MAY 2005


By Joe Ambrose


I remember Alberto Garcia Alix taking a photograph of me in Madrid when Islamic Diggers were doing a poetics festival there with Richard Hell and people. He likes taking photographs of himself and of girls who look like prostitutes though who am I to judge? Maybe I just don’t know enough about girls.

I guess on calm reflection that if they looked like prostitutes, they looked like the fittest ones I’ve ever seen. He uses romantic towns like Moscow and old fashioned locations like tango parlors in Madrid. Now his first New York show is happening with Barry Neuman whose Modern Culture Gallery operates out of the Gershwin Hotel, where the corridors are decorated with Warhol lithographs and wher there are some minor Pop Art trophies in the lobby. Marty Matz says that The Gershwin is trying to be the new Chelsea Hotel but that they try too hard. On the other hand, Marty says, they’ve done some readings and that, at least, they do try. “It’s something.” he reckons. Somebody else told me that the owner allowed Leee Black Childers to crash there at one stage when he was resting between homes.

Frank Digger says that Alix didn’t like us that time in Madrid but I have no recollection of that phenomenon. All I can remember is Hamri being prepared for his photograph and how Alix also did Hell, Lydia Lunch, Tav Falco, John Giorno, all the others. I do recall that the better known the sitter, the more excited and committed the photographer was to his job. I also remember thinking that he was queer because there was a crotch-orientated biker aspect to his ethos. In this regard, if the impressive fit pussy-rich portfolio Barry is patiently showing me and Frank is anything to go by, I was wrong.



When I get back to the hotel I find, under my door, a handwritten note from Holmes Dupont:


“It was most entertaining talking with you yesterday about junk reading. I think I mentioned to you that my dear friend Phil Fletcher whose place is three doors down from mine, was poorly and not expected to make it. We just heard this morning that he passed away late last night. His ex-wife Ruby and his partner Henry are having a little Irish Wake for him tonight in his suite. I thought you might be interested.”


Around 1am I head in the general direction of Holmes Dupont’s place, knowing that the wake will be very much in evidence. As I get out of the lift I smell the high grade skunk weed and can hear some sort of jazz shit that could be Mingus or Miles or any of those gone dudes. The door from which the music comes, three doors up from Dupont’s place, is ajar so I let myself in. About twenty people are spread around in a beautifully smart and organised lounge. The older ones sitting on the available chairs or couches. Those who are younger and livelier are making the running, standing on their own two feet, cross legged on the floor, fiddling with the drinks table or fussing in the kitchen or trying to decide what CD goes on next.


I don’t have a fucking clue who this Phil Fletcher was. I recall Holmes saying something about him but Holmes talked about so many different things at such length last night that I have only the vaguest memory. The characters behind the desk at the hotel, two of whom are in evidence, only comment vaguely on the heroic nature of his contribution. Contribution to what? Politics? Literature? Music? The amount of heroin being consumed in New York City? What I do gather is that he was sixty three, played a part in three of four important underground presses in the Sixties, was part of Dylan’s retinue during the Rolling Thunder tours, and turned to writing when he got that bit older.


His ex-wife Ruby, a fine looking woman in her fifties whom I’ve seen around the hotel, is clearly very upset at the loss of her old pal. She holds court in one corner of the room, surrounded by colorful looking people aged between forty five and seventy five. Most of these folks are fat or physically fucked up one way or another from lives of excess. Nothing remains for them now but a similar end, a similar wake at some yet to be decided date.


His “partner” Henry is a little slip of a lad, no more than eighteen, who sits at the opposite end of the room from Ruby. He too is holding court with mourners though his pals are younger, roughly sixteen through thirty. Holmes Dupont tells me that Henry is terribly upset, that he and Fletcher had been together for a year. But Henry is laughing with his friends like a teenager is supposed to laugh.


“Phil made a will three months ago when he knew he was going,” I hear Henry loudly confide to a girl about his own age who turns out to be his first cousin, “and he left all his legal crap to Ruby but he left me all his money. Such as it is. Thank God for that! I mean, the rent here…”


Henry has a tough city voice. Though he looks like a little boy he has the voice of a man. Ruby stares at him coldly but, I think, without resentment. Holmes tells me that it was just as well I didn’t get here earlier, that there were some grim scenes. Apparently some of the old-times started recalling Fletcher’s contribution to the counterculture, how generous he had always been with his time, his money, and his intelligence. It was pointed out that at one stage Fletcher had been one of Burroughs’ protégés. This went on for an hour or so, pleasant enough nostalgia shared by kind people.


Then some of the kids, to whom Fletcher had presented himself as a somewhat elderly punk or Dada guru, began to question or challenge Fletcher’s Sixties achievements and, by implication, the entire value system of his older pals in the room. Ruby took this badly so she disappeared into Fletcher’s bedroom to be alone. Ten minutes later Henry followed her into the room and everyone could hear him accusing her of going through his and Phil’s stuff. Meanwhile in the main room the booze and the drugs began to take hold and some of the testimonials were less than complimentary. One boy said Fletcher had come on to him somewhat aggressively, gripping him by the shoulder while trying to undo his fly. The oldsters started going, “Oh, no! No!”


It was at that stage that the room divided into the two camps which I discovered on arrival.


This is fun, with all the high drama of a real Irish wake. An hour into my visit somebody suggests that since I’m a DJ why don’t I choose the next music. I find a CD of an album I own on vynil, Music in the World of Islam, Vol. 2: Lutes. This goes down well with most people there. I’m happy so long as the CD lasts. Most of these 1975 tracks come from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran.


I take my leave when some nerd who is trying to look like Beck puts on the early Sin É live album by Jeff Buckley. If I’d been around when Jeff Buckley was drowning, I’d have grabbed him by the feet to ensure that he stayed under water until he expired. I don’t think the mourning for Phil Fletcher is going to grind to a halt anytime soon. Holmes told me that they were burying him the following morning. Also I got a message from Ira Cohen that this painter, who did the glamorous but perhaps sexist cover for Bitch’s Brew by Miles Davis, has just died.



“I passed my first night in the Chelsea Hotel with a drip.” says Isabella Arrogant professionally, doing it one more time for the cameras and $2,000.


I was put in touch with her this morning by one high powered heavy metal publicity bitch who’s organizing an interview with Slipknot for me. Every day she sends me helpful e-mails, and each e-mail has a different philosophical or neo-intellectual quote attached to it, down the bottom where she gives her office address and her cellular number. The quotes tend to come from Dead Wise Ones or Nobel Prized Wise Ones or Che Guevara or Neitzsche or the accordion player from Soulfly or some white guy I’ve never heard of or who the fuck. Today her e-mail to me is “Since you’re staying in the Chelsea you should go and talk to my pal Isabella Arrogant. Isabella came here in 1965, has always lived and worked in the Chelsea. She worked out what hip hop was before the rest of us. Her real name is Isabella Somethingunpronouncable. She came from Turkey a long time ago. She is like the Anita Pallenberg of punk… three or four of the best punk songs were written about her.”

Calls between Chelsea Hotel guests are free. The Slipknot bitch gave me Isabella’s room number. I phone. She answers right away in a voice sounds like she’s being frigged or she’s washing her teeth but in fact she is being filmed, being filmed as we speak, so, giving a fair impression of being an Anita Pallenberg of punk, she invites me over. “I can only talk a little. OK? But come over for a coffee and we can arrange dinner for later in the week. Don’t sign a release unless they offer you a fee.”


Her son Aladdin answers the door. “Oh, you must be Mom’s Irish friend!” he says, excitable boy. “Mom is just gonna take a break in ten.”


Aladdin is kind of lopsided like a Thirties cartoon character, his clothes are very strongly hip hop, right down to being slightly frayed around the edges. He is about sixteen, thick sensual brown lips betraying his mother’s obscure Turkish background. As if from nowhere he shoves a mug of excellent coffee into my hand.

“Sugar?” he asks in a whisper.

“No sugar. In life or in coffee.” I whisper back. That’s what I always say. It usually makes them laugh but it makes Aladdin worry.


His cellular rings. He snaps it open and, with more aggression than I’d’ve expected, asks, “Who is fuckin’ this?”


A lad insane?


“I passed my first night in the Chelsea Hotel with a drip.” Isabella Arrogant says professionally, doing it one more time for the cameras and the $2,000. These days, according to her biog. (which I’m reading on a clipboard while she is anecdoting), she divides her time between “California and Nirvana.” We know where California is. I can only surmise that this apartment in the Chelsea is Nirvana to her. It is nice if not big. She manages four Hollywood punque roquers who’ve just been signed and signed good.


Later, she has arranged with the director of the show, she will discuss “the obvious fakeness of Jacque Levy’s vulgar lines about staying up all night in the Chelsea Hotel writing Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands for you.” and also recall those first nights alone in the Chelsea Hotel, the “voluptuous safety and untraceability of being unknown in Manhattan.” She will confess for the cameras, as she has for an oral history of Max’s Kansas City, an oral history of girls in U.S. hardcore punk, an oral biography of Iggy Pop, and an oral history of ...... “My life is nothing but a long, dirty story.”


She and me and Aladdin have a good twenty minutes together. I criticize all the lyrics on Desire, their theatrical nature, the neo-Republicanism of Levy’s main rock’n’roll buddy Roger Mc Guinn. I tell her how much I like the way Johnny Thunders handled and rewrote Joey to make it seem like less of a hagiography to the dead Mafia don. Some of this talk impresses her, and some of it goes over the head of her son. She is at the Chelsea five more days then she goes on the road with her band who’re middle of the bill on a skate dudefest. So I’m invited to dinner two nights later.


“I’ll invite The Duchess.” she says dryly, like the name should ring a bell with me, “and if you need any drugs, Aladdin can help you out in that department.”

“And Bill Conduit,” chimes in Aladdin, like she’s forgotten to invite Madonna and Debbie Harry. “If ya gonna invite The Duchess, invite Bill Conduit too.”


“Who exactly is Bill Conduit?” is a big question I’m asking myself all the time these days. Conduit stays shrouded in mystery like he’s a character from one of the dodgy aforementioned songs on Desire. I only met Conduit with The Duchess the once but I’m always bumping into him in the lift and one time we talked backstage at The Bowery Ballroom when Trail of Dead were playing two sold out shows there. Conduit was holding court backstage with some fit Japanese babes. I ask Aladdin about Conduit but it is Isabella who replies.


“I guess Bill must be getting on for 50 now.” she says unexpectedly fondly. “When I first met him he was in thick with the best punque roque crowd. Bill was a goodtime guy, beautiful fatal olive face. He used to live in Brooklyn with Noo Sturges. She was this, this controversial singer. People fucking hated her and Bill loved her. There was this one review which speculated as to whether she was the poor man’s Debbie Harry or the thinking man’s Patti Smith. She was the victim of that kind of slick cosmopolitan sexism. She died back then of cancer. Smoking. Bill got bored with punque roque right around then and when she died he moved into the Chelsea, got married, got divorced… Bill… of course… has done very well for himself. Ended up in Rykers onetime which can’t have been a picnic. Bill being kind of diminutive and, certainly then, fine looking.”

“What’d he do to get to Rykers?” I ask. I was once a journalist. A hack, even a long retired one, is never afraid to ask an impolite question.

“He was, uh, partial to rubber cheques in a time when rubber cheques still stood for something. He even supplied me with a few. They’re no collector’s items, Bill’s bounced cheques.”


She sighs, a sigh which protests against the fact that men sometimes wear better than women, though Isabella wears it well.


Later, about 3am, Aladdin is around in my place and we’re listening to Batty Rider by Buju Banton. I’m telling him about the Boom Boom Batty Boy controversy which he is too young to remember, and about the time I saw Buju live at the Brixton Academy.


 some of the photos by Christoff Graf:
Chelsea Hotel artwork The stairs and foyer of the Chelsea is covered in artwork of, err, variable quality, painted by previous and current residents. ©urban75 2003