By Gabriel Rotello - The New York Times, Sunday, April 8, 2007
Recently I sat in my dining room in LA, staring at an article in the Real Estate section of the Sunday New York Times headlined: “Residential Towers to Sprout in Far West Side.”
Describing a real estate boom in the west 30s, the article mentioned that developer H. Henry Elghanayan is constructing a 44-story residential tower on 10th Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets “in what has been officially renamed the Hudson Yards district.”
Another day, another development, another district in a New York. Nothing new there. Except that Mr. Elghanayan doesn’t realize something. His tower is destined to obliterate a strange and unexpected thing: My time capsule. Or, as some used to call it, my mausoleum.
New York real estate has never been kind to struggling young musicians. Kids in other cities have garages or basements where bands can rehearse for free, but that’s always been a rare commodity in Manhattan. And nothing’s tougher than scraping together the money for rehearsal spaces, which rent by the precious hour.
So back in 1979 when I was a struggling young musician looking for a new apartment, I nursed a vision: an isolated loft, somewhere in the wasteland of the far west side, which could double as its own rehearsal space.
It was an ambitious dream even then - especially considering my nonexistent finances. But after weeks of pavement pounding I chanced upon the entire upper story of a small, dilapidated two story building on the corner of 10th and 38th, over an old Irish pub: A fifteen hundred square foot open room, its tin ceiling rusty from leaks, its ancient hardwood floors sagging, the wind whistling through cracked windows. No kitchen, no real bathroom. Not a fixer-upper. A disaster area.
But this wreck also sat alone on its corner, a pub below, nothing above, insulated in the rear by a parking lot. Plus it boasted seven huge windows with incredible views of midtown, and a crumbling but serviceable fireplace, and a back door leading to a tar patio over the pub’s kitchen.
Despite those advantages the loft’s condition was so abysmal that I told the guy I had to think about it and went back to my Village sublet. I didn’t think long.
That evening I began to have a series of incredibly detailed visions in which I saw my entire future life unfolding in that loft. I had never been a big believer in premonitions, but these were so vivid I couldn’t sleep. Next morning I raced over with my deposit.
And then the first of several odd things happened.
Hugh P. Clark, the grizzled Irish owner of the pub downstairs, told me that a young woman from Wall Street had put down a deposit just hours after I left the day before. The place was no longer available.
I told him that was "impossible." I had "seen" myself living there. I "knew" that my…well, that my destiny was to live and work and become a rock star in that loft.
Hugh looked at me like I was nuts.
The next day I returned with my deposit check. Hugh seemed slightly alarmed as I firmly explained that I planned to come back every day until he handed over the keys.
Each afternoon for over two weeks I would march in waving my check. Hugh would eye me with sympathy, or perhaps suspicion, pour me a free coke and dispense advice in his thick Irish brogue about "moving on." But I wasn’t moving on. I knew I was moving in.
And then, sometime in the third week, my strange obsession suddenly made sense. I walked into the pub and Hugh bellowed out, “Gabriel, the place is yours!” It seems the girl’s parents had finally seen the loft’s dire condition and freaked. She had come in that morning, weeping, asking for her deposit back.
Hugh laughed when he told me: “I says to her, I says, ‘Look, girlie, normally I couldn’t help you. But some crazy musician comes in every day with a deposit check, and I’m sure he’ll be in again this afternoon.’”
My dad drove into town and helped me fix it up. We built a rudimentary kitchen and bathroom, erected shelves, painted. I adopted a cat to chase out the large rats dancing on the tin ceiling.
And then the second strange thing happened. Though I never exactly became a rock star, my life unfolded in that loft almost exactly like my visions on that first night.
Having free rehearsal space changed everything, and the loft immediately gave birth to my first band, Brenda and the Realtones, which became a hot downtown act at The Ritz and Hurrah’s and Max’s. Then the loft became home to dozens of other acts I threw together. Often those projects came into being primarily because I had free rehearsal space.
It was always crowded, music blasting, me pounding away at the keyboards, while a succession of legendary R&B musicians like Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, Rufus Thomas and Solomon Burke filled it with music. The regulars in the pub downstairs thought they were in heaven, free shows every day and night.
In the mid 80s I began producing large music revues at mega-discos like Limelight and the Palladium that featured dozens of local artists in each show. A critic wrote that my “Downtown Divas” revues were actually reviving the local music scene. But it was the loft that was doing that, the loft that made it all possible.
You’d look around and see videographer Nelson Sullivan recording everything for a questionable posterity, Michael Musto jotting notes for his Village Voice column, Sherri Beachfront, on the rebound from her band Get Wet, cooking up her latest incarnation. The air rang to the wails of guitar geniuses like Marc Ribot and Carlos Alomar, or thumped to the grunts of punkers like Johnny Thunders, Sylvain Sylvain and half the crowd from CBGB.
I particularly loved working with underground legends like Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis and Cherry Vanilla. These were divas I had worshipped from afar when I was a provincial college student and they were unapproachable Warhol superstars, immortalized in films like Trash and Flesh. Now they were simply my friends.
In his trademark gravelly voice, New York Doll David Johansen once quipped that the loft was “Gabriel’s basement in the sky,” a suburban rec room, a Seattle garage, but with midtown views. Unheard of in Manhattan. And no hourly rehearsal fees.
As the 80s progressed, the Manhattan real estate boom rendered the very idea of finding such a space unthinkable. Faced with soaring rents and an inhospitable city, the downtown music scene began to shrivel and die. And the specter of AIDS began to make lots of lives unlivable. But insulated in my loft, the beat went on.
Then one day in mid-1987 a registered letter arrived saying that the building had been sold to a big developer who was tearing it down for a residential tower. I geared up for a fight, but my lawyer explained that technically I was Hugh’s subtenant and I had to accept the buyout and vacate.
And that’s when the really strange thing happened.
I decided to simply leave almost everything behind, my funky furniture and carpets and curtains and art, even my kitchen stuff. I had hardly replaced any of it from my starving artist days, but I was no longer broke. I told friends I’d buy new, start fresh. There wasn’t even any reason to clean my stuff out as a courtesy to the next tenant, since the next tenant was destined to be a wrecking ball.
I moved my piano and my cat into a perfectly decent place in Chelsea and packed most of my clothes and a few special things. But I essentially left everything as it was: The furniture, chairs, sofas, rugs, dishes, curtains. The less serviceable drums and amps. Half my books on the shelves. My posters on the walls. Even my poor, untended plants.
When I walked out that last day, the loft looked like I was simply going for a stroll, not leaving forever.
A month later the Crash of 1987 wiped out the real estate market and cancelled plans for a high rise corridor on 10th Avenue. I realized I had suffered premature eviction. If I had just held out a bit longer I might have held out forever.
Weeks later I dropped by the pub to visit Hugh and noticed that my street-level entrance, the only entrance to the loft, had been bricked up. Hugh told me that the new owners were afraid that derelicts might break in, so they had sealed it tight. Hugh couldn’t get in himself.
Gazing up from the street into my second floor windows, I could see my lamps, my curtains, my dying plants, my old art on the walls. From one angle I could see my dishes still piled neatly on the open kitchen shelves that my dad built.
And there it sat. For six years. Like a time capsule. Or, as spooked friends began to call it, ‘Gabriel’s mausoleum in the sky.’
As the years passed life slowly changed beyond recognition. AIDS ate away New York, and I spent less time rehearsing and more time protesting. Eventually I joined ACT UP, founded the gay and AIDS magazine OutWeek, became a journalist, went mainstream.
By 1993 the jam sessions and gigs were ancient history. I was a crusading columnist for NY Newsday. I wore a tie to the office. My life was utterly different. But up in the loft my past was entombed, jarring me every few weeks as I’d whiz by in a cab.
It got so weird I started having recurrent dreams. In my sleep I would magically break through the bricked up entrance and creep up the stairs past ghostly posters for CBGBs and Max’s to reclaim my rock ‘n’ roll life. I would live in the loft surreptitiously, confusingly, tiptoeing around to avoid people hearing me in the pub below.
But the dreams always ended badly. Either Hugh or the police or the developers would come storming in waving papers, threatening prison. Or I would suddenly remember that I had left my cat in Chelsea and wake up sweating.
And then, six years after the sealing of my mausoleum, the final odd thing happened: The dreams came true.
On the first warm spring Sunday morning of 1993 I decided to ride my bike up 10th Avenue to Central Park. When I got to 38th Street I looked up as usual. But something was not usual. A window was wide open.
I rode around to the side. The bricked up entrance was gone, a new door in its place. As I stood there baffled, Hugh popped his shaggy Irish mane out the loft’s window.
“Gabriel,” he yelled down, “Jesus, I can’t believe you’re here. We just opened it up yesterday. You gotta come up and see this.” I just stood there, open-mouthed.
“Christ Almighty, Gabriel. It’s like you never left.”
I felt that I was being pulled very self-consciously into a Twilight Zone episode. Gingerly locking my bike, I opened the new metal door and began mounting the stairs. Old posters lined the stairwell just as they had in my dreams, proclaiming vanished triumphs: “New Years Eve 1980 at Max’s Kansas City, featuring Brenda and the Realtones!” “Gabriel Rotello Presents The Mamas and the Papas at the Palladium!”
I reached the top and stepped inside.
Six years of dust covered everything. But then, dust had always covered everything. Otherwise it was exactly as I had left it. Books I had once loved sat on the shelves, plants I had once tended hung dead but amazingly intact in arid pots. My frying pan sat on the stove beside a spice rack from the original Dean and Delucca on Spring Street, long gone. My Mausoleum in the Sky.
Sensing the strangeness, Hugh quietly slipped out. I tiptoed around, feeling a pressing need to touch things I had once felt I no longer needed, now needing to feel them on my fingers. The red curtains my friend Nomi had sewed. My bed, with its comforter that reminded me of a dead lover. The old bass drum, weighted down with a brick inside. The bulky old Leslie speaker I once hated lugging to gigs.
I felt like I could have made a few phone calls and pulled together a rehearsal and no time would have passed at all. Except that in the world outside, no one would have answered the phone.
Like a character in a TV movie I gazed around as sentimental rock videos played in my head. Ronnie Spector rehearsing “Be My Baby,” right on that rug. Solomon Burke crooning “Cry to Me,” right in that chair. Me, arguing with Brenda and breaking up the Realtones, right on that sofa. The spot on the tar patio where I thought I fell in love.
And I saw a final video of me, listening on the phone at that exact table, in that exact chair, hearing for the first time that Hap, my oldest friend and deepest love – already five years dead - had just been diagnosed with AIDS and was struggling for breath on a respirator in St. Vincent’s. I thought of other friends - Kieran Liscoe, Pat Clark, John Sex - for whom this little world had been their final world, while I had lived on.
For a second I considered a salvage operation. I’d rent a van, come in tomorrow and take out the good stuff, the important stuff. But in a way it was all important, and none of it was. It was only an accident, a whim of the real estate gods, that all this had survived so eerily intact. It was really meant to disappear when I left it the first time. People shouldn’t have mausoleums while they’re still alive.
After half an hour I did what I had become all too used to doing. I forced myself to say goodbye. Walking out, I looked around and impulsively snatched one souvenir: a small, chipped art deco lamp shaped like a crouching girl, a relic from college. I strapped it on the back of my bike. A few hours later, while I was talking on a pay phone in Central Park, somebody swiped it.
I thought of going back for something else. Then I decided to take it as a sign.
Over the years my loft was gutted, renovated and turned into all sorts of questionable ventures. In 2002 a friend called to say that the whole building was now a western-themed restaurant with a covered wagon on the roof. He suggested we have a reunion dinner there when I came in from LA.
So a few months later I and a few graying musicians gathered there to reminisce. But now it was no longer a time capsule or a mausoleum, just another New York renovation. We hardly commented on the setting. We were simply so glad to see each other.
And now, according to the Real Estate section, sometime in the next few months the interrupted wrecker’s ball will finally knock down my loft. That’s fine. As it should be. I love my airy house in LA, bigger and sunnier, with trees and a real garden in back, not some funky tar patio.
But the past is hard to shake, especially when you’ve lived to see your own mausoleum. On my frequent visits to New York I still cannot get used to the absence of the World Trade Center that loomed like a beacon over my youth.
And now there will be another void. Invisible to most. Deeper for me.
(Poster for a Brenda and the Realtones show at Max's, 1980. This was taken in Hugh's pub below the loft. I'm on the far right, next to Brenda Bergman.)
(Brenda Bergman and Ronnie Spector, getting ready for a Brenda and the Realtones show at Heat in 1980 where Ronnie was our guest star. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.)
(In the loft during a rehearsal for a Darlene Love concert at The Bottom Line, around 1982. Front row, left to right: Marc Ribot, unknown friend of Darlene's, Darlene Love, Ula Hedwig, Dave Conrad. Middle row: Bobby Kent, me. Back row, the horn section, including Bob Funk, far right.)
(Rehearsing in the loft, around 1983. Left to right, Sherri Beachfront. Millie Whiteside, Margaret Dorn, Ronnie Spector.)
(Rehearsing in the loft for a Downtown Dukes show at the Limelight, 1986. Left to right: Sylvain Sylvain, John Collins, Randy Jones of the Village People, David Johansen, Michael Musto.)
(Cherry Vanilla and me in the loft, around 1986.)
(The building today. Its final incarnation was a plant nursery called Chelsea Gardens. )