Fans mark 60th anniversary of Hendrix's birth

Posted: Thursday, December 05, 2002

SEATTLE (AP) -- Sixty years after his birth, arguably the most influential musician ever to emerge from Seattle is -- at least officially -- almost invisible here.

There's no Jimi Hendrix Boulevard, no Hendrix Arena, no Hendrix Elementary.

The only thing the city has done to recognize the man many consider to be the world's greatest guitar player is to give him a rock -- in the African Savanna exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo.

''It's racist, it's derogatory, it's almost criminal,'' says biographer Charles Cross of Seattle, who has spent years researching Hendrix. ''The Seattle city government has never given any due to this man's cultural legacy.''

That's not to say the composer of ''Purple Haze,'' born Nov. 27, 1942, at Harborview Medical Center, isn't loved in his hometown, where he spent two-thirds of his life and cut his teeth in the local music scene. He still has plenty of fans in Seattle -- and around the world -- who revere him as a genius for his unprecedented, searing acid rock-blues sound.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen first envisioned his $240 million rock museum, the Experience Music Project, as a temple to Hendrix, and he remains the museum's focus. The EMP threw a 60th birthday party for Hendrix, featuring blues legend Buddy Guy and members of the Band of Gypsys, on Sunday.

There are a few other Hendrix markings around the city, as well. A private company put a small bronze statue of Hendrix on a sidewalk in Seattle's Capital Hill neighborhood, and Garfield High School, which Hendrix attended, has a bust and mural of him.

But as for a high-profile memorial approved by city government, there isn't one. Casey Corr, a spokesman for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, said that's not due to any recent unwillingness on the part of the city. It simply hasn't been an issue, he said.

''Hendrix is the greatest innovator among rock guitarists. He's an icon,'' Corr said. ''And the further we get away from his death, the more we can appreciate his innovation.''

For years after his Hendrix's death, city officials refused to name anything after him because of his drug use, which, by industry standards, wasn't all that heavy.

Hendrix died Sept. 18, 1970, when he choked on his own vomit. After drinking wine earlier in the night, he had taken eight sleeping pills, as he often did to get rest while touring. The pills were German, four times stronger than the American ones he was used to.

Rebuffed by other city officials, radio station KZOK-FM accepted an invitation from the zoo in 1981 to place the memorial there and raised more than $26,000 from listeners. The parks commission OK'd the project.

The design is supposed to evoke three Hendrix songs: ''Fire,'' because of the reddish, flame-shaped tiles of the walkway; ''Purple Haze,'' because of the purple-leaf Japanese barberry in the area; and ''Third Stone from the Sun,'' because of the placement of the Hendrix rock, embedded with a bronze, sun-shaped plaque.

''Third Stone'' is written from the perspective of a space traveler who lands on Earth and remarks about the strange life here. Visitors stand on the Hendrix rock to get a better view of the giraffes grazing in the adjacent grassland.

''It's successful from the standpoint that it's got a lot of symbolism in it, but it isn't in your face,'' said Jim Maxwell, who was the zoo's project leader for the memorial. ''If you're not looking for it or if you're not interested in it, you're not going to really notice it.''

Maxwell said he didn't see how the memorial could be considered inappropriate.

''He was not African. He was an American. He grew up in Seattle,'' Maxwell said. ''There's no connection to racism, so I don't have a political view of it.''

But for many Hendrix fans, that's the point: If Hendrix wasn't African, why stick his memorial in the African section of a zoo, to be gazed at like a strange animal?

Hendrix had grown up poor in Seattle, a city with a greater degree of racial harmony than many others, and his favorite local bands -- the Dynamics and the Statics, among others -- were of mixed race. He went on to become one of the first major black artists with a predominantly white fan base, and when the Jimi Hendrix Experience formed in London in late 1966, it was the first big rock band featuring a black frontman backed by whites.

Hendrix was never comfortable being a poster boy for political causes, said Jim Fricke, senior curator at the EMP, but ''sometimes those subtle messages are the most important ones. The fact that people got used to seeing a black frontman with a white band may have had some effect on people's ideas about race.''

Local music historian Peter Blecha, says Seattle shaped Hendrix as a musical and social force, and ought to celebrate him. He said he tried for years to have the zoo memorial removed.

''Jimi couldn't have come from anywhere else but Seattle,'' Blecha said. ''The 'Louie Louie' tradition in the Northwest was based on teenagers playing a really truncated version of R-and-B hits. Jimi confounded people endlessly -- they couldn't figure out where his sound was coming from, with the wildness, the feedback, the Northwest blues aesthetic -- and it was because nobody around the country knew what the Seattle sound was.''

But Hendrix also went well beyond the ''Seattle sound'' of the day. While local bands had experimented with distortion by, for example, jabbing pencils into their amplifiers, Hendrix turned it into a melodic element that people actually wanted to hear.

He did it with an effortlessness that made guitar heroes of the era, from Jeff Beck to Pete Townshend, wonder why they were bothering to play.

He did it with a lyrical beauty that impressed even Bob Dylan, one of Hendrix's biggest influences.

And he did it with an almost unbelievable technical wizardry. He mastered new guitar technology such as the Octavio pedal, which was invented for him.

''He was the first person to realize the possibilities inherent in this newly developed technology,'' Fricke said. ''He just made these incredible sounds that nobody had ever heard before. There's an exhilaration in doing something new, an exhilaration in his music, and you can never re-create that.''

Cross, who expects to finish his biography of Hendrix in 2005, said several highlights of Hendrix's career are well-known because they were filmed, such as his return to the United States for the June 1967 Monterey Pop festival and his rendition of ''The Star-Spangled Banner'' at Woodstock.

But several other elements have been largely forgotten, including the performance that ensured him a spot at Monterey Pop.

Six weeks before the festival, Hendrix played a show in London at a club owned by Brian Epstein, the manager for The Beatles. At least two Beatles were in the audience, including Paul McCartney, who was on the board of Monterey Pop.

Hendrix opened with a cover of ''Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,'' the title track on the album released by the Beatles just two days before. An inferior rendition might have kept him from being invited to the festival, and could have ruined his career.

The performance was mesmerizing.

''To have the nerve to cover that song in front of the Beatles, it's almost unbelievable,'' Cross said. ''It illustrated the sheer confidence he had in his abilities. I mean, he had only heard the album for two days.''

Cross and Fricke both argue that Hendrix's performance of the national anthem at Woodstock has been largely misinterpreted as a flat-out protest of the Vietnam War. His feelings about the war were much more complicated, Cross said.

Hendrix had served in the Army in the early '60s (he enlisted to avoid jail time after he was caught riding in a stolen car), and he knew that several of his childhood friends were in Vietnam. It was one of the many ways his ties to Seattle shaped him as a performer, Cross said.

''Jimi really liked Seattle,'' said his half sister, Janie Hendrix. ''Before he passed away, he was telling my dad, 'Look for a house up on Mercer Island, because when I come back, I want to take a sabattical for a little bit.'''

As for the memorial at the zoo, she said: ''Well, you know. It's a marking for Jimi, and I don't want to say anything bad about it. Would we have done that? Probably not, but at the time that they did it, there was nothing in the city that recognized Jimi.''

But, she added, ''We'd love to have a street named for him.''


On the 'Net:

Experience Music Project --

Official Hendrix Web site --

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