A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

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The following is an excerpt from the January/February 2015 issue of the Believer. Read the full piece on Believermag.com

A BIOGRAPHY OF JIMI HENDRIX’S ELECTRIC LADY STUDIOS, ITS OWNERSHIP, AND OTHER BLACK MEMORIES

DISCUSSED: A Man of Zero Sentimentality, The Preservation of Psychedelic Sensibilities, Technical Questions for Les Paul, A Common Language, Keith Richards’s Desire for Privacy, Sold Souls, Employees for Hire, The Star-Spangled Banner, A Good Old Boy, Marlboro Reds, Something Ethereal

When I was nineteen or so, Richard Nichols, a man who was more of a father to me than my own father was, invited me to Electric Lady Studios in New York to watch Amiri Baraka record one of his new poems. Richard, who managed the Roots until his death, last July, was a jazz savant, and during his college years was a poetry student of both Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez. Like Richard had in his youth, I had cultivated an interest in all things poetic, black, and avant-garde. So when he called and said that Baraka had agreed to record a poem for the Roots’ album, and that he had already reserved and paid for my Amtrak ticket to New York City, I packed my backpack and headed to the station.

I had been Richard’s “intern” for only a few months, but my internship was a strange one. In the morning I answered the office phone and in the afternoon Richard taught me about old music he loved: Rufus Harley, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jimi Hendrix. They were the blueprints, the models to study. Over the years, Richard had developed a quiet philosophy of freedom and self-determination and, with very little money, had somehow mentored and raised an informal village of rappers, singers, and musicians: Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Santigold and Bilal. I wasn’t a musician but I came to Richard a confused kid—a black kid who felt very black but wasn’t particularly interested in the kind of blackness that the local radio stations seemed to be shilling—with no idea of what I wanted to do next. Richard, a man of zero sentimentality, rescued me by allowing me to learn about black music and culture as living histories rather than parts of a storied past. From him I knew that Electric Lady Studios was seemingly the only place in a constantly evolving city and an increasingly digitized recording industry that still somehow preserved the psychedelic sensibilities of its first owner, Hendrix, the god himself.

Jimi Hendrix had initially wanted to turn the two cavernous bottom floors of 52 West Eighth Street into a club, like it had been when he first visited the space. For almost forty years it had been the Village Barn, a novelty western-themed bar, and then, for a brief time in 1968, a nightclub called the Generation Club (you can watch videos of Hendrix sitting on the side of the stage there while Janis Joplin sings). It was Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s mix engineer, who suggested he found a studio—a place where Hendrix could have some financial and artistic autonomy—rather than a club, which Kramer insisted was a waste of money. Despite being the highest paid musician in the world, by the time Hendrix played Woodstock, in 1969, he was swamped with money problems. He was always the sort of performer who preferred to push boundaries and do the unexpected, and he was spending well into the six figures to record. He complained that crowds wanted to hear only his hits, so the studio was to be a place where Hendrix could have some freedom—something that despite his outwardly freewheeling look, riotous onstage antics, and easy come, easy go attitude, he had very little of. As Les Paul, the guitarist and inventor, recalled in the New York Times, “Musicians know that I’m a night person, so when someone’s got a technical question—how do you hold the guitar pick for this, how do you finger that chord?—they call. Back when Jimi Hendrix opened Electric Lady Studios, he was on the phone all the time; we talked about how to mike a guitar amplifier and where he should place the mike in the studio.”

Hendrix recorded only a handful of songs at Electric Lady before his death, in 1970, including several that appeared on his posthumous album, The Cry of Love, but the list of albums produced at the studio is legend: Stevie Wonder recordedTalking Book there, Led Zeppelin mixed some of Houses of the Holy there, David Bowie did Young Americans, and Patti Smith decided early on that Horses could be made nowhere else.

Tucked into the whirl of Greenwich Village, Electric Lady could have become a priceless real-estate curio. Instead it has continued to be a place where great American music is born. Unlike many historical sites in Manhattan, Electric Lady Studios has a strict but logical door policy: no tours, no strangers. For the most part, the only people admitted are those who have come to make music—the artists and their retinues.

Maybe that’s why it’s difficult not to feel sentimental, blessed even, when one gets a chance to go inside. There is something about Electric Lady that feels sacrosanct. From the moment the discreet, glass-paned door buzzes and lets you through, disbelief sets in and does not fade as you walk down the bordello-red staircase. These are the steps where a very shy Jimi Hendrix, only weeks away from his death, told a very young Patti Smith his never-to-be realized plans for a universal love orchestra, an orchestra where, as Smith wrote in her memoir, “musicians from all over the world in Woodstock… would sit in a field in a circle and play and play. It didn’t matter what key or tempo or what melody, they would keep on playing through their discordance until they found a common language. Eventually they would record this abstract universal language of music in his studio.”

Read the full piece on Believermag.com