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Review: 'Chelsea Hotel'

Chelsea Hotel Manhattan

Patrick Hussey reviews Joe Ambrose’s book on New York’s Chelsea Hotel, the first factual book on the building featuring conversations with William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Gerard Malanga, Victor Bockris among others.

'I work with words the way a painter might with oils, I slap them down on paper for effect.' says Joe Ambrose at the very end of Chelsea Hotel, a collection of interviews and essays about that legendary New York abode. The phrase, enjoyable yet cheap, is actually deployed in defence of his occasional use of the word 'nigger'. You can't help but feel he gets off on that word (in some daft, needy way) when actually it would be better to apologise for his mostly slapdash work.

Between the essays and interviews with or about infamous Chelsea residents like Rocket Redglare, Sid Vicious and Billy Burroughs, Ambrose gives us blog standard snippets about his own presumably recent experience of a stay at the Chelsea. Sometimes he hits the heights. In one snippet called 'The Subway Taliban' he follows a provocatively dressed youth who 'looks like a brown eyed saint in his Islamic warrior robes and white Taliban turban.' Just for a moment a genuine mood enters the text, something edgy and educational, something now. In the same story he hits us with the line 'Avant-garde is such a dated, self-serving concept.' Great line that, in fact it is a line too important to be buried in a half baked book.

Ambrose is at times a great deflator, he has one half of the gadget Hemingway said no writer should be without, namely a top notch 'bullshit detector'. Unfortunately he rarely turns it on himself. Stories about flipping through 'old Miles' albums on brownstone corners, sex with decrepit female drug dealers or at one point when he declares the Koran to be 'dark and aristocratic' set the buzzer screaming. His heroes are old hat or painfully topical and worst of all he misses a great opportunity. The Chelsea is a great subject I yearned to know more about. I wanted to know what its like to check in to the Chelsea, what it looks like, all its smells and corners. That never happens and all we get is underworked ego prose that is at best quarter grade when compared to its obvious antecedents. Miller, Mailer or Bukowski he is not.

After a while I stopped reading his interjections, his impressions of the modern day Chelsea and skipped straight to the interviews. These are the book's strength and each of them makes good reading. The problem Ambrose has is the Chelsea is a blast from the past, something once great and dirty that is now hanging around embarrassingly as it devolves into tourist shtick. I imagine it slumped in a Manhattan street the way Shane McGowan slumps against bars. Still there is poetry to be mined there, something he never quite finds.

Best then to hear about the glory days and these essays are a delight. The interview with the stand up and bit part actor Redglare is worth buying the book for alone. His recollections of the coke addled porno scene of the Seventies are depressing and funny. The porno guys were so strung out on coke 'their dicks eventually stopped working' and they all ended up with 'long greased dildos under their beds.' he tells us. In particular his thoughts on the shambolic/adorable Sid Vicious really evoke what the Chelsea was all about, the feeling of heroes and clowns packed into the same body and into the same extraordinary building.

In the end the Chelsea Hotel is a sour place where great things happened. Artists and losers huddled there and the mess was amazing and grotesque. It maybe dying on its foundations but it deserved a brilliant eulogy. From the essays you'll get a hint of the moods, the smoky corridors and crazy lives and even Ambrose lands the odd punch with his oil-words but in the end the Chelsea legend deserved a legendary book and this just isn't it.