• Christopher McHale

Jimi Hendrix in London

Updated: Mar 5

Excerpt from my memoir, The Diplomat's Son



Philippe Echaroux - Portrait de Jimi Hendrix en 2014 creative commons

I’m not entirely sure what is happening around me. And I’m not sure it even matters if I did. Things happened, and you navigated them with character or without. You take the consequences of it and that’s what we call growing up. I found myself in foreign cities from morning to night. They talk about the consequence of such a life for a child. I’ve even had a woman from the State Department call me to check in. She says her name is Dr. Something. The doctor is all I remember. She said there is a dislocation that accompanies being raised in foreign cities from an early age. She had quite a lot to say about it, but I didn’t believe her then. I loved my foreign city life. Still, looking back, she wasn’t wrong.

What I learned a million miles later is another thing about this dislocation she spoke of. A more important sense of it. A key to who I was and what I sought. A sense of the sacred.

One night, I take my friend Bob out for a night of music. Living in central London made me an authority on the place. I knew my way around, you might say. I walked the streets, and rode my bicycle through the streets, and rode the tubes and buses. When you grow up in a place, you know it like no other. Kids learn about the alleys, and short-cuts and good blocks and bad. Where this shop is or that. I learned stories about different places as well. I collected them like some kids collect sports cards in candy. I had dozens of stories about this house or that street corner.

The King had his head chopped off outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. The woman was murdered and chopped up in George Yard in Whitechapel. The poet is buried in old West Norwood cemetery, in a granite coffin with carved angels sitting on the lid; to keep it closed, it always looked to me.

So all this knowledge, plus my natural docent nature, made me a trustworthy guide. And of course, I was in some situations and not in others. I just assumed I always knew what to do and what would happen.

I meet Bob at a ‘teen social’ on an United States Air Force base in Ruislip. That was exactly as suffocating as it sounds. The American Air Force had an odd idea about the children of its airmen. Their goal was to let them have an ‘American’ experience, I guess, so they took a recreation room on the base and set it up like a high school dance you see in movies.

The kids had exactly the opposite idea. Of course they did. London and rock and roll called to them from the dark heart of London, and I was the natural guide. So we made a plan to meet at Marble Arch and I led everyone to Tiles on Oxford Street.

Bob wasn’t sure about any of this. He was black, and there weren’t any other black kids or even people on the streets. The base was safe. Tiles was an alien planet. But I’m a natural inhabitant of these streets. I assure Bob it will be okay. It’s about the music. Wait until you see, I say to him.

Manfred Mann is playing. Pure Mod.

Do wah diddy.

Tiles is packed and the only black kid is Bob. The music might be one happy, buzzy message, but the crowd is mashed together and drunk, high on pills, in a dance frenzy.

I’m trying to get close to the stage. I grab Bob’s arm and pull him along. He seems reluctant. I’m being pulled toward the ringing guitars. Paul Jones, dressed in a velvet jacket and turtleneck, mod gear, leans over the crowd microphone in hand. The crowd yields to me, but not to Bob.

A guy ahead of us turns around. He doesn’t want to be shoved. He gets in Bob’s face.

What the fuck are you, he says.

I step between them. It’s cool. Like Gandhi or Jesus, full of middle child peace and love, but it doesn’t work. Saying something like that is gasoline on a fire. As Paul Jones sings Hubble Bubble, I get punched in the face.

The crowd rings around us and pounds us, a rain of fists on our heads. Bob and I crawl back up the stairs and find a small park, hide in the dark.

This is worse than back in the States, Bob says.

There’s almost too much of the world sometimes. Two kids out to hear some rock and roll and pounded by skin. Too many chemicals pumped into the blood. Too many decibels to deal with. We sit on the bench in the park and lean back into the shadows. The city hums around us, my heart beats. Not so much for Bob, who’s from rural Alabama.

What the fuck are you? I can still hear the punk’s words in my head. What the fuck are you? I wonder if Bob still carries those words in his head. Of course he does.

Look out helter-skelter, helter-skelter

There are things crashing down on us in the sixties. We’re feeling our power. We’re against war, against bombs, against cocktails and suits. We push back on our fathers, but it’s all moving fast. It’s four heartbeats from Love Me Do to Tomorrow Never Knows.

It feels like magic. Every night on the radio, unfamiliar sounds. There’s no formula. Musicians are inventing things, making up an art. It’s a moment.

The players will leave the clubs. You can drive a Rolls-Royce. You can live in a mansion. Paul and Ringo are sharing a flat. Soon they will move out. They’ll move on. They’ll part ways. You look at the history and it strikes you — there are maybe four golden years, and then it rots. We turn from people power and return to our original plan.

Oh, you know the bones of the plan. Money. Property. Power. Inheritance. There’s a million things to teach about the world, but in my classroom we discuss Life Insurance. We spend weeks on Life Insurance. A parent who works in Life Insurance comes into class and gives a talk about Life Insurance.

Term.

Whole.

Variable.

I write the words down in my notebook. I underline the word variable, scrawl under it, then put it in a box of lines. Life is variable.

Taking out some Life Insurance now would be a good thing, the visiting parent says to a room of 16-year-olds. And it turns out he’s right. That’s the hell of it.

Life is variable.

Crawl across the sticky club floor and exit.

Find the shadows in the park and disappear.


###

One Friday night, we have a choice. The Yardbirds are playing at the Bag O’Nails or there’s this band my brother is friends with, The Pretty Things. He wants us to check them out. But I’m headed to the Speakeasy.

There’s an American guy playing. My ears pick up when I hear about him. He’s black. He plays the blues. He’s American. I’m always looking for those old voices. I spend my life looking.

Sometimes I represent and wear my American heart out and about in the foreign places. Sometimes I want to stand apart. And sometimes I don’t want to be seen. I don’t want the spotlight pinned on me.

That’s an issue, Dr. Something says to me. You don’t want to be American and you are.

What does she know, I think.

She hasn’t a clue about me or my life. When I hear about an American playing at a club, I ditch all plans and head out to find him. Life is variable. Here’s a variation worth pursuing.

Here’s the notice I see in the paper:

Tonight. American Blues Musician.

Jimi Hendrix.

I’m chasing a connection to America through the rainy streets.

The Speakeasy is a new club, not in the middle of Soho where so many of the clubs are, but north of Oxford Circus. The location serves its name. I wouldn’t call it a secret, but it stands apart. It’s in the basement of a row of Victorian shops. More of a posh vibe than down by the strip clubs.

As we walk up to the door, we hear a wailing electric guitar. I mean, we’re standing on the street and hearing this guy play. We walk down the stairs and the music gets louder. We enter the room and it punches us in the chest. It feels dangerous. I’ve never heard music this loud. It’s next level crazy.

The club is not big. A square room with low ceilings. My head rattled by the sound. It draws me toward the stage. Hendrix is a veteran showman. He owns the air. He bends it to his will.

The sound is thick. It wraps itself around your bones. I get closer. I’ve seen tons of bands, but I’ve seen no one like Jimi. He’s confident. He’s entertaining us. He’s joyful. That’s the one word that comes to mind and it’s important. So much of the music is serious. So much of the playing is angry, but Jimi captures all that and wraps it in the sheer joy of playing his guitar. He comes alive when he wraps his hands around the neck.

He’s still young. He must be 23 maybe, but his music connects effortlessly through the ages. It rises whole-cloth from the past and rockets us into the future. The delta of space, the mud of the stars.

Jimi’s a nomad. He isn’t visiting London, he’s living here. That’s the grace of travel. It dislocates you. It sets you free. Jimi’s been working bands back in the States as a sideman. Over here he’s solo, he’s exploring, he’s discovering. I hear the voices on the old field recordings in his music. And the dark urban streets, the soul shows, all of it remixed through the stinging rain of a London winter.

Two-minutes in that club and my entire life changes. I’m standing right in front of Jimi now. We’re all leaning toward him, the volume pushing us back; the wizard drawing us in. What we hear is impossible. It’s an entire invention of music.

Each ringing note literally rearranges reality.

Jimi plays forever. Time stretches like taffy. The club folds in on itself, inside out. Nobody dances. We’re entranced, enchanted by his riffs.

Jimi’s bringing out his tricks — behind the head, on his knees, in his teeth — but those aren’t the moments. It’s when he roots and closes his eyes and plays. That’s when we forget to breathe.

Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind,

possessing and caressing me

We leave the club and walk through rain-soaked streets. I’m drunk, rolling off walls, but I’ve had nothing to drink. Hendrix’s guitar bounces around my skull for days. I’m in a daze.

High school is over after that night. I begin a new chase through life. Music becomes my religion, becomes my answer to everything. Jimi casts a spell on me. Music voodoo.

I get invited to a party at Donovan, the folk singer’s apartment. That’s the way it is. I’m young and collectable. He’s hot on the scene, you know, Mellow Yellow and such, and the party is packed. By the front door, there’s a bowl of sugar cubes laced with acid. I skip those, but most don’t. People are hanging from the ceilings.

I find Jimi in the corner by himself. His eyes are glass. I introduce myself as a fellow American. He looks at me. He looks through me. His gaze is heavy. My ears ring. It’s the only way I can describe it. His spirit is dense. It scares me.

I’m from New York, I say.

Me too, he answers.

A girl arrives with two drinks and I’m left standing there as they wind around each other. As I leave the party, I’m handed two tickets to a Donovan concert tomorrow night. Jimi is the opening act.

I want to invite Bob, but Bob’s dad has made me persona no grata. Fully unacceptable or unwelcome, especially to a foreign government, so I’m that on the Air Force base. A foreign government. But I don’t give up. I invite the girl next door to Bob, not me, a sweet American girl whose father is an admiral in the American Navy, like maybe a Navy dad will be more open to things than an Air Force dad. The different services feel like that, so I’m not wrong, am I? Of course I’m wrong.

I pick her up and we make our way to the West End. This is not a club concert, but a big deal stage in a real theater. It’s a Donovan crowd, Mellow Yellow, tripped out on fairies, floating above their seats.

Jimi crushes it. He’s loud, rattling the plaster ceiling and causing a tiny rain of plaster dust to fall on our heads. He’s not mellow or yellow. He’s not apologizing for anything. He must know this is not his crowd. Doesn’t matter to him. He’s a demon in their fairy world.

I’m there for Jimi. There must be others. But most of the feathers and beads are pressed back in their seats, stunned. I’m stunned too. The volume I heard in the Speakeasy? This is double that.

Hey Joe, where you goin' with that gun in your hand?

I'm goin down to shoot my old lady,

you know I caught her

messin' 'round with another man.

The folk song from Billy Roberts turned inside out.

Jimi onstage wiping his sweat with a small American flag, dressed in velvet and feathers.

The next morning British tabloids have a picture of Jimi wiping his face with the small American flag. Sacrilege. The Navy admiral, father of the girl I took persona non grata-ed me. I’m in deep shit with the Navy and the Air Force. An unwelcome foreign government again. I can’t get it right with my American friends, but I also begin tracking Jimi around London.

Jimi alters my DNA. He rewrites my code as they say today. He rewires my brain. I judge the world around me in a rising sweep of decibels. 110. 120. Jet takes off. Shot gun blast.

I wander aimlessly through rain swept streets. London closes in when the rain comes. The city sprawl reduced to an alley or an empty sidewalk. I run my hand along the brick and feel the urban pulse. Lampost haloes on a misty night and the world is lost.


The Diplomat's Son is a memoir about my life traveling with my diplomatic family in London, Johannesburg and Melbourne. It will be available in the Fall 2022.


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