Revisiting Patti Smith and the Chelsea Hotel

Last night Patti Smith gave a free show at the Lincoln Center in NY. Everyone who shuffled in, after snaking the line that wrapped two blocks around, was ecstatic when Patti announced that rather than giving the reading she and her audience had planned on, she would be singing instead. Between songs from her album Horses, a tribute song to the late Amy Winehouse, and a cover of “When Doves Cry”, Patti read lines from Just Kids, recited Ginsberg poetry, and swore at patrons. Seeing her artistry and command on stage, plaited with lines from her book and the words of her muses and mentors, brought me back to her literary station: the Chelsea Hotel.

Patti Smith and Viva, one of Warhol’s “superstars” at the Hotel (image courtesy of Vanity Fair)

The Chelsea Hotel, long since emptied of travellers and NYC artists who made it their home, is now a historic landmark in the downtown neighborhood of Chelsea. But in the 60’s, it was a mecca of sorts for creatives, beatniks, and hippies strung out on the energy of the decade. It was where Patti wrote the major body of her poetry and her own creative pursuits fell into step with the great poets and artists of her time: Jim Carroll, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Charles Bukowski among others.

Before Patti’s stay at the Chelsea, where she roomed with Robert Mapplethorpe, the Chelsea had been home to Mark Twain, Arthur Miller and the setting for Dylan Thomas writing his last lines of poetry. It is also the subject of one of Leonard Cohen’s most famous songs, ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, which he wrote for Janis Joplin.

Dylan Thomas at Chelsea Hotel (image courtesy of Wales Online)

It’s hard not to think of the hotel without the gloss of a dream or at minimum, a heavy dose of awe. Novelists crossed paths with artists, artists crossed paths with poets, and it became a melting pot for the creative force of the 60’s.

Watching Patti on stage last night, her roots at the Chelsea as well as her priorities seemed transparent: poet first, artist second, musician third. Despite the hierarchy, the three identities braid together and mount into one incredible expression. The fusion of creativity was common to the hotel patrons yet seemingly uncommon to other decades. Seeing her and her hybrid of talents in action is a testimony to what the hotel’s community fostered, and what a web of creative minds sitting under the same roof can create.  

It’s a unique trait of this era of writers, and you can see it not only in the varying pursuits of someone like Patti Smith or William Burroughs, but in the way each pursuit, whether poetry or prose, toys with elements of another pursuit. Burroughs’ writing has a distinct rhythm to it, and the author himself was often wrapped up in the blossoming Punk scene, pulling inspiration from Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground among others to inspire his writing and, posthumously, give rise to a lyrical collaboration.

Smith and friend/mentor Burroughs (image courtesy of CDN)

Patti also often mixed music with poetry, reciting her work at the infamous St. Marks Poetry Project alongside riffs from an electric guitar. Her poetry was inspired by the rock and roll music she loved, and her poetry dually inspired her musical aspirations as a singer-songwriter. It’s rare to see such fluidity between art forms as it’s always easier to separate them apart rather than lump them together – but in the case of Burroughs or Patti, it’s almost more difficult to confine their work to a single category:

“What I wanted to do in rock ‘n roll was merge poetry with sonic scapes, and the two people who had contributed so much to that were Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.” – Patti Smith

In music and in art, words can bring a powerful effect. They can cause one or the other to bend at their command, similar to the way Patti’s words command her guitar and not the other way around. Seeing her stage presence and recalling her formative years at the Chelsea is encouragement to see words not in a particularly new way, but in her way. Moving beyond solitary words on a page, Patti seeks out ways in which literature can burrow its way into other creative forms. 

Featured image courtesy of Telegraph.