Baroque 'n' roll: Jimi hendrix and the Handel connection

Forty years after the guitarist's death, a new exhibition reveals how he found unlikely inspiration in the life and works of England's master composer. Jonathan Brown reports
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The Independent Culture

One was the psychedelic king of the electric guitar; the other the harpsichord virtuoso whose choral works thrilled the court of George I. And for just a few months at the height of the swinging 60s their lives – separated by more than two centuries in time – became briefly linked in the unassuming environs of a top- floor flat above a Chinese restaurant in London's Mayfair.

When Jimi Hendrix moved into 23 Brook Street in 1968 with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham one of the first things he noticed was the blue English Heritage plaque marking the house next door as the former abode of composer George Frideric Handel. So intrigued was Hendrix by the historical connection with the late German genius of baroque that he set out to discover his works, buying them at local record shops.

Today Hendrix's old flat, which now boasts its own blue plaque, is the administrative headquarters of the Handel House Museum and for 12 days in September office staff will vacate their desks to turn over the premises to a unique exhibition celebrating the life of the guitarist in Britain and his unlikely association with Handel.

Hendrix was first brought to the UK by Chas Chandler after the former Animal helped him form the Experience the famous line-up of drums and bass. It was on this side of the Atlantic that the guitarist was to emerge as a successful talent in his own right, rather than the jobbing sideman that he had been since leaving the US military in the Sixties.

While he was to achieve success in his homeland, most notably at the Monterey and Woodstock festivals, it was here that he was to thrive and feel most at home – just as Handel did before him, explained Martin Wyatt, deputy director of the Handel House Museum who has spent the last three years working in Hendrix's spare bedroom. "There is an interesting double story here. These are two songwriters. Both are virtuoso musicians in their own worlds. Both are foreign and come to London at a time when it is becoming the centre of world music," he said.

When he died in 1970, aged just 27, works including Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, were found in Hendrix's record collection. Hendrixologists have long sought to track down a lost outtake from Abbey Road featuring the guitarist jamming on harpsichord left around from the recording of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, in apparent homage to his long dead neighbour.

Like Hendrix, Handel was also a showman, said Mr Wyatt. The German had once famously staged a keyboard show down with the Italian Domenico Scarlatti. Hendrix was best known for setting fire to his Fender Stratocaster and playing it behind his head. Both men were also prolific, with Hendrix completing a punishing schedule of performances.

But in one aspect of their lives they fundamentally differed. Handel, who lived at 25 Brook Street for 36 years where he wrote Messiah, never married and never spoke of his relationships keeping his private life to himself. The American was one of the summer of love's most energetic lotharios, readily availing himself to the easy temptations of sex and drugs that surrounded him.

Yet despite his wild man image, Hendrix's life at the flat was homely – a place to relax away from the pressures of stardom. He had been forced to move from nearby Montagu Square amid complaints over noise and because locals there did not appreciate the presence of a black man in their wealthy neighbourhood. Hendrix paid the then-princely sum of £30 a month for the new flat. "It is the only place after his family that he ever considered home. Everywhere else he lived he was just crashing on the floor," said Mr Wyatt. "They would go shopping as a couple up to Oxford Street to buy soft furnishings. This was his attempt to settle down."

In Kathy Etchingham's book Through Gypsy Eyes, she recalls happy times they spent together in the four-room flat surrounded by drapes and Indian hippy rugs.

Most of the domestic items were eventually sold at an auction in 2004. The location of the flat was also important to Hendrix as it was close to many of the venues which he helped make famous, clubs such as the Speakeasy, the Bag O'Nails and the Marquee.

Hendrix in Britain, timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of his death this year will feature images, film and music taken from his time in this country. It will include handwritten lyrics and the distinctive westerner hat he wore. Another intriguing exhibit will be scrawled directions to the Isle of Wight Festival where he made one of his last and most revered performances. Fans will also be able to visit the flat on 18 September anniversary of his death as part of the Open House Weekend. The Handel House Museum, which will host Hendrix in Britain from 25 August to 7 November, is also hosting a series of workshops exploring his musical legacy.