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The Poetry of Jimi Hendrix (VI) – “House Burning Down” May 26, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in House Burning Down, Jimi Hendrix, music commentary, poetry, rock music.
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(This is the sixth of a series of posts about the lyrics of rock super-guitarist Jimi Hendrix. This is certainly what I meant when I introduced this blog and said “So my readers should expect all kinds of digressions, everything from some musical musings to an off-the-wall comment about the world.” I am a musician well as a writer, writing and performing. I cover nine Hendrix songs (here is a current playlist of everything I perform with my drum-bass machine set-up). This series of posts is not about songs like “Foxey Lady” and “Little Miss Lover.” A handful of Hendrix songs glisten with a lyrical inventiveness, uniquely poetic and musical, words and music existing in a smooth symbiotic combination. The lyrics drip and glide through the songs the way Jimi Hendrix’s guitar notes drip and glide through auditory space. These will be the songs I will discuss in these posts. Of course, these posts represent my interpretations of these lyrics. This is not an exact science. Your comments, agreeing and disagreeing are invited.)

For me, “House Burning Down” has some connection to “Up from the Skies” (recently discussed at this blog). In “Up from the Skies,” the narrator of the song returns from somewhere, maybe from space, to “the smell of a world that has burned.” This song seems to me like a prequel to “Up from the Skies”—consciously or unconsciously.

Again, we have the narrator of the song arriving at the scene and asking what is going on.  And no one seems to know! There is smoke, there is hell-fire red, flames creating a ghostly whine—and no one knows what is going on! In addition to that, this ignorance is casual. The narrator does eventually tell us “the truth is straight ahead so don’t burn yourself instead—try to learn instead of burn…” This comes after someone emerge “from the crowd nineteen miles high” and adds to the mess. I have to say, I’m not sure why the narrator says “we paint red through the sky.” It may be he is admitting getting momentarily caught up in the “burning” before offering his message of “learning.”

At the end, “a giant boat from space” comes in and takes “all the dead away.” Is this the arrival of the narrator from “Up from the Skies,” coming to “the smell of a world that has burned?”

It appears to me the song expresses the preference for refraining from “burning” anger which leads to destruction. He calls for mutual understanding—“learning instead of burning.” He wrote his songs at the time of the specter of nuclear war hovering over the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and phrases in the song allude to nuclear bomb type destruction. But “learning instead of burning” is a great phrase for our time, or any time, as well.

Musically, Hendrix again perfectly joins sounds to words. The “Look at the sky turn a hell fire red” chorus starts the song as nearly shouted over pounding attention-getting rhythms and the I chord, with an added flat 7 flat 11 (a common blues chord allowing both the major and minor third of the key to be sounded at once, creating a bluesy dissonance). It’s the less reflective, more emotional part of the song, a call for immediate consideration. To get to the more reflective portion of the song, there is a sudden move down in major seconds and an abrupt shift of key to a major second lower than the original key. Now the background chords and rhythms are more subtle, with more room for tasty licks as the narrator processes the events around him and comments. This is a simple minor key progression—i-i-i-i/iv-iv-iv-iv/i-i-iv-v/i-iv-i—. He then jolts us with a sudden move back to the chorus. There is no transition. He jolts us right back to the hell fire red because it is a jolting image!

Richard Warren Field plays Jimi Hendrix.

Electric Ladyland - Jimi Hendrix (CD)

Electric Ladyland - Jimi Hendrix (CD)

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The Poetry of Jimi Hendrix (V) – “Axis: Bold as Love” March 26, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in Axis Bold as Love, Jimi Hendrix, music commentary, poetry, rock music, Uncategorized.
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(This is the fifth of a series of posts about the lyrics of rock super-guitarist Jimi Hendrix. This is certainly what I meant when I introduced this blog and said “So my readers should expect all kinds of digressions, everything from some musical musings to an off-the-wall comment about the world.” I am a musician well as a writer, writing and performing. I cover nine Hendrix songs (here is a current playlist of what I perform with my drum-bass machine set-up). This series of posts is not about songs like “Foxey Lady” and “Little Miss Lover.” A handful of Hendrix songs glisten with a lyrical inventiveness, uniquely poetic and musical, words and music existing in a smooth symbiotic combination. The lyrics drip and glide through the songs the way Jimi Hendrix’s guitar notes drip and glide through auditory space. These will be the songs I will discuss in these posts. Of course, these posts represent my interpretations of these lyrics. This is not an exact science. Your comments, agreeing and disagreeing are invited.)

We could spend a lot of time looking at these lyrics, charged with wonderful ambiguity and poetic force. Overall, two features of the lyrics are striking—the use of colors, and the reference to the all-knowing Axis, “Bold as Love.” And can we assume that Jimi Hendrix felt this song was important, with his second studio album named after the song, a song that did not get as much attention as others on this album?  (Or did some record company executive make this decision?—Hendrix experts, I welcome your comments.)

Colors-First Verse

“Anger, he smiles, towering in shiny metallic purple armor.”

  • Purple often means royal—is this a person of status or power who enjoys being angry, who enjoys dominating through that anger?

“Queen Jealousy, Envy waits behind him…”

  • As if to galvanize that anger, this angry powerful person calls on “fiery green” Envy (capitalized in the album lyric sheet), Queen Jealousy—she “sneers at the grassy ground.”

“Once happy Turquoise armies lay opposite, a ready…”

  • And so his anger is used to galvanize these armies, and the blue “life-giving waters” seem resigned to this. The armies, the troops, aren’t so sure. They are turquoise—a combination of blue and green—a combination of the life-giving waters and green envy. We feel the implication that this fight may not take place.

Colors-Second Verse

We shift now from a description of others to a more personal perspective. Is Hendrix referring to one of those troops, “wondering why the fight is on,” or is the singer the one “towering in shiny metallic purple armor?” The song could work either way.

“Red… confident… trophies of war and ribbons of euphoria”
“Orange… young, full of daring… unsteady for the first go-round”

  • The colors start with a powerful color, red, a seeming confidence. But as the verse proceeds, doubts creep in, and that confidence fades. Red, to red/yellow (orange) to-

“My yellow in this case is not so mellow…”

  • The folk-singer Donovan handed him this one, which fits right into the creeping doubts! This is generally the color of cowardice. He is not emphasizing the “unsteady for the first go-round”—that would be green, already used for envy in the first verse. So it’s cowardice. What is the singer afraid of?

“…giving my life to a rainbow like you.”

  • When I first heard this, I heard it as a romantic, boy-girl type commitment, and thought the line reduced the impact of the song. But I do not believe that is what Hendrix was talking about. He may be deciding whether to join forces with that smiling anger. The “rainbow” implies that the person or entity he is going give his life to is also multi-faceted, with shades of doubt, like his.

Axis: Bold as Love

All those colors, those different elements of the singer’s make-up, those turquoise armies and blue life-giving waters—if we want to know about them, we can just ask the Axis, the all-knowing Axis. The Axis will tell us if all these elements are “Bold as Love,” and the implication is he will agree they are. So what is this “Axis?” The only conclusion I can come up with is the obvious one, that he refers to a profound spiritual force—possibly God. And God knows all these aspects, these colors, are “Bold as Love.”

So to me, the song places the affairs of humans within the purview of the spiritual force, with love as the key to understanding it. I admit, there could be other interpretations. It is another Hendrix song with a wonderful flow of lyrical images. I invite comments with other interpretations!

_______

Again, the music with the words adds to the effect. The chord progression is simple, as well as the song’s construction. The first half of the verses are I-V-vi-IV (there’s a move down to I with the third in the bass used as the transition to the second half of the verse). This is a very tame, major-key, gentle set of cords. The second half of the verse creates a little more tension. To create this tension, Jimi Hendrix makes a very simple “blues” move. He takes the whole chord progression up a perfect fourth. That simple. Hendrix often described himself as a bluesman. This psychedelic song uses a blues move. So the second part of the verse is IV-I-ii-♭VII. The ♭VII introduces the flat 7th of the tonic scale, allowing a little edge to creep in. It also allows that signature Hendrix chromatic move up from ♭VII to ♮VII to I to transition to the chorus, which is virtually the same as the verse, but with the ♭VII chord instead of the IV chord at the end of the progression. Then the chorus has a tag: I-ii-♭VII/♭VII-♮VII-I.

Complete lyrics of “Axis: Bold as Love”:

Anger he smiles towering shiny metallic purple armour.
Queen jealousy, envy waits behind him.
Her fiery green gown sneers at the grassy ground.

Blue are the life giving waters taken for granted,
They quietly understand.
Once happy turquoise armies lay opposite ready,
But wonder why the fight is on.

But they’re all, bold as love.
Yeah, they’re all bold as love.
Yeah, they’re all bold as love.
Just ask the Axis.

My red is so confident he flashes trophies of war
And ribbons of euphoria.
Orange is young, full of daring but very unsteady for the first go ’round.
My yellow in this case is no so mellow.
In fact I’m trying to say it’s frightened like me.
And all of these emotions of mine keep holding me
From giving my life to a rainbow like you.

But I’m bold as love…
Well, I’m bold, bold as love.
Hear me talkin’, girl.
I’m bold as love.
Just ask the Axis.
He knows everything. Yeah, yeah. 

Richard Warren Field plays Jimi Hendrix.

Axis: Bold as Love

Axis: Bold as Love

The Poetry of Jimi Hendrix (I) – “Castles Made of Sand” October 19, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in Castles Made of Sand, Jimi Hendrix, lyrics, poetry, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , ,
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(This is the first of a series of posts about the lyrics of rock super-guitarist Jimi Hendrix. This is certainly what I meant when I introduced this blog and said “So my readers should expect all kinds of digressions, everything from some musical musings to an off-the-wall comment about the world.” I am a musician as well as a writer, writing and performing. I cover nine Hendrix songs (here is a current playlist of what I perform with my drum-bass machine set-up). This series of posts is not about songs like “Foxey Lady” and “Little Miss Lover.” A handful of Hendrix songs glisten with a lyrical inventiveness, uniquely poetic and musical, words and music existing in a smooth symbiotic combination. The lyrics drip and glide through the songs the way Jimi Hendrix’s guitar notes drip and glide through auditory space. These will be the songs I will discuss in these posts. Of course, these posts represent my interpretations of these lyrics. This is not an exact science. Your comments, agreeing and disagreeing are invited.)

The song for this post is “Castles Made of Sand” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love” album. The song presents three little stories, followed with the refrain “And so Castles Made of Sand fall/melts/slips into the sea, eventually.” The stories might seem to be unrelated—a man crying not to end a relationship with a lady, an Indian brave killed in a surprise attack the night before his first battle, and a crippled young girl wishing to die. But there is a unifying theme. All three of these people are thwarted from achieving their desires. The crying man is left sobbing at the door. The Indian brave dies in his sleep on the eve of battle after dreaming of his first battle “for many moons.” And the crippled young girl wants to die. A “golden-winged ship”—an apparent metaphor for heaven, in my opinion—passes her by.

And the song’s title, the tag line after these stories, lets us know that all ambitions/achievements/goals, thwarted or not, fade away eventually. Sure, the tone of the song is dark. (Or is the song saying that since everything fades away eventually, these disappointments don’t matter? This is not clear, and I suspect the ambiguity is deliberate, another effective aspect of this song.) But the art of it, the way the music and words slide together in unison to create that effect of falling, of melting, of slipping, of rising out of a sandy beach to stand magnificently but not permanently—all of this makes “Castles Made of Sand” a treasure of a song.

The music contributes to the drift between the angst and acceptance reflected in the lyrics. The verse starts on a VII chord, a jolting, dark harmonic move. The chords then slide up to a ii, and down to a vi, hinting at a gentler mood. But the quick cadence of VII to V to I yanks us back, saying “no, this will be dark after all.” The chorus follows the same pattern, with gentle leads sliding around the V chord, offering the hint of that gentle mood again. But the move to the IV chord with juicy suspensions using the flat 7th of the key pull us right back to that darkness again. The cadence to the tonic (I) chord at the end of the chorus still won’t rest as a quick succession of riff/chords pulse through it.

This combination of music and poetry make “Castles Made of Sand,” one of Jimi Hendrix’s greatest songs, though it is one of his less celebrated. My childhood recollections are that this is the first song from “Axis: Bold as Love” I heard on the radio. (I was at the record store as fast as I could get there to buy it. This was also my reaction when I first heard “Purple Haze” off of his first album. No one else was making music like this.) So someone back then also thought “Castles Made of Sand” was a treasure of a song. Let me know if you agree as well.

*******

The lyrics to “Castles Made of Sand”:

Down the street you can hear her scream “you’re a disgrace”
As she slams the door in his drunken face
And now he stands outside
And all the neighbors start to gossip and drool
He cries “oh girl you must be mad”
What happened to the sweet love you and me had
And against the door he leans and starts a scene
And his tears fall and burn in the garden green

And so Castles Made of Sand
Fall in the sea
Eventually

There was a young brave who before he was ten
Played war games in the woods with his Indian friends
And he built a dream that when he grew up
He would be a fearless warrior Indian chief
Many moons past before the dream grew strong
’Til tomorrow he would sing his first war song
And fight his first battle but something went wrong
Surprise attack killed him in his sleep that night

And so Castles Made of Sand
Melts into the sea
Eventually

There was a young girl whose heart was a frown
’Cause she was crippled for life and couldn’t speak a sound
So she wished and prayed she could stop living
So she decided to die
She drew her wheelchair to the edge of the shore
And to her legs she smiled you won’t hurt me no more
But then a sight she never seen made her jump and say
Look, a golden-winged ship is passing my way
And it really didn’t have to stop
It just kept on going

And so Castles Made of Sand
Slips into the sea
Eventually

© Jimi Hendrix 1967 

Richard Warren Field plays Jimi Hendrix.

Axis: Bold as Love

Axis: Bold as Love