Death becomes him

Hendrix and Handel were neighbours, almost. Now their plaques are to hang side by side. Simon Evans investigates
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"It's funny the way most people love the dead...once you are dead, you are made for life." - Jimi Hendrix, 1968

later this year a blue plaque will be erected on the front wall of 23 Brook St, Mayfair, commemorating the brief stay there of one of the most extraordinary musical geniuses of this or any other century - and a figure who represented to the establishment everything that was most profoundly dangerous and unknowable about the counter-culture of the 1960s.

James Marshall Hendrix - a flamboyant showman whose greatest moments include a paean to LSD ("Purple Haze"), a ballad about a wife-murdering fugitive ("Hey Joe") and a mutilation of the "Star Spangled Banner" that was as close to trampling on Old Glory as a guitar has ever come. Jimi Hendrix - the first musician of the rock era to receive the posthumous recognition of an English Heritage blue plaque.

And as if that wasn't likely to be controversial enough, the property chosen - a Mayfair flat where Hendrix stayed for some 18 months at the end of the Sixties - is right next door to the house where George Frederick Handel lived for 36 years.

Handel's residence is already commemorated by a blue plaque, and The Handel House Trust is hoping to convert both it and Hendrix's old pad into the country's only Handel museum. Trust chairman, Dr Stanley Sadie, refutes reports that he and his colleagues are unduly alarmed. "We have been misrepresented," he says. "The house is not even ours yet. We are not against some form of memorial to Hendrix."

In a way the two plaques compliment each other - they represent a neat summation of two centuries of London's cultural enrichment by foreigners. Seattle-born Hendrix, like the German Handel, was more productive and more immediately appreciated here than in his native country.

The plaques also acknowledge increasing acceptance of rock music as a serious art form. Hendrix's guitar - all distortion, feedback and flair - can now be spoken of in the same sentence as Handel's stately marches and oratorios.

This seal of approval may not be the revolution of which Hendrix's generation once sang in a thousand protest songs. Indeed, it may be final proof that that revolution will never come. But it is an important cultural marker - especially as Hendrix is also only the third black person to have a plaque erected in their name. Understandably, English Heritage is in a self-congratulatory mood.

"I think it's the most exciting one we've had for a long time," says Elain Harwood, who researched Hendrix's suitability in moments off from her main work as an architectural historian.

"We've never had a rock musician before, and the only black recipients have been a classical song writer by the name of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mary Seacole, a half-Jamaican nurse who worked with Florence Nightingale." Black civil rights campaigner Dr Harold Moody will also receive a plaque this year.

English Heritage maintains that this reflects historical changes in society, rather than any new emphasis on their part. The strict rule that a person must have died 20 years ago or have been born 100 years ago means that there is inevitably some delay in that reflection.

The rule, which ensures a cool appraisal of a person's importance, means that few of Hendrix's contemporaries are yet eligible. Dr Harwood suggests that the closest candidate in terms of "comparable esteem" would be Jim Morrison, but he was never resident in Britain. John Lennon will have to wait until the year 2000, Bob Marley until 2001.

"It's absolutely marvellous," affirms Phil Sutcliffe of Q magazine, rock's monthly bible. "He changed lives because of what he did. It wasn't playing guitar with his teeth or setting it on fire or any of that. It was the depth of the music, the vision. No-one else has ever come close to him."

He is amused by the idea that Handel will have a plaque next door. "That's great. It's saying that, just like people are still blown away by the Messiah 200 years on, so they will be by Jimi's stuff. Brilliant."

His sentiments are echoed by Harry Shapiro, Hendrix's biographer and one of the many who initially suggested him. "I'm delighted. It's brilliant news and utterly, utterly deserved. Hendrix was probably the most brilliant and important musician rock music will ever see."

What would Hendrix himself have made of it? One can only speculate that, given the sentiments expressed at the top of this article, he would not have been in the least surprised.

The Blue Plaque Guide (Journeyman) £6.50, is available from all good bookshops and from English Heritage postal sales, PO Box 229, Northampton, NN6 9RY (0604 781163)