The Hallowed Head of Hendrix

Photo: Blurry. Workers restoring Sather Gate recently removed an iconic image of Jimi Hendrix that had been a campus tour staple and political activism symbol.
Chris Chung/File
Blurry. Workers restoring Sather Gate recently removed an iconic image of Jimi Hendrix that had been a campus tour staple and political activism symbol.

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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 youth revolution.

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."


Re-interpret the national anthem with Maggie at [email protected]

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