As August winds down, it’s of course time to welcome back our “Special Guest Blogger John Walker Ross! John, as most of you are aware, is the host and Curator of our favorite Music blog The Round Place In The Middle https://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/?amp=1
Please join us in welcoming John back to SMS, and enjoy his always unique and interesting view of music and the World!
____________________________________________________________________________________________ . “Here’s Johnny”
I must Create a System, or be enslaved by another Mans
I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create
-Williamm Blake: “Jerusalem”
Of all the things that could only have happened in the 1960’s, the careers of the era’s two most inexplicable musicians, Keith John Moon and James Marshall Hendrix, remain among the few candles that haven’t been snuffed by time. Art is like that. It burns on after wars and riots and assassinations—not to mention the latest fads in politics and religion—have been conveniently paved over and reincarnated as nostalgia or marketing schemes. But even in art—or Art—some things are easier to explain than others.
Unlike the Beatles, Stones or Bob Dylan (or even Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison), Moon and Hendrix were not products of some detectable march along a civilizational path that could be placed under the umbrella of pop, blues, folk, or even rock and roll. They may have had their inspirations, but not only was there no predicting them—as might have been said of the period’s other great artists, or even of its politics or religion—there was no way to quite account for them, even in retrospect.
I wasn’t there for their respective arrivals—“My Generation” and Are You Experienced, let’s say, or the blowouts at Monterey Pop (let alone the truly mind-blowing prospect of seeing Hendrix open for the Monkees!) . But when I finally encountered them in the late 70’s the shock of the new still hit with full-force. It still does. There’s no way watching, reading about, living in, or listening to the popular culture or, God forbid, the intelligentsia, of the last four decades could prepare anyone for those blastoffs. Even the 70’s didn’t do that.
These two are so far off the organizational charts and conventional timelines that, if you haven’t listened to them in a while—I mean really listened—it’s possible to think you dreamed them. That somebody had to embody all that craziness and it just happened to be them. That if we didn’t have them, we’d have just laid the crazy crown, or burden, on somebody else. Getting back to the sounds themselves always re-establishes the miracle.
Not one guy, but two, arriving in the time-space continuum at the very same moment, with no real predecessors and no real descendants? One guy setting up on the drums and making a unit as formidable as Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle sound like three guys who just happened to be standing in front of him when he went off? One guy making “Wipe Out” sound orderly, like a lesson in a school band practice? And then, within a heartbeat (well, two years anyway), another guy, straight off the chitlin’ circuit no less, who made Townshend and Eric Clapton huddle in the local movie theater in London to commiserate over what they were gonna do now?
Shock of the new, perhaps, but even that doesn’t quite get at the impact—two guys at once, who made everyone who played their respective instruments think I have to play like that! all the while knowing I can’t play like that. Meaning no one else could play like that, even if they managed (as I’m sure some have done) to copy every discordant, chaotic note.
They met, of course. There’s a famous picture of Hendrix with the Who at the Saville Theater in 1967 and they both played—announced themselves really—at the Monterey Pop Festival where their incendiary performances (along with those of Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and others) were captured for posterity by D.A. Pennebaker’s cameras. Relations between Townshend and Hendrix were frosty at the time so it’s unlikely the two Spacemen palled around together. Maybe later? Stories abound. Who knows?
But I wonder if they recognized each other. If there was some secret conversation that could only take place in the realm where no words are required: All the rest can be explained. We alone are the Horsemen. It certainly sounds like the Apocalypse when they are playing, out there beyond the realm of musical or cultural sense or even the standard values of inspiration. Was death baked into the cake? Early death, wasteful death, death by excess. Was all of that a necessary price to “Create a System” and walk in Blake’s Jerusalem? Did the 60’s themselves have to die first? If the 60’s hadn’t died but burned on brightly instead, would the people who set its limits have survived?
The answers are unknowable, but in no one else’s music do the questions linger quite so stubbornly, or split the difference between terror and ecstasy quite so raggedly. Hope I die before I get old—Pete Townshend’s words on Roger Daltrey’s stuttering lips—meant a thousand times more because Keith Moon’s drum kit was exploding all around them, killing off any suggestion that the statement’s inherent nihilism might only be rhetorical. And once that moment had happened, and meant a thousand times more than it should, all the rest had to follow. Everyone who sang along, or even nodded along, had to sooner or later decide whether they really meant it.
And the echo has never died. You could ask Moon himself, or Jimi Hendrix—or Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse. Well, you could if any of them were still around. If they hadn’t been among the many, famous or not, all across the western world, who kept pushing against the edge until it gave way (quite often, when, like Hendrix, Cobain, and Winehouse, they were 27—but that’s another story for another day).
What’s left, what hasn’t burned away, is the power of the music itself. The chance to partake in something that still feels like a revolution and wonder if it might have come out differently—whether, if the world was that alive once, it could be again, and whether life, rather than death, could win the epic struggle this time, or the mundane, almost pathetic, ends of the 60’s two true Travelers through Time and Space could never really have been other than they were.
My own sense is that you could change a date or an address, but the same doomed fate was always waiting. That once you step past the safety zone, you can never come back and that some of those who take that step know it. The sense of doom is always wrapped up in the kind of real freedom that arrived in the first blastoff of Moon’s drumming on The Who Sing My Generation and the first guitar break on Are You Experienced. And it’s there every time they stepped out ever after. So much there that it’s finally in every note they played between the lines, too (where, to be fair, they were often brilliant).
For Keith Moon (8/23/46—9/7//78, overdose of detox pills) and Jimi Hendrix (11/27/42—9/18/70, asphyxiated by his own vomit after an overdose of sleeping pills) it had to be as it was. To be the only permanent paths back to the 60’s as a living, breathing moment—entirely free of heavy sighs and wistful smiles—they had to burn themselves up like ships taking the wrong angle on re-entry in the process. Even Spacemen have to exist in God’s universe, after all. That’s a truth those of us who lived to get old have learned to live with.
Because when their music is playing loud, everything else is the sound of lost, lamented dreams.