Don’t Take The Bait

Don't Take The Bait

Mitch Mitchell immediately became my favorite drummer when I first heard Are You Experienced, the debut album by Jimi Hendrix Experience. In my opinion, his drumming on that album, as well as the next two releases — Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland — elevated rock drumming to an unexpected level of legitimacy on par with many of the jazz players of the day. On Experienced and Axis, in particular, Mitchell’s chops were phenomenally advanced, keeping pace with Hendrix’s revolutionary guitar style with roundhouse fills, unorthodox grooves, and blistering speed. But, to my ears, his drumming changed on Electric Ladyland. I wouldn’t say it became worse, but it felt different, more sluggish, less choppy. I’m sure at the time my 13-year-old brain reasoned that he was exploring other avenues.

I found Hendrix’s subsequent albums to be less compelling than the first three, and my attention turned to other artists. Yet, whenever somebody asked me to name my favorite drummer, to this very day I always cite Mitch Mitchell, whose playing had such a profound effect on my own at a pivotal time in my development.

Just recently, while flipping through the television channels, I spotted a movie called Electric Church. It’s a documentary of Hendrix’s appearance at the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1970. Intrigued, I recorded it, and watched it later when I had a couple spare hours.

As much as it pains me to say, Mitch just didn’t sound very good. Sure, he was executing many of his signature licks, but too often didn’t come in on the 1 with the sort of crisp articulation that captured my ear those many decades before. His drumming was more ham-fisted than sharp. He even seemed to lose the beat in a couple places.

Okay. This was 1970, back when PA systems were much less reliable. Maybe Mitch couldn’t hear the band well. Or he didn’t get enough sleep on the plane. Or his slack performance was the result of any number of reasons why drummers simply have a bad night now and then.

Or, it also occurred to me, maybe the rumors I’d heard of his substance abuse problems were true. If so, he wasn’t alone. Back in the psychedelic haze of the late ’60s, one simply assumed rock musicians experimented with mind-altering substances. At the time it seemed daring and adventurous, and was often justified as a source of inspiration.

My generation contributed quite a few positive things to worldwide culture, the ecology and women’s movements among them. But I think we totally screwed up by glamorizing drug use — especially in regard to the harder stuff. I’ve seen too many great musicians burn out physically and creatively due to substance abuse.

To this day, I just shake my head whenever another young rock star dies of an overdose. Hendrix. Bonham. Weinhouse. Weiland. The full list is far too long to include here, but all are victims of a disease they couldn’t control. None of their deaths was heroic. I wrote in an earlier column about my own nicotine addiction, and how tough it was to kick the habit. Throughout the five years when I struggled to quit, only to fall back again, it occurred to me countless times that it all could have been avoided if I simply had never smoked my first cigarette. The same is true of all addictive drugs.

Consider this: Some people become full-blown junkies after taking only a single dose of heroin. Just one. Perhaps you don’t know yet if you’re one of those people. So keep it that way and live a long, happy life.

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