3/12/12 - patti smith and the chelsea hotel

In today's excerpt -  in 1967, the summer of love and riots in New York City, rock and roll legend Patti Smith and the provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe began a deep, life long relationship, which ended in 1989 when Mapplethorpe died of AIDS. Struggling and unknown, the pair, both in their early twenties, moved into the infamous Chelsea Hotel surrounded by poets, musicians and artists. Here Patti Smith recounts the moment:

"I had no concept of what life at the Chelsea Hotel would be like when we checked in, but I soon realized it was a tremendous stroke of luck to wind up there. We could have had a fair-sized railroad flat in the East Village for what we were paying, but to dwell in this eccentric and damned hotel provided a sense of security as well as a stellar education. The goodwill that surrounded us was proof that the Fates were conspiring to help their enthusiastic children.

"It took a while, but as Robert got stronger and more fully recovered [he was suffering from both trench mouth and gonorrhea], he thrived in Manhattan as I had toughened in Paris. He soon hit the streets looking for work. We both knew he could not function holding a steady job, but he took on any odd employment he could get. His most hated job was carting art to and from galleries. It irked him to labor on behalf of artists he felt to be inferior, but he was paid in cash. We put every extra cent in the back of a drawer to go toward our immediate goal—a larger room. It was the main reason we were so diligent paying our rent.

"Once you secured your room at the Chelsea, you weren't immediately kicked out if you got behind on the rent. But you did become part of the legion hiding from Mr. Bard. We wanted to establish ourselves as good tenants since we were on a waiting list for a bigger room on the second floor. I had seen my mother closing all the venetian blinds on many a sunny day, hiding from loan sharks and bill collectors throughout my childhood, and I had no desire to cower in the face of Stanley Bard. Mostly everybody owed Bard something. We owed him nothing. ...

"A week or two later I waltzed into the El Quixote. It was a bar-restaurant adjacent to the hotel, connected to the lobby by its own door, which made it feel like our bar, as it had been for decades. Dylan Thomas, Terry Southern, Eugene O'Neill, and Thomas Wolfe were among those who had raised one too many a glass there. I was wearing a long rayon navy dress with white polka dots and a straw hat, my East of Eden outfit. At the table to my left, Janis Joplin was holding court with her band. To my far right were Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, along with members of Country Joe and the Fish. At the last table facing the door was Jimi Hendrix, his head lowered, eating with his hat on, across from a blonde. There were musicians everywhere, sitting before tables laid with mounds of shrimp with green sauce, paella, pitchers of sangria, and bottles of tequila. I stood there amazed, yet I didn't feel like an intruder. The Chelsea was my home and the El Quixote my bar. There were no security guards, no pervasive sense of privilege. They were here for the Woodstock festival, but I was so afflicted by hotel oblivion that I wasn't aware of the festival or what it meant.

"Grace Slick got up and brushed past me. She was wearing a floor length tie-dyed dress and had dark violet eyes like Liz Taylor.

" 'Hello,' I said, noticing I was taller.

" 'Hello yourself,' she said.

"When I went back upstairs I felt an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people, though I had no way to interpret my feeling of prescience. I could never have predicted that I would one day walk in their path. At that moment I was still a gangly twenty-two-year-old book clerk, struggling simultaneously with several unfinished poems. On that night, too excited to sleep, infinite possibilities seemed to swirl above me. I stared up at the plaster ceiling as I had done as a child. It seemed to me that the vibrating patterns overhead were sliding into place."


Patti Smith


Just Kids


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2010 by Patti Smith


99-100, 105-106
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