I come from a musical family. My parents—lifelong patrons of the arts—always made an effort to assure that my siblings and I were exposed to culture. We grew up singing along to Broadway cast albums and going to orchestra concerts in the park. They showed us a broad spectrum of music, from Mozart to Beethoven, The Andrews Sisters to Louis Armstrong, Carole King to Harry Chapin, The Monkees to the Beatles. As my parents would educate us about what we were hearing, I became just as fascinated by the stories surrounding the music as the music itself. I still remember the first time I nerd-ed out over a band’s mythology: sitting on our living room floor, my mom’s old Sgt. Pepper’s LP playing on the record player, while she filled me in about the infamous “Paul is dead” hoax, showing me all the “evidence” from the Beatles’ album covers and original photo inserts.
I started playing classical violin at a young age, and continued to play through elementary school. By the time I was in fourth grade, I had become a relatively skilled player, but I had also started to develop resentment toward the violin. The lessons were boring, practicing felt like a chore, but most significantly, the music I was playing never got me excited. Not a single composer in my Suzuki violin books had a cool death hoax I could dig into. By that point, I was more interested in Black Sabbath than Vivaldi, and there are no violins in “Crazy Train”, so I decided it was time to switch to the guitar.
I could strum a few chords and, like every new guitar student, play a pretty mean “Smoke On The Water” by the time I started taking lessons for real in 5th grade. On my first day of lessons my new teacher, Ed, asked me what I wanted to play, and I realized, embarrassed, that despite all my excitement to start becoming a rock star, I hadn’t thought of something to learn. But Ed had seen me eyeing the Jimi Hendrix poster on his wall, popped in a CD called Are You Experienced and hit play on “Purple Haze”. I had heard of Jimi Hendrix before. I knew how revered he was as a guitarist, and had probably even heard this song before. But in this setting, sitting with my new guitar, listening intently…something clicked. From the opening lick, I was hooked. It was angry. It was loud. It had attitude. It was pure emotion. It was beautiful. It was unlike anything I had ever heard.
I bought a copy of Are You Experienced on my way home, stripped off the plastic, and had the CD in my walkman before we had left the parking lot. As I sat in my seat, listening again to the album’s opening “Purple Haze” while I gazed out the window, my mind wandered to 1967, when the music world first heard an artist who would change it forever in the form of the very album I was listening to right now. My expectations for what was coming couldn’t have been higher, but somehow, song by song, Are You Experienced exceeded them.
I had to ask my mom what “Manic Depression” meant, but once she told me, it became clear that this song was its sonic equivalent, as its unhinged percussion was amazingly unified when Jimi’s guitar and vocals entered the fold. “Hey Joe” was the coolest song I had ever heard. The lyrics were gritty and startling and delivered with beautiful, raging emotion. Three songs in, and I was already in awe of this man. “Love Or Confusion” asked a philosophical question I hadn’t yet needed to ponder at my young age, but it still sounded like poetry to me, with its heavily distorted, loose feel and full, rich sound. The lyrics laid the foundation, but music gave them life. “May This Be Love” sounded like waves washing onto a magic beach, the guitar barely washing up over the booming toms and crashing cymbals.
I was dumbfounded by the sounds that Hendrix created: “I Don’t Live Today” literally used amplifier feedback as the featured instrument on its opening verse. “The Wind Cries Mary” was a strange and beautiful ballad, evoking Dali-esque images in my mind’s eye that I still see every time I hear this song. “Fire” was pure, unadulterated rock n’ roll, and Jimi tore into the vocals with his nonchalant rockstar abandon. The jazz-fusion “Third Stone From The Sun” was trippy and weird and instantly stuck in my mind. I don’t listen to it often anymore, but I still frequently find myself humming or playing the breezy guitar lick to this day.
“Foxey Lady”, “Are You Experienced?”, “Stone Free”, and “51st Anniversary” continued to entrance me with Hendrix’s huge presence and attention-grabbing lyrics. The weeping guitar intro and boogying groove of “Highway Chile”, the layered vocals of “Can You See Me”, the supple guitar and soulful singing on “Remember”–it all sounded incredible; aggressively unique and effortlessly cool. The album’s finale, “Red House,” took me by surprise one last time. Hendrix’s wounded wail was so honest, so real, so raw. “Red House” was red-hot blues, and was the song that eventually led me to some of my all-time favorite guitarists like B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
I was completely inexperienced with the level of excitement I felt while getting acquainted with Are You Experienced. In the months that followed, I dove headfirst into the album and Hendrix in both a musical and scholarly sense. I did research, learning everything I could about Jimi and his legendary debut. I happily and voluntarily practiced my guitar every day, learning–or, at least, attempting to learn–every song that I could from the album. I even asked my teacher to transcribe some of the album’s weirder guitar parts note-for-note so I could learn them.
Eventually, I would branch out to different albums, different artists. I’ve fallen in love with countless bands and albums since, learning every word, every note, researching their stories, letting them consume me as I did with Are You Experienced. Today, the music I love is a huge part of my life. I can’t begin to count the number of amazing people met, lessons learned, memories made, and priceless experiences had in my life thanks to my continued passion for music. I have Are You Experienced to thank for igniting that passion. When I was 10 years old, Jimi Hendrix blew me away and showed me how to love music, and I’ve been flying ever since.
Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.
[Originally published September 2016]