Wrensilva Presents: A Historic Playback in Room 80 with Chelsea Hotel Resident Music Historian William Benton

The iconic Hotel Chelsea sign adorns the front of the building on 23rd StreetThe iconic Hotel Chelsea sign adorns the front of the building on 23rd Street

If the walls of The Hotel Chelsea had ears, they would be able to solve mysteries and unveil secrets. They would also whisper the echoes of music made there, inspired by a cast of characters with a seductive and bohemian history. 

With a Wrensilva M1 console as the centerpiece in one of the hotel’s legendary rooms, music and stories filled the space during a recent listening session for friends of Wrensilva curated by doorman and resident music historian, William Benton.  

William first visited the hotel in 1996. He recalls, “I grew up fascinated by the history and culture of the Chelsea. Even before I got here, I had an idea of what to expect. When I showed up, fresh off the farm from Oklahoma at 18 years old, it was everything I wanted it to be. It’s a link to so many things – music, literature, theater, dance. It was all here. It’s hugely inspiring to me.”

Hotel Chelsea bellman and music historian, WIlliam Benton talking records with Wrensilva team

Hotel Chelsea bellman and music historian, WIlliam Benton talking records with Wrensilva team

Originally built as a housing co-op in 1883, the Chelsea was converted to an apartment-hotel in the early 1900s. Cheap rent attracted creatives of all disciplines, which continued into the hotel’s heyday as an art and music incubator in the 60s and 70s. Long time hotel manager Stanley Bard fostered a creative culture that welcomed writers, painters, musicians, poets and filmmakers. Handshake deals and sliding scale rates added to the communal feel of resident life.

Hundreds of notable personalities have graced the Chelsea’s hallowed halls. It has been the subject of documentaries; served as a set for films like 9 ½ Weeks, Léon: The Professional and Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy; and it has been an inspiration to some of the most influential musicians of our time.

William narrates stories as the Wrensilva turntable spins Patti Smith’s “Gloria.” “Patti Smith’s book Just Kids keeps bringing people in,” he says. “People of all ages come here because they’ve read about the hotel in her book. It’s a testament to her spirit and the power of her writing. The hotel is practically a character in the book.”  

William drops the needle on a record playing on Wrensilva M1 console

William drops the needle on a record playing on Wrensilva M1 console

Patti moved into the hotel with Robert Mapplethorpe in 1969, paying $55 a week. In the book she described the hotel as, “...like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. Even the successful seemed to have just enough to live like extravagant bums.”  
Patti Smith on a balcony at the Chelsea Courtesy of The Chelsea Hotel website

Patti Smith on a balcony at the Chelsea,Courtesy of The Chelsea Hotel website

One of the more well known stories is about Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin. William begins as Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” kicks in, “They famously met in the elevator on the 4th floor here at the Chelsea. The story goes that he recognized her and asked if she was looking for someone in particular, and she said, ‘Kris Kristofferson.’ His response was, ‘Today’s your lucky day. I’m Kris Kristofferson.’ She was then said to say, ‘I thought you’d be taller.’” 

With that introduction, they spent the night together. He wrote “Chelsea Hotel #2” for her, which immortalized their tryst in Cohen’s room 424. 

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel / You were famous, your heart was a legend / You told me again you preferred handsome men / But for me you would make an exception.

Janis Joplin at the reception deck  Courtesy of The Hotel Chelsea

Janis Joplin at the reception deck, Courtesy of The Hotel Chelsea

Two of the most notorious tenants of the Chelsea were Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. William says, “They arrived in the fall of ‘78. They were only here a couple of months…but it was long enough for them to set their first apartment on fire. They were then demoted to the first floor, which is what Stanley (Bard) would do if you were seen as a danger to yourself and others, but he still wanted to keep you. He would put you on the first floor.” That room, #100, is where Nancy Spungen was murdered. “People still want to stay in that room,” he says. 

Although the Factory was 24 blocks uptown, many of Warhol’s Superstars lived and hung out at the Chelsea. The hotel was the setting for Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls.” Warhol muse Viva spent many years at the hotel. In her book Don’t Call Me Home Viva’s daughter Alexandra Auder describes the hotel as, a mystery behind each door… it was like a fairy tale. You could knock on a door or open a door and it would be some other world.”

Alexandra Auder (far right) with her mother Viva and sister, Gaby Hoffmann, in the lobby of the Hotel Chelsea, 1984 Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Auder

Alexandra Auder (far right) with her mother Viva and sister, Gaby Hoffmann, in the lobby of the Hotel Chelsea, 1984 Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Auder

Both Nico and John Cale of the Velvet Underground lived at the Chelsea. “If there was one quintessential Velvet Underground song,” William ponders, “I think it would be ‘Venus in Furs.’ With John Cale’s droney viola and Lou Reed’s signature poetry… it all comes together.”

 

The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album “The Velvet Underground & Nico” was produced by Andy Warhol and features his banana print.

The stories are not all set in the distant past. Madonna spent many nights at the Chelsea in the 80s. She returned to shoot photos for her 1992 book, “Sex,” in room 80, where this musical walk down memory lane took place.

The closing song from Bob Dylan’s 1976 album Desire provides a melancholy bookend to the night as Dylan serenades his then wife Sara Dylan, née Lownds, through the Wrensilva speakers with lyrics that tell the tale of a failing marriage. 

I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells / I'd taken the cure and had just gotten through / Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writing “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you

William compiled a Hotel Chelsea playlist for Wrensilva’s night in Room 80.

Hotel Chelsea Playlist

The Velvet Underground & Nico- S/T “Venus in Furs”

Janis Joplin- Pearl

Leonard Cohen- New Skin For The Old Ceremony “Chelsea Hotel #2”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience- Axis: Bold As L

Jefferson Airplane- Bark “Third Week in the Chelsea”

Joni Mitchell- Clouds “Chelsea Morning”

Iggy & the Stooges- Funhouse

Patti Smith- Horses

The Sex Pistols- Never Mind the Bollocks...

Rufus Wainwright- Poses

Bob Dylan- Blonde On Blonde