Strathcona Gets Experienced

July 2, 2008

A couple dozen of us are belting out the chorus to “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Denise McCann is on rhythm guitar. Her husband, Randy Bachman, is on lead. “He’s got you and me, brother,” sings veteran bluesman Jim Byrnes. We all sing. For this one-day-only house concert, we—musicians, neighbours, CBC technicians recording the afternoon—are the Jimi Hendrix Choir, and we’re experiencing the kind of communal euphoria I remember from childhood TV shows like The Partridge Family. This is old-school ecstasy.

Jimi would have loved it. The shooting star of rock ’n’ roll, dead at 27 from sleeping pills and red wine—or, some would say, from an excessof fame and insouciance—remains perhaps the greatest electric guitarist of all time. We are all made of stars, Joni sang after Woodstock. Jimi, who was there, was made of something better: music.

He would have loved this moment for another reason, too: we’re here to celebrate not just Hendrix but his grandmother Nora, who lived in this East Georgia house for 16 years. Gospel was her old-timey tidings, and if our version today is all squeaky-clean and proper, well, so is the house. Owner Marcia Jacobs has refinished it beautifully, restoring the elegant wooden staircase and lifting the ceiling in the airy living room. The Hendrix clan wouldn’t recognize it. Jimi used to come up from Seattle to visit Nora when times got tough, and he lived in this house for stints—he attended Grade 1 at Sir William Dawson Annex on Burrard; at 20, he played rhythm guitar at Dante’s Inferno with Tommy Chong’s old outfit, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.

In the here and now, it’s getting stuffy. We open the doors onto the back patio, and Bachman and McCann fill the neighbourhood with “All Along the Watchtower” (that’s Randy Bachman burning up the frets like that?) and “The Wind Cries Mary.” “I feel like I’m getting a free guitar lesson,” says Byrnes, host of the concert and the broadcast (airing July 10 at 8 p.m. on CBC Radio 2 105.7 FM). It’s true—it’s not the Hendrix pyrotechnics (though he bumper-cars the whole neck, just like Jimi) but the unerring economy; this is what decades of practice look like.

Byrnes and Bachman both met Hendrix, in New York, in 1966, when the clean-cut “Jimmy James” was still backing soul singers like Curtis Knight on the so-called chitlin circuit, the eastern touring route for black entertainers of the day. “Then I saw him in London, in 1967,” Bachman tells us. “And he’d changed. Suddenly ‘fro’d his hair, had on hippie clothes.” By the time Denise McCann ran into him later that year (beneath the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival in California), he was riding the British charts and hobnobbing with the Beatles and Eric Clapton.

At the house on East Georgia, a cappella trio the Sojourners blazes through “May This Be Love” and “Up From the Skies,” the gospel-soul end of Jimi’s catalogue, with an incandescent Steve Dawson playing lap and pedal steel. People think of Hendrix as Woodstock’s trippin’ extrovert, smashing gear and lighting it on fire, but he was by all accounts immensely shy, an inveterate tinkerer and sonic inventor. Dawson, hiding in the corner and drawing outer space down into the room, is like Hendrix reincarnated via Main Street.

The alt-rock trio Mother Mother looks fresh-faced, dewy even; one gust from Jimi might knock them over. Then singer Debra-Jean Creelman opens her mouth on the waltz-banger “Manic Depression.” She stands about five foot nothing, but the sound that comes out takes the roof off. They swing into “Jitterbug Babe,” a song guitarist Ryan Guldemond has written, he says, for Nora Hendrix, “a bluesy, old-time song for the tragedies she dealt with.”

Nora helped found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Vancouver’s first black church. It’s still there as the Basel Hakka Lutheran Church, although—with cedar shakes missing and eaves awry—it’s seen better days. The church backs onto a lane that was once Hogan’s Alley, ground zero of Vancouver’s black community (originally porters from the railway station down the hill). No plaque commemorates Hogan’s Alley or its many chicken spots and gambling dens. These days, it’s all carports, razor-wire-topped fences reading “Security” and “ID required,” and mini satellite dishes. The western end is now the Georgia Viaduct; its terminus on Gore features the inevitable infill, three new row houses assessed at $1.9 million.

Ford Pier and Mr. Wrong break out a fierce “Machine Gun” with keyboards, bass, and French horn. It’s wake-up-the-neighbours loud. Mr. Wrong (aka Rob Wright), incongruously wearing a cleric’s collar and sipping Scotch, searches the immaculate ceiling for inspiration: “Jimi brought the lightning bolts down from heaven,” he concludes. “He was the avatar of the blues, one of the purest vessels.” Walking out into a perfect Georgia Street dusk, I look back on this storied house, and it’s a line from “The Wind Cries Mary” that’s ringing in my head: “You can hear happiness staggering on down the street.”

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