The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live at Berkeley:  Berkeley Community Theater, Saturday May 30, 1970

[19 January 2004]

By Seth Limmer

On September 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix died. The date marks a watershed event in the history of popular music: the all-too-early end of a career for rock’s most inspiring guitarist, and the beginning of a shameful marketing scheme continually employed by his survivors to exploit his deserved fame and status. The first in a long series of crimes perpetrated against the Jimi’s memory was the rushed release of a poorly conceived, poorly filmed and poorly assembled mini-movie named Live at Berkeley, which contained some of the last live footage of Hendrix taken in the months before he passed.

Live at Berkeley has just been re-released by Experience Hendrix LLC, a cabal of cash cows whose record label actually deserves the Zappa appellation of Barfko/Swill. Although at least six discs into an “official” bootleg sampling of Hendrix’s live career, this limited liability corporation has decided to wait quite some time to reissue this rather legit DVD and CD of a nationally-released film and soundtrack. One viewing will answer why it took the folks at Experience so long to give Live at Berkeley its encore.

It’s never good for a film to be edited by committee, and then re-cut by a third party. But the legal battles that have plagued Live at Berkeley since its conception created a tenuous atmosphere in which cameraman Peter Pilafian and editor Baird Bryant had their finished effort redone by Hendrix mainstay Michael Jeffery in a futile exercise of “artistic” power. [These legal battles explain the inexplicable lack of bonus footage of the concert on the DVD; liner notes explain they are simply “legally not available”.] Suffice it to say that in the torrid history of Live at Berkeley, no one is a winner: from Pilafian whose co-workers were so drugged-out they never got complete footage of an entire song, through Bryant whose ingenious idea it was to splice footage of Berkeley riots into an otherwise riveting performance of “Machine Gun”, to Jeffery who decided to release the schlock 58-minute film and earn himself a pretty penny on an ugly product.

Unfortunately, the incredibly music Jimi Hendrix made along with mates Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell on May 30, 1970 has long been associated with Jeffrey’s misguided project. Listening to the disc of the complete second set—there were audio problems with the recording that will forever keep us from hearing the complete version of “Johnny B. Goode” and other highlights of the first set—is as enjoyable an experience as putting on any Hendrix live album, be it from Monterey, Woodstock, or Winterland. “Stone Free” bristles, “Voodoo Child” rocks, and “Machine Gun” moves from all-out to laid-back with the subtlety and mastery we expect from Hendrix’s live genius. Hearing nascent versions of “Straight Ahead” and “New Rising Sun”, which were still being developed in the live laboratory even as Jimi was recording them at Electric Ladyland, is an incredible key into the songwriter’s mind. On its own, the audio-only, unexpurgated, untouched-yet-remastered record of Live at Berkeley is a welcome addition to the sprawling Hendrix catalogue.

Again, only on its own. For to have seen even just the first ten boring, spotty, and out-of-focus [in every sense of the term] minutes of the film version of Live at Berkeley is to have the memory of that magical night in northern California forever ruined. Needlessly adding “man in the street” footage of hippies fighting regular folk, tactlessly showing brutal footage of students fighting the police, the film is just a mess. Its 58 minutes mostly seem to be justified as a long-form music video for the 10-minute “Machine Gun”. Unfortunately for the movie, Jimi’s performance of the song was so powerful that May 30 that it needed no extra visual imagery to make its point clear. Even worse, “detracting” is the ultimately the nicest way to describe the relationship of the movie to the music.

Aptly, Experience Hendrix LLC had the foresight not to name themselves the Hendrix Trust, because they seem only to be trusted to make themselves a quick buck while dishonoring the man whose very dead hand continues to feed them a rather lavish meal. And while some of the LLC’s auditory offerings are most welcome—including the remastered disc of Live at Berkeley‘s second set—the group generally performs the consumer the disservice of offering too much material instead of only the best recordings. And, in the end, May 30, 1970 was just another amongst a seeming million nights that Jimi Hendrix spent on the road making music. It was not a highlight, it was not a lowlight: it was just an average, ordinary evening with a rather remarkable man. And now, it can be yours.

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