When “The Party at The Chelsea” Seemed Like it Would Go On Forever

by David Lawton on December 16, 2013

chelsea bookHow many times in your life have you looked around at your friends and the things you got up to and said, “Somebody oughta write a book about this!” Well, it came true for me this past year, and the result has turned out to be the perfect stocking stuffer for both the would-be hipster and the stone cold true believer in your life. This Ain’t No Holiday Inn: Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel 1980-1995 is an oral history of a unique New York institution whose existence doesn’t seem possible anymore. But I know from experience that it all seemed completely natural at the time.

Starting in 1985, I began performing backing vocals for a one time Detroit punk band that upon moving to New York morphed into the bastard offspring of Captain Beefheart and the MC-5, called Leisure Class. The lead singer, a raspy voiced anarchist named Dimitri Mugianis, lived on the third floor of The Chelsea, and it became a defacto clubhouse for the members of the band and their extended family. There was a lot of drinking and drugs, but even more laughter and listening to amazing music. This was when I first encountered the Chelsea experience. We shared a bathroom with other apartments in the hallway, and at any time of night, you might run into the jazz musician Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), the comic Sandy Baron (Jack Klompus on Seinfeld) or an extremely dopesick Gil Scott Heron. The Chelsea was the magnetic center for bohemian culture in New York City for most of the twentieth century, but that tradition never got to see the twenty-first.

His fascination with this down and dirty tradition residing in such a venerable New York landmark drew James Lough, a literature professor and former director of the creative writing program at Savannah College of Art and Design to immerse himself in the Chelsea’s last hurrah. He had heard stories from his ex-brother-in-law Robert Campbell, a hick kid from South Carolina who came to New York to work in the music industry, and ended up jamming in his room instead with the trying-to-kick-dope-and-reinvent-himself Dee Dee Ramone. James decided to build off Robert’s stories, by finding the other struggling artists and lay-abouts that filled up the Chelsea at that time, thanks to the eccentric hotel manager, Stanley Bard. Though a man of business, Bard was so enamored of artists of every kind that he could never turn one away from the hotel. You will meet Paul Vollmer, who we called Morose Paul due to his pessimistic demeanor, who had dreams of being “another Warhol”, not because he had talent as an artist, but because he wanted to have happenings all around him. He ended up working as the overnight bellman at the Chelsea, therefore realizing his dream and preserving stories for James’s book.

You will hear stories about Tom Waits, Jaco Pastorius, Warhol superstar Viva, pop artist Larry Rivers, nightlife doyenne Suzanne Bartsch and black magic music archivist Harry Smith. I hold the door for Virgil Thompson and clean up melted ice cream spilled by Johnny Thunders! But I think the heart of the book deals with the period of time when my friends and I got to know the godfather of beat culture Herbert Huncke, who in his older years was supported in his life at the Chelsea by a number of patrons, including Jerry Garcia. Huncke was the person that the word raconteur was invented for, and an unrepentant voluptuary, he developed an inner circle at the Chelsea. A literary salon, but with cigarette burns on all the cushions. The Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote was the Falstaffian San Francisco psychedelic jazz poet Marty Matz. Both of these guys were great enough for their own book, but we got them both. This period set me on the path that I am on now, and reverberates with me every day.

I must have been interviewed for this book at least six years ago, when there first were rumors of a change in the Chelsea’s status. Since then, Stanley Bard was overthrown, and the Chelsea was bought by the sort of moneyed interest which has trampled on so much of the cultural legacy of New York. Controversy and agitation eventually caused those owners to sell to another set of moneyed interest, but that quirky bit of humanity that made a home in Manhattan for artists and crazy people who thought they were artists was gone. And this becomes the question that James Lough meditates on after all the old stories: is bohemia dead? and does it matter?

I think that James did a magnificent job on this book. I am proud to be a part of it. And I was thinking this week, as I was in a panic over what I could get my favorite hepcats for the holidays that This Ain’t No Holiday Inn would make a totally cool gift for your Secret Santa Baby. Check out: http://www.amazon.com/This-Aint-Holiday-Inn-1980-1995/dp/1936182521

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