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Electric Ladyland 50th Anniv.: The Story of ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp’ and Why I Think it’s the Best Jimi Hendrix Song”

To be honest, I had this post stewing for a little while and didn’t finish it… Jimi Hendrix is exceptionally hard to write about… well today is the 50th anniversary of his final album with the Experience, Electric Ladyland, so the least I could do is pay some respects.

One thing of absolute impossibility to deny in any examination of the guitar godfather is the extreme subjectivity of the time frame of the person doing said examining. Just reading Tony Glover’s Rolling Stone review of the album provided under a “Further Reading” section of its Wikipedia page, that is, you get a sense of the divergence in concept of what “heavy” is with his assessment of “Crosstown Traffic” as a “stomp under (sic) with a heavy beat.” Now, by TODAY’s standards this song is not heavy (nor particularly good, in my perhaps excessively spiny, abrasive opinion), but as compared to the rest of the album its prototype does VEER ever so cautiously toward heavy metal and the Led Zeppelin debut which would come out less than three months later. Beginning with a trip-fest just like Axis: Bold as Love does, Ladyland only offers one song, the title track, before “Crosstown Traffic,” and the former is basically a corn-ball/horn-ball fast-food jingle where he even mimics one of his old ploys from “Are You Experienced?”, asking “Have you ever been to electric ladyland?” Then comes the amazingly listenable 15-minute live recording of “Voodoo Chile” with Steve Winwood on keys which, although pretty serviceable, hardly lends itself to “track four on a classic album” status, with its bulbous anatomy, and all that good stuff.

So the truth comes out and… could Electric Ladyland kinda like… er… uh… I mean… SUCK? Well… er… yeah… and I mean I haven’t even gotten to the transcendent awfulness of that songwriting fip Noel Redding and “Little Miss Strange” – that guy had absolutely no business attempting to contribute anything other than bass riffs to this album, although “She’s So Fine” on Axis: Bold as Love is a little easier to stomach.

Look. Electric Ladyland is nothing if not experimental, dabbling in something basically different and uniquely off-putting on every single track, more or less. The album’s production has garnered pretty much unanimous praise, credited to Hendrix himself although from reading about it it seems there were a couple of other hands in it at Record Plant from Chas Chandler to Eddie Kramer and back. Prior to Ladyland, Hendrix had busted out the wah-wah pedal (I think “Up from the Skies” is its first ever utility in a commercial, studio-recorded rock song), but never with the kind of definitive punctuation he employs on “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” whereon not only is the guitar riff the galvanizing ornament of the song but the STUDIO TECHNIQUE EMPLOYED for the guitar riff is said ornament, in all point of fact.

Tony Glover, I think, wrongfully mulls over “Midnight Lamp,” saying it “goes nowhere” (his head is still spinning ga-ga from the fructification of “heavy metal,” don’t forget)… well this is a song with a very maligned past, so maybe its initial misunderstood stature is almost appropriate. For instance, according to Wikipedia, Hendrix began work on it in May ’67, 17 months before the release of Ladyland (the single would get life in UK only later that year but isn’t on Axis: Bold as Love, curiously). According to the article, then, “Progress was slow however, and this lack of success was said to leave Hendrix ‘frustrated and depressed’” before an impending European tour.

All in all, anyway, in what’s a mighty fine and compelling tale of geography, the American Hendrix, borne to British band for reasons which are stated eloquently in his memoir Starting at Zero, finishing the song on American soil, or American AIR anyway: “Hendrix finished writing the song on a plane journey between tour dates in Los Angeles and New York City on July 3” (maybe some ruefulness of Independence Day, the song of the nation that artistically confined him, threatening to immerse his artistic muse?)

And is it just me or does this song just have a summery FEEL about it? It’s bluesy, so relatable to the American South and Mississippi Delta, for obvious reasons, and that sound is just so swampy and languid, applicable indeed to the dog days of summer where school’s out and everything slows down a bit and settles into a kind of stasis.

Also, it’s in summer, arguably, that such solitude would be the most painful, with most other individuals around you paired up in romantic amour (or so the cruel bouts with the mind will sometimes allege). Hendrix would not even release the single in America, again, perhaps due to some rancor felt on his part before his native country, and by the time it saw air on Electric Ladyland, things were feeling crisp for fall, an entirely different atmosphere from that from which the song initially springs. Actually, I remember driving back to my hometown of South Bend, Indiana from Wrigley Field one time with a couple high school friends, getting lost on the South Side pretty bad but luckily having one of the BBC Sessions CD’s in and truly internalizing the stark, stately and poetic beauty of this song and guitar riff. It is, basically, a song about being lost. Maybe that’s why.

Beautifully, the Experience enlisted R&B group Sweet Inspirations for background vocals, which almost to me is like a symbolically supreme reuniting with both his race and his home country full of persecuted race, in rhapsodic musical mourning. I think that it’s not a question of WHETHER you will enjoy this song but HOW, obviously, given its turbulent formulation, and to be honest, the very quest of HOW EXACTLY to enjoy this song is part of the fun of it. I recommend getting lost on the south side of Chicago after a 4-1 Cubs loss to the Expos, but since that’s not an option anymore, how about Dolby Disaster’s “A Jimi Hendrix Playlist,” which features both the Electric Ladyland and the BBC Sessions versions of “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.” Nudge-nudge.

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