Travel Long Haul: Gone to the great gig in the sky

It makes a grim but compelling trail: London is marked with pilgrimage sites where rock heroes died.

Of course Britain can't claim a pop shrine like Graceland, but over the years London has seen off more than its fair share of rock stars. Today, these are places of pilgrimage for the most devoted of fans who travel from all over the world to see where their heroes departed.

In recent years, the most public mourning has been at the former home of Queen singer, Freddie Mercury, at the desirable property of 1 Logan Place in Kensington. You can't see the house for the surrounding wall which still bears graffiti from fans.

At least Mercury, who announced to the world that he had Aids the day before he died on 24 November 1991, knew he was going to go. For others, the last breath came at a more unexpected moment.

On the night of 16 September 1977, T Rex singer Marc Bolan was in a purple Mini driven by his girlfriend Gloria Jones. Coming over a tight bend by a railway bridge, they crashed into a horse chestnut tree on Queen's Ride in Barnes Common. Neither had seatbelts on and while Jones received a broken jaw, the pop star died instantly. Ever since, fans of the glam rocker have come here to pay respects.

There are photos, seven-inch singles, pieces of poetry and oddities such as a cigarette pinned to the offending tree. Every year, on the day of his death, there's a gathering here of devotees - last Wednesday marked the 21st anniversary.

While Mercury and Bolan didn't check out by choice, three figures from the Sixties decided to take their own lives. On 27 August 1967, while his band were meditating with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in north Wales, the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein took an overdose in his smart, stuccoed Georgian house at 24 Chapel Street in Belgravia, not far from Victoria station. He was found by his butler.

It is north London, though, that holds the more grisly stories. Producer Joe Meek is now viewed by some music buffs as having been even more innovative than Phil Spector. Meek is probably best remembered as the man behind the Tornadoes' "Telstar", the first record by a British band to top the charts both at home and in the United States.

He did this and much more from a tiny studio above what is now a bike shop at 304 Holloway Road. It was also here that he used to hear the voice of Buddy Holly in his head.

So convinced was he of Holly's presence that Meek used to organise seances to speak to the dead star's spirit and he even claimed that Holly's voice could be heard on the London Riot Squad's "It's Never Too Late To Forgive" which was recorded at this studio. Because of beliefs like these, Meek faded into obscurity by the middle of the Sixties.

On the ninth anniversary of Buddy Holly's death, on 3 February 1967, he had an argument with his landlady. Meek took out his trusty gun (which in the past he had used to threaten musicians who failed to keep to the beat), shot her and then killed himself. Today, he is remembered by a small black plaque that reads "Joe Meek, record producer, the Telstar Man, 1929-1967, pioneer of sound and recording technology, lived, worked, and died here".

There is no plaque at Finsbury Park tube station by which to remember Graham Bond. His R&B outfit, the Graham Bond Organisation, which at times featured Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and John McLaughlin, folded in 1967 and for seven years up to May 1974 he indulged wildly in the drug scene. Many claim that this was what forced him to jump under a tube train one night.

However, other rock historians claim that the 36-year-old musician, who also dabbled deeply with the occult, had just been to an exorcism during which a demon apparently entered his soul, led him to the station, and told him to dive under a train entering Finsbury Park station.

Drink, though, has been the reason for most of these unwanted tourist shrines. The most recent victim was Def Leppard guitarist Steve Clark, a severe alcoholic who died at his home in 44 Old Church Street in the pleasant environs of Sloane Square on 8 January 1991.

The Who drummer Keith Moon was actually having treatment for his alcoholism when on 7 September 1978 he overdosed on pills that were supposed to wean him off the drink.

He died at a Mayfair flat (No 12, 9 Curzon Place), which strangely was the very place that also saw Mama Cass pass away four years earlier. The Mamas and Papas star apparently choked on a sandwich and died from swallowing her own vomit.

London's most famous victim by far was Jimi Hendrix who died on 18 September 1970 while staying at what was the Samarkand Hotel, now private apartments at 22 Lansdowne Crescent in Holland Park.

The Seattle guitarist had been to a party thrown by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees before coming back to his room. The story is shrouded in rock legend. One report at the time claimed that he had drunk so much red wine he drowned trying to regurgitate it. The first official inquest put it down to "inhalation of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication" though this was later changed to an open verdict.

It was another party, this time in a pub in Camden Town, that caused the death of Aussie singer, Bon Scott from AC/DC on 18 January 1980. Unable to find his own way home, he took a lift from an acquaintance but instead of dropping Scott off at his flat in Victoria they travelled on to the driver's flat on the crest of Overhill Road above Dulwich Village.

When they got there it seems that Scott could not be woken so a blanket was thrown over him. The next day the singer still hadn't budged and he was taken to nearby Kings College Hospital (where, incidentally, Rory Gallagher died on 14 June 1995 due to complications from a liver transplant). It was found that Scott had died "by misadventure".

Imagining what it was like in a car on a cold winter night on this windswept hill, just a few hundred yards from some of the nicest addresses in south London, can hardly fail to bring a chill to the observer: yet another pop star, yet another pointless death.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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