The most recent episode of the Oasis soap opera began on 27 August, when a sulky Liam Gallagher decreed that the band's American jaunt could start without him. "I'm not touring the US when I've got nowhere to live," he grouched as he trudged away from Heathrow's departure lounge 15 minutes before take-off, his eyebrow pulled down low. "I'm sick of living my life in hotels."
Well, really. That's no kind of attitude for a young pop idol to have. A hotel is as rock'n'roll as sunglasses, a leather jacket and a Fender guitar. Think of "Heartbreak Hotel"; think of "Hotel California" and Morrison Hotel. Think of rock stars as modern-day wandering minstrels. The hotel is their home from home, which is why, when Elton John checks into a suite, he fills two rooms with clothes, including six drawers of spectacles. The hotel is the place to party, to have sex, to write songs, to take drugs, to eat, to drink - sometimes even to sleep, assuming you haven't set the bed on fire beforehand. Along with the stage and the tour-bus, it is the place to live. When a man is sick of hotels, he is sick of rock'n'roll life.
Think of the title sequence of the BBC's recent rock documentary series, Dancing In the Street. There wasn't a street in sight, and there was precious little dancing. Instead, a hotel scene climaxed in a television set being heaved out of the window and sinking gently to rest on the floor of the swimming pool below.
This esteemed practice began in the US in the Sixties. The only way for a young British band to make an impression on a colossal country that wasn't under the umbrella of a national pop station, or MTV, was to tour for months on end, playing in every town that would take them. "Nowadays, if you're playing in 80,000-seater stadiums, there's only so many dates you can do," says Robin Eggar, a writer and former rock group manager, "whereas when Led Zeppelin were touring, every town of 100,000 people had a basketball arena that could seat 6,000 to 8,000, and you could keep touring that size of place forever." Groups would drive from backwater to uncaring backwater, thousands of miles from home, barely knowing where they were. How else to burn off that excess post-gig adrenaline and to prove to yourself that you weren't in prison, but to rearrange your furniture, via the window?
Recalling Liam's complaint, it's ironic that it was Oasis who brought this tradition back into fashion. When they first hit the headlines, it was as much for their abilities as high-speed removal men as for their abilities as musicians. In the summer of 1994, there would be regular articles in Melody Maker and Vox depicting the band tipping a table from the top floor of one hotel, and making excuses for depositing the furniture of another in the swimming pool (Liam: "It's a stupid place to put a pool, innit?" Noel: "Those plate-glass windows are just saying, `Throw a chair through me!' ")
Some might say that this was just another symptom of Oasis's desire to emulate their heroes. The original, archetypal destroyers were The Who, from whom no door, wall, furnishing or fellow resident was safe. Pete Townshend and Keith Moon acquired a taste for testing the effects of cherry bombs on unsuspecting guests and toilets, but their piece de resistance was in the Holiday Inn in Flint, Michigan, where Keith Moon celebrated his twentieth birthday by putting every television defenestration to shame: he drove someone else's car into the swimming pool.
For pure debauchery, no one could top Led Zeppelin. The Edgewater Inn, in Seattle, was the location of the infamous Shark Episode, described in Stephen Davis's biography, Hammer of the Gods, as "the end of their reputation as normal humans". The Edgewater lived up to its name in that guests could hire fishing tackle from the lobby and angle out of their bedroom windows into the Puget Sound below. Led Zeppelin's drummer, John Bonham, and their road manager, Richard Cole, would catch sharks, impale them on coat-hangers, and hang them in the cupboard. Yet more stomach- turningly, they probed the orifices of a willing groupie with the nose and fins of a live - but probably not willing - shark. From here it was but a short step to the rumour that the band had taken to whipping groupies, not with a cat-o'-nine-tails, but with an octopus.
In Los Angeles, Zeppelin would book a floor of the Continental Hyatt House, aka the Riot House. Anyone walking along that stretch of Sunset Boulevard had to be on the lookout for falling televisions, furniture and champagne bottles; anyone walking along the corridors had to be ready to dodge speeding Honda motorbikes; while anyone foolish enough to walk into a room occupied by the band would learn all kinds of activities involving famous groupies and bathtubs of baked beans.
Also in Los Angeles is the Chateau Marmont, where Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison, among others, would hang out. (Literally, in Morrison's case, as he would hang out of the windows of the hotel, and those of the Hyatt House, gripping the ledge for not-so-dear life.) And, as Barney Hoskyns points out in his history of the LA rock scene, Waiting For the Sun: "When the Lemonheads' pin-up frontman Evan Dando decided to try his hand at a spot of auto-destruct crack-bingeing in the late summer of 1993, he chose the Chateau Marmont to do it in [in homage to his hero, Gram Parsons]." It was in the Chateau Marmont that John Belushi died.
Not only do rock stars spend their lives in hotel rooms, they end their lives in hotel rooms, too. The recurring cause is drug overdose: Janis Joplin in the Landmark Hotel, Hollywood; Gram Parsons's fatal heart attack, brought on by "drug toxicity", in the Joshua Tree Motel. And, in July of this year, the keyboard player of the Smashing Pumpkins died of a heroin overdose in the Regency Hotel, New York. Other rock deaths are less accidental. The Band's Richard Manuel hanged himself from the shower-curtain rail in a Florida motel. Sam Cooke was shot by the frightened manageress of the Hacienda Motel, Los Angeles. And it was in Room 100 of New York's Chelsea Hotel that Sid Vicious, following a row over why he hadn't bought any heroin, stabbed and killed his 20-year-old girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
The back cover of the posthumous Sex Pistols cash-in album, Some Product, refers cynically to this death with a photograph of the Chelsea's "Landmarks of New York" brass plaque: "The Chelsea was opened in 1884 as one of the city's earliest co-operative apartment houses. It became a hotel in about 1905 ... Artists and writers who have lived here include Arthur B Davies, James T Farrell, Robert Flaherty, O Henry, John Sloan, Dylan Thomas and Thomas Wolfe." The sleeve designers have added "and Sid Vicious" after Wolfe's name.
When the redbrick apartment block on West 23rd Street was built, it was in the heart of the theatre district. Sarah Bernhardt rented rooms there, setting the building's eccentric tone by sleeping in a coffin. Artists of every field followed, from Edith Piaf to Arthur C Clarke and Arthur Miller. ("It was not part of America," writes Miller in his autobiography, "had no vacuum cleaners, no rules, no taste, no shame.") When rock stars began to think of themselves as poets and bohemians, the Chelsea seemed to be the natural environment.
Before Patti Smith became a singer, she co-wrote plays with Sam Shepard at the Chelsea, and took part in "happenings" there with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In Florence Turner's memoir, At the Chelsea, she recalls a happening in which "Patti... gave a witty running commentary on her love life while [a] young doctor inserted a gold ring into one of Robert Mapplethorpe's nipples". "The result," notes Turner, drily, "was wholly satisfactory in the idiom of the day."
Frank Zappa, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, the MC5 and Iggy Pop were a few of those who passed through a building that was at times "more rehearsal studio than hotel". It is perhaps inevitable that the lodging musicians would write about their visits. In "Sara", Bob Dylan made a legend of apartment A17: "Staying up for days in The Chelsea Hotel / Writing `Sad- Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' for you." And Leonard Cohen "pays tribute" to Janis Joplin in "Chelsea Hotel No2": "I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel / You were talking so brave and so sweet / Giving me head on an unmade bed / While the limousines wait in the street."
Barry Miles, the biographer of Paul McCartney among others, lived in the Chelsea Hotel from 1969 to 1970, and lodged there periodically through the following decade. "You could always find Janis Joplin at the bar of the El Quijote [the Chelsea's restaurant] in the evenings," he says. "It was open until four in the morning, and she was always looking for drinking partners. Some evenings there would be great big tables of 15 people, and Leonard Cohen would pick up the tab at the end, even though he hardly knew me or any of us. I suppose he considered that we were all soulmates of one sort or other."
Miles considers the Chelsea to be a "rock'n'roll hotel by default because it was the kind of hotel where anything goes. You could walk in with a penguin and no one would care." For George Kleinsinger, the composer, a penguin would have been a marked improvement: "He had this huge, room with a grand piano, a zoo, trees filled with birds, and two enormous turtles in tanks," says Miles. "He had an alligator for a while, too. He used to walk it up and down the corridor."
As well as its location, its historical associations and its forbearance, there was another reason why the Chelsea attracted the bohemian type: "It was cheap. The rooms were pretty filthy. The walls were covered in God knows what - strange markings and scratchings - and there was no room service." Hence Leonard and Janis's unmade bed, presumably.
If there was any hotel that was close to an equivalent on the West Coast, it would be the Tropicana, now demolished, which was frequented by Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Jim Morrison, Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones. Robin Eggar had the pleasure of a sojourn there: "The Tropicana was the sleaziest and most downmarket of the rock hotels in Los Angeles. The rooms had their little kitchens, which were generally used for cooking up drugs. When I was touring with the Members, we were there at the same time as the Ramones, and we transferred the contents of one of the hotel rooms to the floor of the swimming pool. The Ramones thought this was most undignified." The swimming pool was black with rusting lawn furniture. "No one knew how many objects had been thrown into it, because no one could see to the bottom," says Barney Hoskyns. "But the sort of people who stayed there didn't get up at six in the morning and go for a swim."
No British hotel's experience will ever be exactly the same, for a number of reasons. In this country, tours are shorter, and so are hoteliers' tempers. "The most appalling behaviour has always gone on in America because it's a service economy," says Eggar. "There the attitude is, if you want to trash it, that's fine, as long as you pay for it."
Britain's most famous rock'n'roll hotel is the Columbia, a stately white Victorian edifice with a frontage of flaking pillars, a short staggering distance from the undulating green of Kensington Gardens. The Columbia was built as five town houses in 1865, converted to a hotel between the wars, and served as an American Officers' Club from 1955 to 1975. When nostalgic military men return there now, they can find themselves sharing a dining room with Julian Cope.
The Columbia is run by Michael Rose, who has, himself, something of the officer about him: the pipe-stem clamped between his teeth, the smart, greying hair, the Cambridge tie, and the way that he prods at words such as "gig" and "Top Ten" as if they were in inverted commas. "It all rather washes over my head," he admits through a thick curtain of pipe smoke. "I couldn't name a single record in the Top Ten. And in my case," he smiles, "ignorance is bliss."
His unconventional clientele were first drawn by word-of-mouth recommendations, beginning with The Teardrop Explodes. "They must have told... the tall fella with the ring in his ear with the two birds." Which is as good a description as any of the Human League. Word was passed onto Simple Minds, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Marc Almond, the Eurythmics ... and the chain is unbroken to this day. "Would you like to speak to a pop group?" offers Mr Rose, kindly. "I'm sure we can dig one up for you."
As it is not yet lunchtime, I decline the opportunity to disturb any inhabitant guitarists, but the hotel register testifies that among those who narrowly escaped my wake-up call were Deep Blue Something, the Trash Can Sinatras, and the road crews of Skunk Anansie and the Boo Radleys: it appears that when a band starts to make money, they move on to more lavish accommodation, but leave their entourage behind. Although the Columbia's rooms have temptingly tall windows and small television sets, Mr Rose says that "99 per cent of the bands are no problem at all. This idea that pop groups automatically chuck things out of windows, well, it hasn't been our experience. For instance, when we have sports groups staying they on average might be worse."
We can't all be immortalised by Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, but the Columbia has been namechecked in the Auteurs's song, "Tombstone", which is better than nothing. It is popular with musicians for its price, and the ease with which they can meet up with their peers. The hotel will serve breakfast at 10am, and serve drinks at any time. "We can cope with their 24-hour routine," says Mr Rose. Does this provoke any comments from other guests? "In some miraculous way it doesn't seem to affect them. I don't think the majority of people even know that there are bands here. There was a time when musicians came round with pink mohicans, but they look quite normal these days. String vests and hairy armpits at breakfast have gone out of fashion."
But lest our rock stars seem too staid, it should be noted that there have been a couple of bannings. One was, naturally, Oasis, for the diplomatic reason that their behaviour was "more than a tolerant hotel can cope with". ("Not seeing eye to eye with the management," is the line of Oasis's spokesman.) But Mr Rose is quick to downplay this rare and over-documented case. "I don't suppose they're worried about the Columbia. They're multi-millionaires now. They can buy their own hotel." Liam, that could be the answer to all your accommodation problems.
In the final instalment of our hotel series, restaurant critic Helen Fielding is dispatched on a quest to find the perfect country house hotel: somewhere to eat stunning food, take long reviving walks and forget her city lifeReuse content