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 Thomson 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.”
“I met Sam”—Busby’s longtime partner, Samuel Byers—“while I was making the movie, and we moved upstairs. That year was tumultuous. There was a fire the first week we moved in—didn’t destroy anything; the building is rather fireproof—but we had our heads out the window and the people on Twenty-second Street were saying ‘Jump!’ Instead, we went up to Virgil’s place, and found him dressed in his silk shirt and beautiful shiny shoes. ‘Why are you so dressed up?’ I asked. ‘Well, I was hoping some of those firemen might come up?’ he said.”
“In ’77, my career was getting started, and Virgil put me in touch with rich women he knew who studied piano with nuns and so on … I would go to their houses. One of them was Cynthia O’Neal, the wife of Patrick, and when they opened ‘The Ginger Man’—it was really good—I became her piano teacher. She knew Lenny Bernstein and Adolph Green. Bernstein called me one morning here. I didn’t believe it was him. ‘Cynthia said you’re a good piano teacher,’ he said. ‘Would you like to teach my daughter Nina?’ So I became part of his wife, Felicia’s, Rolodex, the list of people who could do things. I was the piano teacher.”
“The mid-seventies were an amazing time here. I met Nureyev, met his partner, Wallace Potts, who gave a reel-to-reel tape of my music to Paul Taylor, and he asked me to write a piece for him, and that became ‘Runes.’ When ‘Runes’ was premièred in New York, at Broadway and Fiftysomething, I was playing piano. Virgil was in the third row; I heard him say, out loud, ‘This isn’t boring,’ and I was relieved.”
“Virgil lived here on the ninth floor where Philip Taffe, the painter, lives now. Originally, there were only eleven suite apartments up there—doorknobs and beveled glass. He had converted the closets: one had the refrigerator, one had the stove. He died there, and when he was ninety-two my partner and I were nursing him, not feeble but winding down. And one day, he said, ‘That’s enough.’ And he meant, That’s enough life. ‘On Tuesday, I’m going to stop eating; Wednesday, stop drinking water; and I want to die on Friday, so I can be in the New York Times on Sunday.’ And he did it! Exactly that.”
Although some of the hotel’s more violent and vivid rock-and-roll period had ended by the time Busby moved in, there was no shortage of intensities. “My life here has gone from extremes—everything has happened here, physically, emotionally, every way you can think of. In the early days, there were always expectations that someone would be murdered or commit suicide. People loved to commit suicide in the stairwell. You’d hear a noise, come out, and a policeman would stand there and you’d see a shoe all the way down on the landing, and you’d know. It was the most dramatic departure most people could imagine. Lots of drugs then, you’d get high or drunk and … Stanley would rent to anyone, in any condition. He had artists and rich dilettantes, and the black sheep from the rich families.”
He rummages his mind for an instance. “Isabella Stewart Gardner, the grand niece of the Boston lady. She was a poet married to Alan Tate, and an alcoholic, and for one year the poet laureate of New York State. But she was … mad. One of her relatives came ’round and asked after this eighteenth-century candelabra. She said, ‘Well, the bellman and I were fucking, and I gave it to him.’ My favorite of all the things she did—one of the bellmen drove her all the way to Ojai to hear lectures by Krishnamurti. Yes! All the way out to California! They went out there and get up at noon, listen to Krishnamurti, get roaring drunk and have sex all night. The bellman must have been going quietly crazy.”
Those were also the peak years of sexual freedom, particularly in the gay community. “It was a time among gay men, young gay artists—we felt that we could do anything. We were invincible. In the mid-seventies up to around ’85. The bars! All the gay leather and cowboy bars were run by the New Jersey mafia. But their money supported an expression of all this wild fantasy. We thought, ‘We’re going to live forever, and we can do outrageous sexual things.’ It was epitomized by the club called the Mineshaft. It was in the old meatpacking area—that was also Mafia, they controlled that. But the Mineshaft brought everything together, where it all came to a head.”
“What was it? Well, it was everything—it was kind of like … kind of like Bloomingdale’s. If you wanted to be pissed on, you went into that room; if you wanted to be fist-fucked, you went into that room. It was like an old-fashioned department store: ‘Going up! Lingerie, lawnmowers, fist-fucking.’ ” He laughed, then added, “And the theme from Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ was always playing.”
The cost of such pleasures, when it became clear, was enormous. Both Busby and his partner became H.I.V. positive in the early eighties. “When the bubble burst, the first stage was denial. We were all tested, and Sam and I were positive. The second stage was watching most of your friends die. It was very grim. Sam got meningitis, lost his mind, and shriveled up, and I took care of him right here—I.V. things all day, and hypodermics into the stomach—and I thought, I’m going to die here. That was one reason I justified doing drugs then. That was the darkest and most horrible of all times.”
“Sam died in 1993. It was just excruciating—he turned into an asparagus, a thing. Craig Lucas, perhaps my closest friend, wrote me a letter that said, ‘You seem to be on a suicide mission. If I run into you homeless on the street, I’m going to run the other way.’ That was a stunning letter to get from my best friend.” Busby got help—he was featured among the Times’s Neediest Cases—and recovered from his crack addiction. Still H.I.V. positive, his immune function has almost entirely returned—an achievement that he credits in large part to his practice of the meditation technique called Reiki, which he engages in several hours a day. “When I recovered, Stanley, the old manager, said, ‘If you behave yourself, you can stay here till you die, and your rent will never go up.’ ”
Stanley’s reign over the hotel lasted until around 2000. “When he was ousted, the company that bought the hotel sent in their pit bulls—and it became clear that their purpose was to make us so uncomfortable that we would leave. A woman named Zoe, a kind of Romanian Gypsy type—fiery!—made it the occasion of her life, and finally found exactly what she was born for: to save the residents of the Chelsea Hotel. She photographed every dust ball on the floor. We sued them and won everything. Then the pit bulls were taken away, and they sent in the nice people. And they are indeed charming.”
“Anyway, I try never to dislike anyone. Virgil once said to me, ‘Not liking somebody is not your issue.’ Unless I give anyone the freedom to be whatever heis, I’ll never have that freedom myself. Fear’s O.K. Let it all go through you. Your worst dragons are your best teachers. That’s how I’ve dealt with all the noise of the renovation. Whatever upsets you, you use. I started writing a string quartet any time that kind of banging and sawing noise would happen. By now, I’ve finished twenty.”