Music-minded visitors to London can see the homes of two geniuses who exerted a huge effect on music while living in exile: Seattle-born Jimi Hendrix and German composer George Frideric Handel.
One of the worst things about attending an English boarding school in the late 1960s — the so-called Swinging London era — was being deprived of pop music. All around us, it seemed, people were dressing up in beads and kaftans and grooving to the latest hits from the Beatles and the Stones. Meanwhile, we 11- and 12-year-old inmates sat behind a high brick wall shivering in our regulation gray shorts and thin sweaters, worried more about the mysteries of Greek vocabulary and Latin grammar than about whether Bob Dylan would recover from his motorcycle accident and again walk among us.
But one day in the early fall of 1968, my luck suddenly changed. The school year was about to start, and my parents had taken me to a shop in London’s fashionable Brook Street to see about my uniform. As we were going in the door, my mother (who grew up in the Pacific Northwest) suddenly touched my arm and said, “Do you see that man across the street? He’s from Seattle.” All I remember is a grinning little figure in his 20s, red trousers, braided military jacket, black hat, trotting alongside a long-legged young woman in a tiny miniskirt. It was Jimi Hendrix. The only distinctive action of his I can clearly recall today is the maneuver by which he turned the key in the lock of a nearby door and disappeared inside with the woman, his hand resting affectionately on her backside as they vanished up the stairs.
“Really,” chorused my parents, as if simultaneously shocked and amused by what they’d seen. My father never referred to the incident again, but my mother later sent me a letter that remembered Hendrix as looking like “a parrot who‘d just flown into ten different colored buckets of paint.” She had a way with words.
IF YOU GO
Handel & Hendrix in London
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, noon-6 p.m. Sundays, 25 Brook St., London; £ 10 adults (about $15 U.S.) and £ 5 for children, and £ 7.50 adults, £ 3 children for Handel house only (+44-020 7495 1685 or handelhendrix.org).
Now, nearly 50 years later, that same house in London has been opened to visitors as a double museum honoring the two famous men who lived there: Hendrix himself, and the German-born composer George Frideric Handel, who moved there in 1723 at the age of 38 and stayed there for the rest of his life.
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Actually, to be more accurate, Hendrix and Handel occupied adjacent homes — Nos. 23 and 25 Brook St. respectively — but the two buildings have been knocked together. Visitors can choose between touring either the 18th-century maestro’s rooms or those of his more modern counterpart, or both. What’s of course striking is that two foreign-born musicians, each in his way an artistic revolutionary, should have gravitated to the same corner of a well-heeled London shopping street. When he moved into the £ 30 ($45)-a-week top-floor apartment on July 4, 1968, with girlfriend Kathy Etchingham — who has advised on the re-creation of the rooms’ appearance — Hendrix wrote poignantly: “This is my first real home of my own.” (Hendrix died in September 1970 at the Samarkand Hotel in Notting Hill in London.)
Sometimes a smaller exhibition can be more revealing than a big one. Over the years, Hendrix has had the full retrospective treatment at any number of galleries and museums around the world, but in some ways I found that the little display on view at Brook Street made one think harder about what was interesting about the Seattle-born guitarist as an artist.
What we see, in essence, is Hendrix’s bedroom, a small but sumptuously upholstered attic den where the great man retired to write songs, strum his ever-present Epiphone FT 79 acoustic guitar, and carry on a famously busy social life.
Perhaps appropriately, the large bed serves as the centerpiece of the room, which is furnished throughout with oriental rugs and bric-a-brac, all tightly shut in by Moroccan drapes. Album sleeves, wine bottles and one or two notably exotic-looking plants help give the place an authentic 1960s flavor. There may be no herbally scented cigarette haze lingering in the air, as there would have been in Hendrix’s day, but the iconic guitar is there for all to see laid out on the pink silk bedspread.
But what raises the whole thing from merely a static time capsule into something more palpably alive and intimate are the little period touches: the clunky rotary phone and boxy television set, and the anemic one-bar artificial log-fire that every British home seemed to scrape by with in those days. It’s curious to see the combination of Olde England and hippie Marrakesh bazaar where Hendrix liked to repeatedly strum a song he then called “Catfish Blues” and which the world came to know as “Voodoo Chile.” It’s also oddly charming, and offers a human side to a musical superstar who’s long since become less a real person than a global institution.
Walk downstairs and through a narrow doorway, meanwhile, and you’re suddenly thrust back 250 years into the world where Handel wrote pieces such as “Zadok the Priest” and the “Messiah.” Again, the composer’s bedroom is the heart of the show. It’s both small and dark, still replete with the original wood wall panels and precariously sloping floorboards, and in its own way as striking as that of its upstairs neighbor. Handel’s own bed is smaller than Hendrix’s — largely because people of the period generally slept sitting up, as an aid to digestion — but the encircling red canopy and heavy oak furniture (including a nearby stool discreetly built to contain a chamber pot) are as expressive of their times as Hendrix’s tapestried cushions and incense are of his.
Other exhibitions may pay homage to Hendrix and Handel individually, but 23-25 Brook St. is surely the only place where the visitor can actually see and feel how these two kindred spirits, both exiles from their countries of origin, lived and worked on a daily basis. As Alistair Stranack, chairman of the museum’s Trust, puts it: “It’s hard to think of another home in the world with such a concentration of musical genius.”