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.
"I don't think I could ever have listened to either jazz music or blues had it not been for Jimi Hendrix," I told my daughter, "I wouldn't have had the patience for it. I was the only kid in my South Philadelphia neighborhood who could listen to John Coltrane's Kulu Se Mama and not think it was way-out noise. Listening to Hendrix made that possible. His music said, well, better than anyone else's the anthem of the day: Time had come and Truth is marching in. I used to listen to Albert Ayler and Jimi Hendrix back-to-back and just see the doors of heaven open."
My daughter seemed touched by that confession. She certainly understood the kinds of things certain musicians could do for you in experiencing art.
We passed a McDonald's and an older, shabby cemetery, perhaps at one time for blacks, before we found the technical school that was the landmark for Greenwood Cemetery, which was right across the street. Once we drove in, we suddenly became aware of the fact that we had no idea where his grave was and had no idea whom to ask. It was a large cemetery, and I feared that we might be tramping over graves in the rainy gloom, never finding what we were looking for. Perhaps there might be a crowd at Hendrix's grave, I thought, like Graceland. Alas, there were no crowds anywhere in the cemetery.
We parked where we saw an older man and a young woman placing flowers on the a grave, a man's grave. Was it the woman's husband or brother? The older man's son, son-in-law, nephew? The man saw us, and we called to him. We knew no other way to approach them, and if he had not gotten up from his rituals and spied us, we probably would never have disturbed them. My wife asked whether he knew where Hendrix's grave was, and, surprisingly, he knew right where it was, as if he were used to answering this question from tourists. We tramped across the muddy field a short distance, and there we were.
I had expected something of a monument, a crypt, a mausoleum. But he was buried with a simple headstone that gave his name, James M. Jimi Hendrix, and dates (1942-1970) and carried the motto "Forever in Our Hearts," with the engraving of a guitar. There were fresh flowers on the grave but otherwise nothing special to mark it. Only the many footprints in the mud bore witness to the fact that the grave had many visitors. Yet my wife, my daughter and I were there alone. There was no one anywhere we could see in the cemetery, except the old man and the young woman attending a grave perhaps 50 yards to our left. We simply stood for a few moments in the rain. My wife left first to go back to the car. She was tired of being wet. My daughter asked whether she might take a picture. I said all right, and she snapped one of the headstone. She waited for a few moments, then asked, "Are you ready to go now?" I looked up and nodded. I was growing tired of being wet, too. It was hard to tell whether this was a good day or a bad day to see a grave. We walked across the field of the dead, past a sundial, down wet concrete steps. "Did you see?" the old man called from across the field. "Yes, we saw it," I said. But of course there wasn't very much to see, and only thing one can safely say can be learned from this is that the dead are dead and cease to have any importance except for what they left behind. Jesus Christ said as much, in effect. We drove off. We were supposed to stop at the McDonald's we passed on the way to have a late lunch. We never did. My daughter felt we could do better or we could do worse, but we couldn't do what we usually would.