Theresa Duncan, Again

I’ve written about Theresa Duncan before, in a mini-obit that strikes me now as pretty adolescent (although I’ve resisted editing it.)  And today, while writing something real (aka something not to be published here), I remembered an old essay of Duncan’s, perhaps the only piece of her writing I’ve ever really enjoyed or understood, the latter more a comment on her penchant for vagueness masquerading as intellectualism rather than my own powers of comprehension.  In fact, I was writing my own essay about the Hotel Chelsea at the time, and about the inability of my own generation to create or connect to anything meaningful (it was a tough time in my life, I guess), but because of this essay I just stopped in my tracks, declaring myself scooped.  It’s not quite as impressive as I remember it being last time I read it, but there are some bits that I still really enjoy (“smell like someone else’s teen spirit,” par example, and that line about the ancients drinking at El Q.  I used to drink there often; I know those people.)

I left her typos intact.  As a parting note: I wonder what’s happening with that Van Sant biopic?

Generation Xorcism: Baby Boomer Ghostbusting at the Chelsea Hotel

“I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed,
while the limousines wait in the street.”

–Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel #2

The Chelsea Hotel, with its dead poets and rock star revenants, is one of the most counterculturally significant locations in New York City, perhaps the most hipster-haunted location in the U. S. of A. The glamour of the Chelsea, with its curlicue iron balconies, resolute dumpiness and ghostly auditory echoes of a thousand fantastic lays–Edie Sedgwick and Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin (musical homage to said encounter above), unspeakably sexy Vogue model Verushcka and Peter Fonda–is still utterly evident. Even the ugly abstract art in the lobby speaks to the place’s authentic Bohemian status, unlike the gorgeous, expertly crafted products of the boutique-art doppelganger Chelsea four or five blocks West. When I’m in town I like to go to the El Quijote bar downstairs from the hotel and drink next to people who have been perched for hours–perhaps days, even decades, a century?–on the black vinyl barstools. These are drinkers who make my thirstiest night seem like I’m sitting in a high chair in my mama’s kitchen. This is, after all, where Dylan Thomas uttered the last words, “I’ve had eighteen whiskies, I think that’s a record,” before retiring to sleep off his hangover for all eternity.

In 1992, critic Anthony Vidler published a book entitled The Architectural Uncanny, which posited that architectural space is psychically charged [editor’s note: need this book immediately], which echoes an earlier theory of Walter Benjamin’s that fetishism explores a confused overlap between the mental and the physical, the organic and the inorganic, as in the great poster for Andy Warhol’s film about the Chelsea Hotel, above. Having a paella dinner at El Quijote in the October rain this year, I had a chance to mull these theories over vis-a-vis the Chelsea. On the sidewalk outside the hotel, the red brick facade was suddenly a tombstone, its historical-monument plaques epitaphs, the still vibrant swarm of life inside a danse macabre to the tune of somebody else’s youth. The mirror over the bar didn’t reflect back my own face, but someone inhabiting someone else’s possibly better era, like the 19th century photo-double that grins back at Jack Nicholson’s 1980s hotel caretaker in Kubrick’s The Shining.

The uncanny version of the El Quijote mirror gives us a funhouse look down the decades into the irrational possibilities of the bewitched architectural space. Suddenly my generation’s much remarked (and thereby constantly reinforced) “ironic” embrace of other peoples’ clothes and music and styles is not a choice, but a masochistic assignment to worhip and enact scenes from the previous generation’s bygone but admittedly intoxicating youth. The crimson awning over the lobby entrance in this light is the famished cat in the animated cartoon who deceptively rolls out his tongue as a red carpet leading into the flashing entrance marquee of his fanged mouth. Sitting in the Chelsea drunk on the musty but still potent perfumes of Jack Smith and Joey Ramone, I’m actually volunteering to surrender my subjectivity and enage in a seance where I am not a citizen of the 21st century but an empty portal for some East Village other. If you doubt the Chelsea’s status as the Haunted Indian Burial Ground of Baby Boomer hipster culture, consider that no significant counterculture has been produced by Western white middle class youth since Sid Vicious murdered his girlfriend on this very spot and died of a heroin overdose in Rikers prison in the middle of the East River shortly afterward.

Like the Chelsea Hotel, our present culture is so haunted by the long-over and yet uncannily indestructible “youth” of the Baby Boomers, so crammed with grey ghosts that room to inhabit the present is nearly nonexistent. That cultural undertow you’ve been feeling lately is them, invisibly buttonholing young strangers for just one more shared joint or pint, just one more amazingly funny anecdote about what happened back when. Our samizdat, our stray revolutionary pamphleteering, takes place in the invisible world inside the computer. Like peering into a private diorama inside an Easter egg, Generation X and younger generations have to look to the digital to find our stories anywhere. It’s not the already dying years of my own prime that I remember well in the Chelsea Hotel, it’s a mnemonic rock and roll rosary on which I worry the beads of memories that aren’t really mine. There is a vision haunting contemporary culture this Halloween, it looks like a spookhouse and smells like somebody else’s teen spirit. Like that famous adage about a nice place to visit, there’s nothing wrong with a trip to the Chelsea, as long as you leave the getaway limousine idling in the street. Request a 2005 model, and if you overhear a voice saying “Well Andy says…” grab your iPod and run like hell.

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