When it was announced that the Jimi Hendrix Experience would be playing the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium in October 1968, the biggest problem for me was how to get there. I was 15, not yet driving, and my folks had made it plain that there was no way they were going to let me see this guy: NOT JIMI HENDRIX.
But armed with a decent midterm report, I made a final attempt to persuade them. To my everlasting astonishment, my grades did the trick.
Going solo on the day of the show, I was able to score a decent seat. Stage right, Jimi’s side, about 20 rows back. There was one condition: my parents would drop me off, and they would pick me up.
Inside the Civic, the air was thick with anticipation. Sure, we’d had other important bands come through town. My pal Rick Kreiser and I had seen The Rolling Stones in the summer of ’66 — my very first rock show — when “Paint It Black” was riding the charts. Bakersfield had hosted The Beach Boys, the Dave Clark Five and the Animals, and then the San Francisco bands had begun to arrive, acts like Country Joe and the Fish and Quicksilver Messenger Service. But no one like Jimi. This show promised to be historic.
I don’t remember whether they opened with “Purple Haze” or “Foxy Lady,” but from the moment Jimi cranked up the Experience the sound coming off the stage was astonishing: immediate, jaw-dropping, proof positive that the immensity of Hendrix’s talents had not been overstated. As he ran through the hits from his first American LP, “Are You Experienced?,” a few from “Axis, Bold As Love” and some earlier English releases like “Red House” and “Stone Free,” the guitar wizardry we’d all marveled at on record materialized before us. He also introduced tunes from his new record, like “Crosstown Traffic,” “Voodoo Chile,” and “All Along the Watchtower.” That double album, “Electric Ladyland,” which I’d been listening to for about a week, had been released just 10 days earlier. It’s still the recording of his I listen to most often. By the first week of November it would be sitting at No. 1. The Hendrix who arrived in Bakersfield that October was an artist at his creative peak.
And he made it all look so effortless. That was the difference between Jimi and the many imitators who came after him. The fluidity of his moves — whether he was dropping to his knees, playing behind his back, or flourishing his signature elbow slide — he could deliver serious chops, cheeky sexuality, and playful humor all at once.
But as everyone who was there will recall, the night was marred by two notorious moments of civic embarrassment. Mid-show, a backstage power outage rendered amps and P.A. silent for what seemed like an eternity. But from my perspective, Mitch Mitchell transformed what could have been a disaster into an incredible highlight when he covered for Jimi and Noel Redding with an inspired drum solo. Already a drummer myself, I was stunned by Mitchell’s command of the kit. I’d never seen anyone in a rock band execute the sort of technique typically associated with jazz. I took advantage of the confusion by feigning a trip to the men’s room in order to get a closer look at Mitchell’s hands and the blond maple Ludwigs he was beating stage left.
With the power restored, the Experience gamely resumed their set. But during the finale it went down again, just as Hendrix was wrenching maximum feedback from his Marshall stacks. In what looked to me like an act of defiant frustration, Jimi hurled his cream Stratocaster at his amps. No longer electrified, it fell to the stage with a dull thud.
Many of us in the crowd responded as though our collective sense of conspiracy had been confirmed: “the man” had been trying to sabotage the show all along; “the Civic” had resorted to chicanery in order to rob us of Jimi’s climax. I couldn’t see it clearly from where I was standing, but it was plain that some sort of confrontation had happened as the music was abruptly cut off. Almost immediately, rumor had it that Hendrix has punched out the auditorium manager and had been carted off to jail.
Did the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s 1968 Bakersfield concert change my life? I don’t think so. Even prior to the Stones show I’d attended, the televised Beatles performances of 1964 and “A Hard Day’s Night” had already accomplished that. But musically speaking, the concert did clarify some things for me.
I discovered then and there that I was much more powerfully drawn to Hendrix’s bluesy side than I was to his psychedelic flash. I was beginning to understand enough about music to hear that he was quoting the great blues and R & B players who had come before him, and that this was the music I wanted most to explore. And as a young drummer, Mitch Mitchell had taught me that I would need to do a whole lot of practicing if I wanted to be taken seriously as a musician.
But as inspiring as the concert was on a musical level, I also left the Civic feeling troubled. Even at 15, I could sense that whatever any of us as individuals might think about the cultural currents that were circulating throughout America during that very troubled year — whether, like me and most of my friends, you were drawn primarily to the music, or whether you saw yourself as someone committed to “the movement” — we were all being swept along by circumstances that no one, not even a seer like Hendrix, could control. In spite of the peace sign Jimi appears to be flashing so triumphantly in that photograph, his Bakersfield concert had ended in the unfortunate, if perhaps also earned, act of violence for which the show is also remembered.
Eric Griffin, a 1971 graduate of East Bakersfield High School, is Janice B. Trimble professor of English and director of Latin American studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. Formerly a professional drummer, he performed or recorded with many local artists, including the Bill Shaw Madness, the Bakersfield Rhythm Boys, Harold Cox, Oscar Whittington, Jimmy Thomason, Bobby John Henry, Daddy Ray Arvizu, Mark Yeary, Merle Haggard, and many others.