Heroes are important. They make you want to stay alive when you aren’t sure whether you’ve been left behind, or are about to be run over, by the Trend Monster. They keep you running ahead of it or, better, running off down roads it can’t navigate.

—The Reverend Ivan Stang

The United States of America is currently gnashing its carnivorous teeth deciding which lesser evil will lord over us, a phenomenon that might remind us that for 30 years we’ve been girdled by lessers in most aspects of our lives. (LBJ and Nixon seem almost heroic compared to the nerd and the turd.) For the first half of my life, I was idealistic and naive enough to believe that the entire planet would soon be playing Frisbee in the park. For the second half, I’m lucky if I can get through the morning paper without feeling nauseated.

The artistic poverty of our contemporary soundtrack is a major symptom of our general decline. While great musicians are plentiful, there are far too few who combine innovative technique, a direct connection to the human heart and a wholly remarkable personality — too few who transcend and fly like a blood-fueled rocket, and by their outrageous originality force us into a trajectory through time and space from which we won’t return the same.

Ah, Jimi Hendrix, we hardly knew ye. Yet you left us with so much, a lot of which is contained on The Jimi Hendrix Experience, a new four-CD box set that is an exception to the whole rehash/rip-off box-set concept and gives further weight to the theory that the 1960s was a golden age, a renaissance, a singular point in time when the impossible was possible. Popular artists advocated universal love, world peace, evolution and revolution, and weren’t laughed at. These utopian ideas were inextricably intertwined and presented with a creativity that was equally compelling. (Your average bank teller may not give much thought to universal love, but she probably can do a passable air-guitar version of “Purple Haze.”)

Co-producers Janie Hendrix, Eddie Kramer and John McDermott have compiled an astounding document, the totality of which is akin to the transformative brain-scrambling of The Major Works of John Coltrane box that Impulse released in 1992. Immerse yourself in the Hendrix set, from the unreleased alternate recording of “Purple Haze” that kicks off Disc 1 straight through to the never-released instrumental “Slow Blues” that closes Disc 4, and you’ll be awed. The man was responsible for co-inventing the language of funk, heavy metal, rock balladry, psychedelia, you name it. Funk which begat disco which begat hip-hop: Hendrix (with James Brown and Sly). Heavy metal — from Kiss’ tongue flicking to Slash’s guitar wanking: Hendrix. (Among metallic Hendrixian offspring, only Rage Against the Machine have gleaned the substance of Jimi with none of the pose.)

Dig: James Marshall Hendrix, blues guitarist, does the chitlin circuit with R&B bands, eats acid in Greenwich Village, and lands in England in ’66 with an ex-Animal producing. Out of nowhere, this extraterrestrial being appears, electric Afro and eyeballs-on-his-chest, self-reinvented as Jimi. Yeah, he torches his ax and plays it with his teeth, but more important, he sounds like nothing anybody’s ever heard. He sings of space travel and mind expansion and spirituality and rebellion and fucking, all packaged in melodies you whistle, hum or grunt to yourself as you walk down the street. And all Earth’s guitarists — including guys named Clapton and Townshend and Page — immediately lock themselves up and frantically try to figure out how this cat’s making his ax sound like the unholy offspring of an opera singer and a buzz saw. Overnight, consensual reality is discarded. The world has changed. Anything is possible.

To their credit, the producers rely on previously unreleased alternate takes and mixes, live recordings, cuts long out of circulation, and combinations thereof. So if you own everything Hendrix ever released, you still don’t have most of this. “Killing Floor” and “Hey Joe” on Disc 1 are particularly intriguing. They were recorded live in Paris on October 18, 1966, eight months before Hendrix would blow American minds at the Monterey Pop Festival. One wonders what the hell the French must’ve thought when they witnessed this elegantly freaky black man mix ’n’ match Robert Johnson, Curtis Mayfield and Freddie King licks with a thoroughly novel command of feedback-as-musical-tool. Disc 1, which ends at Monterey, also features Hendrix and producer Chas Chandler recording the dialogue that adorns the mostly instrumental “Third Stone From the Sun”: “Although your world wonders me/With your majestic and superior cackling hen,” says Jimi, “Your people I do not understand/So to you I shall put an end/And you’ll never hear . . . surf music . . . again” — neatly summing up the world-view of the outsider, simultaneously alienated and bemused. “That sounds like a lie to me,” adds joker Hendrix with reference to the surf diss, acknowledging that transcendence may not be imminent.

Disc 2 covers the period of Jimi’s initial international stardom. Early versions of “Sweet Angel” (which would become “Angel,” perhaps his loveliest ballad), “(Have You Ever Been To) Electric Ladyland” and “Room Full of Mirrors” display his working-in-progress. Perpetually strapped with a guitar, Hendrix recorded incessantly, using the process to write and refine material. He was a methodical workhorse, restlessly dissatisfied through endless takes until the music was shaped exactly the way he heard it in his head. Many remember Hendrix as a mere wildman improviser, but he was also an orchestrator of baroque inclinations. The instrumental proto-version of “Little Wing” on Disc 2 demonstrates how each section of the tune has its own mood and tonality — carved air by a master sculptor — and how other instrumentation is implied within his guitar gymnastics. It makes sense that shortly before his death he was planning a concert with Miles Davis’ arranger Gil Evans.

Disc 3 contains consummate live renditions of “Hear My Train A Comin’,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and “Red House,” all examples of Jimi’s roots in and mastery of the blues. Like the alien in “Third Stone,” blues comes from the African-American experience as strangers in a strange land and the desperate need to survive by escaping the attendant shit and misery. The Hendrix obsession with flying saucers is a late-20th-century update of the blues — interstellar flight by a hounded man eluding his earthly captors. After his commercial success, Jimi was surrounded by cash masters claiming ownership; he was sapped the last two years of his life by legal hassles and management demands. Even after he flew this planet, his archives were cannibalized with the release of substandard product featuring posthumously overdubbed musicians, a problem rectified once the Hendrix family won control of his catalog.

But capitalism is the archenemy of the artist, and the burnt-out Hendrix’s output in his last two years, as chronicled on Disc 4, was by his previous standards lackluster and self-derivative (while still extraordinary by anyone else’s). He never completed First Rays of the New Rising Sun, his first studio album after Electric Ladyland, and his songwriting was not on par with his first three albums. He died on September 18, 1970, of an accidental overdose of booze and sleeping pills, never to hear surf music again.

If you’re going to throw cash around, put off the laser hair removal till next year and do yourself a favor. This box set is a feast — delicious, nutritious, satiating, inspiring. The Hendrix estate has also released three “bootlegs” that can be purchased at www.jimi-hendrix.com or by phoning (888) EXP-JIMI. Morning Symphony Ideas is an excellent starter containing further examples of the artist sketching unfinished work, including a very cool solo 12-string acoustic instrumental recorded in Jimi’s apartment.

Jimi Hendrix drew a line in the sand and dared future generations to create their own renaissance. It takes a visionary to turn one’s most far-out dreams into art. And very few dreamed like Jimi Hendrix.

JIMI HENDRIX | The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Experience Hendrix/MCA)
Morning Symphony Ideas (Dagger)
Live at Clark University (Dagger)
Live at the Oakland Coliseum (Dagger)

LA Weekly