Castles made of Sand

Today had a certain rebellious quality to it and bears sharing. On 6th November 2012 the state of Washington in the United States of America approved by popular vote legislation that legalises small amounts of marijuana for adults aged 21 and over, taxes them and designates the revenue for healthcare and substance abuse prevention and education. So, this morning it was with huge interest that I showed my ID to the amiable security guard sitting by the frosted glass door and stepped inside the Herban Legend store in downtown Seattle.

What awaited me was the conventional shop style glass-topped counters and walls racked out with an array of small plastic wallets packed with greenish plant matter. It was all very civilised and soon I was being chatted through the various types of product on offer by a charming and articulate salesgirl: bags of ‘bud’ were the most common; then there were the pre-rolled numbers in sealed plastic tubes; there was oil; chocolate; cookies; mints; coffee; sauces; tea bags; and vaporizers. Basically anything that made a good marriage with marijuana was on sale for what seemed to be very reasonable prices compared to the average bottle of whisky or wine. All was grown in the state, was 100% organic and all dosages were standard throughout the entire product range.

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What a grown up stance to take after so many years banging the gavel on the hands of huge numbers of everyday working people holding down regular jobs – often professional – who just like to relax with something a little less toxic and addictive as alcohol. The war on drugs was unwinnable from the beginning, and history has proved it to be a pointless and idiotic exercise.

On leaving I noticed a framed freehand portrait hanging above an ATM. There are only two portraits that have enduring universal fame and recognition: Che Guevara and Jimi Hendrix. This black and white sketch was Jimi, stratocaster aloft, eyes closed in mid solo. Underneath was written: Seattle’s favourite Son.

Later we made the drive through some of Seattle’s hectic crosstown traffic south to Greenwood Memorial Park in Renton. It was in this area where a young James Marshall Hendrix at age 15 acquired his first proper 6-string guitar. A late start by any standard but in the following 12-years he would go on to revolutionise electric guitar playing to become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th-century.

Standing in the weak autumn sunshine at the memorial I reflected that this was the second time in just over a month that I had stood before a guitar legend’s grave: the first being BB King’s in Mississippi.

Another car pulled up and two portly middle-aged men wearing psychedelic Hendrix T-shirts and baseball caps got out and came over. I sparked up a conversation by commenting on one of the T-shirts, the ‘Axis:bold as love’ design with its panoply of Hindu gods and Jimi centre stage flanked by Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. They were from Texas and we posed for a group photo beneath the dome of the pearl grey granite gazebo. On the three supporting columns were laser-etched portraits of Hendrix with his own handwritten lyrics framed in rainbow marble. I looked up and saw the snow-covered peak of Mount Rainier away to the south and then looked down to read ‘Well I stand up next to a mountain, chop it down with the edge of my hand’. Perfect.

One of the Texans pulled out an iPhone and soon the thin sound of ‘Little Wing’ was hanging in the still air. He asked me what I wanted to hear and I said ‘Fire” as I like its staccato drum pattern, the dripping with sexual innuendo lyrics and the burningly brief but electrifying guitar solo. He found a flowerpot in which to place the phone to try and amplify the sound. It did little. A shame as a lot of Hendrix’s music is meant to be played at full volume to emphasis the feedback and distortion: as though the music is trying to physically tear itself out of the loudspeaker and explode.

I wanted to hear Jimi’s version of Bob Dylan’s ‘All along the Watchtower’ but decided not as it would only disappoint with the technology we had available that afternoon. Now there is a song to get the establishment quaking in their boots: born in the ferment and revolutionary spirit of the late 60s with its thunderous opening bars that intimate the splitting apart of order into a screeching and possibly liberating chaos. The 1812 Overture of the electric guitar if ever there was with its reference to Isaiah, confusion, liberation and apocalypse.

Beneath the granite portraits were numerous bunches of flowers in varying stages of freshness. There was also some drug paraphernalia, some lipstick and quite a few plectrums. I added a plectrum of my own, a jazzy little number with a Japanese design that I’d used whilst in the Mississippi Delta playing an old -6-string guitar on the porch of a renovated sharecropper’s cabin. One of the Texans spoke wistfully of wanting to fire up a joint but added ‘Ma wife’d kill me’.

I can’t add to the volumes written about Jimi’s legacy but have always wondered what great music he would have gone on to make. In the months before his death he talked about a fusion of some of his favourite muses, of Handel, Bach and Mahler, Muddy Waters and flamenco, and of Bob Dylan, his greatest inspiration.

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More people came, photos were taken, tears shed. Over fifty years since he passed and more than 15,000 people a year come to pay their respects: how many can lay claim to that. Looking at the memorial again I wondered if Jimi would have approved. Probably not, far too conservative for his bohemian gypsy taste: he’d have had some multi-coloured riotous confection like a Southern Indian temple erected instead of this conventional memorial. But he would approve of the current recreational drug use in his home state. Public opinion can win over political policy and common sense prevail in the end.

Walking away the sound of a cell phone playing ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ floated across. Stopping I could hear:

‘Will the wind ever remember the names it has blow in the past?
And with this crutch, its old age
And its wisdom it whispers, “No, this will be the last”
And the wind cries Mary’

So Jimi, wild reckless genius, spiritual revolutionary, creative and hugely influential musical pioneer, I’ll let you have the last word:

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Postscript: and then Grace and I drove home for high tea.

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