Your Worst Dragons Are Your Best Teachers

PHOTOGRAPH BY ELI REED/MAGNUM

PHOTOGRAPH BY ELI REED/MAGNUM

Amie and I lived around the corner from the Chelsea Hotel during the second term of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At that moment in our lives, newly married and full of that kind of hope, we nonetheless observed with concern the culture of the USA changing radically around us. New York City, in particular seemed an epicenter for the demonization of “welfare queens” (Reagan terminology) and homeless people (of which there was a sudden massive increase due to various social safety nets being eliminated, a result of the “Reagan revolution”), while the values associated with speculative money, and cronyism, were ascendant.

It seems to me in hindsight that it was the moment when entrepreneurial capitalism receded as a driving force of the culture, giving way to a strong strain of some other form of capitalism. A much darker, or at least shadier, form that culminated in the economic tragedies of recent years in the USA, including contagious sub-strains that made their way to Europe and can be seen in the Greek tragedy today.

Reading that the Chelsea Hotel is g0ing “boutique” is at first depressing, but then not; it is a reminder of how New York City has been transformed by the new rules of capitalism; yet encouraging, even if the Chelsea Hotel’s role as an institution will be lost, because some of its core values remain intact as residents live out their terms there. The heartless strain of capitalism that bred and multiplied in the 1980s, which we have thought monstrous, has forced us to look for answers, which in turn has led us to the entrepreneurial conservation concept that animates our work, daily. The dragon sometimes teaches:

At a moment when the once beautifully entangled fabric of New York life seems to be unravelling thread by thread—bookstore by bookstore, restaurant by restaurant, and now even toy store by toy store—it might be time to spare a thought or two for the Chelsea Hotel. At the hotel on Twenty-third Street, famously rundown and louche—the Last Bohemia for the Final Beatniks, our own Chateau Marmont, where Dylan Thomas drank and Bob Dylan wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and Leonard Cohen wore (or didn’t; people argue) his famous blue raincoat, and Sid Vicious killed (or didn’t; they argue that, too) Nancy Spungen—the renovators and gentrifiers have arrived. The plastic sheeting is everywhere, the saws buzz and the dust rises. In a short time, the last outpost of New York bohemia will become one more boutique hotel.

But, unusually, in this case the new owners have a sense of what they own, and of its past, and so the Chelsea Hotel’s passage is being celebrated rather than hushed up: this week, a group of young players is reviving the play “Cowboy Mouth,” by Patti Smith and Sam Shepherd, which tells the story of their love affair in the hotel, with the play put on by a group called Young Artists at The Chelsea right there in the building itself. Even more unusually, the senior citizens of the place are mostly safe. Owing to some decent social activism within the hotel’s community, the long-time residents have been allowed to stay on past the reopening—paying the rents they paid, and remaining the institutional memory of an eccentric but essential institution.

Paramount among them is Gerald Busby, composer, pianist, author of one of the great modern dance scores (Paul Taylor’s “Runes”), H.I.V. survivor, and also, at one time, as he confides openly, a crack addict. In his tiny studio apartment, complete with piano, at the hotel—his old door now covered but not concealed by plastic sheeting—on a good morning you can still find him holding forth on art, life, music, Robert Altman, Virgil Thomson, the crack epidemic, and the many uses of hotel (and human) adversity.

“I first moved in here in 1977, “ he said the other morning. “I’ve written at least four hundred and seventy-five separate pieces here. Ninety-eight per cent of everything I’ve ever written was written here in the Chelsea Hotel.” A sparkling man, still drawling in his native Texas accent, given to sudden, uproarious laughter and surprising citations from the philosophers he studied at Yale, Busby has seen a lot and remembers it all. A child prodigy on the piano—“I was playing with the Houston Symphony when I was fifteen”—he kicked around a bit after Yale, selling textbooks and cooking for friends in small restaurants around the city.

Names that were once (and, some, still) legend fall naturally, rather than drop self-consciously, from his lips. “It was Virgil Thomson who brought me here,” he said. “I had just finished a movie with Robert Altman called ‘A Wedding.’ I played a Baptist preacher, which is my background—just channelled all that stuff I remembered from my childhood. But I didn’t have a place to live. I had written the score for the Altman film ‘3 Women’ earlier that year. How I got the job, Altman had cassettes of mine and two other composers, and in his offices he would get drinks and smoke grass with the actors. He had a stopwatch and he timed how much silence elapsed until someone spoke. Very Zen. The longest period of silence was mine.”

“I met Virgil Thompson through another young composer, who had me cook a meal for him. He didn’t care for the young composer, but while he was eating he said, ‘Who made this food?’ And I was brought out of the kitchen, and we became buddies. His teaching wasn’t really about music. It was the distillation of everything down to its most practical terms. He would say, ‘Masochists and slaves ask “Why?” Masters ask “How?” I will answer no question that begins with the word “why.” ’ He had that rough, plain Kansas blood and that very elegant sophisticated French polish. Not a nice person at all, but brilliant. He liked to be definitive, and he was. Anyway, I told him, ‘Virgil, I just finished working on “A Wedding,” I need a place to live.’ He picked up the phone and called Stanley Bard and said, ‘This is the kind of person you’re supposed to have here.’ And I was in.”

Stanley Bard was the legendary manager of the Chelsea Hotel. “He was a very bizarre and precisely gifted casting director. He was just a rather bourgeois, not terribly intellectual man—it was all instinct. Three Hungarian Jews, in 1947, bought this place for fifty thousand dollars; one ran the desk, one did the plumbing, one did the books, I think. But Stanley emerged as the maître d’ and he knew how to mix the clientele. He loved it. And it all depended on him.”…

Read the whole post here.

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