March 31, 2014
Book Notes - Sherill Tippins "Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel"
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Sherill Tippins' Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel is as much a history of the Manhattan's renowned hotel as it is of the city itself, a book brimming with icons and observations both social and cultural.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Zealous, big-picture researcher Tippins not only tells compelling tales, she also weaves them into a strikingly fresh, lucid, and socially anchored history of New York's world-altering art movements. Though its future is uncertain, Tippins ensures that the Chelsea Hotel, dream palace and microcosm, will live on in our collective memory."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
In her own words, here is Sherill Tippins' Book Notes music playlist for her book, Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel:
Inside the Dream Palace never would have come into being if I hadn't been crossing West Twenty-Third Street during a thunderstorm one day and happened to glance up just in time to see a giant, forked bolt of lightning flash directly above that gargantuan neo-gothic edifice. For months, I'd avoided all suggestions that I follow up my previous study of a creative collaboration in Brooklyn, February House, with a history of the largest and longest-lived artists' community in the world, New York's Chelsea Hotel. It was too big a project, I protested, involving hundreds of artists and thousands of stories. As one of the Chelsea's own residents, the Spoon River Anthology author Edgar Lee Masters' mistress Alice Davis, once protested, "This saga will never be written…The Chelsea Hotel is an 11-volume work!" But already, a little casual research at the New York Public Library had turned up such bizarre stories of utopian visionaries and graft-hungry politicians, immigrant-labor activists and gentleman dabblers in paint—not to mention the better-known tales of Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, Arthur C. Clarke and Arthur Miller—that I felt myself drawn ever-closer to the pile of red bricks near Madison Square. That rainy day on Twenty-Third Street, the bolt of lightning served as the final straw: the Chelsea Hotel was calling and I surrendered.
Now, seven years later, faced with the task of choosing a mere dozen or so selections from the embarrassment of musical riches associated with the Chelsea's history, I find myself overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of choices in much the same way. As there were so many stories, there are simply so many wonderful songs. Given the situation, I think the best approach is to share with you the Chelsea music I listened to most while writing its history. I hope it will prove as revelatory and entertaining for you as it was for me.
"Chelsea Hotel No. 2" by Leonard Cohen
I know, this famous song celebrating Cohen's romantic encounter with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea is hardly revelatory or even original as a first selection, but since it's so closely identified with the hotel's greatest era—and such a lovely, nostalgic look back at the artist's life in New York—that we may as well get it over with. Besides, Cohen's light-and-shadows evocation of Chelsea life, with such lyrics as "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…" makes for a perfect soundtrack for reading Dream Palace's introduction, with its overview of 130 years of creative life in New York.
"Hallelujah" by Rufus Wainwright
I know, two songs by Leonard Cohen in a row – but this version, sung by Rufus Wainwright, a later arrival to the Chelsea, perfectly expresses both the utopian spirit that informed the Chelsea's creation and the romance and sense of disillusionment that followed, so I couldn't resist. The Chelsea was created by Philip Hubert, a French refugee from the 1848 uprising in France, who brought with him the utopian writer Charles Fourier's vision of a freer, more diverse, more creative communal life. Fourier wrote that society should serve as a framework containing all types of individuals living side by side, unimpeded and uninhibited, in such a way that all voices are free to combine to create a glorious human symphony. He compared his ideal community to a piano whose notes sing forth with the music of the angels. What better music, then, to accompany Chapter One?
"Go Down Moses" by the Harlem Gospel Singers
"That is as great as a Beethoven theme!" Antonin Dvořák cried when he first heard this song, performed by the great African-American baritone Harry Thacker Burleigh, in 1892. Dvořák had been imported to New York to head the National Conservatory of Music, and while he sternly instructed such composition students as Chelsea resident Laura Sedgwick Collins in the traditions of European music, he urged them to draw on the rich mother lode of African-American plantation songs and spirituals, as well as the sounds of the whistling boys, organ grinders, rattling trains and moaning ships of the great city of New York. While Dvořák himself tried to set an example with his "New York Symphony" (a.k.a. "Symphony no. 9"), the white, middle-class music students and practitioners at the Chelsea had trouble evoking the experience of former slaves and sharecroppers whose paths had never crossed their own. Despite the fact that from its beginning the Chelsea had provided a home for a passionate American realist movement in literature, painting, music, and theater, it would take decades for the seeds planted in the nineteenth century to produce true American art in the twentieth. These tender beginnings of an American arts tradition were documented in fascinating detail by the famous writer and former Chelsea resident William Dean Howells in a book, The Coast of Bohemia, in which a young, romantic art student leads a friend to her top-floor art studio with the promise, "I'm going to show you where I live, where I dream."
"Pie in the Sky" by Joe Hill
From the beginning, the Chelsea attracted artists with a particular interest in the workings of American society. By the early twentieth century, the utopian thinkers and realist writers had given way to such politically-aware artists such as the Ashcan painter John Sloan, the poet Edgar Lee Masters, and the novelist Thomas Wolfe. Long before he moved to the Chelsea in the 1930s, John Sloan had joined the Socialist Party, served as art director for the visually stunning political journal, The New Masses, and joined with the International Workers of the World to help striking mill workers from Paterson, New Jersey stage a great pageant in Madison Square Garden to communicate their plight to the citizens of New York. In the process, Sloan got to know the beautiful poster girl for socialism Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The two shared a fascination with I.W.W. lyricist Joe Hill's method of pairing political lyrics with traditional hymns and Tin Pan Alley tunes to create songs that could galvanize a diverse and largely illiterate working population. Years later, at the Chelsea, Sloan would often play this music, collected by then in The Little Red Songbook, during evenings spent grousing about politics with Edgar Lee Masters. When Elizabeth Gurley Flynn moved into the hotel in the 1960s, after her appointment as national chairman of the American Communist Party, she hung the original copy of Joe Hill's song-tribute to her, "The Rebel Girl," on her Chelsea Hotel wall.
"Acadian Songs and Dances" by Virgil Thomson
The composer and music critic Virgil Thomson, who moved into the Chelsea in the 1930s, found it to be not only a delightfully Parisian-style haven where his homosexuality went unquestioned and unremarked, but also the perfect place to develop his own argument for a strong American musical tradition capable of standing up to the waves of European immigrants soon to arrive. At the Chelsea, Thomson composed scores for everything from the Depression-era, W.P.A.-funded documentary The River to "The Filling Station," a ballet based on a newspaper article choreographed by Lew Christensen. Thomsons's "Acadian Songs and Dances" were composed to enhance the stunning 1948 film Louisiana Story, directed by his Chelsea Hotel neighbor, the master of poetic realism Robert Flaherty. At the same time, Thomson worked to make his Chelsea Hotel suite the center of a circle of American modernists that included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Leonard Bernstein, Willem De Kooning, and many other geniuses of mid-twentieth-century New York.
"Marie" by the Tommy Dorsey Band
Again and again in the course of the Chelsea Hotel's history, the artists' momentum is cruelly broken by the onset of war. Edgar Lee Masters' son Hilary was just a young child when the United States entered World War II, but he still remembers how the Chelsea's owners cleared the second floor to house U. S. Marines in transit, and how the soldiers played this song so loudly on the jukebox in the hotel restaurant that the walls literally vibrated. Hilary's father was so enervated by all the noise and activity associated with the military presence that he suffered a physical collapse in his room in December 1943 and was removed by ambulance to Bellevue Hospital. He would never see the Chelsea Hotel again.
"The Pushers" by Dizzy Gillespie
Following the war, though, the creative culture at the Chelsea only grew stronger. The experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke moved into the hotel's pyramid-shaped penthouse with the African-American actor Carl Lee, with whom she collaborated on The Cool World, a stunning look at Harlem in the gritty 1960s and the first full-length feature film shot in that neighborhood. Shirley's neighbor Richard Leacock, a political radical who'd gotten his start as Flaherty's assistant on Louisiana Story, trained Harlem residents to work on the film, while other locals worked as actors. The film failed to find the wide audience it deserved as its mainstream distributor released it only in ghetto neighborhoods with such exploitative ad headlines as "Hooker! Fuzz! Junk! Rumble!"
"James Alley Blues" by Richard "Rabbit" Brown
It was Shirley Clarke who brought to the Chelsea her friend Harry Smith, a musicologist-filmmaker-occultist whose 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, a compilation of oddball blues, gospel, Cajun, Appalachian and religious songs, had sparked the Greenwich Village folk-music renaissance that would alter American culture forever. This was the music that influenced Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and so many other famous musicians who would pass through the Chelsea in the years to come.
After you've listened to this version of the song from Smith's Anthology, you might enjoy sampling the version performed by David Johansen and the Harry Smiths on the tribute album The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited.
"Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" by Bob Dylan
"Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writing ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' for you," sings Dylan in his 1975 song, "Sara," a tribute to the woman who drew him to the Chelsea Hotel and who would become his first wife during their time there. It's questionable how much of "Sad-Eyed Lady" actually was written at the Chelsea, but certainly that song and most of Blonde on Blonde, the album where it appears, was inspired by Dylan's life at the hotel surrounded by underground filmmakers, playwrights and poets, folksingers and circus performers. The Chelsea Hotel was where Dylan was forced to come to terms with the cost of his own fame. In 1966, he retreated to Woodstock to raise his family and never lived at the Chelsea again.
"Gloria" by Patti Smith
In her book Just Kids, Patti Smith describes how thrilling it was to sit in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, watching the rock stars pass to and fro while scribbling fragments of poetry in a notebook in her lap. On her debut album Horses, Patti's stunning rendition of the Van Morrison song "Gloria" begins with the phrase, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" – a slightly-altered line from her poem "Oath," penned in that lobby at the Chelsea. Smith's career as a writer, performer and singer truly began at the Chelsea, enriched by friendships with such neighbors as Harry Smith, Johnny Winter, Sam Shepard, the poet Jim Carroll, and many, many others.
"Chelsea Burns" by Keren Ann
During the late 1970s, as stagflation crippled the city outside the Chelsea's doors and the hotel itself grew increasingly shabby and run-down, fires became so frequent that the residents began almost to look forward to them as an excuse for socializing and catching up on gossip while relocated by firemen to the El Quijote Restaurant on the Chelsea's ground floor. After all, they told reporters, they took it for granted by now that there would be a fire or a suicide or a murder at the Chelsea every year. The singer-songwriter Keren Ann was inspired by one of these fires, started by a woman setting fire to her ex-lover's clothes, to write this sad song about the end of a love affair—a song that could apply to the Chelsea itself at this time as well.
"My Way" by Sid Vicious
Just after Sex Pistols' disastrous U.S. tour and the breakup of the band, and just before Sid Vicious' arrival at the Chelsea with his girlfriend and new manager Nancy Spungen in 1978, Sid visited Paris with Nancy in tow and recorded this version of the Frank Sinatra classic. The song, which encapsulated all the fury and pugnacious rebelliousness of the punk movement that had inhabited the Chelsea in recent months, would prove to be Vicious' biggest earner. Unfortunately, the $25,000 royalty payment he received was spent mostly on drugs, and it was on a typically drug-infused night that Nancy was stabbed to death in the bathroom of their first-floor room at the Chelsea. Although evidence was scant that Vicious had been the murderer – with most visitors from the night before insisting that he'd been passed out under the influence of thirty tablets of Tuinal and incapable of walking to the bathroom, much less wielding a knife –New York City detectives were quick to pin the murder on the punk musician. Vicious himself died of a heroin overdose four months later – before the case could go to trial – leaving the owners and residents of the Chelsea to endure the effects of the hotel's ruined reputation for decades to come.
"Alabama Song" by Lotte Lenya
Throughout the 1970s, Harry Smith worked on a film shot at the Chelsea Hotel and featuring such residents and visitors as Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe and Allen Ginsberg in cameo roles. The film, titled Mahagonny and inspired by the opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, was intended as a dystopian portrait of 1970s New York—a city (like Brecht's imaginary Mahagonny) dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure "provided you can pay for it," where the only crime was to run out of money. Throughout the decade he spent making the film, Smith played the original recording of the Brecht/Weill album—including this song by Lotte Lenya – over and over in his room at the Chelsea, despite his neighbors' complains that the harsh sounds were making their ears bleed. For me, nothing evokes the dark 1970s era of the Chelsea and of New York like this particular song.
"Poses" by Rufus Wainwright
Through the 1980s, ‘90s, and into the twenty-first century, the Chelsea Hotel residents struggled to recover from the trauma of Nancy Spungen's murder and the aura of decadence pervading lingering in the wake of decades of drug use, violence, and scandal. The Chelsea continued to welcome artists, however – including Rufus Wainwright, who spent six months at the Chelsea preparing his second album, Poses. The title track evokes the wistful, self-conscious atmosphere of the Chelsea at this time, as long-time residents shared space with wannabe new tenants and the constant stream of tourists passing through. As always, the Chelsea continued to welcome all comers, processing the full range of American energy that coursed through its corridors and stairways. And so we hope it will continue, following its renovation by a new owner, when the Chelsea once again opens its magnificent doors.
Sherill Tippins and Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel links:
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