Thursday, December 25, 2008

Obituary: Mitch Mitchell

(Notice the jazz grip on the left hand.)

I just learned today that Mitch Mitchell, drummer extraordinaire for The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1967-70) died in November at age 61. For some reason, this hit me harder than anticipated and brought unexpected tears. So, indulge me for a moment (if you can bear it) while I reflect on the significance of Mitch Mitchell.

While I cannot endorse Jimi Hendrix's worldview (hedonism, occultism, Eastern mysticism) or irresponsible way of life (promiscuity, self-destruction, illegitimate children spread all over the planet), his band with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding (d. 2003) was ground-breaking and virtuosic. I shall speak only of the recently departed Mitch Mitchell.

One of the first albums I ever owned (or wore out) was "Smash Hits" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, which featured a song called "Fire." You cannot listen to this without being captivated by the drumming, which is loud, sharp, sassy, and utterly unforgettable. (I shamelessly stole what I could from Mitch in a drum solo I performed this summer, taken from the first drum break of "Fire"). Mitch was much influenced by jazz, and, in fact, by the incomparable Elvin Jones, who played with John Coltrane from 1960-65. Jimi once referred to Mitch as "my Elvin." Quite so. In fact, consider the instrumental section of "Third Stone From the Son," where Mitch swings ferociously; this is very rare for rock in that day or any day. Or consider the amazing, driving 3/4 grove of "Manic Depression." How many rock songs (let along hits) have ever been in 3/4? Oh my, Mr. Mitchell!

(When Hendrix recorded "Band of Gypies" with Buddy Miles (who also died this year) on drums, the comparison was rather painful. Buddy would use crash cymbols as ride cymbols (which gets boring quickly, unless you are Keith Moon) and was quite limited in his time keeping and in the originality of his fills--quite the opposite of Mitch. Buddy could play and sign at the sametime, though, which didn't help much.)

Why tears for Mitch? Another blade of grass withers and dies on the field of this parched earth (Isaiah 40:8; Ecclesiastes 12), a blade that made beautiful, explosive music for a short, bright, unrepeatable season. Tragically, we didn't hear much from the ultra-talented, Mitch Mitchell after Hendrix's early death in 1970. Mitch played briefly with a group called Ramatam (not to be confused with Ramadan), which featured a female lead guitarist. Then, essentially, that was it (that I know of). The New York Times says Mitch had just completed a tour called Experience Hendrix when he died unexpectedly in Portland, Oregon. I wonder if any of that tour was recorded or will be released.

Another frail human passes into eternity, and to which part of that limitless expanse, I do not know. But it is likely that this percussionist nonpareil gained his only reward on earth.

As a teenager, I tried to play like Mitch. I'm sure millions of young men like me did, too. When I now play drums (which is rare), I still try to play like Mitch (as much as I am able, which ain't much). There is one pattern in particular that lives with me. While playing a single stroke, thirty second note run on the snare, you hit an upper tom-tom once with your right hand, staying in the role. (That may or may not have made sense to you. I seldom try to explain drumming in words.) I'm not much of a drummer, but I cannot deny that "the beat goes on" in my mind, and Mitch is there.

So, perhaps, I lamented over part of my past that died with Mitch: the part that wanted to be a musician. (I view teaching as a kind of musical performance,which I tried to explain in a piece in The Philosophers Magazine called, "Swinging in the Classroom"--posted on this blog.) And I lament that a musician mostly silenced after the end of The Jimi Hendrix Experience is now silenced forever: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yet, I believe I will hear those jumping, driving, swinging, and laughing drums in the world to come, since great culture is never finally lost (see Richard Mouw, When The Kings Come Marching In.)


Jordan said...

As a fellow drummer, it is sad to hear of Mitchell's passing. Although I am too young to have experienced Hendrix when he was alive, modern radio turned me on to his group's unique sound in the late 90s. What set Mitchell apart for me was all the little fills he would throw into songs like "Hey Joe". I could tell he had a great touch on the drums, which is a rare gift. There are those who play drums, and then there are drummers. Mitchell was the latter.

Bjørn Are said...

For some musings of one band with Mitchell and H that dind't come about, take at look at this intriguing homage.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea Mitchell had died. Thanks for the personal reflection. I bought Hendrix's "Are you experienced?" for my dad's birthday as a teenager in the knowledge that I could selfishly listen to it too. I quickly picked up the rest of the "Experience's" albums (my favorite being "Axis: Bold as love"), which ignited my passion for loud, ultra-creative/experimental rock guitar, which Hendrix dealt in spades. I was always impressed by Mitchell's drumming, which had to fill up a lot of space given the nature of a rock trio, and he did it very well. I also lament the loss of such a talented artist and hope with you that truly beautiful contributions to human culture will not be forever lost. Great post.