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Experiencing The Experience Music Project

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In honor of what would be Jimi Hendrix's 65th birthday today, I am posting my impressions of The Experience Music Project in Seattle.

Last November I visited the Experience Music Project. Many of my Seattle friends are boycotting EMP because of its founder, Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. He pissed off a lot of people by building Qwest Field with taxpayer dollars after it had been voted down twice.

The building is another strange Frank Geary design. I am not an expert on architecture, but I find his buildings disorienting. At some point in a Geary building I am usually surprised by an unexpected flight of stairs, "Where did those come from? I thought I was on the second floor".

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The main draw for me was the huge collection of Jimi Hendrix memorabilia. I expected the usual - a few guitars, a few costumes, and maybe a guitar pick or two. It's more like someone just followed Hendrix around every day of his life picking up everything he ever set down. There are intimate family letters (His family referred to him as "Buster"), early drawings (Hendrix was also a great visual artist), and anything else your mother might keep in a box in the attic.

I was deeply affected by a letter Hendrix wrote from the air force, where he discusses a simulated jump, and how many of his fellow recruits backed down. He discusses the thought process that made him choose to jump, and it reveals a deeper philosophy of life. It had to do with choosing to go ahead and live your life all the way, about grabbing opportunities while they are at hand because they may never come your way again.

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The museum displays his guitars, his pedals, and even the mixing board from the Electric Ladyland studio. But I was most amazed by the chunk of guitar that Hendrix set on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival. It is such an iconic relic, it's the only thing I would have been tempted to smash-and-grab, were I a smash-and-grab type of person. Of course, the fact that it occured to me at all possibly means that is exactly the kind of person I am.

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The collection also includes clothing, jewelry, and some amazing stage costumes. As always, seeing clothing on the museum forms made him seem surprisingly small. Another surprise was all of the memorabilia and photographs of Jimi backing up Little Richard. He was so young, it is strange to think that he led so many lives - as a soldier, a backup musician in a slicked-up doo-wop hairdo and matchy-matchy suit, as well as the psychedelic guitar hero that we all remember him as.

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There were letters, handwritten lyrics, and homemade cassettes. When I saw that they even had his diary, it started to feel a little more like plunder than memorabilia. Later I asked my friend if Paul Allen had taken advantage of the family, exploiting poverty to root through their heirlooms. She said it is just the family business, and they're pretty matter-of-fact about it. The Hendrix family is just another local family, with one of his aunts going the same hairdresser and doctor as my friend.

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The special exhibits sections looked vaguely interesting, but I was too overwhelmed by the giant Hendrix display to take in any more. There is also a sound lab where you can play instruments, a concert simulation, and any guitar player's holy grail, the Guitar Gallery. They have over 50 guitars, dating as far back as 1770.

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From the EMP Website:

The Jimi Hendrix exhibition was de-installed August 6, 2007. The majority of the objects were on display since EMP opened in 2000 and will be conserved for a time in order to prevent damage from exposure to light and the environment. Objects from the exhibition that are more durable will remain on display at EMP|SFM. The museum plans to organize a new Hendrix exhibition in the future.

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Photos Courtesy of EMP