Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Blues Had a Baby and They Named Him Jimi Hendrix-Spirits of the Red House

My friends and I used to fantasize about a life after death in a rock and roll heaven. Although there would be many guitarists present in the heavenly jam, the guy at the front of them all--sharing leads, riffs and chord changes--would be Jimi Hendrix. His clarion strings would stretch notes beyond the elysian boundaries, challenging Orpheus himself. As if to prove me right, a new disc from the master himself was released from beyond the grave on March 9th. Titled Valley of Neptune, the disc contains twelve never-before-released songs or versions of songs. The title song, a version of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Crying Blue Rain" were recorded in early 1969 with the best-known lineup of Hendrix's band the Experience (Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass) and percussionist Rocki Dzidzornu (who played percussion on the Stones song "Sympathy For the Devil"). The majority of the other material was recorded later the same year.
For those who don't know much about Hendrix's brief and fiery career, the year 1969 was probably the most chaotic and cataclysmic of them all. His band The Experience was dissolving in front of him due to a number of reasons--personal and business. Indeed, by the time of the April recording sessions where some of the songs on Valley of Neptune were recorded, bass player Noel Redding was gone. In addition, according to some biographers Jimi's drug use was reaching dangerous heights while his management was pushing him harder and harder to tour more and more. This pressure in turn led him to use drugs more, creating a vortex not unfamiliar to the lives of many performers and artists. By the end of 1969, Jimi would be playing with a new band featuring bass player Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. It would be this band-known as the Band of Gypsys-- that played at the Fillmore East on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day of 1969-1970. The album recorded those nights was the only live album by Hendrix ever released while he was still alive. Later that year, a reformed Experience minus Redding toured the US and Europe. This tour included the shows at the Berkeley Community Theatre in Berkeley, CA. that were made famous in the concert film Jimi Plays Berkeley. The portion of this film that has the band playing Hendrix's "Machine Gun" while antiwar protesters fight with police outside is one of those cinematic moments where film captures the zeitgeist of a time. This time happened to be at the end of a month that began with the US invasion of Cambodia and included the murders of four students at Kent State University by National Guard troops, the police murders of two more students at Jackson State University and a national crisis.
Most folks who knew Hendrix's music back then can remember their emotions upon hearing about Hendrix's death on September 18, 1970. I recall being at home in Frankfurt am Main, Germany listening to the radio. The announcement was made during the regular hourly broadcast of the news headlines. Friends of mine who lived and breathed Hendrix were beyond distraught as they smoked pipe after pipe of hashish with fellow mourners--German and American--at an unofficial memorial service in Frankfurt's Gr√ľneburg Park the next day.

As for the CD itself, let me discuss a few of the highlights. After opening with a version of "Stone Free" that opens with a contrapuntal syncopation that resolves itself with a classic Hendrix guitar adventure tailspinning to the song's end. The title song is a psychedelic blues that one can easily imagine dancing to. The lyrics talk about erasing the world's pain ahead of a new world to come. The guitar work carries the lyrics with an understated beauty that hints at that new world. The version of "Red House" is a masterpiece in and of itself. Slower than other recordings of the tune, Hendrix's guitar becomes that lyre invented by Hermes and played to perfection by Orpheus himself. This song has always been one of my favorite Hendrix tunes, from its rendering on Electric Ladyland to the multitude of versions present in the bootlegs and official releases that populate any Hendrix fan's collection. The guitar work here debates and enhances Billy Cox's bass playing without ever giving an inch on either side of the dais. The spirit of every bluesman from Robert Johnson to Charley Patton and Son House are present in the lead put forth here. My other favorite is the reworking of the Cream song "Sunshine Of Your Love." This tune was a fairly big hit in 1968 after its release in December 1967. Written by bass player Jack Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton, its introductory measures are among rock music's best known bars. Hendrix and the Experience played this song quite often in 1968 and 1969 in their concerts, so it's not much of a surprise to find it on this disc.
Now, a cynic might say that it's easy to recycle some old tapes and make a buck off of them. If they were referring to this collection, they would be completely off the mark. This disc enables the listener to hear Hendrix in a brand new way. The members of the Jimi Hendrix Memorial Project that have committed themselves to maintaining and enhancing Hendrix's legacy have certainly done the man right with this release. It is definitely worthy of that rock and roll paradise referred to above.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Of Course Narcs Are Crooked....

We've all seen a television show or a movie about an undercover narcotics cop who become crooked. He loses the trust of his colleagues, then his family. Soon, the only contacts he has are with the world of drug dealers that he originally set out to destroy. Now picture this scenario of the criminal cop on a worldwide scale and condoned by various governments and their agencies, including that of the United States. Let's go a step further and understand that not only are these governments condoning these rogue activities, they consider them valuable to their national security. So, they allow drug dealers to bring huge amounts of heroin and cocaine into the country while at the same time others on the government payroll are arresting drug dealers not favored by US intelligence.
The scenario described above is but one aspect of the so-called war on drugs waged by the United States government. The "war" as it is being fought is, like all wars, much different than originally advertised. Even if there were pure motives ascribed to this war at its inceptions, those motives have long since disintegrated into an abyss of duplicity, denial, and atrocity. Like its progeny the global war on terror, the US war on drugs is a war that its antagonists never want to end since its termination would mean an end to their profit and status. Indeed, an end to the war on drugs would mean an end to the very agencies designed to fight it and the billions of dollars those agencies take from the taxpayers every year. Also like the global war on terror, the war on drugs is against an enemy that does not exist in terms of sovereignty persons, but as a phenomenon impossible to defeat. Therefore, it is an endless pursuit. In addition, it is a pursuit where the individual actors are often on both sides of the battle: where a drug dealer is also an informer and where a terrorist is also a CIA plant. To top it all off, these two wars on phantasms are interlinked. From the poppy fileds and heroin labs of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the coca fields and cocaine labs of Colombia (with many other places in between), the funding of terror and insurgent groups and the funding of forces fighting them is connected to the international drug trade.

The web of individuals, criminal groups, and other organizations involved in the international drug trade is multidimensional and complex. This is also the case with the individuals and agencies enlisted by the US government to fight that trade. The federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are among those who have attempted to catalog the elements involved in the drug trade. Author Douglas Valentine (The Phoenix Program) is one of the few that have attempted to catalog and describe the web woven by the government agencies supposedly fighting that trade. In so doing, he has described a system riddled with corruption and criminality. Sometimes this is the work of individuals enlisted by the agencies; sometimes it is the result of interagency turf battles; and sometimes it is agency policy.
Valentine's first book on the subject is titled The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America's War on Drugs. This book told the history of Henry Anslinger's Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in all of its corrupt detail and racist assumptions. The stories between the book's covers have enough fodder for a dozen Hollywood movies or a multitude of crime novels. His latest on the subject, The Strength of the Pack: The People, Politics and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA, covers the period beginning with the dissolution of the FBN, the short tenure of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), and the creation and continued existence of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). It is a voluminous work with more characters than the proverbial Russian novel. Impeccably researched and documented, The Strength of the Pack details the cowboy attitudes of BNDD and DEA agents and the criminal acts with which they were often involved. It is the story of a bureaucracy constantly at odds with itself and with other agencies, especially the CIA. The conflict with the CIA was directly tied to that agency's use of drug running enterprises in its counterintelligence endeavors. It is the author's contention that this conflict was a product of the CIA's pursuit of its anticommunist agenda no matter what the cost. This contention is supported by the facts presented. There are mafia drug dealers let go and murderers employed by the CIA left to continue their criminal pursuits--all because of the role they played in Washington's war against the Soviet Union.
The US war on drugs begun by Richard Nixon preceded the war on terror by almost twenty years. The destruction of the Bill of Rights Americans currently accept as fact began then. No Knock warrantless searches, torture of suspects, and the assassination of foreign individuals became accepted practice under the DEA. Indeed, some of these became law. Like the war on terror, the war on drugs preys on the fear of the unknown. Likewise, it presents the use of force as the most effective means to fight the war, despite decades of evidence proving that this is not the case. Also, like the war on terror, the war on drugs has created a bureaucracy and a subsidiary industry in the private sector that exists only to perpetuate itself. This is arguably a primary reason why marijuana remains illegal in the United States--because too many people on the supposedly right side of the law make a living from its illegality.
Valentine seeks the truth in his books. In doing so, he uncovers a lot of ugliness regarding the men and women who say they are protecting us. For some readers, his revelations about the US-run assassination program in Vietnam called the Phoenix program or his detailing of the corruption and criminality of those hired by the US government to keep heroin and cocaine away from America's youth might be too much. This in itself is reason enough to read his books. The facade of morality that the DEA hides behind should be torn away if this country is to ever have a sane and humane drug policy. Just as importantly, that facade needs to be destroyed if it is ever to have a sane and humane foreign policy.

As Valentine's books make perfectly clear, there is more than a bit of venality behind almost every bureaucrat and political appointee presented to the populace in any given year. Donald Rumsfeld or Hilary Clinton, Robert McNamara or William Colby, the men and women that run the United States are, after all, human. Some would argue that they define humanity's baser elements.