The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Thursday, October 5th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Seattle museum uses technology, not memorabilia, to illuminate a rock legend

By Thor Christensen / The Dallas Morning News

SEATTLE– It didn't take long for Jimi Hendrix to become a cottage industry. The late guitarist's body was still warm in 1970 when the first in a long string of posthumous albums began to trickle out.

But now, 30 years after his death, he's mushroomed into a conglomerate-size marketing venture aiming products at everyone from the extreme Jimi-phile (MCA's new four-CD box of outtakes) to folks who wouldn't know "Purple Haze" from "Pink Houses" (the recent abysmal Showtime movie Hendrix).

But amid all this flotsam and jetsam is one bona fide treasure: the Hendrix Gallery, the centerpiece of the new Experience Music Project in the guitarist's hometown of Seattle. Instead of just a collection of guitars and esoterica, the tiny gallery offers a wealth of insight to the man and the music behind the mysterious rock-god image.

Microsoft co-founder and Hendrix fanatic Paul Allan originally envisioned EMP as a place to house his growing collection of Jimi-related items. But a squabble with Hendrix's relatives over the guitarist's belongings prompted Mr. Allen to turn his $240 million, Frank Gehry-designed EMP into an American pop music museum instead of just a shrine to the Voodoo Chile.

If you judge the exhibit solely on rare memorabilia, the gallery gets mixed marks. We see some of his stage clothes, his diary and various recording gear from his Electric Ladyland studio, but there's a shortage of early family photos and a surprising dearth of guitars. (The Hendrix family loaned its collection of items to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which opened its own exhibit on the guitarist in September.)

Yet if Hendrix's trailblazing music is more important to you than his sacred artifacts, EMP offers a wonderfully comprehensive look at what made him so revolutionary. We all know he reinvented the electric guitar, but the gallery shows us exactly how – tracing his childhood passion for the raw guitar sounds of Albert Collins and Muddy Waters all the way to the device he used to create the intergalactic guitar noise in "Purple Haze."

EMP uses some traditional museum tools to tell Hendrix's story – film loops of the guitarist in concert, photos behind glass, etc. But where the space really excels is in its use of the Museum Exhibit Guide, or MEG. A hand-held computer hooked up to headphones, the MEG taps into a vast array of music and information related to whatever exhibit you point the device at.

True, learning how to use the MEG properly takes time and patience – the exact opposite of listening to one of Jimi Hendrix's galvanizing songs. But once you get the hang of it, it opens the door to just about anything you want to know about the guitarist. Along with the exhibit's interactive kiosk-style "notebooks,'' the MEG lets visitors dig into topics that even some of the heftiest biographies on the musician never get into.

Of course, we find out about his star-making turn at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967, but we also learn about the long, bumpy road he traveled to get there, playing behind dozens of singers in hundreds of juke joints from Nashville to Harlem. And while EMP pays constant homage to his perseverance and talent, it also doesn't discount the power of hype: If not for the gushing stories in London music papers like Melody Maker and New Musical Express, Hendrix's career might have never exploded, the gallery tells us. (For a look at the media's early coverage of Hendrix, visit

And while the exhibit certainly explores his bizarre showmanship, it doesn't gloss over the fact that he ultimately felt trapped by stage antics like playing his guitar with his teeth, then torching it. We learn about how the Jimi Hendrix Experience smashed racial barriers – but also about how racism helped put the kibosh on his short-lived, all-black Band of Gypsies.

The Gallery has blind spots, to be sure. It never gets into the guitarist's drug-related death in 1970 at age 27, or the sizable role drugs played in the creation of his mind-bending music. And the darkened space that houses the gallery is often cramped, noisy and hard to get into – waits of over an hour are common on weekends.

But this is nitpicking. Mr. Allen has built the Hendrix Gallery with the sort of zeal and depth you'd expect from an obsessive fan with bottomless pockets. Devoting an entire museum gallery to a dead rock star is a pretty strange idea – one the guitarist probably would have deemed jive. But instead of just embalming Hendrix, Mr. Allen does a fine job of dissecting him to find out what made him tick.The Hendrix Gallery, part of the Experience Music Project, is at 325 Fifth Ave N. at Seattle Center. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Admission is $19.95 for adults, $15.95 for seniors and students (younger than 18) and $14.95 for children 7-12. Call 1-877-367-5483, or visit