Hear my machine a comin

A look into the technique and motivations behind two of Jimmy Hendrix lesser-known masterpieces

Res00 | 21-09-2022

Hear my train a comin and Machine gun are two of Jimi Hendrix’s finest pieces, but whilst venerated by his fans they are probably unknown to the wider public. You are unlikely to have ever heard either of these pieces being played on the radio or television, though a shorter, pop friendly version of Hear my train a comin was aired on the Dick Cavett show after a somewhat disengaged interview by Hendrix in 1969. These songs in their typical live renditions are sprawling 11 minute plus pieces with incredible melodic nuance and ideas, exploring blues, jazz and classical themes, that evolved over many years through variations in their live performance. Whilst a clear lineage of influence arises from many of Jimi’s recordings, for example much of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s raunchy blues oeuvre can be found within Jimi’s recording of Red House, little matches these two pieces in terms of their scope and feel. They present such a broad palette of ideas, some of which have been used by other artists in particular the rock and metal genre, but these two tracks seem unique, in that they have yet to be fully unpicked and assimilated by other musical artists. Here we take a further look at the technique, motivation, and themes for each of these recordings. Hear my train a comin, at its core, is a series of blues motifs perhaps most reminiscent of Catfish Blues by Muddy Waters’ and the work of Robert Johnson. Jimi Hendrix first played the song in 1967. There are multiple renditions of the piece but a standout version of Hear my train a comin is from Berkeley Community Centre in 1970. He starts the song teasing the chorus behind an accompanying melody then follows with a dramatic rollercoaster of bends before launching in to an incredibly catchy series of blues riffs of which there are three variations. Each riff is dispelled into memory without any repetition. It would have been easy to close out the whole song on any one of the riffs, as per fire or foxy lady but he seems never to be satisfied with any melody; and is always moving away from a theme, searching for something else. In fact in all 11 minutes and 700 bars of music there is not one bar that is repeated, which is remarkable for a catchy blues song. The complexity is incredible. By comparison, a classical piece such as Beethoven’s fifth symphony has a central riff repeated multiple times over 6 minutes. To carry around this amount of music in his head was remarkable, though it is true that Hendrix favored looseness and freedom of expression and each performance was an experiment and channeling of his emotions that could never be precisely replicated by anyone even himself. The power that could be derived by repetition of guitar riffs is something that was developed by musicians influenced by him in the following generations. The lyrics are fascinating too- He talks about being jilted in love and feeling disrespected and needing to go away and find his own talent and inspiration or become a ‘magic boy’ or ‘voodoo child’ and then come back to ‘buy the town’ and ‘put it in his shoe’. As others have documented a train has long been used as a metaphor for salvation in American folklore and blues songs, and appears as far back as 1873, in the spiritual song The Gospel Train. Jimi grew up in America as poor African- American in the sixties, when racial discrimination was rife. He would been viewed by many as occupying the lower echelons of society and by many accounts lacked focus and promise. His references from the army, where he was eventually dismissed, were far from glowing. Yet his music is a conjuring of incredible creativity and intellect. It is easy to imagine that he was a misfit walking around in a daze with his mind elsewhere. The song tells of his motivation to succeed and show the world. There is a touch of arrogance and retribution, but also an understanding that in order to achieve his goals that he needed to distance himself from societal judgment and scrutiny to hone and develop his talent alone. He started learning to the play guitar at 15 which was relatively late compared to other great musicians and perhaps he sensed he didn’t have much time to succeed. His solo career though meteoric was relatively short, spanning only 4-5 years. He died only 12 years after learning to play the guitar. He says that the train is taking him away from the town, not back to the town to reveal his talents and gain success. A similar sentiment is expressed in a room full of mirrors, where he says ‘I used to live in a room full of mirrors, all I could see was me. I take my spirit and smash those mirrors and now the whole world can see me.’ There is a hint that revealing his talent to the world was a draining and even traumatic event for him as he continues ‘A broken glass was loud in my brain. It used to fall on my dreams and cut me in my bed.’ This desire to exit society and then return is paralleled in the writing of Nietzsche who suggested that those with creative talent and genius need to exit society for a while to allow them space to develop their thoughts and talents which may be viewed with suspicion and derision. Many left on that train but only a few returned to have an influence on society like Hendrix did. When Hendrix entered the music scene he was a fully-fledged phenomenon, an irresistible force that could not be denied. He created the music, his persona and a whole world that others wanted to be part of. He was a young black man who achieved enormous success, yet he is perhaps unfairly not thought of as a promotor of civil right, as he was adopted equally by all regardless of their backgrounds. His success, image, appeal and widespread adoration demonstrated that talent transcended color and was was a huge thrust for assimilation of black music and culture and a subconscious driver for equality. Machine gun was first played in part on the Dick Cavett show in 1969. Machine Gun is an epic visceral antiwar masterpiece that juxtaposes barbarism and beauty. The contrast starts within the first bars and extends to whole swathes of the song. The imagery of the horrors of war is vivid; spluttering gun fire, cries of suffering, bombs falling from the sky. The barbarism is overcome by soothing melodies, exemplifying a sense of human solidarity and the ability of those who are suffering to maintain their dignity, know that they suffer not in vain and tell history, perhaps as a forerunner to achieving greater societal enlightenment and an alternative modus operando to war. A standout recording is from East Fillmore 1/1/1970. The song is set against a repetitive staccato drum motif which mimics machine gun fire and a repeated baseline, which perhaps has a hint of Cream’s sunshine of your love, which he once paid tribute to in an impromptu live rendition on UK national television. Jimmy’s guitar starts of unaccompanied and there is a striking contrast between the staccato gun fire and string bends that is joined by the percussion. The opening bends are sinuous, original and subtle in their timing. The beauty succumbs to chaos; full of intense solos with rapid string bends and plunging whammy bar dives. There is a standout melody that emerge from the chaos, which is a three octave jump on a string bend, something similar is heard in the war pigs riff (which was release on the same day that Hendrix died) and the whole lotta love guitar break, which were written in the following years. Lyrically, Hendrix laments war mongers who manipulate people to fight and kill others, oblivious of the devastating effects; soldiers deaths, the toll on soldiers’ families, and the toll on survivors -three times the pain as Hendrix puts it. The song reaches out to unite people, by emphasizing that the manipulated soldiers are killing their own kind. Hendrix presents the ridiculous image of farmers in the field fighting men with machine guns in a one sided contest, perhaps referencing the inequality faced by black people working in the plantation fields in America. The epicenter of the song- a funky groove that emerges beneath a spiritual note of defiance- ‘I ain't afraid of your mess no more, babe I ain't afraid no more. After a while your cheap talk won't even cause me pain, So let your bullets fly like rain, Because I know all the time you're wrong baby, And you'll be going just the same.’ Hendrix knew how to connect with people and could mesmerize audiences. He still continues to connect with people many years after his death. He took on themes of universal suffering and pain. Machine gun is an exposition of the pain of war, a lament of the suffering, a soothing lullaby and mantra, with a desire to overcome the suffering through raising anti-war conscience by uniting all people, in a way that he could see possible, because he was already doing it through music. His career was relatively short, yet he is widely regarded as the greatest and most influential guitar player of all time. He has already changed the world. How much more he could have achieved and how different our musical world would have been had he lived longer we do not know. We can only imagine what he would have been like as an elder statesman. There isn’t really anyone else we could model our expectations on.