Checking In at The Chelsea

- by

What’s with Savannah and our capturing the zeitgeist of New York’s counterculture of the 1970s and 1980s? 


First, there was CBGB, the forthcoming film shot at Meddin Studios last summer about the famed Bowery nightclub that spawned the punk and New Wave music scenes.  Now comes a new book by Savannah College of Art and Design writing professor James Lough about the Hotel Chelsea, the storied incubator for beat poets, avant-garde artists, musicians, drag queens and not a few criminals.  In This Ain’t No Holiday Inn: Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel 1980-1995, James records for posterity the voices of the denizens of this charmed and haunted space in the years leading up to its last gasp as an outpost for the Big Apple’s Bohemians.

Fresh off a West Coast book tour, James will talk about his own Chelsea adventure at Seersucker Live‘s Read, Write and New Episode this Friday, July 5, 7:30 p.m., at the Pirates’ House, 20 E. Broad St.  Ahead of his hometown debut, our Amy Condon grilled this erstwhile punk with a few questions.  Here’s what James had to say >>

Savannah Magazine: Let’s just get this out of the way up front.  Did Sid kill Nancy?  This is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.  You must defend your answer.

James Lough: According to Chelsea denizens, Sid did not kill Nancy. The belief there is that erstwhile punk rocker Rockets Redglare did it. He was one of their heroin dealers, and it’s believed he visited their room on the 2nd floor to collect some money owed him. Likely Sid had already nodded off, Nancy got into a dispute with Redglare, and he stabbed her. There were no witnesses in the room, but there were people that saw some individuals leaving Sid and Nancy’s room around the time the stabbing was thought to have occurred.

SM: Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what made The Chelsea, THE CHELSEA.  Your oral history of the hotel, as told by former residents from the 1980 to 1995 period, contend that it was really owner/manager Stanley Bard and his acceptance of the beats, washouts, junkies, punks and artists that really gave the hotel its legendary reputation.  So is it like everything else; it all comes back to leadership?

James: Yes, the all-important quality of leadership. If it weren’t for Stanley Bard who, like his father, a cultured Hungarian immigrantand who managed the hotel before him, had a genuine interest and affection for artists. The Chelsea would never have been what I call “the most long-lived, productive art colony in US history.”

For more than a hundred years, artists benefited from the Bards’ generosity to artists—letting them move in without a damage deposit, occasionally overlooking a missed rent payment, even sometimes accepting artworks in lieu of rent. One doesn’t normally think of business people as being willing to forsake maximized profit in order to encourage cultural production, but Stanley did it, and without him it wouldn’t have existed.

SM: How do you define Bohemian?  It seems to be a word that people throw around a lot with a wisp of romanticism without actually getting the concept that you sometimes choose art over eating with that way of life.  As I often write about food, that’s a really foreign concept for me.

James: Beat poet/owner of City Lights Books [Lawrence Ferlinghetti] defined “bohemian” as someone who didn’t want to work 9 to 5, pure and simple. I think that’s accurate as far as it goes, but there’s a reason most didn’t want to work 9 to 5. Many of them were artists. Making paintings, books, films, music was their true vocation, and if they wanted to get good at it, they simply couldn’t have a full-time job that devoured their time and energy.

Not all Bohemians were/are artists, though, so they have made the (usually) conscious decision to trade in mainstream, conformist, consumer-materialistic values for a life of more depth and freedom. Sure, we can romanticize this, just as ancient Greeks romanticized pastoral life as being simpler and closer to the bone. But unless you’re rich, being a Bohemian is a difficult path. You sacrifice creature comforts for living close to the bone, comfort for adventure, money for art —or just freedom. The movie Moulin Rouge presented a very unrealistic, idealized portrait of bohemians, but their catch word “Freedom!” was, in fact, what it was all about.

     For a preview of This Ain’t No Holiday Inn, CLICK HERE >>

SM: Why did you choose the oral history form for telling this story?

James: Oral history because of formal issues. Not everyone I interviewed lived there at the same time, and not everybody knew each other, so what I had was a collection of hundreds of great stories, often from different times. This was difficult to compress into a coherent narrative, so I found that “collaging” the stories, as told by the people who directly lived these stories, proved an effective way of preserving and presenting the material. Plus, since it’s told, in part, in their colloquial voices, it captures some of their original energy.

SM: In your book, you cover the last years of The Chelsea’s reign as a foment for passionate artistic expression and hedonism.  What was it that you learned from talking with the people from that era that we haven’t really understood about its draw?

James: What I learned about these people was how diverse they and their backgrounds were. Most of them were far flung, from towns all over the USA. Many of them felt like freaks in their home towns, rejects because they didn’t fit the mold. They were outsiders in their native lands, exiles on Main Street.

So they moved to New York, where they felt they could be at least anonymous and maybe find others like them. And in all of New York, they found the Chelsea, which was the epicenter of tolerance. They could be who they wanted to be there. They could dress in drag, wear Viking horns, create wild art, and of course, lead very libertine lifestyles. The freedom was there, and they could let that inspire creativity or let it inspire debauchery. Both were plentiful at the Chelsea.

SM: Were you a punk?  If so, do you have any photos from that time period you would be willing to share with our readers?

James: I was not precisely a punk, but I definitely felt kinship with them. I published a zine called “dark nerve” which was definitely punk and literate. No photos as a punk, but I did have rockabilly hair and cool pointed boots.

SM: Why do you think there’s such a resurgence and nostalgia for the punk era?  Patty Smith’s “Just Kids,” the movie of “CBGB” that was shot here in Savannah because we seemingly look like the 1970s Bowery–which is now so gentrified, but I digress, the Met Gala and exhibition, people not bathing … And, bigger picture question, could that guerilla-art ethic really happen again now that we’ve become so American Apparel-ized?

James: I think the interest now in punks is because young people vaguely feel they’ve missed something important, vital, and fun. And sadly, they’re right. We’re in much more conservative times, now. Much less creative. Not that great things aren’t happening— they are. But young people are concerned with getting jobs, making money, and filling their resumes with impressive achievements. For some reason, back then, we didn’t care about that stuff, at least in the short run.

The economy’s bad now, which can explain young folks’ aversion to adventure, but the economy wasn’t stellar during the Reagan years either. It’s just more conservative times. Everything, real estate, art, has become more commercialized, and the kids are hooked into that, whether they know it or not. Instead of making their own punk clothing, they just go to Urban Outfitters, pick a decade, and they’re dressed to go. There’s an innocence missing from their generation, an “eff it all, I’m going for it” attitude that may have been just crazy then, but it launched such movements as Punk Rock at CBGBs, and it permeated the Chelsea.

SM: If you could choose the soundtrack for your book, what songs and artists would it include?

James: I’ll have to think about the soundtrack and get back to you.  (SM: We’ll share the ideal soundtrack for this book as soon as he shares it with us.  We might even make a mix tape!)

SM: In This Ain’t No Holiday Inn you raise the question whether or not Bohemia–or something like the Chelsea–could ever exist again in major international cities like New York, because of gentrification and the inversion of movements, where they are now dictated from the top down rather than the grassroots up.  Savannah and other Southern cities such as Florence, Ala. which were devastated by repeated economic declines due to manufacturing and ecological losses over time, now attract artists of all stripes, and the creative classes are remaking these places.  Do you think the New South is where Bohemia will find its Renaissance?

James: Big, expensive cities like New York have effectively pushed artists out into Brooklyn, and now Brooklyn is too expensive for many young artists, so, yes, I do think the gentrification of big, cosmopolitan cities has not been good for artistic countercultures or Bohemian enclaves. But I do hold out hopes for second-tier big cities and for smaller cities like Savannah. I’m in Portland now [on book tour], and all evidence points to a very active arts/music scene. And reports from young artists say that rent is still low in parts of town here, so I think my predictions of the death of urban countercultures was premature.

Smaller cities like Austin, Asheville, N.C., and, of course, Savannah show great potential as artistic incubators. Savannah has the advantage of a dynamic art college with very active students and faculty, so I say, let’s get it started!

SM: So, you had to edit quite a bit of the book to get it down to its current 268 pages.  What’s one tasty darling that you had to kill that you would have loved to keep in?

James: Many of the delicious darlings had to be killed because they were, in the words of my editor/publisher Tim Schaffner, “actionable.” Some events occurred on the other side of the law, and the people involved are still around. As far as “non-actionable” sacrifices, I had some excellent anecdotes about Max’s Kansas City. One of the people I interviewed for the book worked as a busboy at Max’s and the stories he told about the Ramones and Johnny Thunders, and even Pablo Picasso, had to be cut, my editor said, because they were only peripherally related to the Chelsea. I hate to admit it, but he was right.