REMEMBERING AN INITIATOR OF A REVOLUTION: MITCH MITCHELL
As I lay down to go to sleep on the night of Tuesday, November 11, for some reason I found my thoughts turning to my first real drum hero and one of my musical life’s biggest influences, Mitch Mitchell. As I lay there, I began a mental survey of his work, from the early recordings with the Jimi Hendrix Experience through Hendrix’s last official album recorded what seemed like a long time later but which was in fact only a few years later, The Cry of Love. My concentrated overview, pondering Mitch’s trademark early style–prodigious technique, distinctive touch, beautiful sound, swinging feel, fire, crisp articulation, and strong musical contributions to Hendrix’s visionary musical innovations–and later work–more slack, somewhat more tired feel, more slack tuning, yet still strongly contributory and irreplaceably integral to the music that Hendrix was then making–triggered indelible memories, powerful associations, deep appreciation, and pure awe. It also caused me to wonder if he still played. I knew he endorsed DW drums, but I had no idea what he was doing. I wondered what he might sound like now, so many years later. I considered his distinction as the only surviving member of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience. I also wondered why on earth I was spending so much time lying there engaged in such a thorough analysis of Mitch Mitchell’s music making and its overwhelming influence on my own life and music as a drummer. Then I fell asleep, forgetting all about it.
I learned the following afternoon that Mitch Mitchell had died. I was stunned. At 62 years of age, he was only ten years older than I. And he was on tour; he was playing. Then I suddenly remembered my thoughts of the previous night. It was chilling. It was also extremely sad. Not only had another of my strongest drumming influences passed out of manifestation, the one who in many ways was the source of the trajectory of all the drummers to follow was gone. My reverie turned to mourning.
My brother Nels and I were eleven years old when we first heard what we immediately, after having eyed the compelling cover of their first album, knew had to be the Jimi Hendrix Experience. We were listening to Top 40 AM radio one afternoon, which was then beginning to experiment with playing album tracks, when the song “Manic Depression” came on. We were stunned, transfixed. We couldn’t even figure out how most of the sounds were even being made–that eerie, wailing guitar, that drum part (a waltz!) with all those cool fills–yet the impact of the music itself was immediate and ultimately transformational. It was so powerful that it was almost like hearing music for the first time. It was a revolution in our midst. We were never the same after that, and we knew it. As soon as we had the necessary dollars saved from our allowance, we went out and purchased the album, Are You Experienced? It was one of our musical life’s most important milestones. Besides the visceral yet other-worldly guitar virtuosity, there was the drumming. It was dazzling, driving, fluid, solid, intense. At the time I didn’t recognize that Mitch’s approach was essentially that of a master jazz drummer playing cutting-edge rock. Just listen to “Third Stone from the Sun”! I had no idea how he was doing what he was doing, but what I did know was that it was what I myself wanted to be able to do.
As instant Hendrix fanatics, we ardently followed all the subsequent recordings and developments. The music certainly doesn’t need to be reviewed at this point, but some of the truly memorable and outstanding examples of Mitch’s drumming that I’d like to mention in this moment are the driving groove that exemplifies the title of the tune on which it is heard, “Fire”; the already mentioned “Third Stone from the Sun,” where Mitch seems to be pushing a crazy cosmic big band with his flurries of swinging accents and free-form waves of toms and snare; the free jazz/noise insanity of “I Don’t Live Today”; the deep pocket-cum-free-against-the-time soling on “If 6 Was 9” (and where he seems to drop a drumstick in the middle of a furious phrase, ending it midstream); the amazingly swinging, pure jazz brushwork on “Up from the Skies”; the furiously blazing bashing on the otherwise totally silly Noel Redding tune “She’s So Fine”; the glorious flanger-heavy close of “Bold as Love” (which I honestly felt at the time was sort of the most ultimately perfect, heavenly musical moment I’d heard till then; I used to play it over and over); the astounding solo on, of all things, a slow blues (!), certainly one of the most amazing slow blues jams of all time, “Voodoo Chile”; and the slushy, wonderful slow backing for the moving “Angel” from Hendrix’s last album. These are only few standouts in a catalog of consistently stellar performances, as most people already know. Everything Mitch recorded, which sounded so fresh and remarkable at the time it was waxed, still sounds absolutely astounding today. Adding to the astonishment is the fact that when he started making this music he was only 19 years old! I don’t think I ever realized the weight of this until now. It’s almost a Tony Williams scenario! I certainly never sounded anything close to that good when I was that age! Mitch was a phenomenon.
Mitch was my favorite drummer when I was a kid, and his busy, jazz-drenched rock style led to my enthusiasm for drummers charting similar territory who came shortly thereafter: Clive Bunker with Jethro Tull and Michael Giles in the first King Crimson band. Later in my life I realized how this foundation helped lead me straight into the world of jazz drumming that would become my area of endeavor once I was about16 years old (and after Hendrix died). Mitch Mitchell not only set me up for my next major, life-altering drumming encounter to follow, which was my hearing Tony Williams for the first time, but he made my appreciation for every major influence to come possible, from Elvin Jones to Jack De Johnette to Roy Haynes to Sonship Theus to Tony Oxley to Pierre Favre and so on down the line. While my earliest drumming experiences were that of playing Charlie Watts parts to old Rolling Stones records at my friend (and young drum prodigy) Pat Pile’s house, it was Mitch who opened my ears and mind to what drumming could be in the hands of a more complex and flashy master. Mitch and the Hendrix Experience totally changed my life.
So today I remember with deep gratitude, reverence, and love a brilliant artist whom I never met but who profoundly shaped the course of my life as a drummer and musician and who still inspires me now. To me, Mitch Mitchell is not just a fine drummer, not just a big influence on me, he is someone who deservedly resides in the pantheon of the greatest, most important drummers/musicians of all time. Thank you, Mitch. I pray that I may in some way be your continuation.