First Person: In Search of Jimi Hendrix By WINSTON BURTON Special to the Planet

Tuesday October 04, 2005

Should we erect a statue of Jimi Hendrix in Berkeley? 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. 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 Vietnam. 

When my friends and I first heard Hendrix 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.  

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. 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.  

Jimi 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.  

There was a rumor at school 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. There were no chairs, tables or kitchen, and they didn’t sell alcohol. You stood, sat or lay on the concrete floor. We went there for one reason—to hear music loud, and in your face. Instead of security guards there were about 15 huge guys dressed in karate uniforms. They were all bald-headed and walked around in bare feet.  

The night of the show, I had a blind date with a girl named Georgette. When I 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. 

The atmosphere inside the Electric Factory that night was truly electric. With the flashing strobe lights, day glow paint and huge speakers blaring, it was like an indoor thunderstorm, without the rain. And then Jimi appeared. I don’t remember the time, who or how many opening acts there were, and only vaguely what Jimi was wearing. Those who 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 and I were sitting in front. As he started to play we 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 the 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 10 people still there, lying on the floor next to me, where hundreds had been earlier. Georgette was nowhere to be found. Don’t ask me what happened! A lifetime’s worth of anticipation over in 10 minutes. Maybe I kissed the sky! But I never saw Jimi Hendrix live or Georgette again.  

Months later, back in my old neighborhood in West Philadelphia, the brothers that weren’t being sent to Vietnam were “turning on, tuning in and dropping out,” and I was becoming more politically aware. So with my grades falling, and the draft board in full pursuit, I loaded up my Chevy van, complete with milk crate shelves, and 8 track tape player and headed for California. I packed my fringe jacket, moccasins, flowered shirts, jeans, bell bottoms and LP’s. After two weeks of driving, 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 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 it like you used to, now that you don’t get high anymore?” 

“After the first time, you’re always high, you’re changed, 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 asked, “What does that mean?” I answered, “I don’t know.”  

A week later, in my Volvo station wagon, we were headed for Seattle where Jimi was born. 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. 

We went looking for other signs of Jimi in the city. We came upon the only statue of Jimi Hendrix in 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. 

The next day we drove to Renton, 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 someone had even left 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? 


Sept. 18th was the 35th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s death. 




Photo courtesy of Rockmine, the Internet's largest rock music resource.t