“This is the place I feel most comfortable, and I feel the English are my friends.”
That's what Jimi Hendrix once said of London. Things here certainly moved fast for him. On the plane over from New York on 21 September 1966, Hendrix's new manager Chas Chandler decided to change his protege's name. By the time he touched down in London, Jimmy Hendrix was Jimi Hendrix. It would cause all sorts of problems on the gig bills in his new adopted home. Later the same night, Hendrix had already played an impromptu set at the Scotch Club in St James's and met a girl named Kathy Etchingham, who'd become his girlfriend for much of his life in London.
London was the place that would make Hendrix, and ultimately, kill him, aged 27. Here's a tour of Hendrix's London.
Queensway Ice Rink
How does a guy like Jimi Hendrix have fun when he first gets to London? Ice skating of course.When Hendrix and Etchingham decided to try out Queensway Ice Rink, neither had been skating before. Here's an extract from Etchingham's memoirs, Through Gypsy Eyes:
At the rink they had trouble finding a pair of boots big enough for Jimi’s size 11 feet. They managed it eventually and he tucked his flares in and we set off. Within seconds of hitting the ice we were lying in an hysterical heap, weak with laughter. The other skaters just had to make their way round us as we rolled around trying to pull ourselves up on one another, only to lose our footing and come crashing down again.
This was to be the first of many visits that Jimi and Kathy made to Queensway Ice Rink.
One Stop Records on South Molton Street was where Hendrix shopped for vinyl; it stocked all the latest imported US LPs and it's likely he would have bumped into another regular customer, John Peel, often to be found sifting through the stock for tracks to play on his radio show — at the time called Top Gear. One Stop Records is no longer around, but the HMV on Oxford Street — where Hendrix bought classical records like The Planets and Handel's Messiah — is.
As for getup: it isn't difficult to picture Hendrix flouncing around the market stalls on Portobello Road, flares billowing in the wind. He came here often to buy jewellery for his stage costumes, one of his prized possessions being a ring made with a George V silver threepenny bit from the first world war. A greater stretch of the imagination is required to picture the rock star shopping for curtains in John Lewis on Oxford Street. But in July 1968, this is exactly what he and Kathy Etchingham were doing: they picked out a pair of turquoise velvet ones.
23 Brook Street, Mayfair
The curtains Hendrix had gone for were for his and Etchingham's new pad at 23 Brook Street, Mayfair. Soon, the pad was visited by everyone from George Harrison to the Bee Gees to Steppenwolf to Eddie Grant. Hendrix was careless when it came to handing his phone number out, and had to keep changing it, as fans got hold of it so easily. An article from Melody Maker on 4 March 1969 describes the flat at Brook Street thus:
A lifelike rubber rat stared at the TV in Jimi Hendrix's top floor flat just off London's Bond Street. A stuffed panda sat on the floor wearing a green hat and what seemed to be a teddy bear in the last stages of malnutrition hung from a nail in the wall. Over the bed a Persian rug served as a canopy, giving the effect of a four-poster. A large Roland Kirk type gong stood near the bed and most available surfaces were covered with guitars, assorted electronic equipment, transistor radios, a fine projector and a vase full of feathers.
The flat, famously, was next door to where George Frideric Handel had lived for much of his professional career. Handel, similarly to Hendrix, had come to London to reinvent himself, and to find appreciation of his art. There were differences between the two geniuses though: it's unlikely Handel spent his down time watching Coronation Street and playing Scalextric. Now, Hendrix's has been cemented, as the Handel House Museum became the Handel & Hendrix in London.
Hendrix's landlord at 23 Brook Street was also the proprietor of a restaurant on the ground floor called Mr Love. The rock star frequented the restaurant, and as he became more well-known and increasingly reclusive, often had dinner sent up to the flat. His regular order was steak and chips, a bottle of Mateus Rose and a packet of 20 Benson & Hedges. Another eating haunt of Hendrix's was the Indian Tea Centre on Oxford Street. He loathed bland English food, and found sweet solace at this place, where he could get a chicken curry for five shillings or a meat curry with dahl for four shillings. It's not there any more, although you can get a similar cheap feed at the Indian YMCA in Euston.
The Scotch Club was the beginning of a crazy ride for Hendrix. In 1967, he played a slew of London gigs including Chislehurst Caves (he'd been here the year before too, when an onlooker fuzzily remembered "What a strange place... I think he played Hey Joe"), the Orchid Ballroom in Purley, the Brady Boys’ and Girls’ Club in Whitechapel, Soho's Flamingo Club and Hampstead Country Club at Belsize Park. Famously, Hendrix is supposed to have written Purple Haze in the dressing room of the Upper Cut club in Forest Gate, although this was never substantiated. Certainly the track was recorded at De Lane Lea Studios and Olympic Studios, both in London. Most of these venues have since been lost to the sands of time although Chislehurst is still open to explore (well worth a visit, although don't expect any Fender Strat solos now), and Olympic Studios has reverted to a cinema.
By the second half of 1967, Hendrix was playing bigger venues — a couple of which still exist. In September 1967 he played the charity concert at the Royal Festival Hall in aid of the Liberal International Anti-Racialist Appeal Fund. In 1969, Hendrix had really battened down the hatches, and played only two official London dates, both at the Albert Hall. Due to tensions in the group, and dodgy engineering, the first of these was a "disaster" — the second, somewhat better.
These were the last gigs Hendrix and his band would play in Europe. Just over a year and a half later, he died of a drug overdose at the Samarkand Hotel in Kensington.
With thanks to Christian Lloyd whose book Hendrix at Home: a Bluesman in Mayfair was published in 2016.