By Maggie Owens
Monday, March 2, 2009
Passing through the construction wasteland that was once (and
hopefully will soon be again) referred to as Sather Gate, my friend
turned to me and said,
"Did you hear Jimi Hendrix is gone?"
Wikipedia will tell the common Web-explorer that Jimi Hendrix died on
September 18, 1970, so it's been almost a good four decades since his
passing. Excuse my morbidity, but yeah, I realize the dude is gone.
But then I recalled the imprint of Jimi's face. Legend has it that
some time around 1970, a poster advertising one of Hendrix's concerts
was left in the rain on the side of the Sather Gate Bridge, which
resulted in a permanent stain of the guitar hero's face. It was
emblematic of Berkeley's counter-culture reputation, a go-to for all
CalSo counselors and campus tour guides and, above all else, bragging
rights to shove in the faces of all friends who boast about lame
things about their schools (definitely stronger than the feeble
"William Hung went to my school" gem that has failed me every time).
But last week the seemingly endless Sather Gate restoration oversaw
the removal of the rock relic. Needless to say, many students are
less than pleased. We must remember, however, that this is more than
a mere bragging right that we have lost. It is an iconic reminder of
our university's past.
Think about how many posters you see plastered to every visible
surface in Sproul Plaza. It could've been anyone's face stained onto
that bridge. On our journey to Wheeler, we could've seen the imprint
of some obscure cassinet player or a failed comedian. Any poster and
any image could have left its mark there for decades to come. It,
then, seems a bit predestined that it would be the face of a musician
who embodies a time when Berkeley was at its best.
Hendrix's career peak (which, in true rock-star form, was ended
abruptly by his possibly-overdose, possibly-suicide death) occurred
in the 1960s. We all know the hippie image of the sixties. What is
far more important was the decade's youth involvement in political
activism. Forgive my unbearable cheesiness, but it's inspirational to
think about how powerful college campuses were at the time. And it
goes without saying but UC Berkeley was at the forefront of this
And that's exactly why Hendrix and Berkeley were and still are so
easily connected. He wasn't afraid to be musically irreverent-he was
a certified ball-buster both in studio and onstage. His famous
reinterpretation of "The Star Spangled Banner" left the obliging
patriotism at the door-his guitar, intentionally off-key, screamed
and bended the notes. What was once our much-revered national anthem
became a bittersweet song of his own. And played onstage, directly
followed by "Purple Haze," the quintessential drug song? It was a big
"fuck you!" to the land of the free and the home of the brave. That's
so Jimi Hendrix, and it's so Berkeley.
The documentary "Jimi Plays Berkeley" chronicled one of Hendrix's
most memorable performances. In it, film-rolls of Berkeley students
rioting against the Kent State shootings in Ohio perfectly accompany
the music. Images of smoke-bombs on Bowditch Street and violent
marches on the steps of Sproul Hall are all set to Jimi's music. His
performance at Berkeley so greatly transcended the typical
stoned-rockstar antics. Of course, he was a badass with cigarette
dangling from his mouth from start to finish. He even announced the
names of his "most-talented" groupies and put his guitar in between
his legs as if it were his two-foot member. But, he recognized that
he was the ambassador for activism in turbulent times and Berkeley
students, above everyone, would understand.
That Sather Gate relic was a constant reminder of Berkeley and its
students' affinity for political activism-a reminder that Sproul
isn't just a place to hand out flyers, that People's Park isn't just
a place to avoid on a late night walk or that the Free Speech
Movement Cafe isn't just a place to buy a sandwich. In the words of
the rock-god himself, "I dedicate this song to all the soldiers
fighting here in Berkeley. You know which soldiers I am talking about."