Song: Jimi Hendrix, “Hey Joe.” Highest chart position: U.K. Pop #4. It’s perfectly executed and brimming with confidence, even though it was the first single (with “Stone Free” as the B-side) released by the Experience after Hendrix hit London in the fall of 1966. Despite all its chauvinistic and violent trappings, what with Joe “going down to shoot down” his “old lady” and all, the Experience’s recording captured the remarkable interplay of three musical elements: 1) Hendrix’s lead vocal, thrown off so casually that its effectiveness is easily overlooked; 2) Hendrix’s rhythm guitar work, evidence that he was arguably the greatest rhythm player of his time; and 3) Mitch Mitchell’s drumming, too often overlooked for its contribution to the song’s success.
“Hey Joe” uses five repeating major chords, C – G – D – A – E. It’s a quick trip from the center (C) of the circle of fifths to the sharp side (E), where it hangs out for a second or two, just long enough to establish a sense of key before shifting back again to the beginning of the succession. Harmonically, that’s all the song will ever aspire to, so either the musical interest is going to come from some other musical variable (rhythm, melody, dynamics, etc.) or it isn’t. Some of those variables include:
Mitch Mitchell: Tension builds, and the music expands dynamically, from start to finish, largely because of Mitchell’s intensity on the drums. He slowly increases the actual length of time devoted to drum “fills” and decreases the amount of time devoted to simply holding down the beat; eventually the whole drum part becomes one big “fill.”
Hendrix’s rhythm playing: He similarly expands its role from the beginning of the song to the end. Throughout he’s punctuating his vocal phrases with bursts of guitar, subtle “rhythmic leads” that we hardly notice. But there’s an intensity arc to it that’s compelling. Other things that are supercharged: Like when the vocal harmonies kick in at the guitar solo or the subsequent guitar/bass ascent up the fretboard right after the solo.
The Narrative and the Time Machine: There is a compelling (and yes, violent and misogynist) story being told, a dialogue between two regular “Joes” on the street, each sung by Hendrix. There’s a Q&A format going on, with both the question and answer deemed profound enough to be stated twice: “Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand? (I said) Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?” Joe’s “going down to shoot his old lady” because “he caught her messing around with another man.” But immediately following in the subsequent question/answer pair, the narrator tells Joe “I heard you shot your woman down,” to which Joe replies, “Yes I did, I shot her, you know I caught her messing around town,” begging the question: When did that happen? Hendrix subsequently starts his solo, punctuating it with yells and whoops, as though the guitar is playing out the drama just described. It’s a beautiful, compact solo, not heavy on distortion or cheap sonic wizardry, just melodic E-major blues stuff. We get another question: “Hey Joe, where you gonna run to now?” And we sympathize with Joe, as if perhaps he was the victim here: “I’m going way down south, way down where I can be free, ain’t no one gonna find me; they ain’t gonna hang me [brother], they ain’t gonna put a rope around me,” We wonder whether or not Joe got away with his act of violence, after we hear him literally leaving (“I gotta go now”) and the narrator yells some advice as we picture Joe running down the street: “Hey Joe, you better run on down!” Joe responds quickly during the fadeout: “Goodbye everybody, ow!” Did Joe get shot himself? Why did he yell “Ow?” The line between the narrator and Joe, always fuzzy, gets almost totally blurred by the end of the song, as the response back and forth, once repeated to make sure each participant was understood, becomes truncated. Maybe Joe’s been talking to himself all along? Psychedelic-era music was full of similarly guitar-based (as opposed to piano-based) compositions. It’s easy to tell when a player’s hands simply went to familiar patterns of chords on a guitar that sounded cool. This one worked because of all the other stuff going on. “Hey Joe” also shows that from the beginning of his rock career Hendrix’s myriad musical gifts were perfectly suited to the multi-track recording process; there are no throwaway overdubs, no cheap attempts to cover up, to fatten, or to enrich anything just for the sake of doing so. Clearly Hendrix was talking to himself, because the song is a magic trick, with two, maybe three versions of Hendrix. There’s Vocal Hendrix 1, Vocal Hendrix 2, Rhythm Guitar Hendrix, Lead Guitar Hendrix, and maybe a couple other guys in there as well. Mitchell sails along with an improvisatory, single-take fluency. But it’s not just the fact that Hendrix overdubs himself. It’s the way he uses his performance AND the technology, to create layers of instruments, vocals and meaning.