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Night Bird Flying – Jimi Hendrix
By Michael Dalton
If anyone could make his guitar weep, it was Jimi Hendrix. He gave voice to it, making it sing—in ecstasy and in sadness. He wrung it for never heard before sounds. It’s no wonder that in 2003, Rolling Stone named Hendrix as number one on the list: The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
He was self-taught and played a Fender Stratocaster guitar turned upside down (so that the right-handed guitar could be played left-handed). He used it to pioneer a sound that incorporated amplified feedback.
He inspired many imitators. Robin Trower is the closest thing that I have heard to him, but he could not match the nuance of Jimi’s touch. This was graphically depicted in the U2 video “Window in the Skies,” when it shows electricity emanating from Hendrix’s guitar—such was the magic of his sound.
Hendrix achieved worldwide fame following his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Two years later, he headlined Woodstock, which included a version of the “Star Spangled Banner.” You could hear “the bombs bursting in air” and see “the rockets red glare.” Sadly, he died in 1970 at age 27 from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol.
One of my favorite songs is “Night Bird Flying” from The Cry of Love. Released on March 6, 1971, this was the second recording released after his death. The first song on the album is fittingly called “Freedom.” Hendrix yearned to be free. All the wealth and pleasures that his fame brought were not enough to satisfy his soul. He was crying out for love and freedom.
This heart-cry comes through songs like “Night Bird Flying” that have a touch of melancholy. It’s as if guitar, voice, words and music unite in longing for that inexpressible something more.
She’s just a night bird flyin’ through the nightA bird flying through the skies is a beautiful picture of freedom. In this instance Hendrix may be using the imagery to express a one-night love affair. All they have is “one precious night.” He longs for her to carry him home. He wants to fully know her. You can hear the longing.
It’s as if Jimi wants this night bird to rescue him. There’s a real temptation to look to a romantic relationship to do that for us. That’s not to discount the real comfort of intimacy with another person. It’s just that we were also designed for a relationship with God, which is far more enduring and satisfying. Being in a relationship with God has the added advantage of creating the potential for more meaningful and rewarding interactions with others.
When we are not rightly related to God, or not as close to Him as we should be, longing and a sense of alienation become more intense. That’s when we are most likely to search for someone or something to fill the void. As Augustine has said it, “Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
This song gave voice to my own sense of alienation and longing when it first came out. I remember flying back with my family from a trip that we had taken in Hawaii. Just before we left I had a falling-out of some kind with a younger brother. It grieved me. As I sat in that plane by myself, flying back through the dark of night, I thought of “Night Bird Flying.” How I yearned for a better day? Would it ever come? Few things are as troubling as the feeling that you are at odds with someone. I was increasingly become estranged from the rest of my family, and it was my choice.
I still remembering the telling photograph that was taken on one of the Hawaiian Islands. My whole family was arrayed in Hawaiian shirts while I leaned away from them in my T-shirt that displayed cannabis and a water pipe on the back and boldly proclaimed “Smoke It.” In contrast to the scowl on my face, my siblings smiled in a way that showed they still had an innocence that would be lost when they eventually followed me into using drugs.
Though getting high brought temporary relief, I was a troubled soul. It was no less so as I sat on the plane and felt the loneliness of separation. Listening to the Hendrix song in my mind made me want to soar like some mythical Night Bird. In the midst of trouble, the Psalmist David longed for wings that he might take flight and find relief in some place of refuge. “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest” (Psalm 55:6-8 ESV).
To have Max Lucado explain it, I was hearing the song of a nocturnal bird that is more often heard than seen. This night bird sings in the dark.
“There dwells inside you, deep within, a tiny whippoorwill. Listen. You will hear him sing. His aria mourns the dusk. His solo signals the dawn.
“It is the song of the whippoorwill.
“He will not be silent until the sun is seen. We forget he is there, so easy is he to ignore. Other animals of the heart are larger, noisier, more demanding, more imposing. But none is so constant.
“Other creatures of the soul are more quickly fed. More simply satisfied. We feed the lion who growls for power. We stroke the tiger who demands affection. We bridle the stallion who bucks control.
“But what do we do with the whippoorwill who yearns for eternity?
“For that is his song. That is his task. Out of the gray he sings a golden song. Perched in time he chirps a timeless verse. Peering through pain’s shroud, he sees a painless place. Of that place he sings.
“And though we try to ignore him, we cannot. He is us, and his song is ours. Our heart song won’t be silenced until we see the dawn.
“ ‘God has planted eternity in the hearts of men’ (Ecclesiastes 3:10 TLB), says the wise man. But it doesn’t take a wise person to know that people long for more than earth. When we see pain, we yearn. When we see hunger, we question why. Senseless deaths. Endless tears, needless loss. Where do they come from? Where will they lead? Isn’t there more to life than death?
“And so sings the whippoorwill.”
Jimi heard its song. He yearned so strongly that his own instrument became an expression of his desire. The sorrow of not finding the freedom that he sought seeps into his music.
After speaking of God’s judgement that would come upon the nation of Moab—an enemy of Israel—Isaiah, one of Israel’s prophets, writes, “Therefore my heart intones like a harp for Moab and my inward feelings for Kir-hareseth” (Isaiah 16:11 NASB). Isaiah mourned the destruction of Moab because he had the heart of God towards its people.
God desires that all people would live according to his ways, but when people consistently rebel against Him and refuse to change their ways, judgement becomes his necessary work. Rather than rejoicing over their destruction, Isaiah was filled with grief. His heart mirrored that of Jesus when the latter wept over the waywardness of the people of Jerusalem. Isaiah cried for those who didn’t know God.
In the April 2007 issue of Christianity Today, John Fisher states that author and philosopher Francis Schaeffer’s most crucial legacy was tears. He writes, “Schaeffer never meant for Christians to take a combative stance in society without first experiencing empathy for the human predicament that brought us to this place.” Schaeffer advocated understanding and empathizing with non-Christians instead of taking issue with them. He believed that “instead of shaking our heads at a depressing, dark, abstract work of art, the true Christian reaction should to weep over the lost person who created it.” Fisher concludes his article by saying, “The same things that made Francis Schaeffer cry is his day should make us cry in ours.”
In his book, A Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card reminds us that the Bible is full of lament—people, including Jesus, giving voice to the sorrow and anguish that fills their hearts. It’s a means of staying connected to God when the world is not as it should be. It’s the mourning that Jesus commends.
This is my lament for Jimi.
You were among the greatest of your generation.