I used to have long hair and wear bad jeans and had this extremely shitty red velvet jacket I basically lived in, so the uncomfortable question, "Are you into Hendrix, man?" has been asked of me a lot. And, of all those times I've been asked it, I don't think I've once answered the question honestly. It's an awkward thing: acknowledging the man as a legend but also being sort of completely unfamiliar with any of his oeuvre. On my first high school mufti day, a German teacher mistook my bootcut jeans for Hendrix enthusiasm and I had to spend three years doing weak thumbs up and saying, "Yeah man, hot licks" while he cornered me in corridors to whisper excitedly about Purple Haze.
It's not just Hendrix, though. The truth is, if you own more than 12 albums and one of them isn't Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt Pepper's or Led Zeppelin I, it's assumed you're either an idiot or a contrarian wanker. But sometimes it's really difficult to love the things people tell you to, and I just never got Hendrix. Don't get me wrong: I tried. As a tubby 14-year-old I used to listen to Electric Ladyland in my bedroom thinking, 'Come on, this is important.' Ten years on, I'll hear a Hendrix record and still feel nothing.
To be honest I'd not really thought about him for a while, but then I saw that a London flat lived in by Hendrix was opening to the public. People would be able to visit the Brook Street abode he called "the first real home of his own", restored to the exact state he left it in i.e. lots of lava lamps and joss sticks. Stories of the streams of musicians, journalists and artists like Ginger Baker and George Harrison flocking up its narrow staircases fossilised the year he spent there from '68–'69 in folklore, but the place was already part of music consciousness.
One of the reasons Hendrix went there in the first place was because the composer Handel called it home for 36 years in the 18th century, and he enjoyed his best years there: writing and performing his opus 'Messiah' and eventually dying in those same four walls. Despite 240 years separating the two, there's a story that brings them together. Brushing his teeth in the bathroom mirror one night before bed, Hendrix was visited by Handel's ghost. This didn't send him into hiding for a few days like it would most reasonable people, but inspired him. Brook Street gained a reputation as a sort of mecca for the creative spirit.
So I thought: why don't I go there with an acoustic guitar, pound out some hot licks and see if it will finally make me 'get' Hendrix?
Here's how I saw it going: I pictured myself in a dressing gown, brushing my teeth and asking Jimi, Handel, Dr Sam Beckett and Nearly Headless Nick if they'd mind prising open the crevices of my frazzled millennial brain then whispering the secrets of the creative spirit into it. I wanted to make the same pilgrimage into the depths of musical genius that they took, so with the vague hope of a tour, I emailed Hendrix's trust. After a little back-and-forth, I was served a plate of the frankly ridiculous: an invitation to spend over an hour, alone, inside. With just 24 hours to prepare, I got to recreating the same conditions that inspired Jimi's visions that day. This was my one shot at a face-to-face encounter with inspiration at its source, so I decided to make my body a temple.
As the old saying goes: if you want to think like a Hendrix, you've got to feel like a Hendrix. So after some extensive research (see above), I set some restrictions. A 14-year-old's diet of energy drinks and Airwaves gave me with the kind of sugared glaze needed to go through the rite of passage of staying up until 4am to play along to a Hendrix album many years too late. I awoke as a malnourished, tired man with sore fingers: Hendrix lives. Well, almost. A big part of him, his music and that experience with Handel was all that acid. That felt a bit exotic for a Tuesday, so I dragged Hendrix's habit into 21st century London and swung by Boots for some diphenhydramine hydrochloride. Heavy-legged after nothing to eat for a day, very little sleep and 250mg of that stuff, and I was ready.
I walked down a slight alleyway and up a set of steep stairs, until I found myself in the room for the first time. Before I knew it, the doors shut behind me and I was alone. Fuck, it's pretty small. Look how tiny the bed is! I don't know why, but I expected Jimi, a man who chose to have tens of naked women emblazoned on the gatefold of his most popular LP and whose penis cast recently appeared at an exhibition, to sleep on a 17ft long mattress shaped like a python. This was the kind of place you'd expect Jamie Cullum to get tucked in at night.
I don't care what they say about carbon monoxide gas heaters and asbestos: flats were curious, amazing places in the sixties. Built on a cross-hatching of blankets and rugs, distasteful statuettes hung from poorly vanished windowsills while a faux-fireplace precariously warmed the back of a television. Hidden behind Hendrix's custom made heavyset curtains, this place certainly felt like an oasis.
There's nothing normal about thumbing through a dead man's fully-reconstructed record collection and feeling his silent judgements over your shoulder. I slipped on a pair of headphones, lay down and started blaring the English Chamber Orchestra's version of Handel's 'Messiah', just like Hendrix used to. With their shivering gravity and groping movements, I felt those idiosyncratic chants like they would've resonated through these walls when conjured here hundreds of years ago. With the hard wood of the floor on my back, I sensed his presence cradling me. Standing up, I stared into the mirror.
But we all know that you can't summon the ghost of baroque composers on an empty stomach, so I dug out my Hendrix-themed packed lunch. While Jimi survived on crisps, apples, cigarettes and the odd sandwich, today it would have been a different story. Living in Mayfair, he'd have broken up his day with carrots and a side of apple, cucumber, celery and lime juice from somewhere like Pret, probably. It's funny, really, because that happens to be my lunch too. Two bites of the carrot and, as if by magic, the atmosphere has dissipated. In a fit of frustration, I tossed the headphones on the bed.
Laying there, staring up at me as if it just crept in, was Jimi's Epiphone FT79. The very guitar on which Hendrix put together 'All Along The Watchtower'; what he wrote the likes of 'Room Full of Mirrors', 'Valleys of Neptune' and 'Hey Baby' with; something that was, in the words of his girlfriend at the time, Katy Etchingham, "always within an arm's reach, usually beside the bed". Something he would turn to in his hour of need, offering me a helping hand. Staring, the pulsating bars of 'Foxy Lady' throbbed in my head.
With its infectious rhythms cycling, I started up Garageband and liberated my fingers. Moments passed; elevated into the stratosphere, even. In this kick drum, snare and cowbell sample, there was nothing but truth and emotion. This is what it means to be Hendrix. I felt his spirit coursing through my veins. If I didn't have eight months left on my contract and no insurance, I would've set my phone alight.
I reached for my guitar. Everything has led up to this point. And staring at the same fret board I've seen a million times, something came out of me... I start strumming out the opening chords to Turin Brakes' 'Painkiller'. I never imagined that what the spirit of Hendrix might conjure would be a song I've never known how to play, haven't heard in years and don't even like.
Before long, my time was up and I had to leave. I walked out into the sore air of Mayfair, not exactly imbued with the spirit to run home and write the next 'Voodoo Child' or 'Messiah', but still I sensed enlightenment. Do I feel closer to his work now? Of course. Imagine chilling out and listening to your own breath where an enigma used to brush their teeth, scratch their ass cheeks and rest their head at night, and not feeling that way. But my prevailing feeling was the surprise that the flat was not a relic or temple but a home, and the greatest gift it gave Hendrix was a rare sense of belonging. It is the perfect porthole to a moment that has never seemed less apposite than today; a sort of physical embodiment of Hendrix's music and legend. A monument to hot, hot licks.
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