SUNDAY, JULY 26, 1970, was a typical outdoor Seattle scenario: rainy but right.
In our early teens, my friends and I hunkered on Tightwad Hill, the steep and legendary bluff across Empire Way (today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Way) from Sicks Stadium. Generations of baseball fans had preceded us there, finding catbird seats for minor-league games in Rainier Valley.
Today, however, rock ‘n’ roll was the draw. Two groups — Cactus, and Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys — opened the show. But we were there for the headliner — Seattle’s own Jimi Hendrix, playing his fourth hometown concert.
Raised in the Central District, the throbbing heart of Seattle’s Black community, the self-taught Hendrix had never learned to read music. Left-handed, he turned his guitar and the world upside-down. In just four years, he’d become a superstar, astounding audiences with revolutionary (sometimes incendiary) musicality. At 27, he was one of rock’s greatest instrumentalists, though the pressures of his meteoric rise were mounting.
Inside the post-Rainiers, Angels and Pilots ballpark, thousands of eager fans, including today’s “Then” photographer, 16-year-old Dave DePartee, were watching from the muddy infield. Now & Then founder Paul Dorpat, then a concert promoter and underground newspaper publisher, stood backstage.
From Tightwad Hill, the stage was a postage stamp, but the loud rock pummeled us. Fans repeatedly tried to sneak over chain-link and wood-slat fences, painfully confronted by rent-a-cops spraying mace from catwalks. Barriers were breached only once, by a trio who lifted a fence and slid under to Tightwad huzzahs.
Just before Hendrix began, harder rains fell from a steel-wool sky. The mix of water and electric instruments was worrisome, but after rubber mats were installed, the show resumed.
And here’s where the narrative flips. Consider, if you will, an exhausted, moody Hendrix playing before a home audience, the backstage jammed with family, friends and obligations. What followed was a note of generosity echoing from his youth.
On Sept. 1, 1957, Elvis Presley had played Sicks’ Stadium for an ecstatic crowd of 16,000. Short the buck-fifty admission, 14-year-old Hendrix watched the show perched atop — you guessed it — Tightwad Hill.
Thirteen years later, Hendrix instructed the stadium crew to throw gates open and let in hundreds of young cheapskates, including me, from the same bluff. Roaring approval, we scrambled down the incline and inside, thumbing our noses at the defanged rent-a-cops.
Tragically, this was Hendrix’s last concert in the continental United States. Less than two months later, on Sept. 18, he died in London of an accidental drug overdose. His sonic earthquake continues to shake and inspire to this day.