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Disparate Desperate and Extreme Travel Writing: Joe Ambrose and Chelsea Hotel Manhattan

Joe Ambrose

Joe Ambrose

Headpress is about to publish author Joe Ambrose’s new book Chelsea Hotel Manhattan, which is crammed with musings, notes and conversations with various pop culture icons, artists, writers, dealers and a whole cross section of disparate desperate characters who all share one thing in common: a room at New York’s Chelsea Hotel.

Every space, nook and cranny of the legendary Chelsea Hotel has a story rising up from its well worn carpets. There are conversations, discourse and heart to hearts regarding the Lower East Side, William Burroughs, Sid Vicious, the loneliness of the city crowd, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, heroin, Leee Black Childers, Johnny Thunders, Herbert Huncke, Brendan Behan, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Nico, and the island of Manhattan.

Joe Ambrose read for the first time in the UK for several years from his bohosmackchic heavy duty book, Chelsea Hotel Manhattan, which is published by Headpress on November 29th. On a mild Monday night some cool dudes and dudesses crammed into Brown’s Shoe Shop of Curiousities, home to the legendary arts collective Le Gun, to hear three writers read from their latest works. This event was organised by Nathan Penlington as part of the Hackney Write to Ignite Literary Festival.

The venue was crammed with challengingly distracting art work, cultural objects, ephemera and the detritus from its East London Hackney history : draped, positioned, balanced and hung from every available space. It’s very fucking cool and requires your patronage.

With a colourful past and a powerful present art terrorist, musician, writer and film maker Ambrose introduced us to his book and talked us through his first night at the legendary NYC Hotel, which was the day Joey Ramone departed stage left to the big dressing room in the sky. He read some excerpts from his collection of notes, scribblings and diaries which he moulded into his latest culture commentary, Chelsea Hotel Manhattan. We heard from The Duchess and the vagaries of life attached to her drug dealing main man as well as the sulphate fuelled Rockets Redglare telling it like he saw it the day Sid Vicious was arrested for the murder of Nancy. Oh, and you get Brendan Behan, Debbie Harry, Herbert Huncke, Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga as well. And that’s just in the intro…

As a writer, musician and art-terrorist, Joe Ambrose has seen a lot of the counter cultural world in his time. As a member of rai hop terrorists Islamic Diggers Joe has worked with Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithfull, Lydia Lunch, John Cale, Richard Hell and Paul Bowles. He has had numerous books published ranging from novels (Serious Time and Too Much Too Soon), a biography of Iggy Pop as well as some serious investigations into the IRA and the Irish people’s fight for freedom from British colonial rule.

I caught up with Joe to shoot the shit and find out more about whats going on in his world…

You are on the eve of the publication of another fascinating Irish history book, this time you have been looking at IRA man Sean Treacy and the Black & Tan wars. What is it that really grabs people about this particular part of history?

It’s the story of the exact moment when Ireland—or rather the biggest part of Ireland—got freedom from British colonial rule. The IRA of that era forged the template used in all modern wars of liberation. Last year I had a hit in Ireland with a book—Dan Breen and the IRA—which I wrote about the controversial guerilla leader from that long ago fight. Sean Treacy and the Tan War (Mercier Press) is very much a sequel to last year’s one. Treacy was Dan Breen’s best friend and comrade in arms. The new book is the story of violent revolutionary politics in the county—Tipperary—that I come from.

Are you accompanying the Sean Treacy book with any promo work, Joe?

Earlier this week I was speaking at the library in Thurles Town in Co. Tipperary. They’ve just opened this impressive new arts facility in the town—The Source—and the library has been housed within the complex. I’m reading from the new book and taking questions along with another author from Mercier Press and an editor from the company too. It’s the first public event I’ve done in my home county in about five years. I’m also doing radio interviews. Did one for next Saturday on Newstalk, an Irish talk radio station which is really growing and becoming a force. The guy who interviewed me, Brendan O’Brien, really put the screws to me and that’s always the best kind of radio to do. I was impressed with the set-up.

You have immersed yourself in many different art forms Joe, including writing novels, biography, DJ-ing, spoken word performance, album and film producer to name a few. Do you prefer a particular one?

Generally speaking, I prefer slouching around in the afternoons watching Colombo and The Rockford Files on the TV. I like all of those things and others too. I like doing radio. I guess I prefer the things that I can do all on my own—like writing, radio, or filming—rather than music or film-making where I’m variously dependant on others.

What is the central theme, the story, behind your forthcoming book, Chelsea Hotel Manhattan?

I went to New York for the first time expecting to be impressed and for once my great expectations were fulfilled. I caught the buzz right off, though of course it’s not the city that it was back in the day of Warhol, The Ramones, or that style of dissent which I relate to. It’s just a different skewered kind of place now but perfectly valid.

What were you working on back then?

I checked into the Chelsea to work on a book I was writing called Moshpit Culture and I started taking notes on the encounters I was having in the hotel and on the streets of Manhattan.

There are some key cultural icons; artists, musicians, writers and many more who you stitch together into this tale of seminal NYC boho hotel life…

After a while these notes began to seem rather satisfying and book-like. I was meeting people I admired a lot—like Victor Bockris, Gerard Malanga, Danny Fields—and talking with art dealers like Barry Neuman who was helping me out contacting Billy Name, and while I was in temporary exile from the Chelsea—over at the Gershwin Hotel—I started bumping into Sylvain Sylvain from the New York Dolls. Then I went to this event in honour of the recently dead Gregory Corso at the Angel Orensanz Centre, a beautiful old Russian synagogue, and Debbie Harry and Patti Smith and Taylor Mead and loads of others performed. That was just a slice of the adventures and fun I was having so Chelsea Hotel Manhattan grew out of all that. When I’d finished my own text I recruited previously unpublished interviews with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs which were done by my pal Spencer Kansa. Frank Rynne wrote a thing about Herbert Huncke whom we both knew. I got permission to include a couple of essays relevant to the Chelsea which Huncke wrote. Barry Miles, one of the real heroes of the so-called 60s counterculture, is in there too. And lots of other scrapbookish good stuff.

Joe Ambrose

Joe Ambrose

And is there a theme you can trace above and beyond the connection with staying at the Chelsea Hotel?

There is no one theme. For instance those people who are associated with the hotel are by no means all “outsiders”. But the ones who end up in the book are ones that in one way or another appealed to me. I tend to be interested in smart, articulate, unsentimental individuals with a criminal streak to them. Therefore the sort of Chelsea mythologies which appeal to me would normally involve large dollops of sex or drugs or rock’n’roll. Preferably all three, plus anarcho crazy kids, disgruntled members of the black community, and the other usual suspects.

When did you realise that your diaries would make the basis of an intriguing collection of tales from the punk/beat/rock’n’roll alternative culture?

Right away. It was just little bits of stuff on scraps of paper or written on the back on a flyer for a gig but it was exciting to me.

How far does the outsider subject matter of Chelsea Hotel Manhattan; the era, the drugs, music, art… reflect your own large body of work?

I guess it fits in with some of the other stuff I do and not with some more of it. Burroughs and Gysin, for instance, had their Chelsea Hotel moments. Also I’ve been somewhere around where underground life is lived for a long time now. Not that there’ll be all that much underground life going on at the Chelsea any more what with the grevious changes.

You have arguably become part of the modern day Chelsea Hotel extreme living counter culture yourself Joe, who else would you place within this framework?

Well, I don’t know about that… I wish I was living a bit more extreme actually but, then, I’m about to do something about that. But people around in no particular order who seem hip to where we’re at right now include Dylan, Victor Bockris, Ulick O’Connor, Stewart Home, Snoop Dogg, Gregory Isaacs, Bret Easton Ellis, Stanley Booth, Desmond Hogan, I could go on a year. Dan Sartain is sharp as a razor.

The first ever public reading by you of selected excerpts of Chelsea Hotel Manhattan was on September 24th, how did that come about?

I was asked by Nathan Penlington from Write to Ignite to do the event and he was telling me what a funky space it was, with input from the likes of Peter Blake, who did the cover of Sergeant Pepper and stuff like that. I’m big into pop art - the Beatles suck like no others. As regards the shop, there are a lot of working artists associated with that mag Le Gun, which is a lit mag and an art mag, amongst other things, involved with the space. They’ve also got dreammachines in effect.

When does Chelsea Hotel Manhattan see the light of day?

The publishers are Headpress, who’ve done many innovative and countercultural books over the years and who still bring to book publishing a fresh spirit. It should be out November 29th when, Inshallah, we’ll launch it at Waterstones in Islington before we launch it in Dublin and New York.

And finally Joe, what are you plans for the rest of the year?

When I’ve finished work promoting the Sean Treacy book I’m off to Morocco for three months of living on the road, out of a bag and in cheap hotels with paperback books I’ll throw away when I’ve read them, a memory stick holding two novels I’m writing, lots of music coming out of very small speakers. It’s kind of a farewell to the writing of non-fiction books which has taken up a lot of my time the last two years and led to me enduring a lot of self-inflicted peace and quiet. As Robert Mitchum once said, “I’m too young for peace and quiet.” I have other non-fiction I want to write, including a memoir, but I need to push on with my fiction for a while and I need to refocus my film-making and music-provoking activities. Winter in Morocco marks a dramatic break with the lifestyle I’ve been living in London for a few years now. I’ve been getting itchy feet and the desire to itinerant again.

Keep up with the latest on all Joe’s projects on his website. Throw your keys into the Chelsea Hotel Manhattan myspace swingers fruit bowl as well. Mercier Press publish Joe’s second Irish history book; Sean Treacy and The Tan War. Chelsea Hotel Manhattan is published by Headpress and will be in the public sphere for consumption from 29th November.

Thanks, Joe… hewn with love and explosives by Paul Hawkins for HesterGlock.