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Experiencing the Hendrix archive with John McDermott

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'Recording was a tremendous passion for him. He created this huge backlog of work.'

John McDermott, catalog manager and producer for Experience Hendrix

We think of him as the ber-cool, eternally youthful ultimate guitar hero, but next year will mark what would have been Jimi Hendrix's 70th birthday. For some fans, that's kind of a shocking thought. Even more incredible is just how much music he managed to record between his arrival in London in 1966 and his death in Sept., 1970 at the age of 27. It isn't merely the volume of music he committed to tape in those four years that is amazing, but that so much of it is of a consistently high quality.

John McDermott is catalog manager and 'keeper of the vault' for Jimi's vast body of work. It's a job he's had since joining Experience Hendrix in 1995, when the legal rights to Jimi's music and unreleased tape archive were returned to his family. He also co-produced every archival Jimi Hendrix since that time.

Forty-one years after Jimi Hendrix left this planet, there is much more to be heard. Last month, Experience Hendrix, in partnership with Sony, issued 'Winterland,' a four-CD boxed set featuring The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded over six shows at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom on Oct. 10, 11 and 12, 1968.

Most of the material on this new collection was unreleased until now. Mixed from the original 8-track reels by longtime Hendrix engineer and producer, Eddie Kramer, the sound quality is staggering. As I told John McDermott, these 1968 live recordings sound better than most contemporary live albums. McDermott is quick to give equal credit to original engineer Bill Halvorson and Kramer who brought the tapes to life.

'It's such a pleasure to have the continuity and understanding that Eddie has for how Jimi's music should sound and how it should be mixed,' McDermott told me. 'As you said, when you hear it today, it doesn't sound like something from 1968.'

In 1992, McDermott teamed with Eddie Kramer to write 'Setting the Record Straight,' a book that many Hendrix scholars deem the definitive biography. Devoid of sensationalism and hype, McDermott successfully presented a factual account of Jimi's life based on research and interviews with those closest to him, including band members, family and management.

The book was an eye opener for anyone who may have bought into the myth of Hendrix as 'tragic hippie six-string gunslinger' perpetuated by the administration in charge prior to Jimi's family gaining control of the estate. 'Setting the Record Straight' cemented a trust between the family and McDermott that led to his position with Experience Hendrix. 'I've got the greatest job in the world,' McDermott told me.

Dow: You have done a remarkable job helping to put Jimi's house in order.

McDermott: Jimi did the heavy lifting for all of us. This is music that is remarkable in its power. Look at the new Winterland boxed set. We're nearly four decades from its creation, yet you listen to it today, and it knocks you over.

Dow: As curator of Jimi's tape archive, what do you look for in terms of putting together a new Jimi Hendrix release?

McDermott: It's really a question of trying to create packages that allow the fan to get a sense of what they're listening to. For example, you might listen and think, 'OK, so this is take one of 'Burning of the Midnight Lamp.' As long as you describe it as such, fans accept that. They say, 'I see where he was going. This helps me have a better appreciation for what his vision of the song.' It's been proven that fans will really support it if you take the time and commitment to do it right. Honestly, Mike, there is so much good music, as long as you articulate to fans what they're hearing and its relevance, they appreciate it and they get it. Unlike Elvis, Jimi didn't have a Graceland. He lived in a two-bedroom apartment. He put his money into building a recording studio (Electric Lady Studios). He spent all of his time recording.

Dow: When the Hendrix family gained control of Jimi's music and estate, what was the vision of Al Hendrix, Jimi's father in terms of honoring his son's legacy?

McDermott: Al was a wonderful man. He really set the mandate for what we've been able to do for 16 years, which is expand on this wonderful catalog. He was firmly committed to seeing that Jimi's music came back to his family. They have always been focused and committed to doing the right thing. Whether it was to go find tapes, films, restore the artwork, get the original guys involved whatever we had to do, it's always been about honoring the legacy. For me, somebody who has been a critic and writer involved with many other projects, that was wonderful to see. Once I was aware of that commitment, it was very exciting because you knew there was a shared understanding of just how important this music is. Jimi Hendrix hasn't lost an ounce of relevance. If anything, it has continued to grow.

Dow: On the same day you issued the Winterland collection, you also issued an expanded version of the long out-of-print live collection 'In The West.' The original version of the album featured 'Little Wing' and 'Voodoo Chile' from the legendary (still unreleased) Royal Albert Hall show recorded on Feb. 24, 1969, and these have been replaced with alternate versions. Is that because Experience Hendrix is eventually planning to release an official version of that Royal Albert Hall show?

McDermott: We had essentially already put out the 'In The West' album as part of the 'purple box' the boxed set we put out in 2000 called 'The Jimi Hendrix Experience.' We knew that material was already there. In the original album, 'Little Wing' and 'Voodoo Chile' were listed as being recorded at the San Diego Sports Arena (to circumvent legal issues surrounding the ownership of those recordings that long preceded the eventual lawsuit that led to Experience Hendrix acquiring the rights to Jimi's music), so this was an opportunity to bring additional unreleased performances that were actually recorded for 'In The West' to fit the concept of the record. We also wanted to remix the material. The whole purpose of reissuing the record was to offer fresh remixes of the tracks.

Dow: The complete 1969 Royal Albert Hall show is killer live Hendrix and some amazing film exists of that show. Will we see an eventual official release on CD, DVD and Blu-Ray?

McDermott: We would have put it out years ago. Unfortunately, there is litigation that's involved with a partner of Experience Hendrix. We're ready, willing and able. We've done the work. It's just unfortunate that we haven't been able to get it out yet. It's a fantastic project and I think fans will really love it. We did a great deal of work restoring the film and having Eddie remix the sound. It's a great project, but it's out of our hands right now. Our feeling is that it doesn't make any sense not to put it out.

Dow: You've been the keeper of the Hendrix tape vault for 16 years. You probably have a good idea of what's on all of those tapes. Are you still discovering signs of tampering from the administration in charge of Jimi's music before the family regained the rights?

McDermott: We did a boxed set last year called 'West Coast Seattle Boy' (four CDs of largely unreleased Hendrix material) that was a wonderful project. We worked very hard on that boxed set for a couple of years. It's interesting there are three phases to the discovery of tape tampering, one of which is somebody who had a financial or personal issue in either the Jeffery era (Jimi's former manager who died in a plane crash in 1973) or the Douglas era (Alan Douglas the man in charge of Jimi's recorded legacy until Jimi's family gained control in 1995) who has tapes and we have to get them back. Second would be tapes that have been lost or stolen we try to get those returned. And then there are people who just pop up and say, 'Oh, by the way I have something.' You just cast the net as wide as you can and bring back what you can. Or, in the case of what you referenced with what Alan had done, you look for the missing parts and try to bring them back together. This is truly an historic body of work. What may have seemed appropriate in 1975 is now seen in a much different light. At the time, nobody realized that, nearly 40 years later, somebody would be trying to find where that missing two minutes of tape that you cut from the reel actually went. (As manager of the Hendrix music catalog from 1974 to 1995, Alan Douglas made some very controversial moves. In the case of 1975's 'Crash Landing' and 'Midnight Lightning' and 1995's 'Voodoo Soup' all long out of print he overdubbed new tracks using studio musicians. During archival tape inventory, Experience Hendrix discovered sections of tape literally cut from the master reels at some point during the Douglas era.) This was a guy who didn't have to go into a union-run recording studio with guys wearing lab coats and have some guy look at his watch and say, 'You know Jim, you have 15 more minutes, The Tremeloes are coming in.' That didn't happen with Jimi. If he wanted to record, he could do that. There is a great deal of music to be heard. Releases like 'Valleys of Neptune' and 'West Coast Seattle Boy' (both issued in 2010) speak volumes about just how high the quality of that music is.'

Dow: I'm a big fan of the Dagger 'official bootleg' Hendrix releases. Will we see more of those in the future?

McDermott: Absolutely. There will be more. We've had a lot of requests from people to make that music available. We recently teamed with Sony to make previous Dagger titles available for digital download. I'm an old analog guy. I'd like to see some of the previous Dagger titles issued on vinyl. Since we started issuing titles in 1997, we've made a consistent commitment to vinyl. The vinyl version of 'Hendrix In The West' was the first pressing we've done using Quality Record Pressings (high quality vinyl pressings manufactured in Salina, Kansas) who are completely passionate about quality. You need to hear the 200 gram pressing of 'Hendrix In The West' it's just phenomenal. Also, we try to keep our vinyl priced much lower than the market average. There will be more Dagger titles in the future, but right now we don't want to overwhelm people. There should be a time window to take everything in. Last year, we put out five CDs of music plus the reissues of Jimi's core catalog. This year, we've put out five CDs of Hendrix music.

Dow: While listening to 'West Coast Seattle Boy,' I really enjoyed those new mixes of alternate versions of 'Fire' and 'Love or Confusion.' As a fan, the mixes made during Jimi's lifetime will always be definitive, but these new remixes certainly offer a fresh and exciting listen. Has there been any discussion of possibly going back and doing fresh remixes of Jimi's core studio albums?

McDermott: Not really, no. I think we have to honor Jimi's intentions. He was involved in the original mixes, and I think without him here, in some ways, it would be akin to remixing The Beatles' 'Abbey Road.' You could do it because you have the tapes, but you run the risk of spoiling the chemistry. The intentions may be pure, but there's really no reason. For example, take Jimi's 'Electric Ladyland' (1968). When we used the original flat master tapes for our reissue in 1997, people said, 'Wow, this sounds different than the way I heard it before.' Yes, it did. Previous CD releases (in the pre-Experience Hendrix era) had used tape copies that had been equalized for issue on vinyl. On our edition, you hear it the way Jimi and Eddie heard it in the room when they finished that record. Now, it's cool to present 'Love or Confusion' with different vocal or guitar parts or 'Purple Haze' with an extra verse with those cool voices at the end. Doing fresh mixes of alternate versions gives you a different perspective of songs that you know and love.

Dow: Based on what you just told me, I know this is a long shot, but I'll ask anyway. I'm a surround sound fan. Pink Floyd just reissued 'Dark Side Of The Moon' and 'Wish You Were Here' with quad and 5.1 mixes in a 'super deluxe package.' Any chance we'll someday hear 'Electric Ladyland' in true 5.1 surround sound?

McDermott: I don't think so. In the case of Pink Floyd, I'm assuming you have the surviving members of the band directly involved with the process or in a supervisory capacity. Remember, it's not 'Experience McDermott,' it's Experience Hendrix but as an historian, I would be reluctant to go down that road. In the case of 'Electric Ladyland,' Eddie has always described the mix of the track '1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)' as a 'performance mix' where, for 13 minutes and 40 seconds, he and Jimi worked those faders in a four-handed mix involving all kinds of things like tape delay and panning. How do you replicate that in a 5.1 setting? Even having Eddie involved, you're still missing that integral component which was Jimi's creative vision.

Dow: As a Hendrix fan, the Band of Gypsys material rates very highly, and I love your two disc 'Live at the Fillmore East' Band of Gypsys set from 1999. Do you think you might do a 'Band of Gypsys' box set some day?

McDermott: We haven't brought 'Live at the Fillmore East' back yet. We're going to do that, and maybe we'll do it in a different way. With that album, we essentially used Jimi and Eddie's original mixes for the most part. We did remix a few things for that record. We wanted to use those original mixes because Jimi was directly involved with creating them. In the United States, there is an issue with the Band of Gypsys album being on Capitol even though it's owned by Experience Hendrix, but those are hurdles and decisions we'd have to look at. We recently put three Band of Gypsys tracks on the West Coast Seattle Boy box and there is some fantastic music there. Something will come of it without question, but I can't tell you its form yet.

Dow: Experience Hendrix has just reissued two Jimi Hendrix DVDs: 'Blue Wild Angel' (Jimi's 'Isle of Wight' performance filmed less than three weeks before his death) and all of Jimi's appearances on The Dick Cavett Show. For fans who may have purchased the first issue of these titles, is there anything new on these new versions?

McDermott: With the Isle of Wight show, we were introduced to Reliance MediaWorks by Murray Lerner, who filmed the original concert. In Murray's original film, there are 'roller scratches' which show up as blue lines on one of the cameras he had shooting the film. It's prevalent in 'Spanish Castle Magic' and 'All Along The Watchtower' you see these blue lines pop up on the screen when they cut to one particular camera. This restoration company went back to the original source and was able to repair it, which was very exciting. We said, 'Let's put this out again.' It features Eddie's original mix created when we put it out on DVD in 2002, but this new version features a visual restoration. The other new thing we did was create a 'special features' thing called 'A Second Look.' Using the angle button on your remote, you can see different angles of the performance. We also did it with the 'Live at Monterey' DVD. Instead of seeing the edit that was prepared, you can see what was being captured by the live cameras. Murray also found that one of his cameras had captured the performance of 'Hey Joe,' which we had not put in the original film. We felt it didn't make sense to include it in the main feature since it was only filmed with one camera, but fans should be able to see it.

Dow: Could you let our readers know what the next Experience Hendrix project might be?

McDermott: Nothing has been formally decided, Mike. Our hope is the Royal Albert Hall show will get on the runway. We've spent a lot of time working on a brilliant performance of Jimi in Miami. There are also some studio things we're looking at. As we're talking today, I honestly can't tell you what it will be. As we get into 2012, which would have been Jimi's 70th year, there will be something special.

WEB EDITORS NOTE: This article originally appeared in the October 12, 2011 edition of The Maine Edge.

Last modified on Wednesday, 30 January 2013 12:13

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