Hey, bro

2013NMEMagHendrix_FB221013Leon Hendrix recalls exactly where he was when he heard his brother had died in September 1970: he was in a Seattle correctional facility serving time for desertion from the army. “My dad called me up in prison and the Chaplain called me over the loudspeaker,” says Leon. “Everybody knew before I did because they heard it on the radio. It was usually like a madhouse in there, but everybody in the whole place went silent. ”

Five years older than Leon, Jimi looked out for his little brother. Their mother died while they were children, leaving them in the care of their alcoholic father. “Jimi was kind of introverted and quiet because my Dad was always yelling at us,” says Leon. “But he would protect me from that. Sometimes he’d even take a whipping for me.”

After becoming fascinated by an old ukulele the brothers found while clearing out a neighbours’ garage, Jimi eventually managed to get a guitar he could call his own. “It was beat up so bad,” says Leon, “and it wasn’t even electric. But he made it electric. He bought a pick-up from the Sears Roebuck catalogue, drilled some holes in it, used duct tape, the wires were just hanging down: but he made a fucking electric guitar out of a box guitar using scrap shit. He played the hell out of that guitar.”

Jimi’s virtuoso talents took him from Seattle to New York and then to London, where he founded the Experience. Leon, meanwhile, had landed himself in trouble with the law and been drafted into the army. Jimi had unwittingly made life in the forces difficult: “He played ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and they thought it was treason or some shit. They treated me like a piece of shit. I made a lot of friends in there, so many that they disrupted the general. He said to me: ‘There’s only one general in this fucking army, and it ain’t you!’”

When Jimi visited town, Leon went AWOL for a year to join him on tour. “We’d get a limo and I’d be fucking Jimi’s residual bitches,” he says. “Once they got to Jimi they didn’t want to let go, so there was always hangers-on. But, you know, they’re part of rock ‘n’ roll.” It’s rare to hear even the most testosterone-driven artists talk about female fans like that any more, but Leon points out this was a different time: “This was the Sixties, dude! Free pussy and a lot of marijuana and acid. If you smiled at a girl you were gonna fuck. It was part of the culture!”

By the time the tour got to Seattle, Leon had “straight forgotten” he was even in the army. “I’d been getting loaded a lot: smoking weed, drinking and taking acid,” he says. “Then all these Military Policemen grabbed me and I went, ‘What?’ and they said, ‘You went AWOL!’ I said, ‘Oh, shit. That’s right.’”

Leon was sent to prison for deserting the army, and it was while he was there in September 1970 that he received the tragic phonecall from his father that informed him his brother had died. “He’d wanted to come do a benefit concert for the prison in Seattle,” remembers Leon. “Next thing I know, Jimi was dead. My Dad called me up in prison and the Chaplain called me over the loudspeaker. Everybody knew before I did because they heard it on the radio. Everybody in the whole place went silent. Usually it was like a madhouse in there.”

Later in life, at the age of 50, Leon decided to pick up a guitar himself. He now tours the world playing his own music, and remains locked in various legal battles with an adopted sister over Jimi’s estate. He tells his story in the new Slash-narrated documentary ‘Jimi Hendrix: The Guitar Hero’ and in his own book, ‘Jimi Hendrix: A Brother’s Story’. Both give a new insight into one of rock’n’roll’s greatest enigmas. “He was such an introvert, off stage,” remembers Leon. “But on stage, he had this elaborate dress sense, an awesome character, and the way he played the guitar – you put that all together and you get Jimi Hendrix. And nobody has come close to that yet.”

Originally published in NME, 26 October 2013.

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