Playing it left hand: the rise and fall of Jimi Hendrix and the Spiders From Mars

If the late, great Jimi Hendrix was still with us, he’d be 77 now. But of course, half a century ago the man born Johnny Allen Hendrix in Seattle joined the notorious 27 Club in central London on 18 September 1970, a year after I entered the world in the same locale.

While he lived a relatively short life, his impact and influence far outshines that which most would struggle to achieve in an entire lifetime. 

Having earned his chops as a session musician for Ike & Tina Turner and then as a member of Little Richard’s band, The Upsetters, when Jimi Hendrix arrived in London in 1966 his electrifying performances blew so many minds that virtually every major British blues guitarist found himself rethinking his musical direction.

A handful of inspired innovators would choose to fashion their own unique styles until, out of that seething maelstrom of creativity, heavy blues-based rock would be born.

From The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and the White Album to Queen, David Bowie and Prince, what Hendrix did with just six strings and a whole lot of fire continues to reverberate throughout the world of music.

In one of those bizarre serendipities, when we had a new lodger move into our house in Dulwich a decade ago, it only emerged when they came to pay the deposit on the room that our new homie, Helen Fearnley, had an interesting musical connection.

Having caught sight of the shamelessly self-promoting copy of the BowieStyle book on our coffee table, Helen asked who the Bowie fan of the house was.

“I suppose you could say that’s me. I co-wrote that book.”

“My dad was in a band with Bowie.”

The surname dropped.

“Dek?”

“Yeah, Derek. Dek was a pet name Bowie gave him.”

And so for a good year or Derek’s delightful daughter Helen, came to live with us, chiefly because her brother Nigel already lived in the same road.

Sadly Dek, ostensibly Bowie’s first major musical collaborator, died in 2008. His widow Judith lived in leafy Sussex but helped Helen move in, letting slip a lovely little titbit about the Fearnley’s mid-‘60s dalliance with the fledgling popster on her way out.

“David took us both to see a Jimi Hendrix gig once. He was amazing!”

Jimi Hendrix with Lulu: she’s very small

Arguably one of the most vital examples of Jimi Hendrix at his zenith was his appearance on the BBC show Happening for Lulu in 1969, his wailing feedback audible as the Scottish singer struggles to introduce him.

It’s a raucous moment featuring Hendrix playing with his teeth, knocking his guitar in and out of tune and cutting his then hit Hey Joe short to perform Sunshine of Your Love as a tribute to Cream, who had recently split. Parents squirmed and Hendrix, incredulously, received a BBC ban. “It doesn’t matter where I go in the world,” says Lulu, “I will always get asked about that TV performance with Jimi. I’ll always be connected to him through that moment.”

It’s hardly a surprise that Jimi’s incendiary trailblazing would have appealed to Bowie’s outré interests. Classic licks, iconoclastic stagecraft, flamboyant sartorial leanings, Bowie and Hendrix had a few things common, and it’s fair to say Bowie’s third album The Man Who Sold The World, released two months after Hendrix’s death, would be a poorer album without Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti’s dark and occasionally proto-metal arrangements, part Cream, part Led Zep and most certainly part riffing on Hendrix.

Zip forward to Ziggy Stardust, written in 1971, and Bowie never conceded that the de facto title track of his breakthrough album was about Jimi, preferring to attribute direct inspiration to the doomed rocker Vince Taylor.  

Rather than being about one fallen icon, the song is most likely a composite of Bowie’s ideas and imagery about his ultimate rock god. It hints heavily not only at Hendrix (“screwed down hairdo” and “he played it left hand, but made it too far”) but also the other contemporaneous casualties of the 27 Club: Brian Jones (1969), Janis Joplin (1970), Jim Morrison (1971); as well as digging the new breed of musicians he was on first name terms with, such as Marc Bolan, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.

Of course, Bowie being Bowie, Ziggy Stardust also describes his own most notable physicality (“screwed up eyes”) and soon-to-be Kabuki-inspired stage wear (“snow-white tan”, “like a cat from Japan.”).

If Hendrix had lived who knows if he would’ve ended up covering Ziggy. Anything was possible, that was the point. Like Bowie, Jimi had a sponge-like tendency to absorb anything and everything within a five mile radius.

When I caught Paul McCartney in concert in 2019, there was a lovely anecdote about how “The Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Friday night, and by the Sunday Jimi Hendrix had learnt the entire album and opened his act with it.”

For now, let’s pretend that at some point in the sixties, Jimi had access to Doctor Who’s Tardis and flashed forward to grab an early copy of Ziggy. If he did it might have sounded something a bit like this.

Steve Pafford

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