Liner Notes: Sad-Eyed Lady

Why is no one in New York City reporting on the recent real estate listing of The Chelsea Hotel?

Okay, so it’s not “no one”, but it does seem rather odd that other cities are taking a greater interest in this blasphemy than New York itself. In doing some research for this article, I typed “Chelsea Hotel for sale” into the Google search engine and page one listed the top-ten articles discussing the horror of the recession’s most recent victim. Among the sources named were ABC News, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, WalesOnline, Victoria Times Colonist, BBC News, The Boston Globe, The Kansas City Star, and Telegraph UK. Do no New York papers or magazines want to report on the death and demise of one of our most cherished music buildings? Where is The New York Times; The New Yorker; New York 1; The Daily News?

Built in 1883, “Hotel Chelsea” (her official name) has housed some of music’s most iconic figures from the last seventy years. She stands in obscure beauty, nestled between 6th and 7th Avenues in New York City’s eponymous Chelsea District. Her look is a stunning 12-floor, 250-room redbrick exterior complete with wrought iron balconies overseeing 23rd Street. She is an architectural siren for all those dissolute rogues who have dared to try and make it in New York as an artist, and it’s as if you can still see Greek cherubs beckoning wandering degenerates to stay for just one night.

“Who among them, do you think, could resist you?”

It is not the sort of reverent place that jumps out at you the same way St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or Notre Dame in Paris might. Just this past summer I took an old pal of mine there as part of an organic tour of Manhattan. Being an informed Bob Dylan fan (whose own lyrics apprise “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” was written in Room 211 of the hotel in 1966), my friend was quite familiar with Lady Chelsea’s muse-like allure. His reaction upon meeting her was as Dylan’esque as I could have hope for. Standing on the large self-titled mat lying outside her lobby door, Sal (my friend) nodded and grinned in silence as if meeting a longtime lover for the first time. He looked into her windows the way a lost sailor looks into the eyes of a prostitute–so much misplaced hope, so much gracefully aged beauty, so much heart-ached wisdom. I could hear Sal’s thoughts as he debated entry outside her lobby doors:

“My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums. Should I leave them by your gate? Or sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”

The legend of Chelsea exceeds just American rock music lore. This also happens to be the hotel where many of the Titanic survivors stayed after the Carpathia arrived at New York’s Pier 54 on April 18th, 1914. Poet Dylan Thomas died in Room 205 on November 9, 1953 after drinking “eighteen straight whiskeys” at the nearby Whitehorse Tavern on 8th Avenue and Sir Arthur C. Clarke penned 2001: A Space Odyssey in Room 328 in 1968. Other famous literary residents include many of the founding fathers of the Beat Generation: Herbert Huncke, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, who wrote his famous Naked Lunch while in residence, to name a few. Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Arthur Miller and Leonard Cohen also all lived, at one point or another, inside the walls of the Chelsea Hotel. The hallways are penned with genius; the corridors scribed with the suffering only a writer knows.

“Who among them can think he can outguess you?”

The music-list almost supersedes the literary one. Bob Dylan was not the only sixties icon to have lived there. The list also includes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, and Canned Heat. In the seventies it was Patti Smith, Dee Dee Ramone, Alice Cooper, Rufus Wainwright, and Tom Waits.

More recently, Madonna shot her infamous pictorial essay book Sex in Room 822 (1992) and indie rocker Ryan Adams wrote and recorded his album Love Is Hell while living there in 2004. Without doubt, the most famous music legend to come from the bowels of Hotel Chelsea is that of Nancy Spungen, who was found stabbed to death in the bathroom of Room 110 on October 12, 1978. Boyfriend and Sex Pistols front man Sid Vicious was charged with the murder, but conspiracy theories still roams on whether he committed the act or not. In a semi-conscious coma of heroin and hydromorphone, Vicious wavered back and forth from confession to exoneration about the events that night, sometimes blaming himself and other times blaming a coke dealer. He committed suicide before his trial for murder began and to this day punk diehards sneak into the hotel to leave needles, roaches, dime bags, and bottles outside where Room 110 would be today if it remained in tact (management had the room destroyed and split in two sometime in the eighties in an attempt to end the unwanted shrine).

“But why did they pick you to sympathize with their side?”

It pains me to see Lady Chelsea up for sale. A prostitute she has always been; but never a whore. I find some sort of romantic nobility in the classy working girl playing matron-host to subterranean denizens. Lady Chelsea has existed for over a century now as a den mother to the rejected souls this city eats up and spits out. Few have gone on to make it; most have died in the gutter. But none of her vagrants ever compromised their will or amputated their spirit in exchange for wealth.

As Chelsea is forced to list herself in Real Estate magazines today where only the Hilton’s, Sheraton’s and W’s shop, I can’t help but feel saddened for this once anti-glamorous factory girl. It’s like watching the paragon of antisociety be forced to serve up appletinis and host corporate conferences for mutual fund managers and investment bankers. You can already see the defeat in her eyes. The lobby that once inspired the Velvet Underground to write, “Her perfect loves don’t last / Her future died in someone’s past / Here they come now / See them run now / Here they come now / Chelsea Girls” risks being leased out for an on-location episode of The Real Housewives of New York City. It makes me fucking vomit.

“Oh, who among them do you think could destroy you?”

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– Kory French


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