A-wk-wk-wocka-wocka-wocka-wocka-chk. A-wk-wk-wocka-wocka-wocka-wocka-chk. Weow-da-wow-wow-wow-da-weow, weow-da-wow-weh. Weow-da-wow-wow-wow-da-weow, weow-da-wow-weh. Weow-da-wow-wow-wow-da-weow, weow-da-wow-weh. Weow-da-wow-wow-wow-da-weow, weow-da-wow-wow, we-waddar-wum. Whooomph.
Apologies to anyone who has attempted to read the above paragraph as a coherent stream of grammar (and apologies as well to my computer’s poor befuddled spell-checker, which thinks I have lost my mind). But if ever a guitar riff were so recognisable that it can be transferred (at a push; there may be a couple more weow-weows and wocka-cks missing) into words, then it is that which begins Jimi Hendrix’s epic Voodoo Child (Slight Return).
Why mention this? Because today marks the 50th anniversary of the death (on September 18 1970 – an exact five decades ago on Friday) of the world’s greatest ever (please insert outraged comments in the box below; Slash this, Van Halen that, something something Clapton, Buckingham, Richards, something Johnny Marr something) guitarist.
This, in itself, is not a reason to be cheerful – but it does offer a timely moment to look back at the life and locations of the man born Johnny Allen Hendrix on November 27 1942. Conventional (and mildly cliched) wisdom has it that Hendrix burned brightly but briefly. But while this is surely true – he only fully emerged into the public eye in 1967, released three albums in the space of 18 frantic months, and was dead almost before the new decade had had chance to draw its breath – his legacy has proved considerably more substantial and enduring than should be plausible with such a short burst of fame. And not just in the music he left, but in the places which played host to his flamboyant genius.
It is occasionally forgotten that Hendrix was the original guitarist to emerge from the great arts city of America’s Pacific Northwest – coming to life half a century before the wave of morose young men with lank hair that made Seattle synonymous with “grunge”.
If it is inevitable that its key cultural institution, the Museum of Pop Culture (mopop.org), should direct a lot of its energy towards said late Eighties and early Nineties musical movement, it also finds time to celebrate the Sixties flower-child who preceded Nirvana et al. It holds the planet’s largest collection of Hendrix memorabilia, including the Fender Stratocaster he played at Woodstock. The museum’s original name – it was known as the Experience Music Project (or the EMP) until 2016 – was also a tacit tribute to the star’s band (the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and their debut album (1967’s Are You Experienced).
Travel option: Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk) offers “The Great Pacific Northwest” – a 12-night fly-drive package which spends two days in Seattle as it explores Washington and Oregon. From £2,125 per person including international flights.
Hendrix was not the only musician to play the festival which took over a small corner of rural New York state – and the cultural narrative for the last few months of the Sixties – on the long weekend of August 15-18 1969. But his performance has become one of Woodstock’s most eulogised – partly because it closed proceedings (even though, oddly, it took place at 8.30am on the Monday morning, after rain delays and assorted hitches). He rounded out a seismic event with two hours of distortion-heavy psychedelic rock – not least a rendition of The Star Spangled Banner that has been endlessly imitated ever since.
Five decades later, Woodstock is still ingrained in the American psyche – and is open to visitors. While the location –Bethel, just over 100 miles north-west of New York city – is still used for farming (as it was in 1969), two relatively recent additions to the landscape look back to that halcyon summer. Opened in 2008, the Museum at Bethel Woods (bethelwoodscenter.org) examines the legacy of the festival via interactive exhibits and relevant artefacts - while the adjacent Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts, finished in 2006, is a performance space, with a 15,000-capacity outdoor arena and a 440-seat concert hall.
Travel option: America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) serves up a nine-night “Beyond the Big Apple” road trip which pauses at Bethel as it explores the wider New York state. Prices from £1,420 per person – including international flights.
Hendrix played his most famous trick not in the farmlands of up-state New York, but on the opposite side of the USA – where Pacific breezes cool the coast of central California.
Without him, the Monterey International Pop Festival – June 16-18 1967 – might have been just another three days of counter-culture fun amid the sun-dappled fever of the “Summer of Love”. It is not that the event was without star quality – The Who, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding all took to its stage (even if the planned closing act, the Beach Boys, failed to show up). But it was Hendrix’s performance on the final night which made the festival the stuff of legend. He ended his set with a rendition of Wild Thing which all but made the much-covered rock classic his own. Across seven blistering minutes, he drowned the song in feedback, doused his guitar in lighter fluid, kneeled over it to set it ablaze (beckoning the flames like some pyromaniac shaman), smashed it to pieces – and threw the remnants into the visibly stunned crowd. Remarkably, this was effectively the first time an American audience had glimpsed the musician in action, as his early success had come in the UK. It would prove quite a way of introducing himself.
Half a century later, Monterey remains a semi-sleepy town, pinned to the ragged edge of California, just over 100 miles south of San Francisco. It has become a tourist hotspot and a Highway 1 road-trip staple, rather more in debt to John Steinbeck (whose 1945 Great Depression novel Cannery Row helped to put it on the map) – and the whales that breach its deep-water bay – than a long-gone festival. But if you listen carefully, you may just be able to hear the sound of a burning Fender Stratocaster being pummelled to death.
Travel option: The American Road Trip Company (01244 342 099; theamericanroadtripcompany.co.uk) sells a 10-night “Classic Highway 1” tour which cools its tyres for a day in Monterey. From £1,499 per person, including car and flights.
Isle of Wight
Hendrix also lit up the outdoor stage in the UK – notably the Isle of Wight Festival of (August 26-31) 1970, where he performed in the early hours of the closing Sunday-Monday night. In terms of audience, the event was an enormous success – it is estimated that up to 700,000 people attended. But this weight of numbers was also an act of suicide. Subsequent planning restrictions and objections from local residents meant that this third edition of the festival (it had first been held in 1968) would be the last in its original form. It would not be revived until 2002 – although it is now a popular part of the summer season – and, Covid allowing, will be held again in June (17-20; isleofwightfestival.com).
All three of the albums released by the Jimi Hendrix Experience in the band’s year-and-a-half of frenetic creativity – Are You Experienced (May 1967), Axis: Bold As Love (December 1967), Electric Ladyland (October 1968) – were at least partially committed to tape at what was then a recording mecca on the west side of London. Set just back from the Thames in Barnes, Olympic Studios were a significant rival to Abbey Road, and hosted acts as important as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, as well as Hendrix. Alas, while the studio continued to be a key component of the UK music scene in the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, and into the new millennium, it was closed down in February 2009. It does, though, live on. As of 2013, the complex has operated as a two-screen cinema and members’ club (olympiccinema.co.uk) – and still has a studio facility.
Hendrix lived in London for much of this period of success, renting a flat at 23 Brook Street in Mayfair. Here, remarkably, he intersected with a rather different musical icon, albeit at a distance of more than two centuries – the next-door apartment, at number 25, was the home of George Frideric Handel from 1723 to 1759. The German-British genius penned some of his masterpieces here, including parts of Messiah, which was rehearsed in its rooms before its premiere in 1742. The property was converted into a museum devoted to the composer in 2001, but was adapted to incorporate Hendrix’s former address, rebranded as “Handel & Hendrix in London” (£10; handelhendrix.org), in 2016.
Handel died in Brook Street in 1759, aged 74. Hendrix also met his end in London, at the tragically young (yet seemingly inevitable for doomed rock stars) age of 27 – but not at home in Mayfair. He spent his last evening with a girlfriend at the Samarkand Hotel – which once stood at 22 Landsdowne Crescent in Notting Hill. He was found unconscious in the morning – probably having choked on his own vomit following an overdose of barbiturates – and was pronounced dead at St Mary Abbot’s Hospital in Kensington. The hospital no longer exists – it closed in 1992. But if you want to trace the Hendrix story to its darkest corner, its gate-posts, gatehouse and railings are still there at 39 Marloes Road.
The logical (if gloomy end) of the line for Hendrix aficionados is Renton – a small city, 11 miles south-east of Seattle, where Washington state begins to push inland. Here, you find Greenwood Memorial Park (see findagrave.com/cemetery/76834), where the guitarist is buried close to his mother. His final resting place – completed in 2003 – is sheltered by a circular domed structure at the heart of the site. This was built to prevent footfall to the original, rather more simple grave (which was “welcoming” some 14,000 visitors every year) damaging the rest of the cemetery. Sadly, Hendrix’s father Al, who was behind the decision to move his son’s remains, died the year before it was finished.