The Chelsea

Continuing our week of documentary footage, today’s entry picks up on yesterday’s look at Vali Myer, specifically her New York home-from-home.

The Hotel Chelsea has been so integral to the city’s literary, artistic, musical, bohemian and underground life for so long, its skylit stairway so replete with venerable phantoms, its rooms and their occupants so oft hymned, lauded, filmed and photographed that there seems little more to know about it. But somehow this BBC documentary had eluded me until now. It dates from 1981 and so represents a strange in-between period dominated by weary veterans of the vanguard. There’s Quentin Crisp, wonderfully and inevitably, along with composer Virgil Thomson and songwriter George Kleinsinger in an urban menagerie. But even they’re mere pups compared to the fantastically aged artist Alphaeus Cole – he’s not just the hotel’s oldest occupant but would become the oldest man in the world, dying at 112.

If you haven’t seen this programme in full you may well have seen its footage of Jobriath, the space rock star who imploded on launch, subject of a new documentary. He comes across as sweet, camp and talented, and surprisingly normal (for someone living in a pyramid on the roof of the Chelsea). In his Jazz Age songwriter persona he sits at the white grand piano rhyming “Sunday brunch” with “naked lunch” over footage of William S. Burroughs dining a few floors down with Andy Warhol, whose cast-offs lie elsewhere about the building – Viva (shown giving birth), Nico (shown near death).

Twenty years later, Swedish TV returned to the Chelsea. It’s a sobering affair. Manager Stanley Bard, so voluble in the BBC documentary, is audibly weary of telling the same anecdotes, even breaking off mid-interview to take a call. The hotel’s occupants seem motivated above all by the idea of living in the Chelsea. Of course this is nothing new, and is in fact part of the Chelsea’s self-perpetuating chain of myth; the programme is prefaced by a 2011 interview with Patti Smith, who swoons at the memory of sharing a bathroom with Dylan Thomas.

However part of the problem is the programme makers’ terrible want of discernment. Of all the people to speak to, a hairdresser whose career high was cutting U2’s hair? (I’m sorry, but ew). And of all the hundreds of songs written in or about the Chelsea, they end with Jon bloody Bon Jovi?

The Chelsea has been sold and faces an uncertain future, possibly earmarked for luxury apartments. I always feel ambivalent about these turning points. On the one hand, yes, it’s depressing that major cities are so bent on removing any trace of character from their centres. On the other hand a counterculture whose continued existence depends on a preservation order surely isn’t really a counterculture anymore. It’s an issue which comes up regularly in Berlin, most recently with Tacheles, the last of the huge central Berlin squat cum gallery cum studio complexes. The inhabitants are campaigning to save it from developers, but it strikes me as a battle for a corpse when the spirit has long since moved on to animate new spaces.

Anyway, rant over. On with the show:


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  2. My thoughts about this one (the 1981 doc) are even more rambling than usual. Apologies in advance.

    -I want Arthur Marks III to guide me through life. I think he’s still giving tours:
    -Virgil Thompson looks so cuddly. (Now that I’ve typed that out I’m rethinking it, ha.)
    -I kinda like Jobriath as piano man better than Jobriath as spaceman. Like if Peter Allen was even gayer. (Now that I’ve typed that out I’m rethi— oh, you know what I mean.)
    -Warhol was using his puzzling headphones as a headband, I bet. That wig looked particularly precarious.
    -Viva’s daughter became a child actress? Of course she did. According to Viva’s MySpace page (?!?) she has a daughter of her own. I wonder if grandma filmed that birth as well.

    I can’t expose myself to any Bon Jovi today, but I will come back to see the other documentary at some point. All I wanted when I was in my early teens was to live in the Chelsea, until I got it through my head that it was not 1968 and thus would be no fun anymore. I still want to project myself into corners of history that are long gone!

    • Jobriath is certainly more handsome at the piano than en civil and you’re right, there’s definitely a Peter Allen-esque edge to the delivery.

      I had a terrible teenage stage of reading about Edie Sedgwick and listening compulsively to the Velvet Underground and I convinced myself that nothing could have been more glamorous than to hang out at the Factory in the late ’60s. I think in reality all that neurotic vapidity and self-absorption would have been entertaining for about, ooh, a minute.

      • My sister and I were so obsessed with Edie Sedgwick that we had to have our own copies of the Jean Stein/George Plimpton biography treatment of her. Lord knows what my parents would have said had they ever cracked one of them open.

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