Read an Excerpt
The Day Before the First Day
New York/Dead Horses/Looking for Nothing
I am not qualified to live here.
I don't know what qualifications are necessary to live in any certain place at any given time, but I know I don't have them.
Ohio. I was qualified to live in Ohio. I like high school football. I enjoy Chinese buffet restaurants. I think the Pretenders' first record is okay. Living in Ohio was not outside my wheelhouse. But this place they call New York...this place that Lou Reed incessantly described to no one in particular...this place is more complicated. Everything is a grift, and everyone is a potential grifter. Before moving to Manhattan, I had only been here twice. Two days before I finally packed up my shit and left Akron, I had a phone conversation with the man who would be my immediate supervisor at Spin magazine, and I expressed my relocation insecurities. He tried to explain what my life here would be like; at the time, the only details I could remember about my two trips to New York were that (a) the bars didn't close until 4 A.M., and (b) there seemed to be an inordinate number of attractive women skulking about the street. "Don't let that fool you," my editor said as he (theoretically) stroked his Clapton-like beard. "I grew up in Minnesota, and I initially thought all the women in New York were beautiful, too. But here's the thing -- a lot of them are just cute girls from the Midwest who get expensive haircuts and spend too much time at the gym." This confused me, because that seems to be the definition of what a beautiful woman is. However, I have slowly come to understand my bearded editor's pretzel logic: Sexuality is 15 percent real and 85 percent illusion. The first time I was here, it was February. I kept seeing thin women waiting for taxicabs, and they were all wearing black turtlenecks, black mittens, black scarves, and black stocking caps...but no jackets. None of them wore jackets. It was 28 degrees. That attire (particularly within the context of such climatic conditions) can make any woman electrifying. Most of them were holding cigarettes, too. That always helps. I don't care what C. Everett Koop thinks. Smoking is usually a good decision.
Spin magazine is on the third floor of an office building on Lexington Avenue, a street often referred to as "Lex" by cast members of Law & Order. It is always the spring of 1996 in the offices of Spin; it will be the spring of 1996 forever. Just about everybody who works there looks like either (a) a member of the band Pavement, or (b) a girl who once dated a member of the band Pavement. The first time I walked into the office, three guys were talking about J Mascis for no apparent reason, and one of them was describing his guitar noodling as "trenchant." They had just returned from lunch. It was 3:30 P.M. I was the fifth-oldest person in the entire editorial department; I was 29.
I'm working on an untitled death project, and you are reading said project. Today, I will leave the offices of Spin and go to the Chelsea Hotel. Once I arrive there, I will ask people about the 1978 murder of Nancy Spungen, a woman whose ultra-annoying shriek was immortalized in the 1986 film Sid & Nancy. The "Sid" in that equation was (of course) Sid Vicious, the fabulously moronic bass player for the Sex Pistols and the alleged murderer of Nancy. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert reviewed Sid & Nancy on their TV show At the Movies the week the film was released, and it was the first time I ever heard of the Sex Pistols. At the time, the Sex Pistols didn't interest me at all; I liked Van Halen. In 1987, a kid in my school told me I should listen to the Sex Pistols because they had an album called Flogging a Dead Horse, which was the kind of phrase I would have found noteworthy as a sophomore in high school. However, I didn't follow his advice; I liked Tesla. In 1989, I bought Never Mind the Bollocks on cassette because it was on sale, and it reminded me of Guns N' Roses. Johnny Rotten had an antiabortion song called "Bodies," yet he still aspired to be the Antichrist. This struck me as commonsense conservatism.
The chorus of the song "Pretty Vacant" is playing inside my skull as I saunter through the Spin offices, but it sounds as if the vocals are being sung by Gavin Rossdale. I pass the interns in sundresses, and the reformed riot grrrls making flight reservations, and at least three people who wish they were outside, smoking cigarettes. It's 2:59 P.M., and it's time for me to start finding some death.
My voyage into darkness has officially started: I am in the lobby, down the stairs, out the street exit, and into the stupefying heat. New York summers are hotter than summers in Atlanta. Now, I realize the temperature is higher in Atlanta and Atlanta has more humidity, and things like temperature and humidity are extensions of science, and science is never wrong. But Manhattan is a hipster kiln, and that makes all the difference; heat is 15 percent real and 85 percent perception. The ground is hot, the brick buildings are hot, the sky is low, people are pissed off, and everything smells like sweat and vomit and liquefied garbage. It's a full-on horror show, and I have learned to despise July. People at Spin ridicule me for wearing khaki shorts to work, always insisting that I look like a tourist. I don't care. We're all tourists, sort of. Life is tourism, sort of. As far as I'm concerned, the dinosaurs still hold the lease on this godforsaken rock.
It takes me 45 seconds to get a cab on Lex, and now I'm moving west, haltingly. I've been to Chelsea, but I don't really know where it starts and where it ends; I realize I'm there only if (a) someone tells me so, or (b) I find myself in a Thai restaurant and suddenly notice that everyone working there is a pre-op transvestite. This traffic sucks, but we're getting there; with each progressive block, things look cheaper and older, like B-roll footage from Sesame Street. Ten minutes ago, I was drinking Mountain Dew in Spin's self-conscious 1996; now I'm driving through an accidental incarnation of 1976. It's the summer of 2003. I've traveled down three vertical floors, across four horizontal blocks, and through five spheres of reality.
Perhaps you are wondering why I am starting this project at the Chelsea and not the Dakota, the hotel where John Lennon was assassinated in 1980; part of me is wondering that, too. Lennon's killing is undoubtedly the most famous murder in rock history, and it's something I actually know about: I know how many Beatles tapes Mark David Chapman had in his jacket when he shot Lennon in the chest (14), and I know the score of that evening's NFL Monday Night Football game, when Howard Cosell announced the assassination on-air (Miami 16, New England 13 -- in overtime). I know that Chapman slowly came to believe that he actually was John Lennon (going so far as to marry a woman of Japanese descent who was four years his senior), and I remember my dad dismissing the murder at supper the following evening, bemoaning the fact that a musician's death somehow warranted more publicity than the unexpected death of Pope John Paul I. As an eight-year-old, I was confused by Lennon's death, mostly because I could not understand why everyone was so enamored with a rock band's rhythm guitarist; for some reason, I was under the misguided impression that Paul McCartney was the only member of the Beatles who sang. I felt no sadness about the event. As I get older, the murder seems crazier and crazier but not necessarily more tragic; I don't think I have ever been moved by the death of a public figure. I do think about what it would have been like if John Lennon had lived, and sometimes I worry that he would have made a terrible MTV Unplugged in 1992. But Lennon is not someone I need to concern myself with today; today, I am totally punk rock. My boss is requiring me to think like a punk. I am tempted to spit on a stranger in protest of the lagging British economy.
My boss at Spin (a striking blonde woman named Sia Michel) strongly suggested that I go to the Chelsea Hotel because "our readers" love punk rock. This fact is hard to refute; I am probably the only employee in the history of Spin magazine who thinks punk rock -- in almost every context, and with maybe one exception -- is patently ridiculous. Still, the death of Spungen intrigues me; Sid and Nancy's relationship forever illustrates the worst part of being in love with anyone, which is that people in love can't be reasoned with.
Sid Vicious was not the original bassist for the Pistols; he joined the band after they fired original member Glen Matlock. The only thing everyone seems to know about Vicious is that he could not play bass at all. Ironically (or perhaps predictably), Sid's inability to play his instrument is the single most crucial element in the history of punk; he is the example everyone uses (consciously or unconsciously) when advocating the import of any musical entity that is not necessarily musical. The fact that he could not do something correctly -- yet still do it significantly -- is all that anyone needs to know about punk rock. That notion is punk rock, completely defined in one sentence. It's like that scene in The Breakfast Club, where nerd caricature Anthony Michael Hall explains why he considered suicide after failing to make a fully functioning elephant lamp in shop class, prompting Judd Nelson to call him an idiot. "So I'm a fucking idiot because I can't make a lamp?" Hall's character asks. "No," says Nelson. "You're a genius because you can't make a lamp." Sid Vicious was a musical genius because he couldn't play music, which is probably an unreasonable foundation to build one's life on. Which only grew worse when he met a terrible person and decided his love for her was so intense that she needed to die.
Spungen was from Philadelphia, a city whose sports fans throw D batteries at Santa Claus and cheer when opposing wide receivers are temporarily paralyzed. Since Nancy was not a celebrity in the traditional sense (she had no talent, per se, though neither did Sid), Chloe Webb's portrayal of her in the aforementioned Sid & Nancy is the image most modern people have of her. As such, she is generally remembered as the most annoying human of the late 20th century. She was (at best) a drug-addled groupie. But what matters about her interaction with Vicious is the way they destroyed each other in such an obvious -- and social -- manner. And what I mean by "social" is that everyone who knew them had to exist inside the walls of their destruction; as far as I can tell, every single one of Sid's friends despised Nancy Spungen. This, of course, is common. Everybody has had the experience of loathing a friend's girlfriend. My second year in college, I had a goofy little roommate everyone loved; sadly, he had a girlfriend that everyone hated. Her own friends hated her. Even my roommate seemed to hate her, because all they ever did was fight and attempt to hit each other with half-empty cans of Dr Pepper. She had no redeeming qualities; there was nothing about her that was physically, intellectually, or ideologically attractive. We all implored my roommate to break up with her. It was a bizarre situation because he would agree with us 99 percent of the time; we would say she was fat and whiny and uninspiring, and he would concede all three points. Sid Vicious was the same way; he once described Spungen as "the kind of girl who licked out toilets." But Sid wouldn't break up with Nancy, and my roommate didn't break up with his potato-sack sweetheart for almost three years. There is something sickeningly attractive about being in a bad relationship; you start feeding off the unhappiness. It becomes darkly interesting. Supposedly, Sid (as a 16-year-old) once told his mother, "Mum, I don't know what people see in sex. I don't get anything out of it." That sentiment explains everything. If you find sex unsatisfying, you need something to take its place. You need a problem. Nancy was a good problem for Sid. Heroin was also a good problem for Sid. The only problem is that good problems are still problems, and Mr. Vicious was just not designed for problem solving. His genius scheme was to move himself and Nancy into Room 100 of the Chelsea in August of '78, where they could stay high for the rest of their lives. This kind of (but not really) worked for two months, until he (almost certainly) stabbed Nancy, who was wearing only a bra and panties, and watched her bleed to death underneath the bathroom sink. Vicious purposefully OD'd on smack before the case ever went to trial, so I suppose we'll never really know what happened in that room, though he did tell the police, "I did it because I'm a dirty dog." This is not a very convincing alibi. He may as well have said, "I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one."
When I finally walk into the Chelsea, I can't decide if I'm impressed or underwhelmed; I can't tell if this place is nicer or crappier than I anticipated (I guess I had no preconceived notion). There are two men behind the reception desk: an older man with a beard and a younger man who might be Hispanic. I ask the bearded man if anyone is staying in Room 100, and -- if it's unoccupied -- if I can see what it looks like.
"There is no Room 100," he tells me. "They converted it into an apartment 18 years ago. But I know why you're asking."
For the next five minutes, these two gentlemen and I have a conversation about Sid Vicious, mostly focused on how he was an idiot. However, there are certainly lots of people who disagree with us: Patrons constantly come to this hotel with the hope of staying in the same flat where an unlikable, opportunistic woman named Nancy was murdered for no valid reason. The staff is not thrilled by this tradition ("We hate it when people ask about this," says the younger employee. "Be sure you write that down: We hate it when people ask us about this."). I ask the bearded gentleman what kind of person aspires to stay in a hotel room that was once a crime scene.
"It tends to be younger people -- the kind of people with colored hair. But we did have one guy come all the way from Japan, only to discover that Room 100 doesn't even exist anymore. The thing is, Johnny Rotten was a musician; Sid Vicious was a loser. So maybe his fans want to be losers, too."
While we are having this discussion, an unabashedly annoyed man interjects himself into the dialogue; this man is named Stanley Bard, and he has been the manager of the Chelsea Hotel for more than 40 years. He does not want me talking to the hotel staff and asks me into his first-floor office. Bard is balding and swarthy and serious, and he sternly tells me I should not include the Chelsea Hotel in this article.
"I understand what you think you are trying to do, but I do not want the Chelsea Hotel associated with this story," says Bard, his arms crossed as he sits behind a cluttered wooden desk. "Sid Vicious didn't die here. It was just his girlfriend, and she was of no consequence. The kind of person who wants to stay in Room 100 is just a cultic follower. These are people who have nothing to do. If you want to understand what someone fascinated by Sid Vicious is looking for, go find those people. You will see that they are not serious-minded people. You will see that they are not trying to understand anything about death. They are looking for nothing."
At this point, he politely tells me to leave the Chelsea Hotel. And after we shake hands, that is what I do.
Copyright © 2005 by Chuck Klosterman