Sunday, April 29, 2018

Repost: Electric Ladyland - "1983...A Merman I Should Turn To Be"

Electric Ladyland sprawls over four sides, spinning with ambition, noble failures, and grand successes. Hendrix, like Brian Wilson, was using the studio as an instrument, stretching the ideas cycling through him. It was typical for a year that was less rich in its output than in its studio prep for '69, though Hendrix was so focused that, like the Beatles, he wasn't merely dragging his feet.  Some of Jimi's most radio-friendly hits appear on Electric Ladyland ("All Along the Watchtower," "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," and "Crosstown Traffic"), if only on the new FM format, but on side 3, is found the album's jewel and centerpiece, "1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)," a proto-prog epic on the art of walking away from the nonsense humanity inflicts upon itself, "not to die but to be reborn, away from the land so battered and torn." While "Watchtower" is the LP's one-two punch,  "Merman" is a wild, left-field, Bolero-paced march where Hendrix overlaps the guitars and bass like a string section, affecting oceanic waves and surf, with Mitch Mitchell's oddly syncopated drumming as counterpoint, and the flute improvisations of Chris Wood (on loan from Traffic) offering a spacey ambiance.  

The 60s, of course, were a very different time. Today, young people are technology junkies. People are in love their phones, but here was a song written at a time when folks were pulling back from technology, rejecting the system, leaving corporate jobs to live on communes, trying to "get back to the land." Idealistically, working on a farm didn't mean driving a tractor, it meant grabbing a hoe, achieving self-sufficiency while living as nature intended.

And there was far more to it. April 1968, when the final version of "1983" was recorded (an acoustic demo version was recorded in March), was a tumultuous month for America. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination and the subsequent riots affected Hendrix deeply, and he dedicated an extended instrumental to King on April 6 at the Newark Symphony Hall.

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 
Not to die but to be reborn 
Away from the lands so battered and torn 
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 screaming pain 
And the arctic stains from silver blue to bloody red 
As our feet find the sand 
And the sea is straight ahead

As "pencil and lipstick tube shaped things" (missiles) have made the surface unlivable, notably melting the "arctic" from "blue to bloody red," the only solution for the protagonist is to escape this dystopia, build machines to breathe underwater, become a "merman," and swim to the utopian Atlantis. The lyrics of the first verse hints at an allegorical subtext to the narrative, particularly the phrase, "alive but the war is here to stay," which in 1968 might refer to the Vietnam War, the domestic conflicts with the police, or both. Hendrix would later make an allusion to America's civil rights unrest as a "war" in an introduction to the song "Machine Gun" at a December 1970 concert, which he dedicated to "all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago, and Milwaukee, and New York—oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam." 

The second verse of "1983" begins with an allusion to "The Star Spangled Banner": "Oh, say can you see it's such really such a mess." This reference to the U.S. national anthem and following image of "giant pencil and lipstick-tube shaped things" that "rain and cause screaming pain" are particularly significant. Both this verse and the war episode — the guitar sound painting of bombs, missiles, and air raid sirens — make a similar statement. While Hendrix obfuscated any direct social context here, it is significant that he would provide "1983" as an example of social commentary; the narrative is about a war-torn world, and yet the track isn't simply anti-war; Hendrix shows a disgust with the world we'd built. Interestingly, Hendrix found this kind of dissatisfaction in his own corporate undertakings. The American version of the LP utilized an intense unauthorized photograph of Hendrix in black, red and yellow. Hendrix had expressly requested a Linda Eastman photo of the trio sitting on the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in New York's Central Park. While he commented that the label disregarded his wishes, it was the European cover that set him over the edge, a gatefold photo of 19 nude women by David Montgomery. He referred to it as the "naked lady" cover and called it "disrespectful." 

Soft spoken and congenial, Hendrix was often bullied on a corporate level. He remained apolitical for the most part, but in "1983," Hendrix reared his head in a fury only surpassed by his discordant and pointed "Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. 

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