Flashbacks: Filling in the Blanks (with the Seattle Times historical archive)

Maybe you missed it, or perhaps you weren’t yet born. But imagine for just a moment that you’d made the trip from Seattle, Washington, to Max Yasgur’s Bethel, New York, farm in the late summer of 1969. You were one of the half-million people attending the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. One of your traveling companions embarked on the trip to protest the war in Vietnam. Another tagged along for the three-day party. You however came for the music. And moreover, you’d endured three hungry days of rain, long Porta-John lines, and National Guard rations for this singular moment. The opening riff to Jimi Hendrix’s “Message to Love” brings you out of your tent, and onto your feet. He’s your hometown hero. His white Fender Stratocaster, manufactured for a right-handed player, is strung upside-down for his deft left-handed manipulation. He’s working the fret-board furiously with long, spindly fingers. And just then, you flash back.

From The Seattle Sunday Times (01-25-1959). Click to open full article in PDF.

Your expectations had been low when your Auntie made you don your reserved finest to attend a 1959 celebration sponsored by her Woman’s Society of Christian Service. The only promise the evening held in advance for you was that the Seattle Sunday Times reported there was to be a band—The Velvet Tones. You’d never heard of them. But you’d never forget them—at least not one of them. The kid playing the white Supro Ozark guitar, James Hendrix, seemed to be channeling Elvis. Or was it Chuck Berry? Or was he reaching back further, drawing some sort of high-and-lonesome blues energy off B.B. King or Muddy Waters? Whatever it was, you’d caught your Auntie tapping along with more than one of their rollicking numbers that evening. You can almost still hear the crackle of the Tones’ primitive amplifiers. And just then, you flash forward. February 12, 1968, found you on a sabbatical from academia and Hendrix back in town. He’d become famous in the near-decade since you’d first/last seen him in Seattle. The Velvet Tones were an almost forgotten footnote; he now performed with his new band, The Experience. You’d spun their records and you’d heard the change. Now the songs were “Fire,” “Purple Haze,” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” So you went to see him live and in action. It was good, very good. And it was loud. How loud?

From The Seattle Times; Date (02-13-1968). Click to open full article in PDF.

A reviewer summed up the performance concisely in the next day’s copy of the Seattle Times. Indeed, the critic’s assessment reflected your personal experience of The Experience. And the same was true of the next Hendrix show you attended, over a year later, just months before Woodstock. You stood in the audience as Jimi’s guitar became as fluid in its syncopation, with his physical and emotional handling of it, as a part of his own anatomy.

From The Seattle Times (05-24-1969). Click to open full article in PDF.

It was this synergy of the artist with his implement of expression, so precisely summed up in yet another Seattle Times review, that pushed you to trek clear across the country to a muddy field, on an Upstate New York farm, to witness it yet again all those years ago. Looking back, if only you’d saved the newspaper clippings. If only you’d collated them, scrapbooked them, or filed them away. You’d have had the hard-copy to back up your memories. Whilst memory is robust and memory is sincere in its attempt to authentically recall the impressions of our lives, memory does fade. Apparently this is truer for some decades than others. After all, as Robin Williams once quipped, “If you remember the 60’s, you weren’t there.” While that is certainly an entertaining and subjective assertion on the cognitive impairments resulting from certain excesses of the era in question, Mr. Williams might consider a reformed punch-line. “I don’t need to remember the 60’s. I’ve got Readex’s American Newspaper Archives to fill in the blanks.”

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