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Back in black

Through rock's past, darkly

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In 2005, four years deep into the new millennium (and all of the purported momentousness that entails), we are still confounded by the same old elliptical attitudes and dialogues about race and rock. In the wake of the dust-up between Wicked Wisdom and many attendees of this year's Ozzfest, it's clear the race issue still remains very much a flashpoint. Central to the conflict are the cracked notions of "ownership" by masses of white folks who have co-opted rock from its black American origins and subsequently mete out the degrees to which black folks are "allowed" to participate in their own cultural and intellectual property. Unerringly, when race and rock collide, drama ensues.

Hendrix: Blacker Than That

Believe it or not, James Marshall Hendrix, guitar demigod, rock spiritual icon, shaman, hustler, hippie, pimp and launcher of a thousand Strats, was a black man. It seems absurd placed in those terms, but as the first universally embraced black rock crossover superstar, Hendrix' white benefactors expended an inordinate amount of energy elevating him above the racial stigmas that hog-tied his peers. Hendrix was brought to England to connect to the British Invasion, paired with an all-white rhythm section, booked in predominantly white venues; he was marketed as the flamboyant, sensual, hipster, exotic Other. Typically cast as "above race," he was dangerous enough for white America to admire and emulate, but the guitar god was neutered racially, and so he was devoid of any of the carping baggage attendant to his brethren.

"A profound irony of Hendrix's career," notes music journalist Greg Tate in his book Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and The Black Experience, "is that even after shredding racial shibboleths by the dozens, he discovered a new gate he was not able to bust wide. This being the same gate that has kept Black people from embracing him as one of their own to this day. The one that reads, 'Jimi Hendrix is different from you or me -- Jimi Hendrix is for White people.'"

Not that Hendrix's elevated status provided any protections from the political realities of Blackness in America -- his "otherness" certainly provided no shield from the indignities of Jim Crow or frequent police harassment. At the apex of his fame, Hendrix grew increasingly aware of (and was increasingly pressured by his handlers to maintain) our nation's race contradictions and the acute distance between himself and black crowds. Despite the fact he cut his teeth on the Apollo Theater stage (in amateur contests and with other headliners), Hendrix never played at the venerable venue as part of his "Experience" incarnation and wouldn't appear there again until 1970 when he was trying to break his all-black Band of Gypsies.

Hendrix began increasingly to discuss race issues and identify more openly with the Black Power movement before his death. He met with members of the Black Panthers (reportedly under strong-arm conditions) and though he never joined or publicly embraced the group or participated in public events, he expressed his sympathies. When Band of Gypsies, with drummer/singer Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Cox, came out, the album was savaged by critics -- some intimating that Hendrix had somehow "betrayed" them. In a November 1969 interview in Rolling Stone magazine, in which Hendrix discussed his new direction experimenting with more expansive forms of music, he said emphatically, "I don't want to be a clown anymore. I don't want to be a 'rock & roll star.'" Sadly, Hendrix died less than a year later, never achieving his musical Promised Land or the comfort he sought in his own skin, and he would indelibly be mired in the image of himself he wearied of.

Not Like a Rolling Stone

The Rolling Stones, to their credit, have made it a point to break bands in their opening slots, many times reaching across color and genre lines to bring different energy to the top of their lineup (among them, over the years, Ike & Tina Turner, the Gap Band, Santana, Rufus with Chaka Khan, Garland Jeffreys, Los Lonely Boys). Unfortunately, many Rolling Stones fans were nowhere near as open-minded as their idols; they booed and catcalled acts off the stage.

In fact, black performers were practically a cottage industry in drawing Stone-head ire. A veritable who's-who of legendary talent -- some of the best and brightest in the business -- faced the firing squads: Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Billy Preston, Prince, Living Colour, among others. Prince was so rattled during his stint as an opener for the Stones in the early 80s, he stormed off the stage several times and ended up leaving the tour. At LA dates during the Stones' Steel Wheels Tour, Living Colour was embroiled in an onstage face-off with Guns N' Roses in the wake of racist lyrics that appeared in G'N'R's song "One In A Million."

Of course, with the Stones, fan impatience is as much a factor as culture clashes. After all, impatience at the band's 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway in Livermore, CA, is ultimately what led to the murder of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter. Now, the band's hardcore fans are nearly as ancient as the band, and they've mellowed, presumably, with age. Newer fans have a much broader musical palette -- Black Eyed Peas are one of the opening acts on this year's edition of the Stones tour.

This is Radio Clash

One infamous clash happened, quite literally, at two 1981 concerts by punk pioneers the Clash at Bond's of Times Square. The opening act was Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. Hip-hop was in its infancy and, despite the rap crew's many hits, Flash and crew were still virtually unknown among punk fans.

Decked out in rented tuxedos and performing Temptations-like choreography, the Furious Five were pelted with cans, bottles and anything found that could be thrown at the group. Flash and company futilely attempted to return fire, but they ultimately had to leave the stage. At the concert the following day, the Furious Five returned in street clothes and, when the inevitable scrum surfaced, the group matched the audience, debris for debris, blow for blow, all the while performing their hits. In the end, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five got through the show and won the crowd's respect. Today, of course, we know hip-hop not only won the battle that night, but ultimately won the war.

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