Mysterious Les Paul in The Vault

After visiting Jimi Hendrix’s Flying V at the Handel House Museum, I headed across Mayfair to its usual home at the Hard Rock Cafe Vault. The Vault is in the basement of the Rock Shop and used to be the bank vault for the Piccadilly branch of Coutt’s bank. Serious security, and well worth it given the range of treasures they have down there.

I actually spent most of my time talking guitarists with the chap in charge (not a fan of Steve Vai, it turned out) so I didn’t really look too closely at the exhibits. But one thing that caught my eye was a Gibson Les Paul which wasn’t labelled and nor was it in a glass case as most of the guitars are now.

It was just a nice sunburst Standard, apart from the fact that the body was incredibly thin for a Les Paul. I asked whose it was, and got a question back in return – who is the most famous player of Les Pauls? Resisting the urge to say Les Paul, I replied Jimmy Page and this was apparently the right answer.

The story is that after years of playing heavy Les Pauls, Jimmy had a lighter one made to save his back. This is all very plausible except I’m sure it would be documented (the intersection of Les Paul enthusiasts and Led Zeppelin fans being pretty much the definition of obsessive) and I can’t find any reference to it. It’s not even mentioned in the Hard Rock Cafe’s memorabilia database although that may be because it’s newly acquired.

Surely it would just sound wrong anyway? I’m starting to doubt my eyes now. If anybody can help clear this up, the domain is justfluff.com and my name is phil, I’m sure you can construct an email address from that.

Hendrix In Britain

Inspired by his London flat now being their administrative offices, the Handel House Museum are holding a Hendrix In Britain exhibition to mark the 40th anniversary of his death. It’s only a small exhibition but they’ve gathered some contemporary programmes, posters and photos to illustrate his life and work in Britain, plus a couple of interesting manuscripts.

The first is a battered piece of Hyde Park Towers Hotel headed paper with partial lyrics for Love Or Confusion on the front and a self-penned caricature of Hendrix surrounded by various cartoons poking fun at himself and other pop acts on the back. The second is handwritten instructions – on Londonderry Hotel headed paper this time – to tell the model Kirsten Nefer how to get to the Isle of Wight Festival. Hopefully the pass was waiting at the main stage gate as promised.

There are two star exhibits. One is the custom left handed Gibson Flying V known as Flying Angel which Jimi played at the Isle Of Wight Festival in 1970. While this is a lovely guitar, it usually lives in the Hard Rock Cafe Vault across Mayfair where you can see it for free so it isn’t that much of an attraction.

Much better are the Westerner hat and Dandie Fashions jacket that Jimi wore for a shoot at Bruce Fleming’s studio in 1967 where he was also filmed performing an acoustic rendition of Hear My Train A Comin’ (and saying one of his most quotable lines).

The Westerner hat is a fine thing, with alternating cast rodeo riders and individual turquoise and silver pieces on the band. But the Dandie Fashions velvet jacket is the real standout. No picture could do justice to the vibrant colours, especially the deep blues which hardly even seem to be captured for some reason. The jacket syle is conservative by 1967 standards – single breasted with five buttons and a noticeable flare to the end of the sleeves – but the fabric doesn’t really need much embellishment.

Dandie Fashions was founded in October 1966 by Alan Holston and Tara Browne, the Guinness heir who famously “blew his mind out in a car” before the year was out. Although the shop had been in part an outlet for his tailoring business Foster & Tara, Browne’s death didn’t stop Dandie Fashions becoming for a while one of the elite scene outfitters in London, Browne’s share of the business having been sold to John Crittle, an Australian born tailor,

As well as at least two jackets for Hendrix, they produced custom jackets for Paul McCartney, clothes for various Rolling Stones and the original Major Tom silver suit worn by David Bowie during Space Oddity in his short 1969 film Love You Till Tuesday. In 1968, Dandie Fashions became Apple Tailoring and the relaunch party was John and Yoko’s first public appearance together. As with many Apple businesses, it wasn’t a success. Freddie Hornik, one of the other key members of the Dandie team, went on to breathe new life into a fading Granny Takes A Trip and made it a big success on the burgeoning glam scene and on both coasts of the US.

All of which is a long way of saying, get to the Hendrix In Britain exhibition before November 7th to see an iconic piece of London counterculture tailoring before it heads back to Seattle.

The Hendrix Flat

When the Handel House Museum in Mayfair announced back at the beginning of the summer that they were opening up one of Jimi Hendrix’s London flats to visitors for a short period, I was excited enough to buy a ticket on the morning they went on sale. They weren’t quite that sought after but I did feel disgracefully smug when overhearing numerous people being informed at the desk that they could visit the exhibition but the tickets for the flat had sold out weeks ago.

The composer George Handel lived at what is now 25 Brook Street for 36 years in the early 18th century and composed many of his major works there, including Messiah. When Hendrix’s girlfriend Kathy Etchingham was looking for a place for them in the summer of 1968, the one she found was an attic flat on two levels at 23 Brook Street. For a while they thought they were in Handel’s house, the blue plaque being rather ambiguously located, and Jimi even bought some of his music to get a feel for his neighbour. Both houses are now part of the Handel House Museum with number 23 providing extra exhibition space and, in the case of Jimi’s flat, administration offices.

The first thing that strikes you are the steep and narrow stairs to get up to the flat – apparently a few of Jimi’s visitors returning after a night out came something of a cropper on them. The second, and main, thing that strikes you is how small the flat is. The larger room overlooks Brook Street and is a reasonable size but had to accommodate a double bed (which seemed to be the main piece of furniture rather than solely for sleeping), a TV and hi-fi (there weren’t really any adjacent neighbours, one of the attractions of the flat in the first place, since 23 was one end of the row and 25 didn’t have an equivalent attic extension) and various other items, more decorative than practical in many cases. The second room is much smaller and according to this source was used for band jams. The top half of the flat, up even more perilous steps, wasn’t available to visit and has been extensively changed since the 1960s but would have housed the kitchen, bathroom and even smaller spare bedroom which was reputedly used by George Harrison on occasion.

The rooms are mostly empty, with just a small display case in the bigger room containing an ornate brass perpetual calendar – ironically only for the years 1954 to 2003 – and a glass ashtray, both of which were in the flat when Jimi lived there. On the walls of that room are also photos taken in the flat, including the one featured on the cover of the programme. But what really brings the place alive are Kathy Etchingham’s various recollections of their times there – visiting John Lewis to buy fabrics; having a late breakfast at the Indian Tea House across the street on the corner of South Molton Street; drinking milky tea and watching TV together, one of Jimi’s private pleasures being Coronation Street with Ena Sharples being his favourite character.

The smaller room just has a TV screen showing an interview with the Experience in the flat on January 7th 1969 for the CBC programme Through The Eyes Of Tomorrow (samizdat video of the interview playing in the flat here, or this link to the full interview may work for you, I get no video). During the interview, Jimi is sprawled on the bed in the main room with the glass ashtray visible and in use, while Noel and Mitch are interviewed together on the floor in front of the fireplace in the second room. The beginning of the end. :)

The flat didn’t have a doorbell at ground level so it really was a private retreat and, although it’s thought Jimi might have spent as little as sixty nights there, you believe Kathy when she reports Jimi saying it was his first (and as it turned out, only) real home of his own. The things in the exhibition downstairs are great, but the space he occupied – given just enough context by the exhibits – is actually much more evocative of the life he was leading.

The flat visits have now ended but the exhibition (more of which later, hopefully) is open through to November 7th 2010. The Handel House Museum would like to make the Hendrix exhibition, including presumably the flat, a permanent fixture but as ever the stumbling block may be finding the funding.

Alasdair Roberts – Spoils

I really should update this more often.

Apparently, last June (2009, that is) I was going to say something profound about Alasdair Roberts‘ album Spoils and specifically the track Hazel Forks. What that may have been I now have no idea, but his compelling, reedy vocals and deep and murderous ballads are always worth a listen. Buy an album or catch one of his relatively infrequent live shows, you won’t regret it. He’s currently supporting Joanna Newsom on a few dates in Italy and Israel to promote his recent album Too Long In This Condition.