In Search of Jimi Hendrix

IN SEARCH OF JIMI HENDRIX

By Winston Burton

Should we erect a statue of Jimi Hendrix in Berkeley, California? Whaddaya think?

In September, 1967 I started my freshman year at Philadelphia Community College where I proceeded to major in “Jimi Hendrix”. Together with a group of friends, I spent that first semester getting high, cutting classes and listening to music. I went from a “B” student, Motown and button down shirts in high school – to bell bottoms, headbands and Jimi, in a blink of an eye (4F’s and an I to be exact)! In those days there was an active military draft and I didn’t realize until later that if you flunked out of school, and lost your college deferment, more than likely you were headed for Viet Nam.

I had stumbled on Jimi that summer. I was the only person I knew, and surely the first in my neighborhood to have a copy of Jimi’s debut album, “Are You Experienced”. A friend of mine worked at a local “soul” station (WDAS), and used to give me newly released records to screen before they were played on the air. To this day WDAS probably still hasn’t played a Hendrix tune! Jimi got very little, if any, air time on “black” radio stations even though he was a gifted blues player, and toured with funk bands like Sam & Dave, Little Richard, and the Isley Brothers.

When me and my friends, Arnie and Arnold, first heard that Hendrix album it was all over! We had grown up with the Stylistics, Delfonics, and Temptations. We were now listening to Bob Dylan, and even Frank Zappa, but we had never heard any thing like Jimi before. Jazz was the teacher, funk is the preacher, and Jimi combined it all with his psychedelic guitar licks, and took us to another world. I packed that precious album from house to house and party to party turning on everyone I knew, and couldn’t believe that some folks didn’t get it!

For me, 1967 to 1968 was a period of music, indulgence, and promiscuity; a slice of time, after birth control pills and before AIDS. It was a time of free-speech, free-love and free-fall. People called us Hippies! Some mistakenly called us Beatniks. We were not Beatniks, nor the children of Beatniks. We were more like their younger brothers and sisters. To us, Beatniks liked to wear berets, dress down, listen to poets, folk music, bongos, drink espresso, and give a one-finger salute to society. We liked our hair long, our music loud, our clothes louder, drank Red Mountain wine, and gave a two-finger salute. Jimi was our high priest.

The term “Heavy Metal” came from someone describing Jimi’s sound, “like heavy pieces of metal falling from the sky.” Forget Eric Clapton, Van Halen, and The Who? Springsteen the Boss? They were all good, but Jimi is arguably the best of all time. He was a virtuoso on his instrument, and is still without peer. A poet who wrote his own lyrics and the greatest showman on stage I ever saw. He played guitar behind his back, between his legs, with his teeth and even burned the damn thing on stage. Imagine all that, and remember Jimi was only on the scene for four years. He started playing when he was 15, and played guitar for only 12 years before he died at 27.

My second semester in school I was able to raise my grades dramatically (2C’s, 3D’s) and continue to avoid the draft. There was a rumor going around that Jimi Hendrix was coming to town to play at the Electric Factory. It turned out to be true.

The Electric Factory used to be an actual factory in downtown Philadelphia. It was a large but intimate open space with a single stage and was painted in psychedelic colors. There were no chairs, tables or kitchen, and they didn’t sell alcohol. You stood, sat or lay on the concrete floor. People went there for one reason – to hear music loud, and in your face. I had been there several times to see Vanilla Fudge, Woody’s Truck Stop, The Chambers Brothers, and my favorite band, Lothar and the Hand People. Instead of security guards there were about 15 large guys dressed in Karate uniforms. They were all bald-headed and walked around in bare feet. There were very few disturbances at the Factory, no matter how loaded the crowd

Back then you didn’t get tickets beforehand at Ticket Master or on-line, you just showed up – first come, first served. They would pack you in like sardines if they had to. This was a time when you and your dog could still ride in the back of pick-up trucks, most cars didn’t have headrests, and you could still smoke in maternity wards. They didn’t worry much about occupancy codes or Fire Marshalls.

The night of the show, Arnie had a date with a girl named Ellie who hooked me up on a blind date. Ellie had been talking about her girl friend for awhile and I was looking forward to meeting her. When I finally met Georgette I was pleasantly surprised. She was cute, shapely, and plus she had her own car. We headed off to the show, making a momentary stop at a friends house on the way to get nice.

Believe it or not the line to get in wasn’t that long. This was before Jimi played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, where the rest of the country finally caught on to the phenomenon. The atmosphere inside the Electric Factory was truly electric. With the flashing strobe lights, kaleidoscopes, day glow paint and huge speaker’s blaring, it was like an indoor thunderstorm, without the rain. And then Jimi appeared.

I don’t remember the day, time, what opening acts there were, and only vaguely what Jimi was wearing. (Those who say they remember everything that happened in the sixties weren’t really there!) I do remember that he had silk scarves tied around everywhere – his head, his neck, his waist, his arms, even his legs. When he finally started tuning up on stage the Factory got even more electric. Jimi tuning up was as good as some bands whole show. The crowd started going wild! People were screaming out different songs they wanted to hear. Jimi stepped to the microphone and said, “I know what I’m gonna play,” and launched right into Purple Haze!

When Jimi first came on stage, Georgette, Arnie, Ellie, Arnold and I were sitting in front. As he started to play we all stood up to avoid being stomped. In that first song Jimi pulled out all the stops. He was playing behind his back, between his legs, with his teeth, and it looked like sparks were leaping off of his guitar strings. With those huge Marshall Speakers staring straight at us it sounded as if there were 10 people on stage rather than three (Mitch Mitchell was on drums and Noel Redding on bass).

The next thing I knew someone was kicking me in my side with a bare foot. I looked up to see a huge guy, with a bald head and karate suit on. I said, “Man are you crazy, I’m trying to dig the show”. He said, “The show’s been over for an hour – you got to go.” I looked around and there were about ten people still there, lying on the floor next to me, where hundreds had been earlier. My friends, Arnie and Arnold, were also equally being jostled about while Georgette and Ellie were nowhere to be found. Don’t ask me what happened! A lifetime’s worth of anticipation over in ten minutes. Maybe I kissed the sky! But I never saw Jimi Hendrix live or Georgette again.

As the months went by I was becoming more and more politically aware. My older brother got me involved in the civil rights and the anti-war movement. I went to demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, be-ins and love-ins.

Meanwhile, back in my old neighborhood in West Philadelphia, the brothers that weren’t being sent to Viet Nam were turning on, tuning in and dropping out. We went from drinking Thunderbird and singing doo–wop songs on the corner to Marvin Gay, Curtis Mayfield, The Last Poets, and smoking Acapulco Gold. Because of my newly found political consciousness and activities, my grades started falling again and I realized it was time to leave. So with the draft board in full pursuit, I packed up my fringe jacket, moccasins, flowered shirts, jeans, bell bottoms and LP’s and headed for California. I loaded up my pimped out Chevy van, complete with milk crate shelves, AM radio, 8 track tape player, organic air conditioner, and said goodbye to Philadelphia. Some friends said I should fly to California, it’s quicker and it’s easier. I said you can’t find Mecca on an airplane; you’ve got to drive for the experience. After two weeks of driving, one blown engine, nothing on the radio, and 3,000 miles, I was standing on the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets in San Francisco. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were still going strong. Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi were still alive, and I was standing in the middle of the summer of love!

Thirty seven years later, my freak flag long retired, I was lounging on a leather couch in my house in Berkeley listening (rocking) to Jimi Hendrix. It was that same album, “Are You Experienced” that I had gotten from WDAS many years ago and never returned. Somehow it had survived several trips across the country, and years of turmoil in between, with only a few scratches. It was the first day of a well deserved three-week vacation and I’m wondering what I should do. My wife walks in and says, “Could you turn that down”. “It’s already turned down”, I respond. A fan of Hendrix herself, she asked, “Do you still get off on Jimi like you use to, now that you don’t get high anymore?” “After the first time you get high you’re always high, you’re changed, and you’re never the same. At least now I understand the lyrics,” I told her. “I know what we should do on vacation – let’s find Jimi Hendrix”. She said, “What does that mean”. I answered, “I don’t know.”

My wife said she heard there’s a Jimi Hendrix museum in Seattle, where he was born, and maybe we should fly there. I said you can’t find Jimi on an airplane; you have to drive for the experience. A week later we were headed north in our pimped out Volvo station wagon, complete with leather seats, climate control, CD’s, and DVD player in the back for our two kids. After two days of driving, nothing on the radio, and 900 miles, we arrived at the Experience Music Project (EMP) next door to the Space Needle. On the first floor there was a small theater that played a loop of Hendrix live concerts every hour. One of the concerts featured Jimi playing in Berkeley, California. Upstairs there was a room full of Hendrix memorabilia from his childhood, concerts and recording sessions. There were glass cases with Jimi’s Jewelry, scarves and outfits he wore on stage. There was a wall with over 30 Hendrix album covers, even though he only made four records while he was alive. We stayed for several hours. I could’ve stayed all day but my kids were getting restless.

We went looking for other signs of Jimi in the city. My wife came upon a used bookstore where she found an obscure copy of a book about Jimi’s life. Down the street from the bookstore we located the only statue of Jimi Hendrix in the city of Seattle. It was small, about five feet high and depicted Jimi playing guitar on his knees. It was near the local community college and seemed out of place, with no relevance to anything around it.

The next day we drove to Renton, Washington, just outside of Seattle, to the cemetery where Jimi is buried. It was the only cemetery my kids have ever been to. There is a McDonald’s restaurant in the front. Inside the cemetery, on a manicured open field, is an above ground tomb and the remains of James Marshall Hendrix. People had left flowers, messages, and even a half-smoked marijuana cigarette on top of Jimi’s tomb.

My journey was over, and as we headed home to Berkeley I realized that my search for Jimi Hendrix ended by reminding me of my own mortality…my past, who I am and maybe where I’m going.

Should we erect a statue of Jimi Hendrix in Berkeley?

Jimi was only on the music scene for about four years, and one of his most famous and best known shows was recorded live at the Community Theater in downtown Berkeley. We should erect a statue of Jimi in front of the theater and put a kiosk next to it. People will visit from all over the world! We could sell-tie dye shirts, silk scarves, posters, and Jimi Hendrix CD’s, donating the money to the music programs at the local public schools.

What do you think?

Today, September 18th, 2005, is the 35th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s death.

Winston Burton

1 Comment

  1. Love this story – explains everything Winston!

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