Sixty years after his birth, one of the most important artists ever to emerge from Seattle is – at least officially – almost invisible here.
There’s no Jimi Hendrix Boulevard, no Hendrix Arena, no Hendrix Elementary School.
The only thing the city has done to recognize the man many consider the world’s greatest guitar player is to give him a rock – in the African Savanna exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo.
Biographer Charles Cross of Seattle, who has spent years researching Hendrix for an upcoming book, called the oversight “almost criminal.”
“The Seattle city government has never given any due to this man’s cultural legacy,” Cross said.
That’s not to say the composer of “Purple Haze,” born Nov. 27, 1942, isn’t loved in his hometown, where he spent two-thirds of his life and cut his teeth in the 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 Experience Music Project as a temple to Hendrix, who remains the rock museum’s focus. On Sunday, the EMP threw him a 60th birthday party, featuring blues legend Buddy Guy.
There are a few other markings around the city: A private company put a small bronze statue on a sidewalk in the Capital Hill neighborhood, and Garfield High School, which Hendrix attended, has a bust and mural of him.
But there’s no high-profile memorial approved by city government.
Casey Corr, a spokesman for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, said that’s not because of unwillingness from the city; it simply hasn’t been an issue.
“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 death, city officials refused to name anything after him because of his drug use.
Hendrix died Sept. 18, 1970, when he choked on his own vomit. After drinking wine earlier in the night, he’d 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.
In 1981, radio station KZOK-FM accepted an invitation from the Woodland Park Zoo to place a memorial there and raised more than $26,000 from listeners.
The design evokes three Hendrix songs: “Fire,” for the reddish, flame-shaped tiles of the walkway; “Purple Haze,” for the purple-leaf Japanese shrubs in the area; and “Third Stone from the Sun,” for 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 giraffes grazing in the nearby 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 seem inappropriate.
“He was not African. He was an American. He grew up in Seattle,” he 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 an animal?
Hendrix grew up poor in Seattle, and his favorite local bands – the Dynamics and the Statics, among others – were of mixed race. He became 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 major 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.”
Hendrix enjoyed living in Seattle, and planned to return to live on Mercer Island, said his half sister, Janie Hendrix.
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.”
She added, “We’d love to have a street named for him.”