
“The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam’s Dice” (STP-LSD?) is a strange beast, but then the ‘60’s was a strange decade. As a song it’s a bit of a psychedelic toss off, but once Hendrix launches his Fender rocket some 43 seconds into the tune, it becomes truly cosmic, and becomes a jam in outer space. That’s probably about the best way I can describe it. “Midnight” follows. Whether that was the title Jimi gave it, or a posthumous decision, I don’t know, but it’s appropriate nonetheless. Entirely instrumental, it has a late night scary, almost supernatural feel to it, and used to freak me as a teenager.
It’s extraordinary to think that before Hendrix went to London he had never written a tune, and yet once he was there, his mind almost immediately flowered with creativity. So it’s something of an eye opener to know that “Angel” was a song Hendrix had composed as early as 1967, albeit in embryonic form. The version here is gorgeous, flaws and all. What is basically a solo demo, with Jimi on bass, and a sort of electronic metronome keeping time. His guitar is sublime also, and a fascinating piece of musical archaeology.
“Bleeding Heart” was originally the opener for War Heroes, released in 1972. Hendrix takes the germ of Elmore James and transforms it into disco-blues. Revolutionary if you think about it. Listen to Funkadelic and tell me that they didn’t get it. Recorded in 1970, it was a strong contender for First Rays of the New Rising Sun, his projected double album.
“Pali Gap” is an instrumental of the most revealing kind. Recorded in July 1970 at Electric Ladyland studios, the whole thing was completely improvised. Hendrix embarked on the main riff, with the rest of the band falling in behind him. Jimi must have thought there was something in it, because later he went back to overdub a second guitar. Jams can be hit and miss at the best of times, more often than not turning out to be one of those ‘you had to be there’ moments. But this is one of those ‘moments’ I can revisit again and again. While it’s unlikely it would ever have found its way onto his next LP, it remains an exquisite example of Jimi’s ability to spontaneously come up with new ideas from one second to the next.
It’s no secret that Hendrix worshipped Dylan. His interpretation of “All Along the Watchtower” has long been considered the definitive arrangement, so much so that Dylan himself has since adopted it. So it should come as no surprise that Hendrix considered including another of his idols songs on his next album. “Drifter’s Escape” originally appeared on John Wesley Harding, but listening to the version here, you wouldn’t even know it was the same song. Jimi’s reconstruction is so radical, and just plain insane, it’s scary. When Hendrix sings “A bolt of lightning”, you can hear the heavens explode and crash above your head. The only weakness I can identify is the singing. Unlike “Watchtower”, where Hendrix put in one of his most masculine vocal performances, his delivery here is somewhat frail. But that’s only a minor complaint in terms of what is overall a powerful performance. Overwhelming almost.
Hendrix was always a bluesman at heart, so it’s appropriate that “Midnight Lightning” should close the album. Just Jimi, alone, on electric guitar, with his foot keeping time. It’s clearly a demo, but riveting nonetheless, and remains one of the most intimate studio sessions ever released from the vaults, so close that it’s almost as if you’re in the same room with him.
What South Saturn Delta proves is that even the leftovers Hendrix would throw away from his table were still far more delectable than most other musicians’ banquets. Where he got all his ideas from God only knows. But this document provides the digital proof that genius does exist, and explains why Jimi Hendrix will remain the quintessential guitarist of the 1960’s, ‘70’s, and beyond. It’s only a shame that he’s not with us today to enjoy it.