Still Raining, Still Dreaming: A Brief Remembrance of Jimi Hendrix

It was raining that Saturday afternoon in Seattle. It had been raining since my daughter, my wife and I arrived there on Wednesday evening. It was, I suppose, meant to be some small compensation to me, as a visitor unlikely ever to come here again, that natives, or at least people who lived in this city for more than a month, were apt to apologize in a roundabout way, prone to saying that it really doesn't rain here that much and that I had come here with my family at, unfortunately, a bad time: the rare few weeks when it seems to do nothing but rain. Nature had conspired against me but certainly not the people of Seattle, who, given their druthers, would forever have the sun drenching everything in its soft honey glaze. "It's pretty here when the sun shines," I was told, but that's true nearly everywhere. I was not unduly disconcerted by this weather because I had been told by non-natives to expect nothing but rain.

I had come to Seattle for some other reasons, but there was, on this Saturday, suddenly this reason to be here. A better reason than the others. My wife said, let's go to the Greenwood Cemetery in Renton, a suburb of Seattle, in our rental car and visit the grave of Jimi Hendrix. I was surprised because she was never a fan of Hendrix. "He sounds too psychedelic, too hard-rock, for my taste," she said to me years ago, and I had no reason to think her feelings were different now. Perhaps his grave was simply for her a site to see. She likes to see cultural and historical sites wherever we travel, historic houses, usually, but a grave is a house in its own grotesque, morbid way, a marked confinement, a resting place, a refuge, an address, at last, everlasting. Perhaps she wished to gratify a wish of mine, never expressed or articulated, because she knew I was a fan, in all the best and worst senses of that word. I never thought of seeing Hendrix's grave, had forgotten entirely that he was from Seattle and was indeed buried near there. But once the idea was planted, it took on the charmed, mysteriously driven life of an inevitability or fate. All accidents are meant to be. And so we went.

We kept getting lost, even though every gas-station attendant in Renton was determined to help us get there; there seemed no one in Renton who did not know exactly where Hendrix was buried. We drove on a Martin Luther King Drive and suddenly discovered a cache of black people that we had not seen in Seattle. "Drive on anything called Martin Luther King anywhere in America, and you will find black people. Poor Martin couldn't even get desegregated in death," my wife said. It was on the way to Hendrix.

It was not a cold afternoon, just raining, at times hard, at times like a mist. My daughter knew about Hendrix. He is very popular even today, and many kids in her high school listen to his records despite the fact that the ones that made him famous are nearly 30 years old. Indeed, there was so much talk about Hendrix among some of the kids at school that my daughter asked me, one day, perhaps a year ago, to play one of his records. I played some cuts from Electric Ladyland: "Burning of the Midnight Lamp" and "1983: A Merman I Should Turn to Be." She found them to be all right but nothing special. The most generous observation she could make about them was that they did not sound particularly dated. "What did you like about his music when you first heard it?" she asked me. "I think I liked the fact that it was integrated," I said. This puzzled my daughter; she was unsure whether I was referring to the fact that Hendrix's first band was racially integrated or referring to something musical. Another time, I played for her "Third Stone from the Sun," from the Are You Experienced? album. She liked that quite a bit but not enough to make her a fan of Hendrix.

I explained to her how I had first heard Hendrix in the 10th grade. The music was startling, limned with a futuristic intelligence. Ahh, an album like Axis: Bold as Love, with its kitsch-Hindu art, so typical of the hippie period of the late 1960s and so typical of the superficial Orientalism that afflicts the imagination of the both black and white Westerner, may have been the best rock record of the era: funny, erotic, with lots of slashing white noise sculpted into music. And even the Orientalism was somehow uplifting and hopeful, something about a world that we might wish to inhabit of love and peace. The album so represented the times and so exceeded anything the times had a right to expect. What I felt most with Hendrix's music was a liberation from having to do or think about things in a certain way because I was black. It was nice to be freed from soul music, from the tyranny of popular music as dance music. Hendrix made me think about art differently. Beyond the pyrotechnics, the gimmicks of playing the guitar with his teeth and behind his back in concert (old bluesman tricks, all), there was within a welter of shuddering lyricism that made me think I could be, after all, better than I was, that anyone could. It was music, aspiring and absolutely wacked and wicked, that said you can do better or you can do worse but you can't do what you usually do in this bloody world.

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