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The Hotel Chelsea Keeps on Keeping On

Romance of the Rogues: The Hotel Chelsea Keeps on Keeping On
February 11, 1980

today will pass
as currents of the air
that veer and die
tell me how souls can be
such flames of suffering
and of ecstasy
then fare
as do the winds fare

Edgar Lee Masters’s poem is printed, in bold italics, on the promotional brochure of the Hotel Chelsea. It is its come-on. The Hotel Chelsea sells a Romance.

Certain artists are known as much for how they lived or died as for what they created. They are the ones who live in glass houses and throw stones from the inside. Their names are signals, and we can place them, but we know them best as myths. It is a Catholic concept, part of the tradition that saw Dante descend through the nine circles, made Francois Villon an anti-hero, named Hollywood Babylon, Monroe a martyr, Jagger Lucifer. It is the Romance of the Artist in the West, and the Hotel Chelsea may very well be the Last Romantic.

Brass plaques at its entrance at 222 West 23rd Street proclaim the one-time presence of Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thom­as, Brendan Behan. Stanley Bard, the Chelsea’s manager, will say fondly that all three would make merry, ribald scenes in the lobby when returning from a drunk. “Brendan Behan’s wife,” he says, “seemed unable to have children. But while they were staying here she became pregnant. It’s a very creative place.”

Naked Lunch, The Lost Weekend, and 2001: A Space Odyssey were written at the Chelsea. So was a lot of Beat poetry. Stuart Cloete chose it for the ultimate bomb-shelter in his novella, The Blast. Andy Warhol made Chelsea Girls there. The woman who shot him, Valerie Solanas, founder of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), lived there while he was shooting. So did Viva, who superstarred in the movie. Rock flowered there, and punk decays.

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When Alfius Cole, who is 102 (and a painter) moved in about 50 years ago, the hotel was already in the second phase of a process of architectural parthenogenesis which is only now nearing completion: Once it held “baronial” apartments. Today, all but a very few of the hotel’s 400 units are efficiencies, studios, and one-bedrooms.

In 1883, when Hubert Pirsson & Co. finished building the “Chelsea Apart­ments,” the city’s first duplexes were pro­vided for the needs of its first occupants, a group of wealthy artists who formed the city’s first cooperative. The duplexes were on the top floors of the 11-story building, and their upper levels were studios, where the best-established artists could enjoy unobstructed views, sunsets, and early-­morning northern light. For a short time, the Chelsea was the city’s tallest building.

By 1906, patronage had dwindled, and with it the banquet-ticket of com­missioned portraiture (Warhol’s book of coupons is, after all, a fairly recent phenomenon). Arcadia gave way to de­mocracy, but Arcadian vestiges remain. The Chelsea’s lower floors are rented out, for the most part, to transients. And as people move in, they await vacancies on the higher echelons. Inside, the building’s spine, an elaborate spiral of brass, tarnishes.

From the steps of the library across 23rd Street, the Chelsea looms into focus. “Victorian Gothic,” “Freestyle Queen Anne,” of “Picturesque Secessionist,” it is a broad, lumbering, red-brick behemoth. A pyramidal mansard tower, gables and giant chimneys roost over the balconies like cranky robber barons. The Chelsea was the first building to receive landmark status both on architectural grounds and for “its long-time association with the lit­erary world of New York.” It is that rare thing, an iconoclastic institution.

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•••

Virgil Thomson, who is 83 and has lived there since 1940, has the prestige of a national treasure and presides — in one-­half of one of the original tenth-floor apartments — over the old guard. Many American members of the new guard chose the Chelsea out of galloping nostalgia­ — the hotel is a repository for the sensibilities of decades past. Jim Pasternak, who is in his mid-thirties, makes films and teaches at the New School. He moved to the Chelsea in the early ’70s when his marriage was ending. “During the first two weeks I was here, I fell in love with five different women, and within three weeks had affairs with all five. It was quite a wild place then. A ’60s feeling was still ram­pant.” The Chelsea has been described as a stopping off point on the international bohemian underground railroad; Europe­ans flock to it — and use it as a hotel. Few plain old American tourists are registered.

Neither the old guard nor the new claims any interest in or responsibility for the transient caste. To most, they are untouchables. Literally, a transient would be anyone who stays at the hotel for brief stints. Actually, a transient is someone who has not been given a context by those who have given it to each other. It is often the transient who makes the news. Jim Pasternak’s apartment is directly above the one shared by Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, and he was home the night she died. “I only know because a police officer came by and asked me questions the next morning,” he says. “I couldn’t tell him anything. The walls are very thick here and no one I knew knew them.”

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When current tenants are mentioned, Stanley Bard turns cautious. When un­pleasantries are mentioned, he turns off. Otherwise, his conversation is riddled with anecdote. He grew up with the Chelsea­ — his father ran it before him — and his office has the scent of obsession.

Although Bard is devoted to the myths of the Chelsea, he’s considered penny-wise in his attentions to the building itself. Almost everyone has complaints about the plastering, or the plumbing, or the heat, or security. One longtime tenant says Bard sometimes rents rooms “to people who might be better off in hospitals,” yet he has been known to waive rents for months on end to people in whom he has faith, or for whom he as a soft spot. His credo is that the pulse of the culture beats quickest away from the mainstream — his commit­ment is to the Chelsea’s tradition as beacon to the fringe.

The lobby is a reliquary of the ’50s and early ’60s. First impression is of bright lights, patterned wall-to-wall, vinyl-­seated gargoyled wooden benches, chrome, more vinyl, a blur of Everyman Abstract Expressionism, a dash of Pop, and a Sput­nik hanging from the ceiling. Paintings cover the walls like easy-to-fit pieces of a large puzzle. They look like tired versions of what we have come to know as masterpieces, and the paint seems to be describ­ing those times: they are orange and blue and green and yellow oil and acrylic nota­tions, and they hang like writing on the walls. In 1956, Bernard Shapshack, a sculptor in residence, proclaimed the lob­by “the signboard of the people.”

It is a lobby without coherence. No Hilton Kramer, no Clement Greenberg ever reviewed it. Certainly no sister Par­rish ever decorated it.

•••

The Chelsea — “Oasis,” “lower depths Brigadoon,” “a really funny hotel” — is a labyrinth of self-referential environments. Upstairs spring jungles of personal icono­graphics.

•••

At noon Stella Waitzkin is making tea. She has lived at the Chelsea for about 10 years, is a hippie, a grandmother, and an artist. Her one-bedroom apartment is what she makes. She makes books. Books of sandstone, glass, and resin, baked in kilns, often encrusted with dolls’ heads, or bas-reliefs of the Parthenon, or things un­definable. The books are everywhere. “What you see,” she says, “is just the tip of the iceberg. I keep another room here to store more books and I keep a lot in the country, where I do most of my baking.” As she speaks, two cats appear and disap­pear among the stacks, then pause and pose like bookends. She points at a sagging bookcase. “Can you imagine what would happen if that wall gave in? The plaster­ing here is one thing I’d like people to know about the Chelsea.”

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“I’ve thought of moving to Ireland on occasion,” says Isabella Gardner, “but I could never live anywhere else in New York.” Isabella Gardner was an actress, is a poet, and was once married to a poet, Allen Tate. She also keeps “another room” at the Chelsea, “to work in though I never use it. I usually go to the country to work, to MacDowell. It’s difficult to work here, I find… there are distractions, the city, you understand…” Isabella Gardner’s hair is long, straight, and red and it lists in and out of a topknot. She moves in slightly awkward sequences on long thin, colt legs.

“Everything I need is easily available here. I know exactly where to go to get my shoes cobbled. I know all the bellmen and I can get special service. I have good friends here. I’ve lived here off and on since… oh… the early ’60s… I was traveling a great deal then… and my daughter, you know lived here too for a while… in her own apartment of course. She knew all the rock people then… Janis Joplin and all… I only knew them by sight. Nowadays I don’t have anything at all to do with the transient traffic.” She stops for a second and looks purposefully askance: “and I mean traffic in every sense of the word.”

Isabella Gardner’s apartment has the aura of permanence. She has a stained glass transom over her front door and has had the paint stripped off the mahogany moldings — “as Virgil says, ‘hotels tend to paint over everything with beige paint.’ ” She’s a bit of a curator: “During the blackout of 1977, as I made my way to the lobby, I had a candle in one hand, a rag in the other, and I polished my way down. At other times I’ve been tempted to go at it with a can of spray paint.”

Mildred Baker, a friend of both Stella Waitzkin and Isabella Gardner, has lived at the Chelsea for 40 years. She is a brisk woman. She stands erect. Striding through the lobby, calling greetings to the desk, she is a ballerina field marshal. Now retired, she was director of the Newark Museum, and used to split her week be­tween the Chelsea and a house in New Jersey. When she joined her husband (who worked for FDR’s Relief Administration) at the hotel during World War II, she would “come in to find sailors cavorting in the lobby. The British Merchant Seamen kept a canteen going here. And some Catholic charities kept space as well, for sheltering refugees. The old management, this Mr. Bard’s father, and Mr. Gross, and dear Mr. Krauss — he was an angel to us­ — were all of Hungarian descent. They worked here during the Depression and were able to buy it from the Knott Hotel Corporation for $50,000 down, which they borrowed from a bank down the street. They also took in many Hungarian refu­gees after the uprising in 1956.”

Mildred Baker’s muted walls bear many abstract landscapes and many in­scribed photographs. As she excuses herself to prepare for a trip she is about to take to the Red Sea, she mentions that the pictures are all that matter of her possessions.

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•••

A traffic cop on Eighth Avenue: “the Chelsea is okay for a single woman, for a couple of nights maybe, if you’re careful.” Further west toward Ninth, a waiter in a Chinese restaurant: “the Chelsea is not so nice. You be better off at Holiday Inn on 58th Street.”

East of the hotel is headquarters for the toy and novelty business — year-round ghosts of birthdays and New Years. Facing it are a “Y” and a branch library. To the West, London Terrace, a bulking Tudorish apartment complex, and toward the River, an Alphaville of highway, trucks, and diners. There is one flicker of Merry Olde England at Mr. Spats — where a stew and a stiff drink help brighten the way to New Jersey. But night hits hard on 23rd Street.

Heading back to the Chelsea out of darkness is like heading back to a dorm after a late night out. There is always someone sitting there to watch you. And even if it’s 4 a.m. and the someone is nodding out, enough energy remains to lift a head and an eye that follow you: Are you a transient? Are you Someone? Are you good for a hit?

Susan from San Francisco is at the bar of El Quijote — which is to the Chelsea what the Polo lounge is to the Beverly Hills. She has been practicing Spanish with Jose, the bartender, and it keeps getting better as she drinks: “I can’t speak a word of Spanish, but just listen to me go. When you want to communicate, language is no barrier.” She is a freelance secretary in town for a conference. Her boss is at the Plaza. “Did you know that Dylan Thomas used to drink right here? Got to admit this place has a lot of history.” The plaque at the hotel entrance reads: “Dedicated to the memory of Dylan Thomas, who lived and labored last at the Chelsea Hotel and from here sailed out to die.”

•••

The Artist as Sage, the Artist as Addict, the Artist as Albatross, the Artist as Package. All of them live at the Chelsea.

•••

“My apartment doesn’t cost anything like what it looks like,” says Virgil Thom­son, “and my paintings are by people I know. I never have pictures around by people I don’t know. That kind belongs in museums.” Evidence has it that he knew Florine Stettheimer and Marcel Duchamp rather well. Mr. Thomson’s favorite paint­ing, however, is by an artist less well-­known, Christian Berard. It is of a saltim­banque. “It moves around the canvas. A good picture shouldn’t be too stuck there.” He also likes a more recent sculpture that looks like a flower made of congealed brown paper bags. It is about five feet high, like Mr. Thomson, and it stands its twisted stand at the entrance to the living room. “The process by which this was made is the same process used to dip babies’ shoes. You know, when they are bronzed as souvenirs.”

He is equivocal about the Chelsea’s management. “They have to give you a minimum of service and they do. All hotel service everywhere is economized and ab­breviated. It’s easy to make the bed. A young man comes to work for me in the mornings and he takes the right side, I take the left, and poof, it’s done. I don’t wriggle much in bed. That’s a sign of age. The young tend to destroy their beds every night.”

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“The people I associate with here are mostly older people or others trained clas­sically to music.” But he remembers Janis Joplin, whom he “would nod to, in a friendly manner, in the elevator. She had a wonderful dirty voice. The finest dirty vocal tones I’ve ever heard.”

Some of the overflow of Virgil Thom­son’s art collection can be found in Gerald Busby’s apartment. Busby is custodian to a smaller relative of the paper-bag flower, and to several paintings by an artist Mr. Thomson describes as “a little French criminal I used to know.” Mr. Thomson’s distinct round face appears in the fore­ground of one of them. Gerald Busby is in his late thirties and was trained classically in music. “I share a birthday with Brahms,” he says.

“My first job in New York (after leav­ing Texas) was as organist to a congrega­tion of Methodist alcoholics. I wrote the score for Robert Altman’s movie, Three Women, and Altman gave me a small part, the part of the alcoholic Baptist minister, in A Wedding. This sort of thing happens to you when you’re from the South.” Laundry comes through the door. A housepainter leaves the kitchen. John Cheever calls to talk about Robert Altman. A friend arrives; they are going to a screening.

“It’s been fun living here. Whatever new goes on in the city can sooner or later be had here. There are always all sorts of rumors flying round here. I heard once about being able to order drugs through room service, but I’ve never tried it so I’ve no idea about any truth to it.”

It seems unlikely. Room service is vir­tually nonexistent, although Isabella Gardner says, “One can make arrangements with the bellmen.” Other rumors, however, are grounded. In October 1974 The New York Times ran an article which stated that “two gunmen held ten men and five women hostage for more than two hours at the Chelsea Hotel.” Jim Pasternak: “They were pimps, big dudes in white hats who had a floating crap game at the Chelsea on Saturday nights. Ap­parently two other pimps came over from Queens to make trouble:” Virgil Thomson: “I’ve lived in Kansas City and Paris, which are the great centers of sin and corruption, so I was neither shocked nor vastly entertained by small time dope selling or gambling. You know, at my advanced age I’m not that interested in gang-bangs, but they do have them around.”

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Other rumors concern fires at the Chelsea, of which there have been several. Pasternak says, “A big one two years ago was started by an enraged woman who set fire to her lover’s trousers. He was not in them at the time, but another young man — I believe he had a weak heart — died from the fumes.”

“I could hear the desk clerk and the bellboy pounding up the stairs,” William S. Burroughs wrote in Naked Lunch, “I took the self-service elevator down, walked through the empty lobby into the street. It was a beautiful Indian Summer Day… I had to stock up on junk fast… I took a taxi to Washington Square, got out and walked along 4th Street till I spotted Nick on the corner. You can always spot the pusher.”

Jim Pasternak: “We mostly have crimes of passion here. Viva, in the days when I first moved here, had some spec­tacular lovers’ quarrels. One morning while sitting at my desk working, I looked up and noticed a bicycle fly past my window. I guess she couldn’t throw him out the window, so the bicycle was the next best thing. People are also very fond of their animals here. During the fire a while back, everyone gathered in the lobby with their pets. It was like a family reunion. A few people actually admitted to having grabbed their animal before their loved one.”

George Kleinsinger, who wrote the mu­sical Archie and Mehitabel, about the love between a cockroach and an ally cat, has a cat named Mehitabel. “My skunk bit my second wife, dear Kate, then it made the mistake of biting me and I had to get rid of it.” Mud, trees, turtles, canaries, parakeets, finches, aquariums, an incubator, and “a nuclear family of ring­necked doves (including eggs) who love each other very much” remain. A black baby-grand piano and tape machines take up what remains of the studio.

“I moved to the Chelsea 20 years ago, dear one, to escape Roslyn, Long Island. Suburbia! I leave the Chelsea only when I go to St. Thomas. I love, love, love the tropics. I love to have sex many times during the day. I love love.”

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When his friend Brendan Behan died, he composed an elegy that includes an insert of Behan’s singing. “Yes, yes dear one, I recorded Brendan right here. After a bit of drinking, dear Brendan would come here and sing, sing, sing. All that drinking and singing, he was a big bore really. I drink too much too, dear one, but the Irish and the Jews have a lot in com­mon. But I’m not an alcoholic… because I’m Jewish.”

“My girl left me last night to go to Australia and I hate to be alone, dear one, and a fellow from downstairs came up here and offered me his girl for an hour for $50. They needed the $50 but I felt terrible. Instead, I told him they could both spend the night on my floor — they had run out of money, you see, and had no place to stay. So all night long, I got up to tuck the blankets around them. I was afraid they would catch cold.”

•••

Don Quixotes of plaster, Don Quixotes of steel, wood-carved Panzas, plastic Dulcineas people the bar of El Quijote. The wall facing the bar is a dusky mural of scenes from Cervantes. The kitchen door is canopied with three-dimensional cut-outs, Disney-colored. Accessible from both street and lobby, El Quijote is a collision-ground of sensibilities: Grand ladies of the Chelsea, at banquettes, gloves poised on white linen, might as easily be in Schrafft’s.

•••

One woozie Dulcinea, wearing several Christmas ornaments, French, named Jacki, weaves into the lobby with soup in a take-out coffee container. “I have lost my dog. Mon chien. He was very beau­tiful. Where is my chien? I cannot find heeeem.” She sits on one of the gargoyle benches and slurps for a moment. Two beefy teenaged boys walk in. They seem shy. Jacki spots them, shrieks, and throws a gartered leg over the nearest gargoyle and singsongs, “We are putanas, we are putanas, boys, how you like that we are putanas.” The two scan each other and hotfoot it out of the lobby.

Jim Pasternak: “It’s very easy to drift and get all whacked out at the Chelsea.” The year before last a young art historian did more than get whacked out. Another tenant says, “Please don’t say who I am, but I knew him when he first came to the Chelsea. He was straight as a board. He dressed like an accountant — three-piece-­suits, the whole bit. But then he changed completely. He wore leather all the time and never had any money. And when he couldn’t pay the rent, he’d sleep in the lobby or if he heard of a vacant room, he’d climb into it from one of the balconies. I told Stanley [Bard] that he belonged in a hospital, or at least with his family. May­be if he had been kicked out of here he would have gone to his brother’s in Brooklyn. I was very fond of him. He was someone special. Well, one morning I opened my window to check the weather and when I looked down I saw him lying next to his brains, on the parapet just below me. All I could say to myself was, ‘why did my eyes have to see this, why!’ ”

Gert Schiff, a professor of art history at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, moved away from the Chelsea at about that time. He had lived there for 13 years, “I had had enough. I love it there, but I had had enough of the punks and junkies. It is true that people always find something to grouse about. In the ’60s they groused about the ‘hippie invasion.’ The older ones get cranky about newcomers, but this bunch seems particularly sordid.”

A man of about 30 is in the lobby in pajamas. He has been there for over a half­-hour talking to a stray kitten. He is Brit­ish. “You know, I really came down here because I ran out of cigarettes, but don’t you find this to be an unusually lovely kitten? Kitty, I would love to take you home with me, but I just can’t. I already have a kitty and my kitty doesn’t like other kittens very much. This hotel’s real­ly quite wonderful you know. Every morn­ing I am awakened by the sound of Mr. Kleinsinger’s birdies.”

Angus Wallace, also British, is “sort of an entrepreneur of the avant-garde.” He no longer lives at the Chelsea, but people don’t really leave — they become alumni. “I went to Summerhill as a child and think I was very changed by it, you know. The Chelsea reminded me a lot of Sum­merhill. The same sort of freedom. The same sense of waking up in the morning knowing that you have to build your life, and that no one can do it for you. The Squat Theatre — I was managing them — ­came to the Chelsea when they first arrived in New York. In fact — for better or worse — I think the Chelsea gave them their first clear picture of New York, of America really. They had a goat with them, for one of their plays, and kids and all, and they were permitted to keep their goat tethered up on the roof. It was sum­mer then, of course. But anyway, I’ve stayed at the Chelsea when I’ve really been down and out. No money at all. And Stanley Bard was extraordinarily good about that. He was really very patient and didn’t press me at all. I knew someone at the Chelsea — he was a very famous fash­ion designer and a good friend of mine when I lived there; his name was Charles James. And, well, I supposed he had come upon hard times. Now that he’s dead I don’t suppose there’s harm in mentioning that I don’t believe he paid any rent for something like twelve years.”

“Poor Charlie James,” says Mildred Baker. “He was really quite alone, I’m afraid, by the time he died. The poor man fought with everyone.” “Poor Charlie,” says Richard Bernstein, a commercial ar­tist who keeps a studio at the Chelsea, “was hustled all his life. And now some of the people who hustled him are putting up a plaque in his honor. I’m sick of the romance of the Chelsea. They’re always making heroes of pretty sad cases.”

Susan Sontag once wrote that “for the modern consciousness, the artist (replac­ing the saint) is the exemplary sufferer.” And in fact the Chelsea does sell a rather morbid Romance. But it would be unjust to give a damning send-off. We need the Chelsea. It stands for the rebel, the roman­tic, the freak in us all. Brendan Behan put it more simply: “There is more space in the Hotel Chelsea than in the whole of Staten Island.” ■

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DOUBLE VISION

Andy Warhol’s initial image of what came to be The Chelsea Girls was a cartoon on a napkin of a divided movie screen, with a B written on one side, and a W on the other (for black and white, respectively). That doodle blossomed into a marathon art-film experience, with vignettes shot in the Hotel Chelsea portioned out onto a split screen, juxtaposing light and innocent images with darker, disturbing ones while the audio tracks only one side. Directed by Warhol and Paul Morrissey and featuring a variety of Warhol’s superstars, the 1966 film isn’t commercially available, so this is a rare chance to see it.

Sun., May 18, 7 p.m., 2014

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EXQUISITE GLAMOUR

The annual fashion exhibition at the Met, which is kicked off by the Costume Institute Gala Benefit, is always one of the most anticipated openings each year. “Beyond Fashion,” this year’s retrospective about America’s first couture designer, Charles James, promises to be just as grand as it features 75 of the most notable designs produced by the self-taught New York native over the course of his career, from the 1920s until his death at the Chelsea Hotel in 1978. This exhibit spans two locations inside the Met: The first floor features James’s ball gowns from the ’40s and ’50s, worn by such clients as Austine Hearst, Millicent Rogers, and Dominique de Menil; the second part takes place in the new Anna Wintour Costume Center and features the designer’s biography through archival pieces including sketches, pattern pieces, swatches, ephemera, and partially completed works from his Chelsea Hotel studio.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: May 8. Continues through Aug. 10, 2014

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Sing Another Song, Leonard Cohen

Thursday night at Webster Hall, the Brooklyn act Cults celebrated a homecoming of sorts. The gloom-pop band’s set included what frontwoman Madeline Follin claimed was a rare encore (assisted by the Indiana MC Freddie Gibbs) and a heap of songs that danced across the line separating the feeling of being totally crushed out and the feeling of crushing romantic disappointment. Reverb-swaddled guitars filled the room, Follin’s hair swinging in the wind as she swayed in time with the music.

At one point, the band took a breather from playing songs from its 2011 debut to bring a cover into the mix: “Everybody Knows,” Leonard Cohen’s stormy track from 1988. “Everybody knows the good guys lost; everybody knows the fight was fixed,” Follin sang bleakly while keyboards chimed behind her. The power of the Canadian troubadour’s statements about a cruel world caused the room to collapse into something more intimate. Follin’s band is as notable for somehow managing to be an enigma in the Internet age as it is for its hummable, glockenspiel-assisted pop jewel “Go Outside.” And she had clearly practiced this Cohen tune a lot—at home, alone, feeling the weary sentiment underlying its blackest lyrics.

The next afternoon, a clutch of people—some of whom had traveled from as far as Montreal and Los Angles—were invited to Joe’s Pub to hear the latest from Cohen, Old Ideas (Columbia). The album, Cohen’s 12th, arrives in record stores Tuesday. Its 10 songs are edited down to only the most necessary musical elements. In contrast to the heavier arrangements of his earlier work, the minimalism is so stark at times that the aftermath of a single string being plucked turns into its own sort of instrumentation, thanks to it having so much room to breathe. Cohen’s bottomless voice curls around sardonic phrases and lamentations about loves lost; the voices of his female collaborators, including longtime foils Sharon Robinson and Jennifer Warnes, swoop in and out, serving as airy counterpoints.

Label-mandated listening sessions for important new records can be sterile affairs, often set in conference rooms or disused offices. Setting the first listen to Old Ideas at the smartly renovated Joe’s Pub was a savvy move, because as the album played through on Friday, the feeling was not unlike being in church: The mid-winter dusk filtered through the windows of Joe’s Pub in such a way as to give the low-lit room an added glow; attendees had their heads bowed in concentration, only looking up to glance around the room or sip from the drinks in front of them; the lyric sheets strewn on each cocktail table served as hymnals, full of Cohen’s sly rhymes and self-lacerating observations. (The reference to a stone being rolled away on “Show Me the Place” and the cross-splinter imagery on the hymnlike “Come Healing” only added to that atmosphere.) “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd,” Old Ideas begins, and as if to bring that opening line full circle, the formerly reclusive singer was, in fact, in the building and ready to answer questions.

In 2009, I saw one of Cohen’s Beacon Theater shows, his first concerts in the United States after about 15 years. The performance didn’t show any signs of rust: He ran through his catalog with aplomb and inspired at least 10 standing ovations, and throughout, he was charming and gracious, going so far as to thank even the woman who took care of his hats. Friday’s appearance was no different. Even the most hard-headed journalists in the room seemed to be holding their breath, rapt with attention and asking questions with keen attention paid to each word he uttered in his singular voice. Which actually sounded a bit different than it had in previous years, he noted: “My voice is getting lower and lower because I gave up smoking. I expected it to rise. It went the other way.”

Cohen, seated at a table just below the stage, talked about the album, the goings-on in his own world (“My own personal life is as shabby, dismal, and uninteresting as the rest of ours,” he said at one point), and memories of his time living at the Chelsea Hotel, when things were so rough that he “believed in these powders . . . and bought a book on candles.” The book on candles proved to be a somewhat useful conversation piece with fellow Chelsea Hotel resident Edie Sedgwick. In an attempt to chat her up, he blurted out that the arrangement of candles in her room would probably catch fire one day, and, he claimed, that “one day” wound up being the day after he’d blurted out his warning.

It almost didn’t matter if the story were true or apocryphal. The room shook with laughter, the assembled collectively thrilled that they were hearing this tale of The Lost New York That Probably Won’t Be Coming Back Anytime Soon from as expert a storyteller as Cohen. Old Ideas, with its blend of lyrics old and new (including “Banjo,” a mournful tune about love and instruments lost that, Cohen said, was inspired by the imagery coming out of New Orleans post-Katrina) and its foregrounding of Cohen’s basso profundo, is similarly intimate, its 10 songs speaking to the heartache that everybody knows in a way that simultaneously enthralls and causes heartbreak.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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A Sid Vicious Story

A Sid Vicious Story
October 23, 1978

Before last Thursday, what I always thought of whenever anyone mentioned Sid Vicious’s name was what a photogra­pher friend who’d been on the Pistols’ American tour said when I asked him what Sid was like. “A dying child,” he an­swered, rather nonchalantly I thought. “Just like a giraffe that holds open its mouth and you throw the pills up.”

Thursday, of course, I got a little more to consider. Sid and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen had been seen stumbling into the elevator on the way to Room 100 in the Chelsea Hotel be­tween 4 and 6 a.m. According to hotel manager Stanley Bard, they were “loners” who slept most of the day, and were out most nights till about this time: “I didn’t know anything; wasn’t he supposed to be a rock star or something? He was off his rocker: a nice, quiet, pleasant person, but he and his girlfriend were always bruised, and they were both always inebriated or high. I had told them I was gonna throw them out, because they had been knocking at other people’s doors when they came home at night and couldn’t find their own apartment.”

On the whole, it had not been a good week for 21-year-old Sid and 20-year-old Nancy, who were registered as Mr. and Mrs. John Ritchie (Sid’s real name). The preceding Sunday, their room on the second floor had gone up in flames when Sid fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand; that was when the man­agement moved them down to 100. On Tuesday, according to one tenant, “Sid and Nancy went down to pay the rent — I was in the lobby at the time — and Sid was sayin’ ‘I couldn’t hit it, man,’ right in front of him. Nancy fell down on the sidewalk ’cause they were on Quaaludes and chipped her tooth and cut herself that day. Later she called me up and asked could I find her anything — I’d hit Sid up once. He couldn’t find a vein, so I hit him through his scar tissue. That afternoon before that morning was when we saw them most — they were all over the hotel looking for Dilaudid. That’s when I realized the incredible tolerance they had for junk.”

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Apparently they didn’t find any — there is a lot of junk around those parts, but according to another tenant the couple were so desper­ate, and their tolerance so high, that they had no regular dealer; everybody agrees that he was on Tuinals, which are known to make you mean, the night that it happened.

About the time New Zoo Revue gives way to Bugs Bunny, a friend of Sid and Nancy named Neon Leon, who lives on the same floor and has recently made himself scarce, reportedly heard someone knocking on his door. It was Sid and Nancy, bearing their most prized possessions: Sid’s leather jacket, his two gold records, all kinds of Sex Pistols memorabilia and letters from Pistols manag­er Malcolm McLaren. They asked him to hold the stuff for them and went back to their room. A bit later Leon heard someone pounding desperately at his door, but didn’t answer — he told a neighbor that at that point he was frightened. “Of what?” wondered the neighbor.

No one is too clear about what happened then or for the next couple of hours, but at around 9:45 Sid, who later told lawyers that he couldn’t remember anything, dialed 911 and, according to the hotel desk, said, “Someone is hurt.” When the ambulance at­tendants arrived they found Nancy’s body, nude except for a black bra, under the sink in the bathroom. She had been stabbed in the stomach, and had hemorrhaged.” They called the police, who showed up and promptly ar­rested Sid for what turned out to be a charge of second-degree murder. “We think it was just an argument that started and went too far, like most homicides,” Detective Gerald Thomas told me that afternoon as his associ­ates booked Sid, whose pupils looked they were made of wax, in the next room. “I would hold him responsible for her demise, but I couldn’t say whether it was accidental or not.”

Then the press moved in.

Sid Vicious was christened John Simon Ritchie on October 5, 1957. He comes from a broken home. He got beat up regularly by gangs in the neighborhood, and didn’t get along so well with certain visitors to the household. He quit school at 15, claiming lat­er it bored him. While there he had become friends with one John Lydon, later renamed Rotten, and it was John who tagged him “Sid Vicious,” saying in a later interview that he did it as a joke because Sid was so much the other way, and bristled at the name Sid be­cause he thought it sissified. (“So now I’m stuck with it,” laughed Sid at the time.) When a rift developed early in 1977 between Rotten and Glen Matlock, original bassist for the Pistols, Sid was the obvious replacement: he’d only been playing bass, in emulation of his idol Dee Dee Ramone, for about six months, but Sid had so much charisma that he soon almost eclipsed Rotten. At times the latter seemed perhaps a little too cerebral, even paranoid, whereas Sid was hewn of more gutbucket rock-hero stuff. No one knew what he bragged most about — all the girls he’d fucked, all the junk he’d shot, all the money he’d borrowed, or how he’d kicked shit out of rock writer Nick Kent, who later wrote an admiring profile of Sid in New Musical Express.

But a lot of people think that in reality he’s plenty more Sid than vicious. “Sid had bare­ly even smoked grass before the Pistols’ first gig at the 100 Club [March 30, 1976],” says one New Wave artist, and his friend Stiv Ba­tors of the Dead Boys, calling him “generally a very sweet guy,” said that although he’d heard Sid had quite a reputation as a street fighter back in London, he’d never seen him make a violent move, in fact had witnessed Sid backing down from fights. “It’s his reputation,” explains Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. “He’s got this thing about his image that he like tries to impress on people. There were two couples down souf in this caf’, and this one guy says, ‘You think you’re really tough, don’t you, well how about this?’ And takes a cigarette and puts it out on his hand. So Sid says, ‘How about this?’ and takes his knife, slashes open his wrist, pours the blood on his cereal, and eats it. That was just the way ‘e was. ’E just did it to prove ’e was tough. He’d rather have a scar on ’is face and not have anybody laugh at ’im for the other thing.”

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All this must have impressed Nancy Spungen. From a well-heeled suburban Philadelphia family, she came to New York in 1975, gravitated to the people hanging around the Heartbreakers, supposedly started doing junk. When the Heartbreakers moved to London, she went with them — “to be a rock star’s girlfriend,” says one friend. She ended up with Sid. By most accounts, not only were they terrible for each other, but the relationship was epically destructive. Not many people on the punk scene have anything good to say about Nancy Spungen. “Sid said to me on the American tour that Nancy was the only woman he ever loved,” says Blondie publicist Roberta Bayley. “He was very poetic about it. I guess she was per­fect for him — they could beat each other up every night and nobody’d mind. They had real fights. Sid really liked to get hit, getting the shit beat out of him. But it wasn’t like real s&m — more kiddie stuff.” “He was a real masochist and she was real dominant,” says Punk magazine’s Elin Wilder, while Malcolm McLaren, gearing up to claim a sui­cide, avers, “She was a known masochist. Many times she committed various masochis­tic acts to attract his attention when it seemed he was going over her. She would make herself ill, cut her wrists.”

Things had been deteriorating for the two since the Pistols broke up last spring, and by the time they arrived in New York on August 23, they were nearing bottom. She was managing him now, and there were some who said that Sid didn’t even want to play his aw­ful gig at Max’s last month, that she made him. Meanwhile, he was getting beaten up regularly on his way to the methadone clinic, which everybody said was why he bought the knife that supposedly killed her. Stiv Bators was with him the day he bought the knife. “The last thing I remember him tellin’ me, two days before it happened, he said he’d been fucked with so much he wasn’t afraid of getting beat up anymore. Then we took a cab up to Times Square and the two of them bought identical knives, 007 Blades, at Playland.”

“Everyone hated her,” said a friend who’d known them in England and lived at the Chelsea. “They didn’t go out much; too sick all the time. When Sid played Max’s he was so sick from methadone he couldn’t even talk. I think the chances he didn’t do it are very high. They played with knives all the time, just stabbing each other lightly. She could have fallen on the knife. I think he cared about her more than he cared about himself. Nancy said in England that Sid would be sick himself before he’d let her be sick. Sexually they had a really normal, good relationship. That was the strong point — the rest of it was just games. They got so wound up in the punk image, so conscious of who they were because the media kept pushing them. Of course they loved it. When I saw them in England, they looked good. When I saw them at the Chelsea, it looked like she’d been run over by a truck, both of them were covered with bruises and sores, and Sid couldn’t even talk enough to say hello.”

She appears to have been simultaneously his lifeline and, according to most accounts, his ruler. One Chelsea tenant described being introduced to him by Bators: “I held out my hand and she shook it, shielding Sid.” One Max’s habitué described an incident during his gig there: “A girl stopped to talk to Sid in the hallway. He talked to her till Nancy came by and screamed, ‘FUCK OFF!’ He snapped, slugged the other girl, smashed her head against the wall, almost cracked it open.”

A neighbor describes them a couple of hours before Nancy died: “I was afraid to get in the elevator with them — I saw them at 4 a.m. before it happened — not because of vio­lence but because I was afraid they’d vomit or fall down on me. He didn’t even look like he could lift a knife.”

Almost everyone who knew them on the punk scene feels that it was probably either an accident or suicide, but some of the Chel­sea Hotel’s other residents are inclined to look to the environment itself. “I’m scared to death,” said one woman. “People come into my room when I’m sleeping at night. We’ve heard them. They take your stuff when you’re not around; when they hear we’re here, they slam the door and run. Plus they don’t have anyone who asks what you want at the desk — anyone can walk in here and do anything. The police should close this place down, or at least investigate it and the man­ager a little more thoroughly. The maids are freaking out constantly — they’re always finding things like manure and blood in the rooms. You can come in here at 4 a.m. and nobody asks you where you’re going. This is dangerous. If somebody wanted to get in this room they could, because the door frame is loose, and so is the window shutter.

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“Who knows if Sid Vicious killed that girl? Everybody knows they had a lot of money. You could see big wads of it in her open purse while she wandered around on the nod. They always paid their rent in cash, and they were always dropping it in the lobby — even my eight-year-old daughter referred to him as ‘the man that’s always got a lot of money in his hand.’ My friend was coming up here that night and saw them — said they were all lovey-dovery. That girl was killed on the first floor — how come nobody heard her screaming? We don’t think Sid Vicious did it either, and if he didn’t, we wanna know because that killer might still be running around.”

Another tenant says: “My first flash was somebody came to the door and she opened it. I told Stanley I didn’t wanna be on the third floor or below, because that’s where most of the junkies are. He said, ‘What’s the matter with the third floor? I have 32 foreign-­language students staying down there.’ I guess he figured out that the junkies can walk up and down to the first three floors and not bother the other tenants in the elevators. But I don’t trust the employees either. I’ve seen ’em take money from people checking in at 5 a.m., and say ‘You have to leave at noon,’ and then just pocket the money. A girl on the —— floor finally put her own lock on her door because the bellboys kept coming in and out stealing cocaine and grass, finally stealing jewelry. She said, ‘That’s it, a joint now and then is cool, I don’t even mind the cocaine, but the jewels…’ Don’t put in the article what floor she’s on. One reason I’m saying that is because of my own paranoia of the employees. I don’t wanna get robbed myself.”

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While I was there I made one last attempt at contacting Neon Leon. I phoned his room and a male voice answered. He said that he’d given Leon my previous message, but that Leon wasn’t talking to anybody. “Do you know anything?” I asked.

“Them and one other party were in the room,” he said. “I know who it was but I don’t wanna say.”

“Was it a dealer?”

“I’m not sayin’ any more,” he snapped, and hung up.

On Friday, bail was set at $50,000, and Malcolm McLaren flew in. Sid spent the weekend detoxifying at Rikers Island, and by the time you read this McLaren should have him out. Malcolm says that a new Sid Vicious record produced by Steve Jones, supposedly to pay his legal fees, will be in the works “as soon as he’s capable. I’ve got a film of Sid from our movie that I’m going to show to the TV people over here, and what you will see in there is a tremendously charismatic per­former. I don’t think any of this is as clear­cut as it’s being made out to be. Is he inno­cent? Of course he is. Until proven guilty.”

A young woman is dead. I don’t care. You probably don’t care. The police don’t care. The papers don’t care. The punks for the most part don’t care.

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The only people that care are (I suppose) her parents and (I’m almost certain) the boy accused of murdering her. I have no idea whether he did it or not. I do think that they both wanted to die, and now she is dead, and I don’t imagine he cares much about living. Such a compliant sacrifice seems somehow unworthy of all this public attention — think of the scene in The Chelsea Girls where the S girl says of the bound M man, “This is no fun, he’s enjoying it too much!” — until you think of Gary Gilmore and remember how banal and straightforward this bloodlust is.

The only reason anybody much is interest­ed in this homicide in the first place is that he’s famous, and is supposed to stand for something. But since almost no one really cares about whatever it is he stands for — these little nerds yelping “please kill me” were gonna threaten this society? — we’re left with celebrity: Sid Vicious isn’t famous be­cause of the Sex Pistols (the American public cared about their music, much less what their lyrics were saying?), or even because he’s ac­cused of killing somebody — Sid Vicious is fa­mous now because he was semi-famous before.

Sid Vicious is a patsy. He should have been in the Stooges. A lot of people think he was used by the Sex Pistols organization; a lot of people think he still is being exploited. But that was nothing in comparison to what a great scapegoat he makes now. A case like this certainly does bring out the best in people.

Thursday night I went down to Max’s to see if I could find anybody who’d known Sid and Nancy. That was where I met Trixie Plunger. She works in a boutique called Re­venge, looks like she just slid out of a bin filled with flour and soot where she spent the last six months watching endless replays of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and told me: “I actually think it’s kind of cool. I really liked her, but it’s cool that him having the reputation he does he stabbed his girlfriend and she’s dead.”

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Trixie is no more typical of the people you meet on the punk scene than Sid and Nancy were, but quotes like that certainly are help­ful at moving products of various kinds. Saturday Night Live has already whipped up a Sid Vicious joke. “Free Sid Vicious” signs are appearing. There’s a picture of him at Bleecker Bob’s with “Mack the Knife” writ­ten on it. I’ve heard about one woman who has tapes of his sets at Max’s and is looking to get them pressed.

Meanwhile, Punk magazine had its annual awards ceremony Friday night and a party at a new club afterwards. Everybody had a great time, and what Sid Vicious talk you did hear mostly centered around how the public reaction to what happened Thursday at the Chelsea and in the papers since was going to affect the rest of them. Tish of Manic Panic and the Sic Fucks found out when she left the bar that night. A bunch of kids from the suburbs drove up, jumped out of their car, and surrounded her and her friends. One guy made an obnoxious sexual overture and she told him to get lost, so he gave her a right to the jaw that put her in the hospital.

Punk-bashing? It beats toga parties cold.