About a year ago, cult NYC film director Abel Ferrara (Driller Killer, Ms. 45, the OG Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, etc.) wrapped his indiepunk documentary on the legendary Chelsea Hotel. The film premiered at Cannes last year and is now being gradually unrolled across the US. Ferrara is coming to LA to present it this coming Friday at the Laemmle Sunset 5.
Chelsea on the Rocks should delight fans of Ferrara's gritty, hand-held realism (he's been called the heir to Cassavetes and one of the last standing mavericks of the “Easy Riders/Raging Bulls” generation), but it's also obviously of interest to music fans. Under the benevolent dictatorship of manager Stanley Bard, the hotel remained a haven for artists, writers and musicians, both famous and unsung, until its recent takeover by less tolerant real-estate speculators.
Past tenants have included Arthur Clarke, Bob Dylan, Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Miller, Joni Mitchell, Dee Dee Ramone, Larry Rivers, Dylan Thomas, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Donald Sutherland, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, Eugene OʼNeill, Jane Fonda, Leonard Cohen, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tom Waits, Courtney Love, Sam Shepard, Charles Bukowski, Julian Schnabel, Jasper Johns, Viva, Jimi Hendrix, and many others.
Ferrara has interviewed Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper, Milos Forman, Grace Jones, and several others about their experiences at the iconic hotel, and he has also included archival footage of legends like Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious (two of his undead muses for the project), William S. Burroughs and Quentin Crisp.
WCS spoke with Ferrara (who's reportedly working on a Jeckyll and Hyde movie featuring Forest Whitaker and 50 Cent!) as he was preparing to come west to present Chelsea on the Rocks.
WCS: When did you first become aware of the Chelsea Hotel?
ABEL FERRARA: I mean, you know, it's like, when were you first aware of the Statue of Liberty? It's the same thing. It's kind of an iconic place. You know, I've been living in New York since like 1975 so, you know, I don't know when was the first time I was there. I mean, I remember being out there way back with Dee Dee Ramone, may he rest in peace, he used to live there or whatever. That was the first time I think I was there, with him. Shooting a BB gun out the window… (laughs) “Dee Dee, what are you doing?” and he said “Hey man, just shooting at the tires.” So.
Had you heard Leonard Cohen's “Chelsea Hotel #2” before? [The song is one of the most famous lyrical celebrations of a blowjob in rock history. Years later, Cohen revealed that the fellator was none other than Janis Joplin, who had been looking for Kris Kristofferson, but had to settle for the Canadian heartthrob. Even later on, Cohen regretted that revelation as ungentlemanly.]
Yeah, I'd heard the Leonard Cohen song before, but, I mean you know, whatever, you know what I'm saying? I mean, it's like I was saying [about the iconic stature of the Chelsea], plus I knew it as a hotel in the neighborhood, you know what I mean, a place where people write books or write music. It's a legitimate hotel, even though it was mostly residential at the time, or half and half.
[Note: As a special treat we offer you Cohen's rarely heard “Chelsea Hotel #1,” featuring an ethereal angelic choir that improbably hails Janis Joplin's “sweet little sounds”!]
When you first started spending time there, did you see it as “the last bastion of Beat culture”?
Back then it wasn't. They call it that now, but when I first started going it was a vital… It wasn't seen as a historical landmark. There's certain places, you know, like the Chateau Marmont in LA. I used to live in the Chateau Marmont. There's something about, you know, why did we choose that place? But there's something about certain buildings, certain places that just attract… That just become and then are…and might always be.
What were your thoughts about the music that would best fit a documentary about a place so connected with music history?
You know, I was mainly looking and listening to pieces that were not the obvious pieces–say, the Leonard Cohen song. We had a lot of music, rehearsal tapes, of all kinds of great old bands, and jam tapes, things like that. There's a clip in the film with Janis singing with Rick Danko and [Jerry] Garcia and it was just like a jam session and we were gonna go that way. But what happens with these movies, especially the kinds of films I make [is that] buying music is a) so expensive and b) it's kind of against my philosophy, you know what I'm saying? We're more or less trying to create the music. Cause I play a little music myself, you know? I just play in the movie. But anyway, we kind of created the music for the film.
There's Tony Granier, he's a bass player, he's been playing with Dylan. And G. E. Smith, another guy who played with Dylan, a cat who plays on SNL [Note: G.E. Smith led the SNL band from 1985 to 1995, and was famous for his orgasmic guitar solo faces.] The producer, Hal Willner, he's been the music producer at SNL forever, and he's also lived at the hotel. Hal put the sessions together with some pretty good players.
Also, in the movie, cats play right there for us. There's this one great piano player… I'm not great with names. [Ferrara is probably referring to composer Gerald Busby, one of the Hotel's most memorable characters.]
And also, who's the actor who was married to Uma Thurman?
Yeah, Ethan. He's playing too.
Did you include the amazing footage of glam casualty Jobriath doing his lounge act on the Chelsea roof? [This performance is the subject of “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979,” a pretty great recent track by Okkervil River.]
No, I didn't know about that. But we recreated the Sid Vicious… [situation? affaire? thing? mess?], because at the Chelsea there's a whole different story of what happened that night, you know what I mean, and it wasn't anything like the movie [Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy]. Because the belief in that hotel is that Sid didn't kill Nancy. So, the reenactments we do are fictitious, I don't know if fictitious… you know what I'm saying? Anyway, that was one of them, and we did some stories about Janis Joplin, recreated those situations.
Chelsea on the Rocks plays Friday, December 11th @ the Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood