or Somewhere In The Suburbia Of Manhattan

The Story of a Legendary New York City Hotel

Text and photos by Christof Graf

For some, they are the odd spots of boredom, for others havens of relaxation. For some they mean necessary evil, others use them as roadside rests on a long journey. Then again others use hotels and make them the center of their living.The Chelsea Hotel even became an oasis within the breeding grounds of New York's Beat Generation.

New York City is the biggest concert arena, the largest open air festival on earth and it's not long-haired hard rockers or skinny techno freaks who are the main actors but the canyons of houses, the skyscapers and the frantic pace of a postmodern society that is setting the trends for the rest of the world. This is the center of the universe, this is where it all starts. Arts, culture and commerce. Pure Rock 'n'Roll. New York, New York is swinging, jazzing, rocking and rolling.

Who's talking 'New York' actually mostly talks about Manhattan, although the other parts of N.Y., The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island are accounting for most of its space and population. But Manhattan is like nothing else. Nowhere else, you are so stunned and impressed by people and architecture, technics and art, speed and rhythm. This city is a child of Rock'n'Roll in every way, the constant "Walk On The Wild Side" that Lou Reed used to sing about. This is equally true for stock brokers, businessmen or visitors as for writers, painters or musicians.

One of the crucial points is to find one's own natural rhythm which for europeans also means to turn back the clock six hours upon arriving at Kennedy Airport, which is located about 90 minutes outside of downtown New York.

Beginning at this point, you're irritated by a fact that happens to bewilder most first time european visitors in the U.S., that is that you're adressed very friendly by people completey unbeknownst to you, telling you about their friends and family and all kinds of things. Some of them tell you things you would't even want to tell your friends back home about.

You might think, what a friendly crowd and might want to offer your heartfelt friendship. But what Europeans are getting wrong is that Americans are very well able to distinguish between openness and frienship ,that they just have a different understanding of what, and how much to tell strangers. What one is saying is not necessarily what the other is understanding. What's happening is that Americans are surprised to learn how easy Europeans offer their friendship, thinking of them as rather superficial. Got the picture ? OK then, let's start our trip to Manhattan because we will encounter this situation again, masterfully re-created by Woody Allen in his movies again and again. The second, everlasting impression of the city is equally impressing: everything is bigger, brighter, louder, no matter if it's day or night. It is 'The city that never sleeps'.

For those who can deal with all those impressions, who are swinging with the rhythm of the city, who are playing their own Rock'n'Roll instead of getting the blues, their first won't be the last visit in New York. He's addicted from now on. The city becomes most beautiful if you let yourself float with the stream. It's the only way to discover the real New York City away from the sightseeing trips and tourist attractions and to get in some sort of pioneering spirit.

A sightseeing tour for free is offered by the Staten Island Ferry crossing the river between Staten Island and Manhattan. Every half an hour it brings a stream of busy people to and fro at free of charge. Those who also want to enjoy the long, sand beaches of Staten Island should reckon about half a day for this trip. Back in the buzz of the Urban Jungle it is useful to take the same points of orientation as the drivers of the famous yellow cabs. The southside of Manhattan is consisting of the Financial District, including Wallstreet and the World Trade Center.

Then, next to Tribeca (the Triangle Below Canal Street), we have Chinatown and SoHo, Little Italy and the Lower East Side heading up north. After this we're getting to Greenwich Village and Chelsea, the bohemian and artists quarters. It's here that the characteristic rectangular system of streets begins. It exists since 1811 and it reaches way up to even include 155th Street.

Fifth Avenue is, besides Park Avenue, not only a very glamourous avenue, but it also divides East and West in the city (From right -West- to left -East- we have First to Eleventh Avenue, from bottom -South- to top -North- we have First to 155th Street). By the way, Central Park starts at 59th Street.

If you want to check out the trails of the Beat Generation in nowadays New York City, you can't avoid to visit Greenwich Village and Chelsea. The ones who are looking for Rock'n'Roll history, searching for the spirits of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison, Nico or Patti Smith are likely to find some of it within the red brick walls of the Chelsea Hotel, located at 222, West 23rd St. between Seventh and Eight Avenue, where in the past many a famous song has been written.

Greenwich Village is one of the very few areas of Manhattan that does neither have the rectangular street pattern nor is part of his numbering system. Here, the streets still bow and bend at will and also, there still are a lot of green surroundings everywhere. People were living in Greenwich Village long before the decision was made to pave ways and build houses up to 155th Street. This is why the european character of the 'Village' is still intact in spite of the skyscrapers up north. But building modern Manhattan has threatened to destroy the quarter.

Only thanks to the imigration of artists, creative and critical spirits to the Village around the turn of the century, its charme could have been preserved. In the fifties, the Village became attractive for the beatnicks. In the sixties, the hippies came. In the seventies and eightees, it was the Rock'n'Rollers and everybody who wanted to be hip who made Greenwich Village and neighboring Chelsea symbols of the New York way of life. One of the particular spots is the Chelsea Hotel, meanwhile under national protection. This place is talking more about popular culture and its artists than any other spot in the Village.

The Chelsea was famous even back at a time when Mark Twain was living in one of its rooms. Thomas Wolfe and Arthur Miller have been living and writing there. Miller, who stayed six years at the Chelsea described the famous artist's hotel like this: This hotel does not belong to America. There are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and shame...it's the high spot of the surreal. Cautiously, I lifted my feet to move across bloodstained winos passing out on the sidewalks--and I was happy. I witnessed how a new time, the sixties, stumbled into the Chelsea with young, bloodshot eyes.

Until 1884, the Chelsea Hotel was the highest building in New York City. Today it is burried somewhere in the suburbia of Manhattan. The glamor of ancient time has been nagged away by the destruction done by the years. Only the main entrance with its memorial plates is reminding us of the great past of the hotel. The lobby is resembling an art gallery consisting of objects that sometimes were kept by the hotel management in lieu of payment for a rent long overdue.

The reception desk looks like straight out of an old black & white Hollywood movie. Both lifts seem to move in slow motion up and down the ten-story building. Sometimes, the inside of the hotel looks like a barracs. But holes in the floors, sqeeking waterpipes or breathing heatpipes only add to the ambiente of the hotel. Nonchalance is being cultivated in this place. Luxury is unwanted. Usefulness, atmosphere and non-conformism are dominating.

Pompousness is looked down upon, nonetheless there is tidyness all over the place. In the last five years, a lot of money has been spend upon the restauration of the victorian-gothic building with its many oriels.

Even today, only 100 of the Chelsea's 400 'units' are available to 'normal' New York visitors, the rest of them is occupied by permanent residents. The most beautiful of all (# 600) is a luxury suite which has a marble floor and a bronze fireplace and is currently rented to the gay couple writing love stories under the moniker "Judith Gould". If you want to stay at the Chelsea, you'd be better adviced to book at least two months ahead, even if it's only a ordinary room. You rather pay for the famousness of the hotel than for the rooms themselves. You can get a room facing the street at about $ 140 and the Chelsea is highly recommended for people who love something special.

Every room at the Chelsea tells its own story. In # 205, welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who reputedly inspired young Zimmerman to change his name to Bob Dylan, fell into a fatal coma after having 18 whiskies in a row. # 100 was once occupied by Sid Vicious, bass player with The Sex Pistols, and his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon. On the morning of October 11, 1978 Spungeon was found in the bathroom, stabbed to death.

Viscious, arrested under suspicion of murder, died shortly thereafter of a heroin overdose. Jimi Hendrix lived, loved and experimented here, with drugs and other things. Janis Joplin did not only have a love affair with Southern Comfort but also had a short liaison with Leonard Cohen. The canadian rock poet, too, loved the hotel: It's one of those hotels that have everything that I love so well about hotels. I love hotels to which, at four a.m., you can bring along a midget, a bear and four ladies, drag them to your room and no one cares about it at all.

His song Chelsea Hotel is not only a remembrance of past loves with the likes of Janis Joplin or Nico, it's also a declaration of love towards the hotel: I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/ You were taking so brave and so free/ Giving me head on the unmade bed/ While the limousines wait in the street/ Those were the reasons and that was New York/ I was running for the money and the flesh/ That was called love for the workers in song/ Probably still is for those of us left.

The list of Big Names of literature, music or the arts scene who stayed at the Chelsea is seemingly bottomless: Jane Fonda, Jackson Pollock, Brendan Behan, Sarah Bernhardt to name but a few. They all encountered tragedies and comedies. They wrote short stories, movie scripts and novels and painted their pictures. They completed their movies within their heads, long before the actual shooting took place. Some of them had fatal endings...

For many, the Chelsea was a hideout or regular adress for many years, remembers Stanley Bard, who's been the hotel manager for almost 40 years now. Some of them lived here over decades. It was only recently that punk-icon Patti Smith moved out.

Stanley Bard appears to be friendly but keeps distance, on the other hand he's happy about reminicing every once in a while and he points out the bookcase in his office. I'm collecting every book that has been written in my hotel, he says taking out Thomas Wolfe's novel You Can't Go Home. Many things have happened here, he continues. Jim Morrison, Hendrix and Janis Joplin were having their drug parties here. Today, there's a 'No Smoking' sign in the hotel lobby.

For many years, Bob Dylan used to live in suite # 2011, # 411 was Janis Joplin's suite. Over the years, Leonard Cohen has lived in many rooms. I like to think of him, back then. He was one of the very few calm ones in these tumultous times. But perhaps his restlessness was better hidden than that of the others. Most of his time in New York in the sixties he was living at # 424. Long after this, Jon Bon Jovi wrote the song and shot his video for 'Midnight At Chelsea" in suite # 515.

But Bard refuses to talk about the mysterious Viscious/Spungeon murder case. That's a different story, he says but he's proud of Andy Warhol's love for the hotel. In the 60s, Warhol and Nico have done a movie, Chelsea Girl, at the hotel. All in all it has been a turbulent time back then, Stanley Bard resumes and wistfully finishes, I don't want to have missed any moment in the life of the Chelsea Hotel.

There's hardly been an artist who has lived in the Chelsea that was not in some way captured by its flair, says Patti Smith. Of course, Leonard Cohen is amongst them and with his song Chelsea Hotel No.2 he not only remembers his former lover Janis Joplin but also puts up a monument to his former hunting trails.

Nonetheless, the song has not been written at the Chelsea. I wrote this for an American singer who died a while ago. She used to stay at the Chelsea, too. I began it at a bar in a Polynesian restaurant in Miami in 1971 and finished it in Asmara, Ethiopia just before the throne was overturned. Ron Cornelius helped me with a chord change in an ealier version, Cohen remarks in the liner notes 'Some Notes On The Songs' of his 1975 Greatest Hits compilation.

Cohen recorded the song in the studio as late as 1974 at the sessions for his album New Skin For The Old Ceremony but premiered the song live on March 23, 1972 at the third show of his London, Royal Albert Hall residency.

Chelsea Hotel No.2, yes, but is there a Chelsea Hotel No.1 ? The answer is No, at least where Cohen's 'official' records are concerned. But, like Bob Dylan, who is varying his set list at every show to keep in fans constantly on their toes, Cohen, too, not seldomly presents radically different versions of his songs, changing lines or adding whole verses. The following version, differing from the officially released one, is commonly known as Chelsea Hotel No.1 and is featured in Tony Palmer's 1972 tour-movie Bird On A Wire. Cohen also performed this version at his show in Frankfurt on April 6, 1972.

The Chelsea Hotel in 1998
222, West 23rd St, New York City,

Lobby of Chelsea Hotel...

Some details in the lobby *)

Art in the lobby *)

...and the foyer

Leonard Cohen singing
"Chelsea Hotel # 2"

Bob Dylan lived in
the hotel (in room # 205)...
in the Sixties

Joan Baez

Jon Bon Jovi's movie
"Chelsea At Midnight" was
inspired by the well-known
New Yorker Hotel

Photos © by Christof Graf.
Photos marked with *
by Dick Straub & Lizzie Madder.
Used by permission.
And thanks to Lizzie
for the postcard.

Visit the website of the Hotel

Chelsea Hotel # 1

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were taking so brave and so free
Giving me head on the unmade bed
While the limousines wait in the street

(And) Those were the reasons and that was New York
I was running for the money and the flesh
That was called love for the workers in song
Probably (It) still is for those of us/them left

But You got away, didn't you baby
You just threw it all to the ground
You got away, they can't pay you now
For mailing your sweet little song

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
In the winter of sixty-seven
My friends of that year they were all trying to go queer
And me I was just getting even
And me I was just getting even
And me I was just getting even

(And) those were the reasons and that was New York
I was running for the money and the flesh
That was called love for the workers in song
Probably (It) still is for those of us/them left

But you got away, didn't you baby
You just threw it all to the ground
You got away they can't pay you now
For making your sweet little sound

© by Leonard Cohen.
Reprinted with permission.

Chelsea Hotel # 2

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed,
while the limousines wait in the street.

Those were the reasons and that was New York,
we were running for the money and the flesh.
And that was called love for the workers in song
probably still is for those of them left.

Ah but you got away, didn't you babe,
you just turned your back on the crowd,
you got away, I never once heard you say,
I need you, I don't need you,
I need you, I don't need you
and all of that jiving around.

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
you were famous, your heart was a legend.
You told me again you preferred handsome men
but for me you would make an exception.
And clenching your fist for the ones like us
who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
you fixed yourself, you said, "Well never mind,
we are ugly but we have the music."

Ah but you got away, didn't you babe,
you just turned your back on the crowd,
you got away, I never once heard you say,
I need you, I don't need you,
I need you, I don't need you
and all of that jiving around.

I don't mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
I can't keep track of each fallen robin.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
that's all, I don't even think of you that often.

© by Leonard Cohen.
Reprinted with permission.

Christof Graf is the author of three books on Leonard Cohen:
So long, Leonard, (Germany 1990)
Partisan der Liebe, (Germany 1996
Leonard Cohen - Eine Hommage/Un Hommage, (Germany 1997)