Larry Kirwan on encountering the ghost of Jimi Hendrix at his Electric Lady Studios.
The past and the present are inexplicably interlinked, yet we often forget how closely.
I had been thinking of writing a particular musical for some time – oh, perhaps twenty years; like many things it seemed to fit nicely on the back-burner. I had a good idea of its shape, scope, cast of characters, and theme but couldn’t quite figure how to begin.
Then I got the call. Stewart Lerman, a producer friend, had left a package for me at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village - could I pick it up as soon as possible?
Nothing like a bit of a stroll on a winter's day, particularly to the recording studio built by Jimi Hendrix!
It was always a magical place but never more so than when Pierce Turner and I recorded there back in the 1970’s. The song was called “Neck and Neck (in the race of life)” and I hummed it as I set out on my journey up to 8th Street.
I remembered little of the nuances of the session, but for the first time one of our songs sounded as good on tape as it did in our heads.
I vividly recalled the psychedelic mural that Hendrix had commissioned for a corridor wall. Years ago I’d heard that a new owner had painted over Jimi’s vision.
Such is life in ever-changing New York, and yet to many musicians, this was considered sacrilege.
I have two favorite streets for my rambles north through Soho – Mercer or Greene. Back in the 19th century, the former was known colloquially as Oyster Row due to the number of fish merchants peddling their wares on its pavements.
I’m sure Greene Street too had a suitably serviceable name, as it was known internationally for its brothels. Queen Victoria’s son, the future King Edward VII famously paid his amorous respects there in 1860.
Since I was on a rock & roll mission, I chose Mercer Street so as to pass the site of the old Bottom Line club, now unfortunately displaced by a dispassionate New York University office.
I had seen Springsteen there three times on his legendary five-night stand, and had been unceremoniously ejected for gregariously toasting Peter Gabriel with my own half-pint bottle of Southern Comfort when he danced on my table.
As I approached Washington Square I could hear the drums. The Bottom Line may be history but the Square has always marched to its own different drummer - each decade to its own inimitable beat.
This percussionist was precise and totally on the beat, the product of a life listening to Hip-Hop – so unlike the drummers from the 70’s and 80’s who grooved around a much more spacious and undefined pocket.
He was young, dreadlocked, tatted to the hilt, and he shook the Square as he hammered an upturned plastic bucket – no kick drum, just a sheet of beaten aluminum for his high-hat.
The receptionist was expecting me in Electric Lady. She smiled and was so friendly I inquired what year Jimi’s mural had been painted over. I had a feeling she'd been asked this question before for she smiled knowingly and pointed downstairs.
“It’s still there," she said. “Why don’t you take a look?”
And there it was, much as I remembered – a bit faded, but then which of us isn’t?
I stared down that long corridor – each panel a different psychedelic vista. It was like traveling back in time - coming home in a way.
I remembered how full of hope and optimism Pierce and I had been during our long-ago session. And how that song Neck and Neck had hurled us on to a career in music, and how in some small way Hendrix had been a part of it.
In my head I could still hear the beat of the dreadlocked drummer, and his precise beats deepened the vibe of the mural until the colors and forms seemed to pulse out at me. I was taking a furtive picture on my iPhone when I felt I was being observed.
I spun around certain it was a security guard about to complain– but no, it was Jimi, young and forceful, and glaring out of a frame as if to say “get on with it.”
And then I heard the opening song from the new musical; it spun to the beat of the dreadlocked drummer, with a rare hint of timeless psychedelia. The Hendrix magic had worked all over again. Some things never change.
Larry Kirwan was the leader of Black 47 for 25 years. He is also a playwright, novelist, and a columnist for The Irish Echo.