I turned 40 in October. I marked the occasion with my good friend and photographer, Emma Aylett, with whom I travelled to NYC to visit our mutual friend, legendary punk rock photographer Roberta Bayley. We stayed in the East Village, the birthplace of NY punk rock. We were given a guided tour of the iconic CBGB’s, where Roberta worked the door in 1974 and photographed the musicians who performed there: The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, X-Ray Spex… It’s a clothes shop now. A really posh one. That didn’t stop Roberta leading us around the fancy displays with her pug, Vera, though, and recounting stories of debauchery and filthy toilets. She took us to the spot where she shot The Ramones’ album cover, and because I’m a Northern chancer, I asked her to photograph us there too. And she did. And the moral of that little story is: shy bairnes get nowt. We visited the ex-residency of Allen Ginsberg, saw a Diane Arbus photography exhibition and found Transporterraum; our friend Gordon Raphael’s studio where he recorded and produced The Strokes debut album in 2001. We took the lift down to the basement and saw The Strokes’ graffiti on the wall. Let me tell you, as a fan girl of early 2000s NY rock, it was a pretty big moment for me. Then something crazy happened. Emma got us a room at The Hotel Chelsea. It had recently reopened after an 11 year makeover and, having found one room available, she took it as a sign from the rock n roll gods and booked it. I knew a bit about the hotel, but not much. I was intrigued by its reputation as a bohemian haven. I wanted to see for myself this former residency of Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol, Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison, Sid-and-fucking-Nancy; this oasis for dreamers and artists, the birthplace of such literature as Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and William Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’. I wanted to see and feel what was special about it and soak it all up. And we knew it was an excellent opportunity to do a photo shoot, in time for my new book release. The first thing you should know is that the rooms are now over 600 pounds a night. And the cocktails are about 50 quid a pop. Goodbye bohemian artists and hello hipsters. Stanley Bard, former proprietor of the hotel, would probably have something to say about that. The enigmatic, ‘Robin Hood of Innkeepers’ ran The Chelsea from 1964-2007; famously going above and beyond to house, nurture and support an assortment of talented artists and writers. He was fired in 2007, died in 2017, and is still held in mythical regard by The Chelsea Hotel veterans; the handful of tenants who, with rent protection and long-term contracts, still reside at the hotel today. These original Chelsea tenants, most of them in their 80s, have stuck fast through a gruelling 11 year renovation; tolerating the chaos of drilling, hammering, dust and debris just to keep their homes. Quite simply, they have refused to leave. As we walked up and down the floors, this made for an interesting and contrasting ambience; an exclusive boutique hotel with smart uniformed features, and the occasional psychedelic door popping out, adorned with artwork and leaking purple lighting and thick incense smoke. One floor was completely out of bounds. The first floor, home of the infamous room 100, where Nancy Spungen was found dead in her bathroom in October 1978, was bypassed by the elevator. So we took the stairs. Still under construction, we found ‘Room 1E’ at the end of the corridor. Listen, I know it’s creepy and morbid as fuck but hear me out. I’m a 90s riot grrrl, an ex-obsessive of Nancy Spungen. The 18 year old, bleach blonde, leather jacket clad version of me was not going to let me leave without going inside. So we did. We stood in the bathroom of room 100 and I swear to you, the white walls visibly shook. We left quickly. The next morning we began our photoshoot; Emma working her magic with the famously great lighting from the sky light and those iconic flowers on the grand central staircase. But there was one shot in particular she wanted. You know. That shot. The balcony shot with The Hotel Chelsea sign in the background. That shot. At breakfast we got talking to a journalist from Australia, who was writing an article about the reopening of the hotel. Coincidentally, he’d arrived a day early to see John Cooper Clarke, who was supposed to be performing at the Town Hall. But that’s another story. We got talking about how times have changed, how in 1884, the architect, Philip Hubert, had imagined it as a cooperative where residents could share living costs and immerse themselves in creative pursuits; where soundproof walls had separated pianists and writers and an exotic roof garden had provided a space for performers and stargazers. We talked about the ‘glory days’ of Stanley Bard, during which Bob Dylan created Blonde on Blonde, Leonard Cohen had a fling with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead performed on the rooftop and Edie Sedgwick set her room on fire. We talked about its former open house policy; its absence of social judgement, its unique and diverse mix of culture, rich and poor, of famous and unknown, influencing and inspiring one another’s worlds. We observed the new clientele and knew for sure that those days were over.That they had been a once in history rarity. A chance phenomenon. Another time in space. We told him we really wanted ‘that shot’ and he helped us out. He gave me a contact for the hotel’s PR consultant, and I put together a convincing sounding email request. She got straight back, asking for more information about my book. After a bit of toing and froing, she told me that unfortunately, they felt that poetry was not a good fit for the hotel’s new image. Yes. I’ll say that bit again. Poetry was not a good fit for the Hotel Chelsea. Heavy hearted, we stood up to leave and spotted something scurrying across the plush dining room carpet, skittering between Louis Vuitton clad feet and Chanel handbags. It was a mouse. A filthy old street mouse. And I tell you now, that raffish, roguish little rodent gave us hope. We packed up and left feeling a little lighter, still pondering the rejection, the hipsters, the mouse; what it symbolised to us and what we would take away. And we concluded with this: that no matter how hard they try to suppress it, how many layers of extravagance and indulgence they construct; like wild tree roots penetrating capitalist concrete, or psychedelic doors popping out of uniformed halls, or mice squeezing through cracks in hotel walls, the true Chelsea spirit will find a way to break on through.
About the Author
Toria was born in Knottingley in 1982. Her first book, ‘The Universe and Me’ was published in 2018 by Wrecking Ball press, and her upcoming collection ‘Another Time in Space’ is due to be released in December 2022. Toria is a regular tour support for Dr John Cooper Clarke and has performed extensively in venues across the UK and Europe.
Website: Toria Garbutt
Photo: Emma Aylett