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Eastern Imagery And Rock Ideals: Thoughts On Axis: Bold As Love At 50

I bought the poster before the album, having recognized the artwork from years of passive exposure to religious imagery. The Indian community in Davis, California largely practiced Hinduism, though my own family was Sikh. Yet I was used to being mistaken for the former, or more often simply ignorantly lumped together, and I’d decided early on that I wanted to be seen as more than either. Typically the only way for someone marked by a single attribute to acquire a perception of greater depth is to commit wholly to an unrelated niche — to cast a wide shadow of a middle ground between the part of you that will always be taken as a given and the little bit of everything else you can control.

Rock music was to serve as the handle by which I’d pull myself out of the silhouette of my own skin, and that poster — the one for Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 masterpiece Axis: Bold As Love, which turns 50 years old today — was to be my grip. The hall-of-mirrors depiction of Vishnu, overlaid by Jimi Hendrix and his Experience bandmates on either side, caught my eye as both a striking visual and an easily reconfigurable symbol, one I could adopt as my own to both reconcile and represent the tension of my minority identity and my Western upbringing. It hadn’t mattered that I hadn’t actually heard any of the music yet.

I had long wanted to love Jimi Hendrix before I actually did; he was one of those icons for which recognition was mandatory if you wanted to participate in the burgeoning dialogues carried out by young music fans at school. He was intertwined with everything I wanted to be — from serving as an unreachable guidepost for the other emerging guitar players I desperately hoped to form bands with, to being embedded in the DNA of those early Red Hot Chili Peppers tracks and covers that became my middle school class’s stepping stones to better understanding a past moment in music we weren’t directly a part of. So I dutifully placed him on a pedestal, even if I couldn’t personally justify that designation.

That was typical of my relationship with most of the rock icons of the near-mythical 1960s. By that point in my life, my only real connection to the era was the Beatles. My father grew up in India listening to the band on the radio, rushing home after school each day to catch the end of the programming block from the one station that dedicated time to Western rock. His reputation at school was defined by his interest in foreign media, which his classmates mostly failed to share. Yet he always sought it out anyway, I presumed because it wasn’t easy for everyone to access — desiring to find an identity he could declare his own amongst a sea of homogeneity, a search where most people’s love for rock and roll began.

My dad requisitely passed down to me the Beatles — as well as his other childhood favorites from The Godfather to ABBA — but having only experienced American culture through a distant, foggy lens, he didn’t have the immersion necessary to prime me on the rest of that moment in rock history. So while my classmates were receiving an education from their fathers in Pink Floyd, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones, I was listening secondhand from a distance trying to make use of whatever I could overhear and filter out, while actively turning away from the Bollywood music that ruled my home’s airwaves. Per rock tradition, I saw a space outside of the one I’d been born into and was committed to making my name in it.

***

I grew up in a predominantly white town, the kind that leans liberal because they don’t have to reckon with race or poverty and therefore can proclaim an empathic compass without ever being tested on it. Early on my only friends were the children of other Indian families who I knew through cultural proximity rather than personal commonality. Under these circumstances, most would tell you they grew up with an internalized desire to “earn” white friends that could replace their default peers. This wasn’t as much the result of ourselves seeing non-white as inferior, though that was surely at play after years of learning from school and television our own image to be peripheral. Rather, it was because we knew white to be a higher status: the implied, ultimate destination of the American dream. And like most Americans when presented with something foreign, I sought to diminish and build a wall around my South Eastern origins.

But the pace of my rush to conformity took a pause when I witnessed Jimi Hendrix on the cover of Axis, set against Ganesh and Hanuman, at peace amongst the company of idols I had already outcasted. Within that juxtaposition, I saw a way back to my inherited roots with the real possibility of coexisting in both worlds. Although Hendrix’s own religious beliefs did not apparently extend to Hinduism, let alone Sikhism, I was eager to revel in the depiction of my iconography (or at least what others thought was mine) in a musical narrative I had otherwise been excluded from. Perhaps I should have been wary; the artwork was clearly cultural appropriation, but at the time it felt like cultural validation. Here was Jimi Hendrix — a god amongst adolescent rockers — openly embracing the very associations that I was typically belittled if not actively begrudged with. I bought the album the day after I did the poster, racing home to hear what I promised to myself would be the intersection I could use to reach my desired community.

Jimi Hendrix is one of the most talented and influential guitar players of all time. I knew that going in. But when I finally sat down with Axis: Bold As Love, I hardly registered the guitar, or at least what I had until then thought of as guitar. Hendrix’s playing didn’t sound like notes processed and distorted through an amplifier; it was like gusts of wind over a wildfire or a gradually flooding river or some other natural but expressive weather pattern. His strings had soul, taking on a life of their own with Hendrix not leading the way so much as walking alongside them wherever they went. I couldn’t help but follow along, whether it was down the winding, trickling trance of “Up From The Skies” or the meditative trenches of “If 6 Was 9.”

While inarguably a visionary in crafting what we’d go on to understand as classic rock, what struck me most about Hendrix on first listen was how his style was as much an expression of gospel and soul as it was country or punk. A song like “Little Wing” is built on constellation-outlining riffage, but Jimi’s yearning croon is closer to how Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder would go on to sing than what his rock contemporaries like Eric Clapton were doing with their voice, let alone instrument. And Hendrix’s influence as a guitar player isn’t in merely his technical skill; it was in how he made tone seem as significant as melody or rhythm. Jimi Hendrix was a pioneer in reframing feedback as a musical element and not an undesirable sound effect. He wielded his amp as much as his axe, transforming blues and jazz and R&B into a single psychedelic force as elemental as the ones that make up our material world.

Yet little of the music on Axis sounds like what you might expect to experience on Earth in your lifetime. Instead, from the simultaneously background- and foreground-occupying fretwork to the atmospheric stereophonic tug-of-war, it all feels like it exists on a higher plane, in another universe different from our own, Hendrix’s performance beyond the capacity of human ability. The haptic lead guitar, the textured static, the ethereal phasing — all of it seems of one source, like the most fundamental union of atoms themselves. The sounds on the album seem to be the building blocks of what all other music is made out of.

Axis is a meticulous record, but it’s also resoundingly scrappy. Unlike other virtuosos on the instrument, Hendrix wasn’t showy in his prowess. His guitar had a heartbeat, a human, overeager hustle. You could always hear the edges of the fuzz, serrated and warm, as well as the tumbling urgency of Mitch Mitchell’s drumming on skittery rockers like the Noel Redding-led “She’s So Fine,” or the uneven processing on Jimi’s vocals for the burbling “Little Miss Lover.” The loose rush of the performances sets Axis apart from the high concept, even higher production-budget albums that Sgt. Pepper pulled rock in the direction of. There’s no grand statement, just dextrous stream-of-conscious musicality.

Even without the pretense of importance, Axis still sounds of a higher purpose. While recording the album, Hendrix was getting increasingly interested in science fiction, reflected in the spacey structures of his soundscapes. Yet rather than the cosmos, I understood his boundary pushing as something more akin to a fascination with other worlds. Perhaps it’s difficult for a listener some 40 years removed to have heard Hendrix outside of his deified aura, but it was evident to me in the ornate psalm of “One Rainy Wish” and the colorful vision of the human spectrum defined on “Bold As Love” that Hendrix wasn’t imagining the edges of simply physical frontiers, but also spiritual ones. I was never sold on the scriptures I’d been presented with since birth, but Hendrix made a greater power feel palpable. Like Vishnu himself, Hendrix seemed able to dispel all evil and chaos from his world, like he could dream his universe into reality.

***

As heretical as it was to plaster his face over that of a Hindu god — engaging in the decade’s widespread practice of stripping the religious significance from borrowed imagery and philosophy in the service of counterculture — the analogy between Hendrix’s image and that of the Supreme Being wasn’t unprecedented. The portrayal of rock stars has always been consumed and commodified by masses that worship their pages like holy text, taking them at their words with an almost insurmountable faith. But God has also been one of rock music’s most crucial fixations, and while the audience looks up at the musicians they idolize, the musicians are fully aware that they too are sitting below an individual beyond their own significance.

Which is why every use of an Indian deity by a beloved rock musician felt like personal vindication. When I heard John Lennon sing of “Jai Guru Dev” on “Across The Universe” or George Harrison chant out “Krishna Krishna” on “My Sweet Lord,” for once those names I was constantly subjected to did not feel alien to me. They were no longer outlines of why I didn’t belong with the community I sought out, but resoundingly accepted by the music they were listening to. The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” and even they were praying to my gods.

Yet the recognition of Eastern symbols in Western music’s most beloved institution didn’t offer me any additional clout in speaking to what I heard. Instead, it allowed the kids who didn’t otherwise recognize my background to steal their preferred elements without going through me at all. By the time I reached Hendrix, I was deeply familiar with the ridges of a recurring motif. These gods marked me for exclusion, but for the Western audiences that adopted them, they were a sign of their ability to enter any world they deemed worthy.

Countless times I’ve been taught my own culture back to me under the presumption that I wasn’t wearing it right. I’m always met with an overeagerness from non-Indians to prove how much they know about my background, serving merely as a representative of my ethnicity to acknowledge their efforts rather than answer their questions about an identity for which I’m a primary source. And rarely am I afforded the chance to share my words generally on Hendrix, the Beatles, or any artist that doesn’t resemble how others see me. It’s a pattern that cuts across genres: Whenever I tell anyone I listen to hip-hop I far too often am met in response with, “Oh, I love Das Racist!”

So while my authority was by default in doubt when it came to the Western canon, I still couldn’t look away. Although it was made clear that Jimi Hendrix wasn’t mine — mostly by people who could not rightfully claim him as theirs either — I was adamant to get as close as I could to the horizon line, the border between all you are allowed and everything else there is to know. My entire love of rock music had been born from a desire to prove I belonged, at times amongst the white friends I actively courted, but often merely beyond where I was already sequestered off to. After being told with definitive exactness what color I was, I wanted nothing less than to reach out to the Axis and experience all of them at once.

The twist in all this is that Jimi Hendrix had actually wanted the album art to depict his “American Indian” heritage, which got lost in translation when Roger Law instead chose to redesign a prominent religious symbol displayed in homes and public spaces across India. Yet it’s this oversight that likely led to many individuals’ first explicit encounter with Indian mythology, no matter how shallow. I hope it inspired some of them to learn more about the rich tapestry of philosophy and artistry I had until then failed to appreciate — or at the very least learn the names of “the elephant god” and “the monkey dude” — and not simply find it an ethnic novelty for self-aggrandization. For me, the cover remains among the first signs of approval I was granted from an institution that had until then evaded me; it was “the color of a dream I’d had” that, in that initial moment of discovery, I felt might really exist after all.

Tags: Jimi Hendrix