The late actor and comedian Robin Williams was known to occasionally utter this little gem:
“If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.”
It’s a quote that seems particularly relevant when discussing an October day in 1968 when bonafide guitar god Jimi Hendrix came to Kern County and blew the lid off of Bakersfield.
Forty-seven years later, few seem to agree on all the details of what happened at that now-legendary concert at the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium. But new interviews following last week’s story, with key witnesses and participants, sheds new light on this much-talked about rock show featuring one of the most innovative performers in pop music history.
It was the night of Oct. 26, and the downtown auditorium was packed with 3,000 young fans.
Many there that night, including longtime local musician Sonny California, recall that as Hendrix was nearing the climax of his performance, the power was suddenly cut to the stage — and that the acid-rocker stormed stage-right, striking then-Civic Auditorium Manager Charles Graviss in the face.
“It was a life-changing performance,” California recalls all these years later. “The end of the show was terminated by the Civic manager during Jimi’s version of The Star Spangled Banner. As a veteran paratrooper, that did not go well.
“He rammed his Strat straight into the nearest amplifier, walked over to the manager and decked him. Awesome show. Brilliant American artist! Screwball Civic manager.”
Some have said Hendrix was arrested and taken to jail. Another story has it that the star was seen later that night with a gorgeous blonde eating at a local drive-in burger joint.
But Ron Raffaelli, the man chosen by Hendrix to document, through hundreds of photographs, the American tour by the Jimi Hendrix Experience told The Californian last week that Hendrix never touched Graviss.
He said he witnessed the two men sharing heated words, but insisted that he got between the irate guitarist and Graviss, who would have been in his early 40s at the time.
Graviss begs to differ.
Now 89 and still living in Bakersfield, the man who managed the local venue for 26 years, from 1964 to 1990, sounds quite lucid when he shares his recollections of that night.
“He hit me, alright,” he says of Hendrix. “But it barely glanced off my cheek. The police immediately grabbed him and took him up to the dressing room.”
Raffaelli had also told The Californian that Graviss used an ugly racial epithet during the confrontation with Hendrix. The former Civic manager again says not true.
“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he says. “I would never use the N-word with anybody ever. I was taught better than that.”
In fact, he says, it all happened so fast, there was no time for an exchange of words.
Mac Anderson, a longtime Bakersfield police officer who made a career out of being a cop until his retirement at the rank of assistant chief in 1991, often worked rock shows at the Civic. Anderson says he saw Hendrix slug Graviss.
“Interesting how people can witness an event and recall it so differently,” he says in an email, later backed up with a phone interview. “Raffaelli’s recollection is not accurate. I know as I was the officer who in fact arrested Hendrix that night. I was working the stage right door that leads to the dressing rooms.”
It shouldn’t be surprising at this point that Anderson not only disagrees with Raffaelli’s account, he also disagrees with Graviss.
“Hendrix approached Graviss in an agitated state,” Anderson says, “and began a heated verbal exchange. Hendrix then struck Graviss in the face with his fist.
”Standing within two feet of Hendrix, I immediately took him into custody for assault and battery. He was restrained, still in view of the audience for several minutes while a much more subdued conversation transpired between Graviss and Hendrix.
“I don’t recall the details of this conversation, but it resulted in a delayed decision from Graviss as to whether he wished to pursue prosecution. It was agreed that the extra cost for the venue was guaranteed by Hendrix. He was then allowed to complete his concert.”
They do agree that the musician struck Graviss. And Anderson says he heard no racial slur.
But Hendrix did not resume the concert, says Graviss. Once the power was turned off, it could not immediately be turned back on without damaging the electrical components.
And they also differ on why the power was cut.
Anderson recalls that Hendrix had exceeded the contracted time he was allowed to play. But Graviss said he was concerned that Jimi’s performance was about to get out of hand.
He had heard from other venue managers that the flamboyant guitarist was known for squirting lighter fluid on his guitar and lighting it on fire as feedback roared and the crowd roared back. And that’s why he was standing stage-right during the finale.
“There were curtains hanging all around him,” Graviss remembers. “Can you imagine the fire hazard?”
It never got that far. Graviss recalls Hendrix grabbing the neck of the guitar as if he were about to smash it.
“I gave instruction to my employee to cut the sound.”
And suddenly the wall of sound crumbled. The show was over.
Hendrix, according to Graviss and Anderson, was not charged — or taken to jail. Graviss says the punch didn’t even leave a mark.
“I didn’t want to give Hendrix that much publicity,” he remembers.
Rick Kreiser, who was only 15 when he attended the now-mythical performance, says he doesn’t remember the sound being cut off or the now-infamous punch.
But it wasn’t the first time the sound was cut by Graviss mid-performance. Less than one year before, the Civic manager cut the sound during a concert by the San Francisco-based group Jefferson Airplane.
Graviss says it happened because concert-goers were being incited by members of the band to dance, including on stage, a situation Graviss says was a risk to public safety.
California and Kreiser agree that as hundreds of young fans gathered outside, they began to walk west on Truxtun Avenue, ostensibly to protest in front of the Bakersfield Police Department.
The police did not stop them, recalls Kreiser, who is the longtime owner of Carney’s Business Technology and organizes music venues in Bakersfield.
But at 15, he admits that he, dressed in pinstripe pants, was unsure of why he joined the crowd.
“We were like sheep,” he remembers, laughing. “I was thinking, ’How am I going to get out of here?’”
He was also wondering how to explain to his mom why she should pick him up at a different place from where she dropped him off.
These were heady times. All Kreiser can be sure of nearly five decades later is he was glad he was there. At both music shows.
In the end, it may be impossible to know exactly what happened the night Jimi came to town — and Hendrix isn’t talking. He died less than two years after his Bakersfield performance.