Jul 26 2021
By Dave Thompson.
It was raining. Of course, it was raining – what else does it ever do in Seattle? But even local standards were shattered as Sunday, July 26, 1970, swam into overcast view and the heavens literally opened up and wept, turning the sky to steel, the streets to rivers and the open-air baseball stadium which was the center of the day’s attention, was transformed to a swamp of puddle-pocked mud and poorly wired electrics.
Sicks’ Stadium wasn’t built for live music. Indeed, in those days before the Seattle Mariners finally put the city on the American sporting map, many people were unaware that Seattle even had a baseball stadium, let alone one capable of staging the occasional rock concert. Tucked away behind the Central District neighborhood of McClellan and Rainier, on a site now occupied by an Loews’s hardware store (and unobtrusively marked by a little plaque), it was an unassumingly functional pile, erected with no concern for anything more than giving people a perch to balance on while they watched the Seattle Pilots bat their balls.
But of course they weren’t going to. The majority of tickets for Jimi’s Sicks’ Stadium show were snapped up quickly, while a long line of last-minute hopefuls hungrily awaited the few which had been held back for sale on the day; and though the rain raised eyebrows in despair, it didn’t seem to dampen the crowd’s ardor in the slightest. But still, as Jimi looked out over the venue before the show got underway, he wondered aloud at the wisdom of even allowing the concert to go ahead.
Tom Hulett of Concerts West promoted the event. “Seattle had always been a big money market for us, and Hendrix was up for the challenge.” He actually accompanied Jimi on the flight to Seattle from the previous show in San Diego, and remembers, “On the plane I spoke to Jimi about the weather forecast for Seattle. A steady rain was threatening our walk-up sales and I was afraid we were going to lose our ass. I was thinking about canceling, but Hendrix said ‘no.’”
The gates opened at 3 p.m., with no let-up in the storm. Concert-goer Shelley Germeaux—just 14 years old, but already catching her second Hendrix show (after the Hollywood Bowl a couple years earlier) remembers, “It was absolutely pouring down. A lot of people had umbrellas, but all I had on was a hooded sweatshirt, so we just sat in those bleachers for God knows how long, waiting.”
The first band (Rube Tuben And The Rhondonnas) was already playing as the majority of fans squeezed into the stadium. Cactus would soon follow. These driving rock’n’rollers led by the former Vanilla Fudge rhythm section of Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice, had particular reason to celebrate that afternoon – their debut album, Cactus, had entered the Top 200 that same week and the response to their set that afternoon was guaranteed to send it soaring higher. Cat Mother And The All Night Newsboys, the regular support band, followed, and they, too, received a fair hearing. But even in these moments of triumph, neither band was allowed to forget whose show – whose homecoming – it really was. The bellowing from the audience made certain of that.
Jimi arrived at the venue at the head of a caravan of cars, all packed with family and friends. His father, step-mother and sisters, of course, traveled with Jimi, in the Malibu he’d bought them the previous year, and they were still climbing out of the car when a venue security guard approached them. “Sorry, the show’s sold out.”
Jimi smiled, “I know, that’s why I’m here, so you’d probably just let us through or else there’ll be a lot of unhappy people around.” He pointed to the line of cars behind him. “And this is my family, so let everybody through as far as the yellow Volkswagen.”
With road manager Gerry Stickells having covered the water-logged stage in rubber, a precaution against anybody getting electrocuted, the emcee for the day finally came out at 6:15 to tell the crowd that Hendrix would be with them “in just a few minutes.”
One hour later … “as soon as the announcer said that,” Shelley Germeaux recalls, “we pushed our way to the front – and we just stood there for the next hour.” Hendrix and the band finally went on a little after 7:15.
Seattle had turned out in force to welcome Jimi back. He, however, wasn’t accepting its accolades. Between songs, he spat out a few lines of invective about the city, about his time at Garfield High School, about the fact he’d had to leave the Northwest far behind him in order to gain any attention for himself.
But he also told the crowd about the wonderful day he’d just spent with his father and family, and – after dedicating one song to “the girl dancing in the yellow pajamas” out in the audience – he then gave him 9-year-old sister Janie the thrill of her life by singling her out for a line in “Purple Haze” – “that girl put a spell on me.”
“He was pointing at me,” Janie recollected, “and all the audience was trying to look to see who he was pointing at.”
Elsewhere in the show, Janie was privy to another little moment, to which the entire crowd remained oblivious: when Jimi crouched down, his trousers ripped. “Nobody in the audience saw it, so what he did, he carefully backed up and got his jacket, which was lying over one of the monitors, wrapped it around himself and carried on playing.”
Nevertheless, the view from the side of the stage was one of unrelenting chaos. With the rain still pouring down, the crew had erected a tarpaulin over the stage for Jimi and the band to shelter beneath. But the weight of water was far more than the tarp alone could bear, and now it was sagging dangerously, even touching Jimi’s head in places, on the occasions he ventured back beneath its shelter. So finally, he just gave up.
“Al was standing beside me with a long pole,” Janie recalls, “trying to prop up the tarpaulin, and knocking it so the water would pour off it, away from the equipment.” Jimi, it would seem, was not distracted by the inclement weather.
“He never once went under the tarpaulin,” Shelley Germeaux marvels. “He was out in front the whole show, just soaked to the skin. His clothes were sticking to him, there was water dripping over his fingers, his forehead, his guitar. I was so scared he was going to get electrocuted.”
The majority of the hour-long live set itself offered little departure from any other Jimi had played through that summer’s “Cry Of Love” tour: “Fire,” “Message To Love,” “Lover Man,” “Machine Gun,” “Star Spangled Banner,” “Purple Haze,” “Hear My Train A Comin’ ,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” “Freedom,” “Red House,” and “Foxey Lady.”
But “Midnight Lightning” and “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” were surprises – the first had only been written in March (and recorded at the end of that same month), and since that time Jimi had aired it a couple of times, on the opening night of the tour at the Los Angeles Forum, and on July 4, at the Second Atlanta International Pop Festival. But if swathes of the show were unfamiliar, few of the audience were complaining.
True, Jimi was faced with the extremely unusual sight of the crowd filing out long before the show’s 8:30 conclusion, but it wasn’t his performance which chased them away – it was the fear of catching pneumonia, or drowning.
Certainly Jimi himself was feeling the after-effects of his soaking well into the following day, and when road manager Stickells arrived at the Hendrix home to take him onto the next show, in Hawaii, Al Hendrix was waiting for him.
Janie remembers, “My Dad said Jimi wasn’t feeling well, that he was still sleeping, and that they’d have to go on without him. It wasn’t like the show was that night, they’d got another three days, so Dad wouldn’t let him wake Jimi up, and that was that.” Jimi eventually flew to Hawaii the following day, with the family accompanying him to the airport to see him off.
“We were at the terminal,” Janie recalls, “and it was strange. Jimi and Al were both pacing about, looking at each other. Nobody said anything, but it was as if they knew they would never see one another again. It was just a very eerie experience for all of us.” Less than seven weeks later, Jimi was dead.