The truth about Jimi Hendrix is much different than the myth
Poor, neglected, carrying around a broom as substitute for the guitar he didn't have. These are images of Jimi Hendrix growing up in Seattle.
And Hendrix biographer Charles R. Cross says that even when Hendrix returned to the city as a superstar to play a concert 50 years ago, on Feb. 12, 1968, he was heckled by students at his old high school. Cross says Hendrix always had a complicated relationship with Seattle, but the city should use this anniversary to do more to honor him.
Early family life
Cross: Hendrix had a very difficult family life. Both his parents struggled [with] alcoholism – his mother died when he was 16, his dad had a long history of alcoholism and what one could at least call neglect, if not abuse. The home that Jimi grew up in was very fractured. He had four other siblings that were taken away or given away by the state, one other brother that he did maintain contact with, but this was not an ideal family.
How did he develop a new family, a new life for himself, in Europe?
He leaves America – he didn’t immediately go to Europe right after he started his career, he played on the Chitlin’ Circuit in the South, but he had a hard time breaking through, and his race was a big issue in America where black and white radio were dramatically different. No one had crossover at that time.
So Jimi goes to Europe in 1966 and suddenly is a star almost immediately. Literally within three days of getting to London he was playing with Eric Clapton. It’s really truly extraordinary. There has never in the history of the world been a performer who went from nobody to superstar as fast as Jimi Hendrix.
On February 12, 1968, Hendrix played for a sold-out crowd at Seattle Center Arena after returning from years of living in London. What was that like for him?
Hendrix returns in ’68. This was his first concert as a superstar. He’d certainly played Seattle hundreds of times before when he was a nobody, but he returns with his hit album at that point. And it was a very difficult time for Jimi. He was brought here to play this concert, but he had mixed feelings about coming back to Seattle.
They asked him if he’d go to Garfield High School and attend a lecture and talk. And this is just unbelievable – in so much of Hendrix’ story the truth is very different than the myth that people believe: He’s heckled a little bit. And he had been a student there.
So the most famous person who ever will go to Garfield High School returns there, and the students – particularly the African-American students – did not completely accept him.
Race was such a divisive subject in America at that point that Hendrix – who was playing rock music, which was considered white music –was not necessarily accepted by people who liked soul music. There was this divide.
And Hendrix was forever tormented by that. He felt that his music was too black to get on many white stations and too white to get on any black stations. No African-American stations ever played any of Jimi Hendrix’ songs in America in that time.
So he was saddened by that. Yet in Europe there weren’t those racial divides, which is why he broke out there.
We’re 50 years on from February, 1968. How has Seattle’s relationship with Hendrix evolved?
It’s certainly shifted. There finally is a park. I published my book in 2005, and then there was nothing other than a heated rock in Woodland Park Zoo to honor Jimi Hendrix. There was not one official thing.
Myself and other people have lobbied for years that Seattle needs to do more to honor Jimi Hendrix. We can name a street after a Mariner who retires within three months, but this guy, who I think is the most important cultural person who ever was born in Seattle, we finally now have the first thing ever which is as park.
But I think there should be more. If it were me, the SeaTac Airport should be named the Jimi Hendrix Airport – New Orleans calls [theirs] the Louis Armstrong Airport. But I’m not in charge of the city of Seattle, unfortunately.
What might Hendrix would have to say about our current national scene?
Everyone who lived in the '60s, there’s certainly an idea of deja vu. The idea that we have mobs marching in Charlottesville with tiki torches, this is something that people in the '60’s feel like we’re done with as a country, we settled these issues.
And yet I think the topic of race was layered into everything Jimi Hendrix did. Even in England, which was a more progressive place, he was harassed occasionally by police for having a white girlfriend. Here was a guy who felt music was not about race, he didn’t write"'black” music; he wrote music.
And he didn’t play only to one kind of fans. Primarily his audiences were white unfortunately, but to Hendrix, race was something he was always trying to escape from, and yet could never actually escape from.
Charles R. Cross is a Seattle-based music journalist. He's the author of "Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix." This year KUOW is examining the legacy of events in 1968 in Seattle.