Often labeled the greatest guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix was undoubtedly a influential cultural figure in the 60s. The “voodoo child’s” psychedelic sound, charisma, and appearance resonated with a young culture who opposed the on going Vietnam war and chose to fight the system. In the year 1966, the band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was assembled, with Englishmen Noel Redding on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums, and Jimi Hendrix as lead singer and guitarist. With initial success overseas in London, Hendrix was not seen in the U.S. until June 1967, when he began his North American Tour across many different cities and venues, including a controversial stop at the University of Chicago’s (UIC) very own Circle Campus.
Very rarely does one of the greatest rock and roll artists of all time take the stage inside a cafeteria on a college campus. This was the case on March 29, 1968, at approximately 8:30 pm on a Friday evening when Hendrix graced the stage at UIC. However, in those days the campus was not named or known as UIC but rather UICC, the University of Illinois Chicago Circle. A fairly new campus at the time, the Chicago Circle Music Committee sponsored the event and managed to bring in not only the Jimi Hendrix Experience but two other bands as well. Much like how the Student Involvement Committee sponsors Spark In The Park every fall and books artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, the then Circle Music Committee managed to book a musical legend known for his blistering solos and lighting his guitar on fire.
In a day and age when paying to go see your favorite artists often times leaves you with holes in your pockets, it is hard to imagine that tickets to go see Hendrix on campus were $2.75 for singles and $5.00 for couples. If only the couple discount still existed. The cafeteria located on 750 S. Halsted (currently Student Center East), was transformed into a very informal venue with folding chairs used for general seating. It was much simpler times than now, as the hoopla of blinding light shows and recording the whole performance on smartphones wasn’t even a thought yet. The stage was set up fairly low, nearly a foot off the ground and most lights were turned off with a few being projected though an oil lamp that would have resembled the effects of a lava lamp.
With the venue in place The Soft Machine, a progressive rock band from England, took to the stage first and opened “the mixer” by playing two 20-minute songs. Finally, as the anticipation lingered, it was now time for the Jimi Hendrix Experience to take the stage. Brian Onak, an 18 year old student at UIC at the time, was in attendance and managed to garner a seat in the second row from the stage. As he recalls, “Afterwards they [The Soft Machine] left and it looked like Hendrix was going to use the same equipment as them, so there was not going to be any waiting in between. Hendrix’s people came out and he was just sitting down on a chair, not even standing. A lot of talking was going on onstage and the crowd thought he was going to start playing any second. So he plugs into the amp and then he starts noodling on his guitar, warming up a bit. I mean during his warm up, it seemed effortless but the sound was very low. I could only hear it because I was in the second row. He did not play any certain songs or nothing. This lasted a couple of minutes and then he stopped. Ten minutes go by and his band mates walked off, as did he.”
As Hendrix walked off, the announcement was made that the remainder of the show was cancelled and students were offered the opportunity to receive a refund for the tickets they paid for, an abysmal consolation for missing out on one of music’s most transcendent stars. It was later noted that there were technical difficulties with the sound equipment and the show could not continue. Some claim the sound equipment was apparently picking up signals from the airport, causing technical problems while others say that Hendrix personally did not like the sound system and therefore refused to play any songs besides his initial warm up.
To this day no one is 100% sure what happened to Hendrix that night. Onak’s initial theory was that he was too erratic and drugged out to perform. “Every one around him was standing and they all seemed fine. He was just staring at his lap, I mean he’s so close to people and he just wasn’t smiling or making any contact with the crowd. He was just not able to perform. His head was just slopped down and that’s the way he played his guitar in his lap” Onak recalled. This behavior wouldn’t have been a surprise, considering the urban legend that Hendrix use to lace his headband with LSD while he performed in hopes that the drug would enter his system through his pores.
At the time in 1968, the national debate over the Vietnam War and the debate of the direction of American society had already spilled over onto the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. Antiwar sentiment was growing as students were beginning to awaken and peace rallies were being held at the UIC Forum. Hendrix was no stranger to anti war sentiment as one of his most iconic performances of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock in 1969 was not a symbol of his national pride, but rather a musical stance against America’s continued occupation of Vietnam. Hendrix debated whether or not to perform the anthem, as some feared it would spark a riot. However, with the world watching and the stage set, Hendrix displayed his antiwar sentiment with arguably one of the greatest performances of all time. “It was a time of cultural revolution”, states Onak. “At the time you’re fighting the system. I don’t want to fight the war and I’m gonna wear my clothes and hair the way I want to. I don’t care if this is music you don’t like, mom and dad.”
It’s hard to imagine the impact Hendrix’s guitar could have had on a campus already on edge. Unfortunately, Hendrix’s legendary career was cut short only two years later as he passed away on September 18, 1970, after consuming 18 times the recommended dosage of sleeping pills. Only touring for a total of about four years, the concert at the Circle would have been one of his last shows in front of the city of Chicago. Thus leaving all those in attendance pondering what could have been and what songs would have been played. “It was heartbreaking considering I was in the second row and I barely got to see him,” says Onak. Nearly 48 years later and Hendrix’s early exit still haunts individuals till this day. Affirming the notion that legends never truly die.