The first thing that strikes me about Jimi Hendrix’s meticulously recreated flat at 23 Brook Street, Mayfair, is how familiar it feels. I have spent the better part of my life hanging out in flats just like it: poky attics or basements rented by musicians, writers, photographers or artists. Flats furnished with LPs, instruments, hi-fi systems, magazines, feathers, bottles, pop-culture ephemera and things with tassels. Everywhere, the tassels – on wall hangings, canopies, bedspreads, rugs…
Replicating how this place looked in 1968 called for a combination of eBay bidding and day-trips to Brighton, scouring the flea markets for stuff that used to be “second-hand” and cheap and is now “vintage” and less so. It must have been an enjoyable way to spend a £2.1m Heritage Lottery grant (matched by funding from private donors). And a worthwhile one, too, given the accuracy with which the curators have conjured this most bohemian of atmospheres in the clean, shiny and sterile surroundings of modern Mayfair, home to many of London’s hedge funds. If there are to be successors to Hendrix’s spirit of invention, you won’t find them living anywhere near here.
“Jimi Hendrix’s flat”, which opens to the public on February 10th, is on the third floor of the Handel House Museum, now billing itself Handel & Hendrix in London. (The German composer lived at number 25 from 1723 until his death in 1759.) The flat was in fact rented by Hendrix’s then girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham, who signed a contract for £30 a week in June 1968. Mayfair it might have been, but the immediate locality of the flat was, as the exhibition notes put it, “a bit sleazy and run down”, something unimaginable now.
At that time, Brook Street was on the periphery of a square mile that made up the now stilled heart of London’s music business. Nearby were clubs and music shops as well as the offices of record companies, managers, publishers and pluggers. Harry Shapiro, author of “Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy”, was on hand at the museum’s press launch to explain how this milieu was ideal for Hendrix, surrounded by fellow musicians and fans rather than the sharks, dealers, mobsters and political operators all trying to grab a piece of him in New York.
The fans were a nuisance, but a benevolent one, and Hendrix, gentle and polite, gave them not only his time, but his telephone number. The phone rang all day. Eventually a second line for business calls had to be installed. He gave them that number too.
Fans would knock on the door. Often they were fans of Handel, whose blue plaque stood confusingly on the party wall between the houses. Hendrix, who shared their misapprehension, would invite them up to take a look. They usually had no idea who he was. It tickled Hendrix to think he had Handel’s old digs. He bought and played Handel’s music, and told Etchingham he’d once seen a bewigged figure in his shaving mirror. Hendrix was an imaginative fellow and no stranger to recreational drug use.
Hendrix was based here only from July 1968 to March 1969, yet it was the nearest thing this nomadic artist had to a real home during his four years of stardom. London made Hendrix. Unrecognised in his native United States, he moved to Britain in 1966 and was swiftly embraced by musicians like Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend and Jeff Beck, who all viewed him with a mixture of terror and awe. Hendrix returned the esteem, famously breaking off a television performance of “Hey Joe” (“this rubbish”) to play Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”. If London at that time was the place to be a guitarist, Hendrix’s flat was the place to be in London. He didn’t need to be in the middle of things; the city’s pop aristocracy sought him out.
In 1997, Brook Street was awarded rock’n’roll’s first blue plaque. I’ve often lamented the way British pop has become a heritage industry, but there’s nothing wrong with celebrating its actual heritage. Now, 46 years after his death, Jimi Hendrix is as important a part of our musical history as fellow immigrant George Friderich Handel, and the Handel-Hendrix museum has done a bang-up job of celebrating that.