SEATTLE -- The talk to the high school media class was going fine. The kids were attentive; they laughed at my jokes and posed sharp questions.
Then I said, "I'm really glad I got to spend some time with Jimi Hendrix." A gasp went up from the students, so loud it startled me. Suddenly there was electricity in the room -- a buzz of excitement and questions from every side. The rest of the period we talked about Jimi.
The incident last year illustrates that Hendrix is as popular as ever. None of the students in that classroom was even born yet when the flamboyant genius of rock guitar, a Seattle native, died in London 20 years ago last Tuesday. But they were more interested in him than in any living rock star. They loved his music and were fascinated by his personality.
Hendrix may even be more popular today than when he was alive. He certainly makes more money now. According to a 1988 article in Forbes magazine, income from his record royalties and music publishing amounts to about $4 million a year. Merchandising of posters, T-shirts, key chains and the like brings in another $1 million.
He still sells about 3 million records a year. Warner Bros. Records has reissued nine of his original albums on digitally remastered compact discs. In November it will release "Lifelines," a four-CD boxed set featuring studio outtakes, home recordings, radio performances and previously unreleased concert recordings.
Two Rykodisc releases, one of concert performances and another of radio and TV appearances, are among the best-selling CDs ever released. PolyGram Records, which holds the rights to release Hendrix material overseas, plans a series of reissues in Europe and Japan. Some 400 to 500 hours of unreleased Hendrix tapes reportedly exist -- he was a compulsive musician who constantly recorded, at home and at studios -- guaranteeing new material until at least the next century.
"Crosstown Traffic," an articulate overview of Hendrix's impact on popular music written by British rock critic Charles Shaar Murray, was published last month by St. Martin's Press. About 10 other books about Hendrix's life are being prepared.
The National Film Theatre in London premiered Tuesday a film of Hendrix's last major concert at the Isle of Wight Festival, only about a week before he died.
At the peak of his career, he never made more than $500,000 a year, according to most biographers. He was broke when he died at age 27, because of wild spending, bad investments and corrupt management.
Hendrix died from suffocating in his own vomit. After he was found unconscious in bed at a girlfriend's apartment in London, ambulance drivers placed him on a stretcher in such a way that he could not breathe, and he died on the way to the hospital. He had ingested nine strong sleeping tablets after a long night of drinking. Although rumors persist of a drug overdose, suicide and even murder, his death was probably just a tragic accident.
Certainly he had everything to live for. He was dealing with his money and management problems, and was excited about new music projects, including a collaboration with Miles Davis. He was hugely popular and appeared to have a great future.
We prefer to remember Jimi Hendrix -- like all dead pop-culture icons, such as Elvis Presley, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe -- when he was alive and vital, rather than his tragic end.
I first met Jimi on his triumphant return here as a rock star in February 1968. The hometown hero was returning for a concert. A University of Washington student at the time, I had been hired by the promoter to do publicity for the show and was on hand when Hendrix and entourage arrived at the airport. Although dressed in his usually flashy psychedelic outfit, Hendrix was soft-spoken and polite, almost to the point of being shy. There was a touching reunion with Al Hendrix, his father, and members of his family.
Later that night, we talked as Hendrix prepared to go on stage. He selected a jacket from his wardrobe trunk -- a wild purple
satin number with wide collar and big sleeves. When I told him it was a nice jacket, he replied, "Yeah. Paul gave it to me." Paul? "Paul McCartney." Sure enough, embroidered onto the inside pocket were the initials "PM."
The concert was somewhat toned down for Hendrix. Probably because his father, stepmother and family friends were in the front row, there was no guitar-playing with his tongue, no sexy talk, no burning of his guitar at the end.
But when the Jimi Hendrix Experience came to town the next year, there were no inhibitions.
In conjunction with a promotion for KOL-FM, the now-defunct progressive rock station for which I was then a disc jockey, I had the job that time of taking Hendrix to his alma mater, Garfield High School (which he had been kicked out of, after being arrested for riding in a stolen car) for an appearance at an all-school rally. As it turned out, his half-sister, Jane, drove him to the school and I met them there. Contrary to several published reports (and even Hendrix's own interviews), he did not play at the event. He hardly even spoke.
The very first question directed at him, "How long ago were you at Garfield?" brought the mumbled reply, "About 9 million years ago." Then he turned and walked out, leaving the principal sputtering and the study body buzzing. It took Jane and me 15 minutes to find him, hiding in a darkened office in the gym. It was then I realized just how shy and sensitive he was. But we soon were able to laugh about the incident. As I was saying goodbye to him in the school parking lot, he noticed an Experience press kit in my car. He took a publicity photo from it and autographed it, writing "Be Groovy, Jimi Hendrix." I later learned that Hendrix almost never gave autographs.
When Jimi Hendrix died, I was program director at KOL-FM. On the air that night, I did a six-hour tribute, playing his music and talking with fans on the air. We said much about how his music would live on, not realizing how right we were.
His blazing inventiveness, which enormously expanded the possibilities of the electric guitar, is still influencing rock and jazz musicians. His quirky songs hold up, because of their intensity and layers of meaning. Twenty years later, he sounds contemporary.
Hendrix was buried Oct. 1, 1970, in Greenwood Cemetery in Renton, Wash., after a private funeral. After the burial, a private wake was held, at which Buddy Miles, Johnny Winter and Hendrix's Experience bandmates, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, jammed.
"It was really gauche," Mitchell says in his new book, "Jimi Hendrix: Inside the Experience." And he is right. It was an eerie, uncomfortable affair in strange surroundings.