While the origins and authorship of “Hey Joe” are in dispute and probably lost to the sands of time, Jimi Hendrix’s version is the most well-known, if not the first. The Leaves have what is considered the first recording of it, done in November of 1965. As far as I’m concerned, though, it’s a Jimi song.

There was this guy I was friendly with in college whose name was Joe. One day I saw him in the cafeteria and I said, “Hey Joe. Where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?” He didn’t say hello back, but just looked at me with utter confusion, slightly disturbed. “Huh?” he said. I hung my head and sighed. “No, you’re supposed to say, ‘I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady; I caught her messin’ around with another man.’” More confusion, and his voice rose about an octave and a half. “HUH??” But I saw him a few more times in the coming weeks, and said the same thing to him each time. Eventually he got it. Around the 4th time, he responded, “Oh wait, I know this! Umm… I’m goin’ to shoot my woman, ‘cause…” He took a few seconds with a look of deep concentration on his face. “’Cause she was cheatin’ on me!” He looked like a 7th grader that just won the spelling bee. “Close enough,” I said with a smile.

The casual violence of the lyrics is indicative of the blues, a low-class, grimy and common type of music from its origins onward. And Jimi’s version is blues all the way, with an electric twist. His voice lends itself to the material creating a unique synergy. The criminal story told is made vaguely more disturbing by Jimi’s at once lazy and intense tone. His improvisational “and that ain’t too cool…” gives me a little shiver even to this day.

As flip as Jimi is about murder in “Hey Joe,” that attitude is turned on its head on “Foxey Lady.” This is probably the heaviest and most powerful track on the entire record; how appropriate that it’s saved for the guttural, visceral sensations of physical and sexual attraction. In “Foxey Lady,” Jimi’s a roaring tiger, stalking his prey with absolute certainty that it will be his. This song is all id; the entire inflection, both lyrically and musically, is “I want you, and I will HAVE you.” Even for the blues, this is pretty startling.

“Love or Confusion” is a fairly straight-forward song about the bewilderment that overtakes a person when they embark on a romantic relationship. The real prize here is that Jimi creates a “drone” that would make Lou Reed proud. The tonic played on an electric guitar just once is sustained by the loop of feedback created by the distortion; it goes on so long that there is no end in sight. It’s commonly said that one note played for 35 minutes with feeling is better than the fastest and most technically excellent notes played in a dead and mechanical way. If you can’t understand that concept, just listen to “Love or Confusion” and you’ll get it.

Jimi’s approach, while most commonly like that of a wild animal, is not one-dimensional. There are a few moments of tenderness, made even more poignant by the sharp edges of the rest of the album. “May This Be Love” is nothing more than a love song, unabashed in its message, yet poetic enough to avoid seeming maudlin. I’m constantly taken by surprise by this song, especially wedged between “Love or Confusion” and “I Don’t Live Today,” the latter of which ends with a swirling sonic chaos over which Jimi intones “there ain’t no life nowhere…”

Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding

Right after “I Don’t Live Today,” a moment of aggressive hopelessness, we’re treated to another softer song, on which Jimi proves his mastery of this type of material as well as the hard stuff. Not many artists since him were able to shift so effortlessly between these two extremes. “The Wind Cries Mary,” apparently inspired by a Curtis Mayfield riff, reveals a poet’s heart. Something as mundane as an argument with his girlfriend about her cooking can produce this type of response; for a poet, anything can be a source of inspiration, from a sunrise to a fingernail clipping.

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