By Chris Thompson
The surprising influence of a genre on one of the greatest musicians of our time….
When I was a senior in college, I found myself enrolled in an overabundance of Humanities courses my final year. By choosing to major in the Biological Sciences, I hadn’t allowed myself sufficient time to explore the more Humanities-based academic disciplines, and suffice to say I had a lot of catching up to do.
To help round-out my seriously lacking credit requirements, I needed to enroll in a wide-range of classes. I took Intro to Spanish for an entire year ((I actually speak it, but no one had to know that right? Easy A…)), World Geography ((Who knew Europe had such a fascinating river system?)) and a semester each of Public Speaking and Debate ((What can I say? I’m comfortable in front of crowds…)), just to name a few. All these classes were fully stimulating in their own unique way, but the capacity with which they blended together made my final months in college some of the most interesting of all.
By delving so deeply into the Humanities those final semesters, I was able to erect a welcome buffer from the plethora of familiar faces that had been following me like a shadow for the past three years. From lecture hall to classroom, lab to study session and everything inbetween, I swear I knew them all. But those final semesters I was no longer surrounded by the crush of well-known individuals, all of us occupied with and struggling through the same familiar concerns. To my delight, the people I met were novel and fresh, with entirely different interests as innumerable and diverse as the classes they took. They spoke of monstrous Political Science reading assignments and massively long History term paper requirements. They lamented about oppressive Social Science volunteerism burdens and the frustrations with obtaining a Psychology or an Education degree. I had encountered fragments of these conversations before in passing, but never to this extent. I found it fascinating to see what those outside of my major struggled with, what those external to the hard sciences had to do earn their keep. I was like a stranger in a strange land. A scientist learning about the more human side of man.
But of all the classes I matriculated that final year, I recall one in particular that held my interest above all else. The course was entitled Topics in Science Fiction & Fantasy and the class reading-list was a treasure trove of classical literature. The professor’s intention was to explore the Science Fiction & Fantasy genres through the memorable works of H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Philip Pullman, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and C. S. Lewis, just to name a few. Having grown up reading many of these great writers as a youth, I felt completely at home as I glanced over the reading syllabus one day. But to me the class was more than just an opportunity to take a break from all the Physics and Biochemistry that had been pounded into my brain. It was also a chance to discuss, rather than just read, the topics and themes put forth in these great works of literature. Every class was to begin in the same way, with an in-depth discussion of the themes prevalent throughout the previous week’s readings and I charged headlong in.
As the school year progressed, Topics in Science Fiction & Fantasy grew quickly to become the favorite amongst my classes. The long, oftentimes intense discussions that would develop on topics as diverse as the authors we were reading always left me wanting more. We spoke at length on futuristic dystopian projections for our society, on what the meaning of “being human” might be. We wondered aloud if religion would be able to survive the frantic pace of scientific progress, and countless times, we debated the nature of the “hero/heroine” and the timeless splendor of its role in tales. Throw into the mix animated discussions that explored the influences of imagination in the perceptions of human life and the possibilities of a world where technology had run amok and you can begin to get a sense of some of the magic that transpired.
Sadly, as with all great things, the class eventually came to an end. But with it brought an unexpected twist. So emboldened was our professor by the range, depth and grasp of the concepts which my classmates and I had so passionately tackled in class, that he chose to modify the requirements for the final exam. Where once there existed the promise of a written, long-form final to compromise twenty percent of our grade, there was now another option. If interested, any student could decline the written exam and instead write a short story, SciFi or Fantasy themed. The only requirement was that it dealt with one or many of the topics we had discussed all year. And on top of that we would all read our stories before the class for our peers to critique.
The collective gasp that resonated throughout the classroom upon hearing this news was sufficient to rattle the windows and suck up all the available air. Never in all my years of intense study had I been offered up such an opportunity as this. To those who were majoring in Political Science or European History I am sure it was just another writing gig to them, another assignment to be tossed upon the already heaping pile, but for me it was different.
Up until that moment my collegiate life had been consumed with taking complex final exams. One’s where the student was expected to have memorized and demonstrated a grasp of countless mathematical equations, chemical reactions, biological structures, and physical plans. My finals were usually two to three questions long, with great sweeping arcs of blank white space with which to diagram, argue, symbolize, graph and depict your answers as best you could. There was barely any “writing” involved. For the most part the courses had insanely steep grading curves too. The kind where the student who got a 50 out of a total of 100 points was given an A. It was crazy and stressful to say the least. So to be offered the chance to write a short-story for a final exam was nothing short of pure joy. A small island of victory that allowed for me to be inspired and creative and use the more imaginative side of my mind.
In parallel to maturing with my scientific studies while away at college, I was also growing personally, expanding my perceptions of people and life. I had always enjoyed music growing up, and when I came to college a considerable amount of my evolution was achieved through my experiences with it. During those first few years I saw my musical palette broaden and refine. It was like I had been dropped into a swirling vortex of music and sound, new artists and experiences coming at me from everywhere and I was standing at its epicenter. I found myself traveling around the country whenever I could, to follow bands that I was curious about or admired. And while idle at school, waiting for the next artists to start their tour, I sampled the music that flowed endlessly through the bars and music halls of my vibrant college town. Friends passed me CD’s and tapes constantly with suggestions like “You have to listen to this” or “This’ll change your life” and I devoured it wholly.
But as I settled into my final year of college, I found myself desirous to take a break from my fanatical interest in sound. I wanted to contract some, to distance myself from the state of music coming out of the late 90s and slow things down. So instead I chose to look inward, to the foundations of the musicians I had come to enjoy. I began to focus heavily on musical acts likes Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. I began to explore the more formative years of rock and roll, drinking heavily of the early Rolling Stones, Neil Young, the psychedelic rock of Jefferson Airplane and the Big Brother and the Holding Company. The Band, Humble Pie, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Elvis Presley and The Who circled around my head as deeper and deeper I dug. It was an enlightening year for me musically and one that found me educating myself about music appreciation along the way.
One album that consistently held my attention was Jimi Hendrix’s First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Released in 1997, this record was comprised of material that Jimi Hendrix was working on at the time of his death. A posthumous album, First Rays was a faithful attempt by its producers to recreate how Hendrix would have wanted the record to sound. How he would have wanted it to feel back when he had intended to release it in late ‘70 or early ‘71. Even though posthumous albums are a dangerous thing, with the producers or scholars who put out the album only being able to make a best guess of how the artist would have wanted the album to sound, what is striking about First Rays is how impressive it comes across. Even without Hendrix’s finishing touches, his signature flourishes and obsessive execution of its final sound, the album is still remarkable. It shows a Hendrix who was most certainly moving in new directions ((His voice is more of an instrument here than in the past and many of the songs seem to embrace his R&B, Blues and Funk beginnings as a sideman for the Isley Brothers, before he developed his rock guitar experimental sound.)) and not only are the psychedelic jaunts that made him famous more precise, more refined, but the ballads on First Rays are prettier and more dreamlike in their soundscapes than ever before. The album is merely a best guess for how Hendrix would have wanted it to sound, but it is a superb best guess nonetheless. An album easily and equally comparable with the likes of Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland.
As I listened to the album more and more, I started to become aware of its ebbs and flows. Of its nuances and subtleties. Somehow I got it into my head that I was picking up on some sort of science fiction or fantasy undercurrent running through several of the songs and the album as a whole. Wanting to know more I hopped onto the still fledgling Internet and began to poke around. Looking over the tracks my suspicions were further aroused as songs with names like Earth Blues and Astro Man, In From the Storm and Hey Baby (New Rising Sun) leap off the page. Digging deeper I even wondered about the albums title, First Rays of the New Rising Sun, as if there wasn’t some sort of bigger idea there to explore. Ultimately what I learned, and what many others before me had rightly concluded, was that there appeared to be some sort of unspoken science fiction influence to a lot of Hendrix’s songs.
Of Hendrix’s childlike sense of wonder there can be no doubt. It comes across abundantly in his music, his flamboyant style of dress and how he carried himself. A master of psychedelic rock, one has to question where all that trippy imagery came from. As it turns out Hendrix was a science fiction aficionado and it heavily influenced his sound. According to Brad Schreiber, co-author of the Hendrix autobiography Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius, Hendrix’s inspirations for his music pulled heavily from his love of the science fiction genre. An admitted “science fiction junkie” Hendrix kept a trunk filled with science fiction books that producer Kim Fowley glimpsed when he met Hendrix in early ‘67 in the UK. Ever since he was a little kid, Hendrix had been obsessed with the genre ((He used to draw science fiction art, and loved to watch Flash Gordon.)) and as an adult it seemed to have followed his rise to fame. There are numerous songs dripping with the genres influence. Purple Haze for instance, an archetypical drug song of the ‘60s and one of Hendrix’s most iconic, was partially influenced by Philip Jose’ Farmer’s book Night of Light. According to Schreiber:
“Night of Light was a science fiction book that in 1966 inspired Jimi to eventually write ‘Purple Haze.’ Farmer’s story had to do with sunspots having a disorienting effect on a distant planet’s population. Jimi wrote pages and pages of lyrics for ‘Purple Haze,’ originally an epic tale of the history of warfare for the control of the planet Neptune.”
Another, more obvious, influence of the scifi genre on Hendrix’s sound can be found in Third Stone from the Son, off of Are You Experienced. One of the earliest documented examples of musical fusion, the song expertly mixes rock and jazz, with Hendrix aiming to reproduce the spacey sounds from Star Trek with the fusing of diverse sounds. By choosing to describe the Earth as the “Third Stone from the Sun”, a term likely used by an alien to describe our world, he presents a song for us with a wholly alien point of view. The song has few lyrics, mainly Hendrix and manager Chas Chandler speaking, but the words they say speak volumes:
Hendrix : Star fleet to scout ship, please give your position. Over.
Chandler : I am in orbit around the third planet of star known as Sun. Over.
Hendrix : May this be Earth? Over.
Chandler : Positive. It is known to have some form of intelligent species. Over.
Hendrix : I think we should take a look (Jimi then makes vocal spaceship noises).
UFO’s and aliens feature heavily in Hendrix’s songs. The first track from Axis, Bold as Love is called EXP and is an extremely avant garde track. Coming across as more of an interactive play between Hendrix and his drummer Mitch Mitchell, they take on the roles of a radio host and an alien disguised as a human being respectively. As the track unfolds, they discuss the existence of flying saucers until ultimately Hendrix’s voice slows down and is replaced by the sounds of a spaceship taking off ((No easy feat in the early, analog days of sound)). As soon as EXP ends we are again reminded of Hendrix’s love of science fiction with the album’s second track, Up From the Skies. A delightful little jazz-based stroll often described as “the mission statement” of the album, the song is sung from the point of view of an extraterrestrial visiting Earth. In it, the alien voices his concerns with the amount of damage and destruction caused by human beings since the last time he came around. Hendrix’s lyrics find our alien visitor lamenting throughout the song as he coyly sings:
“I have lived here before in the days of ice
And of course this is why I’m so concerned
And I come back to find the stars misplaced
And the smell of a world that is burned”
Not only does Hendrix use his love of science fiction to influence his songs, but he also uses their themes as a message to us all. 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be) is a song from Hendrix’s third album, Electric Ladyland ((In my opinion, his greatest release)), an album that for the most part seems to discard the science fiction motif. But of all the songs on the album, 1983 is a song that comes across as a future war rocker. Considered by some to be the greatest song on the album, it weighs in at over thirteen minutes long ((The second longest song ever released by The Jimi Hendrix Experience.)) and features backwards guitars and flutes, the calls of seagulls reproduced by microphone feedback and heavy vocal delays. 1983 takes the listener on a brain-frying psychedelic journey, with its melancholy-sounding guitar, washes of tape back-loop and the drifting, mournful sounding of the flute all combining perfectly to create one of the greatest of Hendrix’s psychedelic apocalypses. It’s an epic journey through the last failings of man, as the song’s narrator escapes the crushing despair of a forever war by mutating into a sea creature and finally returning, at last, to the sea, the source of all life.
“Hurray I awake from yesterday…Alive but the war is here to stay
So my love Catherina and me…Decide to take our last walk thru the noise to the sea
Oh say can you see it’s really such a mess…Every inch of earth is a fighting nest
Giant pencil and lipstick-tube shaped things…Continue to rain and cause screamin’ pain
Well it’s too bad that our friends can’t be with us today…Well it’s too bad the machine that we built would never save us that’s what they say
So my darling and I make love in the sand…To salute the last moment ever on dry land
Our machine it has done it’s work played it’s part well…Without a scratch on our body when we bid it farewell”
Of the influence of science fiction on Hendrix’s music there can be more doubt. There is more to his music than that of course, for he drew inspiration from many sides. But it a special thing when you discover that someone as talented as he was was able to bridge two worlds, literature and music, and blend them together in such a unique and brilliant way.
When it finally came time to write my short story, I found the songs of First Rays of the New Rising Sun circling above my head. And then on one sunny day in Spring, as I was walking home from class, it came to me, the perfect idea for what to write. I would use Hendrix’s posthumous album as my inspiration, and go the other way. Whereas Hendrix’s love of science fiction stories influenced the songs that he would write, I would let the music that he wrote help dictate the direction of my words. If Hendrix had Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke to influence him then I would have Hendrix to influence me.
The story that I ultimately wrote was called Alone No More and it told the tale of Jonathan Zero, an astronaut who’d been nicknamed Astro Man ((A track from First Rays.)) by his admirers and fans. In the story, Astro Man finds himself on the surface of the Moon, at the termination point where night separates day. “It is a curious place to be,” remarks Astro Man, as he speaks over his radio to his comrades at their Moon base nearby, “Not quite day and not quite night.” Feeling adventurous, Astro Man tries to straddle the moon’s terminator, to exist for a moment in a state of duality, where he is bathed both in darkness and in light. As he looks back upon the Earth, to the world and family he left behind, Astro Man pulls the visor of his helmet down to shield his eyes from the powerful first rays of the new sun ((A reference to the albums title.)) as it rises up over our planets curve. For a moment he is at peace, existing in a state of harmony and bliss. But the moment is short-lived for suddenly he notices that the ground in front of him is heaving with tiny silent explosions and puffs of dust. Almost instantly Astro Man realizes that he is trapped, exposed out in the open in the oncoming path of a meteor storm. He turns and heads towards the dark side of the Moon, trying but failing to outrun the storm as the meteors impact all around him with tremendous force.
Astro Man senses his impending doom, his gait unsteady as he struggles in the low gravity of the Moon. He is frantic to escape, to find shelter, as all around him he watches as tiny, invisible rocks scream into the ground at breakneck speeds, throwing up clouds of reflective dust that make the air seem alive. As he crosses over the terminator, passing into the perpetual blackness of the dark side of the moon, Astro Man spies a shallow crater and dives into its darkened depths, finding a modicum of shelter beneath a massive cratered rock. The meteors continue to pound all around him and he struggles to make himself as small as he can be, hysterical with fear that any moment could bring his death
Suddenly a meteor impacts almost on top of Astro Man, and he tries but fails to push deeper into the sanctuary of the cratered rock. He is partially exposed, and just when he can take no more, as he screams inside his helmeted head, trying in vain to push himself deeper and deeper into the coarse dust of the craters floor, the meteor storm ends. Hesitant, Astro Man waits a few moments and collects himself as he lingers in the curved shelter of the rock. Satisfied that the storm has passed, he begins to survey the crater floor, slowly beginning to notice that a strange purple glow has sprung up all around. It pulses and vibrates in patterns and rhythms to produce a hypnotic dance of light. It appears as if the meteor storm has disturbed the upper layer of moondust that blankets the darkened crater floor, revealing the fluorescent glow of what appears to be a slime.
Quickly, and fearful that the meteor storm could return, Astro Man takes a sample of the glowing slime and makes a retreat for his moonbase and the safety of its walls. Many years later we focus in on a newspaper headline about the discovery of an intelligent organism on our Moon. It details how in the early moments of the new rising sun, our hero Astro Man proved that humanity was no longer alone. That from the sunless depths of the dark side of the Moon, he had brought back with him a gift from the passing meteor storm. It was a solution to Earths Blues ((Another First Rays track.)), the article said. The answer as to whether or not Man was truly alone.