Hendrix’s flat recreated with his possessions
At first glance, Jimi Hendrix and George Frideric Handel wouldn’t seem like ideal neighbours.
One was an electric guitarist – the greatest of all time, according to Rolling Stone magazine – who fused blistering jazz and blues-inspired riffs with sound distortion and feedback techniques to create a style of music never before heard.
A flamboyant showman, he would pluck the strings of his guitar with his teeth whilst playing Hey Joe and, on one occasion, set his guitar alight on stage. Seattle-born Hendrix’s pursuit of the rock‘n’roll lifestyle contributed to his early demise in 1970.
It also qualified him for membership of the so-called ‘27 Club’: the group of artists and musicians, including Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, who died aged 27 – many, like Hendrix, from drug overdoses.
Handel on the other hand was a baroque classical music composer who made his name with operas, cantatas and oratorios in Italy and his native Germany, before moving to England where he composed for state occasions and the royal court.
A recreation of Jimi Hendrix’s bedroom is displayed at the Handel and Hendrix exhibition
A private and polite member of London society, whose only known excess was an overfondness for food, he composed Zadok The Priest for the crowning of King George II in 1727.
It has been used at every coronation since, including that of King Charles III last month.
Yet, bizarrely, these two outstanding musicians were actually next-door neighbours, divided by one brick wall and two centuries. Both lived on Brook Street in London’s upmarket Mayfair district: Handel occupied the whole of number 25 from 1723 when it was built until his death in 1759; while Hendrix had a flat at the top of number 23 from 1968 to 1969.
Both rented their accommodation. Handel, paying £35 a year, was a foreigner, meaning he was forbidden from owning property.
Whilst Hendrix’s reputation for hellraising (he’d been evicted from Ringo Starr’s apartment in Montagu Square after splashing white paint over the walls during an acid trip) meant only his British girlfriend Kathy Etchingham could sign the tenancy agreement for £30 a week.
The two houses have since been combined and transformed into a museum called Handel Hendrix House which, following an 18-month renovation, has just reopened to the public.
It’s possibly the only place in the world where visitors can time-travel between two key periods history, simply by stepping across a hallway. The museum recreates how the rooms would have looked when their two famous tenants lived there.
Using many of Hendrix and Handel’s original possessions (and replicas), it shows how the two musicians, despite their vastly different backgrounds and eras, had more in common than just some Georgian brickwork.
Curator Claire Davies explains how, as well as being great musical improvisers, “Handel and Hendrix were both immigrants to London, and it was here that both of their careers took off”. She continues: “There was this incredible relationship between them and London.
“The music scenes that they were both so welcomed into also kicked off because they were here. Handel comes to England at a time when Italy, the Grand Tour and everything Italian is of great interest to people. He has honed his craft in Italian opera and so has something quite exciting and cosmopolitan to offer the Georgian elite who surround him and his career. Whereas Hendrix brings that cool, US youth culture to the sixties music scene.”
Contact sheets of images in 1969 by photographer Barrie Wentzell inside the Hendrix Flat
Hendrix had moved to Brook Street in the summer of 1968 to write songs for an album – The Cry of Love which, though unfinished during his lifetime, was released posthumously – and prepare for a series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall.
He and Kathy furnished the flat with turquoise curtains and a red carpet bought from the fabrics department of John Lewis in nearby Oxford Street.
On spotting the blue plaque outside, and realising Handel had been his neighbour 200 years earlier, the guitarist went straight to a shop in nearby South Molton Street and bought the composer’s music.
Copies of Hendrix’s vinyl collection on display include Handel’s Messiah, the famous oratorio whose performance each year has become a traditional part of the British Christmas.
As well as giving interviews and posing for photo shoots in his flat, Hendrix also entertained some of the biggest names in music.
The Beatles’ HQ in Savile Row was just around the corner from Brook Street and George Harrison stayed in the spare room upstairs. Entertaining didn’t often stretch to full-blown dinner parties, though.
Whilst Handel’s home contains the only working Georgian kitchen on display in London – a huge room with three separate ovens – Hendrix’s kitchen was so tiny it’s not even on show, used instead as a staff office.
Fortunately for the guitarist, there was a Wimpy restaurant nearby where the couple would go for hamburgers and another restaurant called Mr Love, just beneath the flat.
It was from the latter that Hendrix would order takeaway dinners – always the same order: steak and chips, a bottle of Mateus rosé wine and a packet of Benson & Hedges cigarettes.
A fashionable eatery in the late sixties, Mr Love’s other regulars included Dusty Springfield and Scott Walker, as well as the Bee Gees who were neighbours of Hendrix at the time, living at 67 Brook Street.
Jimi Hendrix performs live on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 24th February 1969
Jimi’s sister, Janie Hendrix, was still a young girl when her big brother sadly died in 1970 but remembers him coming home for family dinners and gatherings. Speaking from her home in Seattle, she told the Daily Express how Jimi would, after entertaining everyone with stories from his travels, love to get the whole family involved in one of his favourite pursuits: playing Monopoly.
“He was ruthless,” laughs Janie, who has recently released a new book, Jimi, about his career and life. “He bought up all the good streets and would build as many hotels as he could on them.
“He had this maniacal laugh when you would land on one of his properties. And he loved to be the little boot [playing piece] because he loved shoes and clothes.”
Janie explains: “Our grandma used to sing and dance in vaudeville. Jimi used to see the costumes she wore on stage and they really inspired his fashion sense – the trinkets, the velvets, the feathers and the big hats.
They were all like the things that grandma used to wear on stage and in real life.”
Inside the Handel Hendrix House museum, there’s a dressing-up room where visitors can try on silk hats and feather boas like the ones Hendrix used to wear, as well as baroque courtier-style wigs from Handel’s era. Janie remembers how much fun she and her brother had dressing up together.
“He had this big black cape and he used to chase me around like he was Batman, singing the Batman theme tune,” she smiles. “We’d sit in the yard together and he’d put daisy-chain necklaces together for me.
“My memories of Jimi are of him smiling and laughing like a kid because I was a kid myself. I remember the sweetness and the kindness and what a loving person he was.”
Hendrix once said London “is the place I feel most comfortable… the English are my friends”. And Janie has an explanation for her brother’s affinity for the UK.
“When Jimi was in high school, he got suspended for holding a girl’s hand, because she was white. In London it wasn’t that way. It seemed to Jimi that, in London, people were more accepting of different cultures and people of various colours and backgrounds.
George Frederick Handel
“They didn’t care what race you came from, you were just part of the human race. So he felt free in London, both in himself and his music.” Handel also took quickly to his new home in London and enjoyed the freedom it offered, according to Donald Burrows, a professor at the Open University and an expert on the composer.
“England had a very liberal atmosphere,” he explains of the Georgian period.
“Music, culture, newspapers were all flourishing at the time. There was no equivalent on the continent.
“In 1695, the lapse of the censorship act meant that people in Britain could write or publish anything. It was a form of literary liberty with the result that the arts – literature, poetry, music – they all flourished.”
Professor Burrows has great respect for both residents of this unique building in Brook Street.
And, as he says of these two cultural greats who both chose London to live and who both changed music in their own ways:
“Creative people have got their own environment and own way of doing things. And the best ones are real individuals,” he adds.
“They are special people who know what to do with music. And that’s certainly true of both Handel and Hendrix.”
- Jimi by Janie Hendrix and John McDermott (Chronicle Chroma, £40) is out now. For information on the Handel Hendrix House museum in London, visit: handelhendrix.org