To Electric Ladyland: Inside Hendrix's London Flat

By Siba Matti | 01 May 2007
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photo shows view of London rooftops from brook street

Photography is not allowed inside the flat - this is the view from just outside Hendrix's front door, looking over London. Photo: K Smith

The former London flat of rock star Jimi Hendrix is open only twice a year to a small number of lucky fans. A very excited Siba Matti went to explore.

Iconic songwriter and musician Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) spent the final years of his tragically short life in London, and during 1968-69, he lived with girlfriend Kathy Etchingham at 23 Brook Street.

Just next door, at number 25, is the former residence of classical composer George Frederick Handel, who lived there 250 years before Hendrix, and today, both homes are now part of the Handel House Museum. Hence you can find traces of two radically different composers in an eighteenth century building tucked away behind Oxford Street.

Hendrix's flat is now used as offices, but it is opened to the public twice a year, and the museum makes some effort to recreate the atmosphere of his former home. It will next be open during Open House Weekend in mid September 2007. (Watch out too for a short Tour of Hendrix's Holborn in the same month).

Tour guide Ally Mir was on hand to show our small group of 14 around, and provide some background information on the legendary idol.

Born and raised in Seattle, USA, Johnny Allen Hendrix (later changed to James Marshall Hendrix) quickly developed a passion for music, and became a self-taught guitarist who famously played a Fender Stratocaster guitar turned upside down (left handed).

Even early on, people noticed the raw talent that oozed from Hendrix’s every pore, but like most other budding musicians, he had to work hard for his big break.

On a determined mission to establish himself as an artist, Hendrix acquired a seven-day tourist visa and travelled to England in 1966, where he was talent scouted by Chas Chandler, bassist for the Animals and an aspiring music producer, who was searching for an emerging star.

black and white photo shows hendrix in 60s brocaded jacket looking to camera

Jimi Hendrix photgraphed in 1967, a copy is now held at the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph by Gered Mankowitz. Copyright: Bowstir Ltd 2007/mankowitz.com

Impressed with Hendrix’s obvious musical ability, Chandler offered him a management and production contract, and helped him form the band The Jimi Hendrix Experience. In doing so, he secured his residence in the UK.

Hendrix lived and breathed music, and spent much of his time at home writing and playing songs, but unfortunately, his neighbours didn’t quite appreciate his efforts, and he had to move many times around London before finding the flat in Brook Street, which luckily only had businesses underneath, so there was no fear of noise pollution during unsociable hours. Hendrix moved in with Etchingham in 1968, and paid £30 per week in rent, considered to be very expensive at the time.

After such a fascinating background, our appetites were suitably whetted for more information. Ally led us up a series of creaky staircases into what was the second bedroom, and explained that Hendrix had lovingly furnished this room with plush Persian rugs, wooden furniture, and an abundance of empty alcohol bottles! Friends who needed a place to crash after a wild night out also frequently occupied the room, including George Harrison of the Beatles, who stayed many times.

As we paused to imagine the musical greats that might have visited the Brook Street abode, Ally put on a short film explaining the process of creating the English Heritage blue plaque dedicated to Hendrix.

There was initially much debate about giving a rock musician a blue plaque, but the panel eventually overcame its stuffy impulses, and agreed that Hendrix was an extraordinary musician and performer.

And these words rang true when Pete Townsend, legendary guitarist of The Who, unveiled the plaque in 1997, in front of a huge audience of fans and rock stars alike, including Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin.

After the film, Ally led us into what was the kitchen, but is now the staff quarters. Although it retains part of its original structure, the room is now remarkably small, and it felt rather claustrophobic with the entire tour group squeezed in.

Likewise, Hendrix’s former studio (now the museum office) was also a snug space, but once a full drum kit, amplifiers and guitars were all crammed in, and Hendrix spent many happy hours jamming with his musical peers and writing some of his most memorable music, including his third album, Electric Ladyland.

The master bedroom is the most atmospheric room in the house. Once furnished with a magnificent draped king size bed, complete with crimson red carpets, royal purple curtains, and elaborately embroidered Persian rugs, the room evoked all the charisma that Hendrix exuded.

All the walls in the flat are also decorated with the white wood chip wallpaper- not, as Ally joked, because the museum is stingy, but because Hendrix actually chose the very same design himself.

The tour was also accompanied by a small selection of black and white photographs, many of which are previously unseen, capturing Hendrix not only as the flamboyant stage performer, but also as a reflective, thoughtful musician.

Although Jimi Hendrix’s life was tragically cut short in 1970, when he died in mysterious circumstances at the Samarkand Hotel in Ladbroke Grove, he left on a high, after being one of the most hotly anticipated headliners of the infamous Woodstock festival, and selling thousands of records.

More than 30 years later, and Hendrix, despite verbally requesting to be buried in England, now rests at the family plot in Greenwood Memorial Park, Renton, Washington. His legacy still lives on, and his music is still admired by people of all ages, on both sides of the Atlantic.

As a fan of Hendrix, this incredible and unique opportunity to experience just a tiny piece of his world has been truly memorable. But as well as celebrating an exceptional musician and songwriter, the tour also serves to highlight the juxtapositions of our multifaceted and mysterious capital, where there is always something new to discover.

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