As the story goes, one fateful night in the late 1960s, Jimi Hendrix, best known for changing the music world with his guitar playing, set free two ring-necked parakeets on Carnaby Street and that’s why thousands of the nonnative birds haunt London’s parks to this day.
“Absolute rubbish,” Christian Lloyd, a musicologist at Queens University, said in an interview. “It’s the kind of thing people want to be true, but it’s just not true.”
Lloyd would know. His research, along with relics that Hendrix fans would drool over, like his broken Fender Stratocaster from a 1969 Royal Albert Hall performance, is on display at Handel & Hendrix in London, a residence-turned-museum dedicated to the two musical giants who once lived there: Hendrix and German composer George Frideric Handel.
Parakeets may not be part of Hendrix’s legacy in London, but he nevertheless left his mark. The several months he spent there, spread throughout the final five years of his life, were pivotal in his meteoric rise. It was also where the nomadic performer found the closest thing to “a real home,” as he put it, and where his life was tragically cut short at age 27.
Along with surviving landmarks from his time in the city, London also retains enough of what appealed to him personally to make for a proper Jimi Hendrix experience, 50 years since the musician last called it home.
The concept of home was a complicated one for Johnny Allen Hendrix, born in Seattle in 1942. He was sent to live with his grandmother in Canada when he was 6 and his parents divorced two years later. His mother died of alcohol-related injuries when he was 15. After a year in California with the U.S. Army at age 18, he found his true calling in 1962 as a touring musician.
By the time he ended up New York in September 1966, performing in small cafes under the name “Jimmy James,” he had developed a “fugitive kind of mentality,” according to Lloyd.
This is where Chas Chandler, who had recently quit the Animals and wanted to begin a new career as a manager, was blown away by what he saw and asked Hendrix if he’d come with him to London.
Johnny becomes Jimi
“I’m in England, Dad. I met some people, and they’re going to make me a big star. We changed my name to J-I-M-I,” Hendrix told his father over the phone after arriving. The decision to change his name was made on the flight over.
On his first night in London, he met Kathy Etchingham, a former DJ and a familiar face around the city’s thriving rock scene, and thus began what would be the most significant romantic relationship of his life. They would eventually move into an apartment owned by Ringo Starr at 34 Montagu Square in December 1966.
“During our first weeks together we did a little shopping and sightseeing and I introduced him to friends. Because we didn’t have much money we went everywhere on the Underground,” Etchingham wrote in her book “Through Gypsy Eyes.” Hendrix had never been outside North America before, and like any other first-time visitor to London, he was drawn to attractions like Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament.
“It’s a different kind of atmosphere here. People are more mild-mannered. I like all the little streets and the boutiques. It’s like a kind of fairyland,” Hendrix would later say of London.
His flamboyant style, from his fashion sense and his approach to rock and blues, was a perfect match for mid-1960s London, as “everyone is starting to experiment: in fashion, in art, in lifestyles,” Lloyd said.
He accentuated his look with accessories from Portobello Road, which today claims to be world’s largest antique market.
Hendrix, all over London
His scope of the city expanded dramatically after forming the Jimi Hendrix Experience in October 1966 — with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell — as relentless performing led to all corners of London.
“He played Chislehurst Caves, which is literally a cave. God knows what the sound was like in there,” Lloyd said. Other bands that performed here include the Rolling Stones, The Who and the Yardbirds.
The venues would get bigger following the U.K. release of the band’s first album, “Are You Experienced?,” in May 1967. It spent 33 weeks on the charts, reaching No. 2.
The album’s cover, now a staple of psychedelic rock era art, included a fish-eyed lens photograph of the band, taken by Karl Ferris in Kew Gardens. The gardens, in southwest London, claim to have the largest botanical collections in the world, and were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
From there, the Tap on The Line pub is a short walk away, near the Kew Gardens tube station.
By the time Hendrix returned to London in July 1968, he was a major star. Etchingham chose a flat for the couple at 23 Brook St. in exclusive Mayfair, where Hendrix would live for small bits of 1968 (in between touring), but mainly during first three months of 1969. The apartment was next door to where the composer Handel had resided well over 200 years prior, at 25 Brook St.
Unlikely pairing of giants
Today, both homes of the famed musicians are on display at Handel & Hendrix in London. The Hendrix portion opened in February 2016, the centerpiece being a restored version of the couple’s “bedsit,” made to look as it did in 1969. While technically a bedroom, it was the apartment’s main gathering place, where the couple partied with friends and Hendrix jammed with fellow musicians. He also hosted members of the media there for interviews.
“He sat on the bed, holding forth and rolling joints,” Lloyd said. “What rock star’s bedroom would you get into these days? You wouldn’t even get near the house.”
At first glance, the turquoise velvet curtains (originally purchased from John Lewis on nearby Oxford Street), red Persian rugs, Bohemian knickknacks and piles of vintage vinyl appear to be the actual artifacts, but almost all of the items in the room are replicas. Hendrix requested that most of his possessions be destroyed after the couple separated later in 1969.
Thanks to Etchingham’s involvement and enough old photos to go by, replacement items were acquired through memorabilia auctions while others, like the pink-and-orange striped bedspread, were remade to match the originals.
“She was able to recollect an incredible amount of colors and textures that the black-and-white photographs couldn’t give us; gradually the room was restored back to its former glory,” Claire Davies, the museum’s deputy director, said in an interview. “She also had so many stories about Jimi’s brief moment of domesticity with her in the flat that helped to shape our narrative.”
The rock scene in Mayfair
Upscale Mayfair may have seemed like an odd area for a counterculture rock star to live, but it drew many industry types, located close to several clubs and studios. Venues that still exist include The Court (formerly Bag O’Nails) and The Scotch of St. James on Mason’s Yard, where Hendrix and others of London’s rock elite performed and socialized, including members of the Beatles and The Who. While The Court is for members only, the blue plaque commemorating Hendrix’s first performance there outside the building can be viewed by anyone.
When it came to food, Mr. Love, a restaurant located on the ground floor of the apartment building, was the go-to, with steak and chips a recurring order. Hendrix was not particularly fond of traditional English food.
“See, English food, it’s difficult to explain. You get mashed potatoes with just about everything, and I ain’t gonna say anything good about that,” Hendrix told Melody Maker.
Ultimately, Hendrix’s time in Mayfair was short but significant.
“When you think of how short his adult life was, it’s actually a fairly significant chunk. It’s also the part where it all starts going wrong for him in some ways,” Lloyd said.
While something may have kept bringing him back to London, there’s no telling if a roamer like Hendrix would have ever truly laid roots down, had he lived longer.
“I’m scared of vegetating,” Hendrix said. “I have to move on. I dig Britain, but I haven’t really got a home anywhere. The Earth’s my home.”