Globe and Mail
I’m nosily poking around someone’s tiny London bedroom. There’s a pinkish psychedelic bedspread, an eclectic record collection and a messy bedside table topped with scrawled notes, a scallop shell ashtray and a wine bottle I like to think was drained before breakfast.
It’s not a million miles from the student bedsits I used to loll around in during my misspent 20s. But this cozy pad has a slightly more legendary provenance.
When Seattle-born Jimi Hendrix moved into this third-floor £30-a-week Mayfair flat in 1968, he was nearing the height of a career that would be cut short just two years later. During his time here, he was photographed by top magazines and hopped in Rolls-Royces to play Royal Albert Hall gigs that are still talked about today.
But in recent years, the flat was almost forgotten. Two centuries before, Messiah composer George Frideric Handel lived in the house next door and, in 2001, parts of both buildings were converted into a museum recalling his harpsichord-loving ways. The only evidence of a resident guitar god was a blue plaque high on the wall outside.
All that changed in February this year when Hendrix’s old apartment – previously the Handel museum’s cramped offices – was opened to the public after a painstaking £2.4 million restoration. For die-hard fans of the charismatic Electric Ladyland musician, it’s a Swinging Sixties must-see.
The recreated bedroom – which feels as if Hendrix has just nipped out to roll a joint – is the star attraction. It’s where the velvet-jacketed pioneer lounged around, strummed guitars and chilled with live-in girlfriend Kathy Etchingham.
Everything in the bedroom has been remade or sourced using period photos of Hendrix’s occupancy. And although the bed seems unnaturally tidy for a rock star, the artifacts – from woodchip wallpaper to a Bang and Olufsen stereo – intimately recall his everyday life here.
There’s a retro TV, similar to the one he apparently loved watching Coronation Street on; a wall tapestry recreated from the original that’s now hanging in Venice’s Hard Rock Cafe; and an oversized ‘dog bear’ stuffie knitted by a fan that Hendrix kept on his bed. On the bookshelves, Dostoyevsky and Ian Fleming paperbacks jostle with a box of Quality Street chocolates.
Researches also tracked down the original wall mirror Hendrix routinely adjusted his feather-accented hats in – it was found in Australia – while his Epiphone FT79 acoustic guitar has been loaned by a fan and reverentially placed on the bed. When he was here, Hendrix played it constantly.
His legacy, though, was built firmly on that searing wah-wah pedal guitar sound, confirms Harry Shapiro, author of Hendrix biography Electric Gypsy, who I meet during the flat’s opening. “Before Hendrix, electric guitars were just used to make music louder – Jimi took it much further.”
Honing his approach here, Hendrix loved listening to other musicians in the flat. One of the site’s four rooms profiles his huge record collection, a vinyl treasure trove now housed in Seattle’s Experience Music Project that London researchers used to chart his interests and influences.
The Beatles and Howling Wolf were frequently on the turntable – Hendrix often blew out the speakers – while Bob Dylan albums were played almost to destruction. Stars from Billy Preston to George Harrison also dropped by in the flesh.
But although Hendrix was at the cutting edge of music and fashion in London – a scarlet jacket on display here is still achingly hip – he wasn’t a slave to trends. In fact, his musical tastes included an unexpected blast-from-the-past neighbour.
“We know that Hendrix had Handel recordings and that he played them a lot – he was definitely a fan,” Christian Lloyd, author of the project’s companion book Hendrix at Home, tells me. “He even thought he saw Handel’s ghost here.”
Glossing over the substances that may have triggered this spectral sighting, I detour to the Handel rooms, connected via a staircase on the floor below. Jarringly different, there are antiques and period pianos plus a four-poster bed Hendrix would have loved – his own bed had an improvised canopy made from a shawl.
Back upstairs, I round-out Hendrix’s London life in the largest of the new rooms. Lined with photos, posters and archive clippings, there’s TV footage of him in the flat and a chance to listen to his music via headphones. It’s easy to see why he’s still regarded as a musical revolutionary.
“Hendrix had the talent and the looks but he was also in the right place at the right time,” says Shapiro. “He became really famous when he was in this flat but if he hadn’t come to London when he did, who know what would have happened?”
If you go:
Handel & Hendrix in London (www.handelhendrix.org) is at 25 Brook Street. Admission to the Handel or Hendrix sides of the attraction is £7.50 each – combined entry is £10. See website for additional events and shows.