Jimi Hendrix's final resting place is not, contrary to popular belief, a wild party. In fact, most of the people who stopped by his grave to pay their respects on a recent Saturday afternoon weren't even what I would call "fans." They certainly weren't the people I'd expected to see there; instead, there were two relocated Bosnian families, a couple of young Navy guys, and a preppy San Diego couple on their way to Alaska. No barefoot hippies, no strung-out addicts, no leftover radicals. Maybe the freaks come out when it gets warmer. But this particular Saturday, the visitors were just a few people who wanted to stand six feet over a legend and maybe get a picture of the modest headstone before heading home.
For those Seattleites who've yet to make the pilgrimage to Hendrix's burial site in Renton, let me assure you: It's not all that exciting. A cemetery is a cemetery is a cemetery, even on a nice day, even when there's a celebrity buried there. The grave itself was surprisingly difficult to find, and I was toying with the rather unpleasant reality that I might have to walk up and down each row of headstones like a window shopper when I spotted a small group of people bending down around a headstone. As I approached, I noticed a well-worn man rubbing a red crayon over a piece of butcher paper placed on the headstone, occasionally belting out such classic rock refrains as "One! Two! Three! Four!" along with his Walkman. This, I later learned, was Rodney.
A "residentially challenged" man in his mid-40s, Rodney has been visiting Jimi's grave for almost three years and doing rubbings for donations the past year-and-a-half. Why he started is unclear; Rodney never saw Hendrix perform in person, and while he claimed to enjoy Jimi's music, he certainly isn't a fanatic. Nonetheless, he prides himself on the work he does to keep the grave clean, removing the cigarette butts and crayon wrappings from the grass and scraping wax out of the headstone's lettering. Rodney is often joined by another man, named Joe, who seems to spend most of his time at the grave drinking beer and needling Rodney. Joe claims to be a Navy veteran; Rodney swears he's lying. Like an old married couple, they reminisce about their months in an abandoned house and their "hobo camp" in the forest by the cemetery.
Rodney is actually an avid Eric Clapton fan. Seeing him in his Clapton T-shirt, listening to Clapton's music on his Walkman ("One! Two!"), and telling every person who came by about Clapton's visit a few years ago, it was even easier to forget who was buried under us. But Rodney knows his Hendrix facts and has a number of Jimi stories besides (including tales of meeting Jimi's father and stepmother); his exuberant persona won over every person I met. Almost no one left without a rubbing ࠬa Rodney, and I'll bet donuts to dollars most will remember their visit to Jimi by remembering Rodney, the homeless man with crayons and butcher paper.
As we sat in the sun and wind, a constant stream of curious fame-seekers stopped by the grave. Both a young man from Tennessee recently relocated to Arlington and two young Navy guys (one with pierced wife in tow) had mistakenly searched a graveyard in Redmond for Jimi before finding their way to this inconspicuous Renton cemetery. There were tourists from Virginia, Texas, California, Tennessee, Ohio, and Maryland. At least two packs of disinterested adolescent boys, all born at least 10 years after the guitarist's death, passed through; one of them, from Renton, explained that he'd never been to the grave and had nothing better to do that afternoon. Two Bosnian families, who'd spent time in a refugee camp in Hungary before making their way to Tukwila, said Jimi was still popular in Europe and they'd wanted to see his grave. Rodney made them a rubbing while the two teenage daughters shivered in the wind; they took turns taking pictures with Rodney as he held up an American flag and gave the camera a peace sign. (In retrospect, I'm not even sure they took pictures of the headstone.)
A middle-aged man from San Antonio, building a shrine of rock memorabilia in his house, had brought a video camera and his own paper and crayons, only to have Rodney convince him to pick up some burgers at the McDonald's nearby while Rodney made the rubbings with his superior paper. Armed with printouts from a Web site called "Find-A-Grave," the man planned on hitting Bruce and Brandon Lee's graves before sundown. A couple on their way to Alaska had a long layover and had decided to take the bus from the airport to see Jimi. They said most of the locals on the bus they'd asked for directions didn't know where to find the cemetery, let alone the grave.
Of all the people stopping by over the course of the afternoon, only two really mentioned Jimi at all. One of the Navy men, tattooed and shaved, said Jimi was the reason he'd started playing the guitar. Late in the afternoon, a trio of Southwest employees came by. One of them, a bleached Oakland man who claimed his name was "the Boogieman," was a big fan. With few exceptions, the remainder of the passersby seemed more interested in the act of visiting the grave of a celebrity than in the person who was actually buried there. No one cried, no one brought flowers, no one (much to the chagrin of Rodney and Joe) smoked any weed in Jimi's memory. A visit to South Dakota's Corn Palace, I imagine, would have elicited much the same response: curiosity, a photo for posterity, maybe the purchase of a piece of memorabilia (corncob key chain to headstone rubbing isn't much of a leap).
The morbid aspect of the entire affair—imprints of the grave, standing over the bodies of a veritable rock audience—seemed to be completely lost on the people I met. When I finally left the cemetery, my face burned and stinging from the cold wind, I couldn't help but wonder what all those people would remember about the grave. Because they weren't fanatics, they weren't diehard Hendrix freaks. They were people looking for something interesting to do on a slow Saturday afternoon. Honestly? I think they'll remember Rodney. If I didn't have my notes, that's all I would remember. And, of course, my rubbing; my roommate's already offered me money for it. I think I may hold on to it for a while, though; after all, Rodney signed the bottom.
Jimi Hendrix is buried in Greenwood Memorial Park, 350 Monroe Ave NE (corner of NE 4th St and Monroe Ave NE), in Renton.