Jimi Hendrix: 'The more famous he got, the less happy he became'
Leon Hendrix tells Kunal Dutta that even now there is bitterness in the family over his brother's legacy
It's a tale of two brothers. Both were born in Seattle; both got in trouble with the law and spent time in the army as well as prison. But while Jimi found salvation in music and became a rock god, his younger brother succumbed to a life of drugs and crime.
Now, speaking to The Independent on the week of the 43rd anniversary of his brother's death in Notting Hill, Leon Hendrix looks vacant as he recalls first hearing the news. "First it was on the radio. And everyone in prison knew who I was and everyone went quiet. They called my name over the loudspeaker and I was told to go to the chaplain's office, so I knew it was true. My dad was on the phone. He was crying and crying. And that was it."
It put an end to all hopes of redemption. "Before he died he wanted to come to prison to do a concert. But [manager] Mike Jeffery wouldn't let him. He said, 'Jimi, you already got arrested in Canada, and now you want to help your little brother who has a lot of problems. We don't want you associating with that.' The next thing I know he was in London and had passed away."
The death of his brother caused Leon's own demons to resurface. Addictions to crack and cocaine intensified and, coupled with alcoholism and a crippling debt, plunged Leon further into darkness.
Whereas Jimi had found music, Leon had found only drugs. Concerned relatives attempted to sound the alarm and a desperate intervention from his children finally resulted in Leon being whisked to rehab in Pasadena, where he began his journey to recovery.
All of this was a far cry from the Hendrix brothers' heyday, when Leon often accompanied Jimi on hedonistic tours. "I was in the Beverly Hills Hotel next to his suite," Leon recalls of one occasion. "Girls would go through his door – and come into my room. Girls. Models. It was a lot of fun for me. I was so young. They wanted Jimi, but they had to come through me to get him – because he always had a handful of girls by himself, anyway. But there were always extras…"
Now 65, Hendrix, a father of nine, speaks softly in a high-pitch voice, with a demeanour steeped in reflection. He maintains that one drug outstrips all others in terms of its propensity to destroy. "It's alcohol. That's the hardest thing to come off. It's worse than crack and cocaine – because at least those have a mental thing, where you don't like the effect any more."
Leon perpetually carries the burden of his brother's iconic status – it wasn't until he was 50 that he learned to play the guitar, something he blames on his late father, Al. "When Jimi was first playing guitar, I said 'Dad, for my birthday will you give me a guitar?' His response was: 'Are you crazy? I already got one idiot playing a guitar.'"
Honouring his brother's legacy has become trickier than ever. This autumn sees the release of All Is by My Side, an eagerly anticipated biopic detailing the story of Hendrix's rise to fame in London, starring Outkast's André Benjamin. October also sees the release of an updated documentary, Jimi Hendrix: The Guitar Hero, narrated by Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash and featuring Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones' Mick Taylor among others.
Both, however, will lack one vital element: the actual music of the great guitarist. That is thanks to Experience Hendrix LLC, which retains an iron grip over any use of the music catalogue. For most, this is a nuisance. But for Leon it is symptomatic of a more personal pain. He was famously frozen out of the Hendrix estate after their father, Al, died in 2002. It led to a fraught legal battle, in which Leon claimed that his stepsister, Janie, coerced his ill father into shunning him financially and leaving the entire estate under her control. That was rejected by the court and Leon has not seen a penny of any of his brother's royalties since. Numerous appeals have come to nothing.
He insists that he is at peace with the past – if for no other reason than maintaining his own sanity. "I let it go. I'm not going to let things eat me away, I don't like that feeling and anxiety. I said, OK you won, I'll let it go. I said have a good life."
He says they have not spoken since the court case. "She doesn't like me. She won't talk to me. She won't give my kids jobs."
Does he forgive her? "More than forgive her. She's out of my mind. I feel sorry for her. She only met Jimi when she was six years old – her father was German, her mother was Japanese. She had no identity, the poor kid. But when my dad adopted her and she became a Hendrix, she followed her mum into insanity."
While he may never see the fortunes afforded by his brother, he has found peace through his music, and makes enough to live by upholding his brother's musical legacy. He's a co-owner of Rockin Artwork, offering a host of Jimi Hendrix products, all created with his oversight as an alternative to the Estate's products.
Film rights to his book, Jimi Hendrix: a Brother's Story, are under discussion and a digital television station is in the pipeline called Hendrix Internet Television.
On his brother's legacy, though, he is clearer than ever. "The more famous he got, the less happy he became. I, on the other hand, became infamous. I went bad. Jimi was my mentor and my guide. He left and I drifted away. I didn't come back to reality until he returned." Now, 43 years on, Leon finally appears comfortable going solo.
'Jimi Hendrix: the Guitar Hero' (Directors Cut)' is out on 7 October
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