A River Runs Through it

When I was 19, Richard Nichols, a man that felt more like a father to me than my own, asked me to Electric Lady Studios in New York. Richard was a jazz aficionado, and had been a student of both Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez while in college.

Following Richard’s example, I had developed an interest in black culture and avant-garde poetry. So, when Richard called to say Amiri Baraka had agreed to record a poem for the Roots’ album and had already purchased me an Amtrak ticket, I quickly packed my bag and went to the station.

I had been Richard’s “intern” for only a few months, but my experience was an odd one. In the mornings I would answer the office phone, and in the afternoons Richard would share his passion for old music with me, such as Rufus Harley, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Jimi Hendrix.

He had developed a philosophy of freedom and self-determination and, despite his lack of resources, had been a mentor and guardian to many, including Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Santigold, and Bilal.

I did not have a musical background, but I had come to Richard feeling lost and confused, as a black person who had no interest in the “blackness” that radio stations seemed to be selling.

Richard, a no-nonsense individual, provided me with a way out of my confusion by showing me that black music and culture were still very much alive and present, rather than just a part of a distant past.

He also taught me that Electric Lady Studios was the only remaining place that still embodied the psychedelic qualities of its initial owner, Hendrix.

The lobby of Electric Lady Studios, taken in 1970, is pictured here. The photograph was taken by John Veltri and sourced from www.earthalive.com.

Jimi Hendrix had originally intended to transform the two large floors of 52 West Eighth Street into a nightclub, similar to its appearance when he first set foot there.

This space had been the Village Barn, a western-style bar, for nearly four decades and then a short-lived nightclub called the Generation Club (you can find videos of Hendrix sitting alongside the stage while Janis Joplin sings) in 1968.

It was Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s recording engineer, who suggested to him that he ought to open a studio rather than a club as it would be a more beneficial use of his money.

Despite being one of the best-paid artists in the world at that time, by the time of his Woodstock performance in 1969, Hendrix was struggling with financial issues.

He was known for pushing boundaries and doing the unexpected, and he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on studio recordings.

He often complained that the audiences were only interested in his hits, so the studio was to be a place where he could have a sense of freedom – something that, despite his outwardly carefree look, his wild on-stage acts and his relaxed attitude, he lacked.

As Les Paul, the guitarist and inventor, was quoted 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.

When Jimi Hendrix opened Electric Lady Studios, he was on the phone all the time; we discussed how to set up a guitar amplifier and where the microphone should be placed in the studio.”

Jimi Hendrix’s short stint at Electric Lady yielded a handful of songs, some of which were featured on his posthumous album, The Cry of Love .

The studio’s subsequent influence on music history is remarkable: Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, David Bowie’s Young Americans, and Patti Smith’s Horses were all recorded there.

Situated within the hustle and bustle of Greenwich Village, Electric Lady could have been a precious property treasure. Instead, it has stayed a spot where remarkable American music is created.

Contrarily to many traditional locations in Manhattan, Electric Lady Studios has a strict but reasonable entry policy: no guided tours, no outsiders. Generally, the only ones allowed are those who have arrived to make music–the musicians and their entourages.

It is not difficult to comprehend the sentiment one feels when they get the chance to enter Electric Lady. Something about it seems almost holy. From the moment the glass-paned door opens and permits entry, disbelief is the emotion that lingers.

As one strolls down the bordello-red staircase, memories of a very shy Jimi Hendrix, only a few weeks away from his death, come to mind. He had spoken of his hopes for a universal love orchestra to Patti Smith when they were both quite young.

Smith wrote of it in her memoir, describing musicians from various parts of the world coming together in Woodstock and sitting in a circle to play music. It didn’t matter what they played, they would keep going until they found a common language.

Hendrix had said they would all record this abstract universal language of music in his studio.

Ten years ago, when I first visited Electric Lady Studios, Richard had booked the oval-shaped Studio A for Baraka to record in.

I still remember the way the red lights illuminated the room late at night, making it appear as if the three-story building was a collection of bedouin tents situated in the bow of a Jules Verne-constructed vessel.

On the first floor, all of the walls are curved and the studio is lit by antique lamps and ever-changing overhead mood lights. A leather Eames recliner and wooden record cabinet with albums from Kanye West, Lana Del Rey, and Daft Punk adorn the lobby.

The building is decorated with Moroccan and Persian carpets and objets d’art such as a functioning 8-track with Ray Charles and Dolly Parton tapes that the current studio manager, Lee Foster, found and painted scarlet.

Additionally, Keith Richards had cut a tiny hole in the door of an upstairs bathroom for his microphone cord, so he could record his guitar solos in private. On the walls of the first floor, there are hundred-foot-long murals in teal, pink, and purple of astromen and -women trapped inside cosmic embryos.

According to artist Lance Jost, this artwork is meant to paint the viewer into a spacecraft that is “hurtling through time and space.”

Erykah Badu commented that the artwork transports one to Jimi Hendrix’s world and she has even gone so far as to spend days at the studio without seeing the outside world – taking sponge baths in the bathroom with its mural that makes her feel like she’s going into another part of herself.

The characters in the mural are frozen in one position and have untold stories that touch all of our senses, which have likely contributed to many of our songs.

The term vibe and surreal are often employed to describe Electric Lady, yet without knowing the context of 1968, it is difficult to grasp the radical nature of Hendrix’s studio, a concept that was virtually unheard of in that era.

During that time, studios were typically controlled by record companies and engineers dressed in white lab coats, working in very clinical and scientific settings.

John Storyk, the architect of Electric Lady, stated last summer that Jimi’s idea was to create a safe haven for artists, “where there would be a real boundary line between one side of the glass and the other”.

Electric Lady was distinct in a few ways, not the least of which was its ownership by a black artist during a time when African-American musicians had little chance of gaining creative autonomy or legal recourse to own or produce their music.

This was especially true for early blues musicians, the ones Hendrix was most inspired by, who often had to surrender their rights to play the music they loved.

Despite lacking in rights, these musicians still managed to become famous and make money from their creative blues music. In 1975, Muddy Waters told People magazine, “I hear sounds that I heard as a young boy, even in recordings by Cream or Eric Clapton–it makes me happy.”

In 2013, Mick Jagger was valued at $300 million and Eric Clapton at $245 million. Nowadays, they are seen as the successful veterans of rock and roll–all thanks to Chess Records, a Chicago-based label that was created by two white brothers and yet still was the host of black music in the 1950s.

Without Chess Records, there would have been no Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, or Jimi Hendrix. Chess Records released Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 , which set up the foundation for rock and roll, and they sold the blues that most of their artists had personally experienced.

However, they also signed them on with employee-for-hire contracts, which robbed the artists of their royalties. Despite his words to People , Waters later sued the Chess brothers and the case was settled out of court.

Marshall Chess, in defence of his father and uncle, tried to explain why this happened by saying that they were dealing with blues artists who were often broke by Monday after they were given $2,000 on Friday, and they were often hostile and aggressive.

At the start of the late ’60s, rock and roll had become such a lucrative business that it’s simple to overlook the fact that, much like the red dirt of the Delta and the hardships experienced by those in the Southside of Chicago.

The music industry for African American blues artists was a treacherous venture, a road of broken dreams, and a hazardous environment.

Hendrix was strongly linked to the black blues tradition, particularly in the deals he signed, which gave 40% of his gross income to his manager, Mike Jeffery, after he moved to New York and began performing in the Village.

Jeffery also made him agree to receive only 3% of whatever his records sold, money which Hendrix then had to share with his two bandmates, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding.

Later, Jeffery–who liked to brag about being a member of MI5 during the war in Europe and having a bulletproof limo with hidden armaments, which he was licensed to use–asked for an additional 30% commission from Hendrix’s share.

This arrangement forced Hendrix to tour and record at a frantic pace.

It is commonly claimed that Jimi Hendrix is a representation of the absence of racial distinctions and social unity, yet race is oftentimes about the possibilities one has, as well as those which are not available.

During the period when Hendrix was criticised for performing “white music,” he was arguably more connected to his African-American heritage than ever before. Charles Cross’s comprehensive biography attests to this, and in the last year of his life, Hendrix confided in a friend that “They are killing me.”

His friends could tell that Electric Lady had become a refuge for Hendrix and his only chance for protection.

The most remarkable thing about Jimi Hendrix’s rise and fall for me is the speed and impact it had, considering his life was so short.

It wasn’t long before his transformation from a timid, poor boy with a conked hairdo to a showman in a British uniform with an Afro-style, revolutionising (but not completely abandoning) his past.

Before that, he was just a faceless guitar player on the “Chitlin Circuit,” performing with his childhood idols and also with acts that were not so respectable, such as the duo Buddy and Stacey.

In one of the earliest appearances of Hendrix on television, he was on a Nashville-based R&B show called Night Train. His showmanship and creativity were not appreciated on the touring circuit and resulted in his dismissal from Little Richard’s band.

Still, the circuit was where he honed the showmanship that Rolling Stone later satirised as “psychedelic superspade.” As songs such as “Bold as Love” indicate, it’s impossible to deny that Hendrix picked up the most intricate tricks of the trade from these acts.

Before Hendrix acquired the title, Ike Turner was a renowned master of vibrato, and Hendrix’s playing and showmanship have hints of Turner, a violent man whose fists nearly wiped out what he could do with his fingertips when he plucked a guitar.

Hendrix’s wild stage performances were borrowed from Little Richard and Chuck Berry, his speed from Bo Diddley, and (the person he possibly respected the most) his sleekness from Curtis Mayfield.

These were the people on the circuit who would form the basis for much of what Hendrix later aspired to accomplish–and would also serve as a paradigm for what not to do when he became leader of his own band.

Hendrix, through the teachings of the musicians, was able to intuitively recognize the advantages and disadvantages of the black music scene of the era. He recognized that the black musicians, songs and musical community were functioning in a collective manner.

On one hand, they shared members, provided backup and covered each other’s music with affection. On the other hand, the fact that they were on a loop meant that despite having a large audience, it was easy for them to become categorised and trapped.

When Jimi was a teenager in Seattle, he appreciated Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, but was also captivated by local garage rock of white bands such as the Fabulous Wailers and the Kingsmen. He wanted to make his guitar playing stand out and reach previously unseen heights.

Hendrix certainly accomplished this, becoming an important influence on what he referred to as “a today’s type of blues”: a progressive, ever-changing and genre-crossing American guitar tradition which has been passed down to very few African-American artists in the 21st century.

Jimi Hendrix is a popular figure for canonization thanks to his immense talent.

He had a unique ability to combine a wide range of qualities in his playing, style, and way of life – blues, the music of Bob Dylan, Arthur Lee, the Aleem twins of Harlem, and Curtis Mayfiel.

His service in the armed forces, the help of Linda Keith, his complicated relationship with his father, his adoring but absent mother, his drug use, and his spirituality.

He sang a song of himself and his country, much as Walt Whitman had before him, and his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a testament to his creative, blended, and broken approach.

The magnitude of Jimi Hendrix’s presence is clear; he is an almost timeless figure. When I enquired with Patti Smith as to why she chose to chronicle his life in the 1960s, she stated that

He was the quintessential rock-and-roll star, as well as a powerful cultural force of the era. His unique style combined a fearless boldness with a humble shyness; his fashion, demeanour, and music all embodied this.

For those who loved John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, he fulfilled the need for improvisation and pushing musical boundaries. Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar playing was like nothing anyone had ever heard before. His charisma was undeniable, and he was beautiful and poetic both in words and his outlook on life.

He preached peace, love, harmony, and equality through music, and showed no signs of stopping his evolution. His dream of creating a universal language through music was incredibly inspiring.

It is a pity that Lee Foster, the present minority shareholder and studio manager of Electric Lady, who is a Tennessee native with an accent and a compact body, arrived thirty years after Hendrix passed away.

He is the most faithful and enthusiastic person in the studio. Foster’s desk is surrounded by posters for his shows and the RIAA certification for Led Zeppelin’s_Houses of the Holy_ in one of the upper rooms built after he took charge.

He expressed to me, with an embarrassed but devoted look, “The studio is the lady and I’m her tramp.”

When I asked if his office was Michael Jeffery’s old office, he shook his head and gestured to the room next door, which they try not to use.

Although Foster has a fondness for Hendrix (he told me multiple times that when faced with a decision concerning the studio’s future, he often wonders What would Jimi do?)His strongest connection is with the building itself.

There is nothing that gives him more joy than walking around and discussing the vintage Neve hand-wired analog mixing console and the refurbishment of the other four rooms.

He sourced monitors and mics from the ’60s, the age when Electric Lady was born and also the period that Foster and a lot of the studio’s patrons view as the golden era of music production.

These machines are what produce Electric Lady’s warm, classic and distinctly analog sound.Foster, who had recently come from a small Tennessee town, reached New York City shortly after 9/11.

He had heard about Electric Lady Studio via an acquaintance and had called to enquire about an internship, but all he got was the chance to come by and try it out for a day; if the studio liked him they would keep him, otherwise they’d let him go.

Fortunately, they did like him and kept him employed, but they could only pay him a meagre salary. Homeless, scared and with no money, he ended up living at the studio.

He soon discovered that Jimi Hendrix’s idea of an independent studio had a major flaw: he had not purchased the building, which meant that for many years Electric Lady had struggled to stay afloat.

In the 21st century, Eighth Street had changed dramatically: stores and Yiddish speakers were no longer present and even the usually recession-proof Gray’s Papaya had shut down.

In the early 2000s, Electric Lady Studios was struggling financially with a high rent and low business.

Then Rich Nichols granted them a reprieve by using it as a base to record with the Roots, and other African-American musicians like Erykah Badu, J Dilla, Common, and D’Angelo followed. This influx of funds and energy helped the studio stay afloat.

Once the Roots left, though, there were days when the studio was empty, and the owners gave Foster the job of studio manager, but only if he could make it work.

Foster’s formative years in the countryside proved invaluable when he hired an army of interns who loved music, but also knew their way around light construction and cleaning.

He realised the studio was in need of improvement to bring in world-class musicians, and started booking live shows to make use of its cool factor. Within five years, it was turning a slight profit, but still required an injection of cash to upgrade the equipment and rooms.

He needed to find a suitable buyer to ensure the studio was properly taken care of, which is when he approached John Storyk. Storyk then introduced Foster to Keith Stoltz, who not only wanted to save the studio from silence, but also decided to invest in Foster himself.

They now have a management company, along with plans to revive Electric Lady’s live-performance series and create a record label. Foster treats his clients as family and is private when it comes to respecting their privacy.

Everyone spoke of Foster’s devotion to Electric Lady, and his unwavering loyalty to Marlboro Reds.

Not long ago, Foster asked me if I wanted to see the river. We went to Studio A and four studio assistants helped him move things around. They had to lift a heavy cellar door and pull off blankets to quiet the sound.

He told me that Jimi Hendrix wanted to put a microphone in the water and record. He also heard that the Indians called it the Devil’s Water, but wasn’t sure. When we finally reached the river, it was the Minetta Creek, which was older than the city itself.

We could hear the water, not any other sounds, loudly. Foster was smiling and said, “So this is it. It has a river. Can you even believe it?”

In 2011, Richard Nichols was identified as having a scarce form of leukaemia. We went from having lengthy phone calls on a daily basis to communicating via Gchat without much discussion. He was feeling discomfort due to an enlarged spleen, and talking was difficult.

I didn’t mind the shift. I was looking for a way to preserve him – his courage, his bravery, his liberty. As his health began to deteriorate, I sought out places to find memories of him.

I sent a message to Rich last summer that read, “I’m looking to revisit Electric Lady.”

He replied with a question, asking “How many times do I have to tell you that you should just phone Lee?”

Lee Foster and I had a heated argument when we first spoke for the second time. He was strongly against me writing about Electric Lady’s past. I was on the hunt for evidence of Jimi and Rich, and it was a hard pill to swallow that one of the only black-owned studios in the US could not receive the credit.

Eddie Kramer, the mix engineer, once said of Hendrix, “He was very proud of the studio. Being a successful black man with a lot of money and owning your own studio in New York City was the peak of his success.” At the time, I was wondering to myself who this “new jack” was from the mountains as Foster and I talked.

Lee eventually informed me of the details concerning the building’s lease that I was unaware of. He also mentioned Jeffery’s passing in 1973 and how a court-appointed official assumed control of the studio, evicting Led Zeppelin for smoking marijuana and declining Stevie Wonder’s bid to possess it.

Foster then clarified, “Places like Electric Lady are essential for the production of art, and simply nostalgic value won’t pay the rent. This is about preservation and what the future holds.” I comprehended his point and reluctantly acknowledged that the Electric Lady was in capable hands.

In the weeks to come, I often visited the hospital with Foster to pass the time, talking about our pasts, Jimi Hendrix’s music, our Southern grandparents, and how we both dearly missed fried okra.

On one of these occasions, I started to gain insight into the fact that Electric Lady had almost achieved Jimi Hendrix’s goal before his death, which was to capture the language of peace, the sound of dialogue and connection that could be heard as a mesh of instruments and voices.

I could see it in the forty-year-old murals on the walls, and I found myself pondering the concept of time immemorial.

The last time I saw Richard, the largest man I had ever seen, he was much smaller than in the past, lying in a hospital bed, bald, without his long dreadlocks. I wanted to say goodbye, but I could not think of any words.

I wore a hospital mask and gown, hoping for one last conversation and the chance to ask about the time many years ago in Electric Lady. The lights were red and the air was chill. I jokingly mentioned Jimi Hendrix to the tech, who said lots of people thought they felt Jimi’s presence in the studio.

It was said the lights flickered and Joe Strummer swore there was a mysterious guitar track that had appeared on a Clash song. I wished for something spiritual to be present, to give us that chill feeling.

Amiri Baraka, who is gone now, rapped along with the drums, tapping his cane to the beat. I was young and did not understand death back then, how it takes away and leaves an unfillable void.

I wanted Jimi to come back to see what he had done, but maybe the beauty of Electric Lady is that it has a life of its own, where it feels like Jimi and the others are still there, watching the incredible moments when music is created.


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