For anyone bemoaning the death of certain NYC scenes, let us not forget that before most of us were even born, legacies were being built and demolished in this city faster than you could say “Fuhgeddaboudit.” It’s been decades, for instance, since the heyday of CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, and the infamous Chelsea Hotel, which Patti Smith described thusly in her 2010 memoir, Just Kids: “The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in The Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe…Everyone had something to offer and nobody seemed to have much money. Even the successful seemed to have just enough to live like extravagant bums.”
Those extravagant bums have included everyone from Smith herself to Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Edie Sedgwick, Nico, Robert Mapplethorpe, and countless more. Once immortalized by songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” the landmark was purchased last year by King & Grove Hotels, who renamed their entire company after the iconic location.
For residents of the Chelsea who still called it home, that meant finally vacating the premises and moving on. One of those residents was April Barton, a stylist who occupied Suite 303 for nearly 20 years, working with Bono, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Mary J. Blige, and Avril Lavigne, among others. When she saw singer-songwriter Carrie Ashley Hill sing “Broke Up, Broke Down” at the Bowery Electric a few days before the move, something hit a nerve, and the two decided to collaborate on a video for the track that would act as a fitting swan song for Barton’s salon. We’re happy to premiere it here today, exclusively.
Hill wrote the song from a much different place, literally stranded in Trinidad, Colorado. Over atmospheric, subtle strings, Hill’s love-weary voice recalls breathy country legends like Emmylou Harris and the resolve of rockers like Stevie Nicks. “Don’t tell me to be strong, it makes me feel so small,” she sings, her heartsickness tinged with just enough bitterness and bite to signal that a full recovery might be around the corner. But “Broke Up, Broke Down” exists in that specific, painful moment in which there is nothing left, no clear direction, just bleakness and uncertainty. The smooth, faint trumpet and soft percussion that waft in as the song builds to its climax signify both hope and hollowness, and these disparate, aching impressions are no doubt the same Barton felt as she packed up her Chelsea studio and relocated to Noho.
For the video, Hill and Barton enlisted Tony Notarberardino, another Chelsea Hotel regular, to direct and film a clip that would capture these liminal musings. Hill, dressed in the black veils of a mourning Bohemian widow, circles the empty room, the outlines of Barton’s mirrors burned into the painted plaster, ghostly reminders of what had once occupied that space. Another woman appears in bridal white, twirling around Hill while the wrought-iron balconies of the Chelsea cast long shadows across the hardwood floor.
“Broke Up, Broke Down” provided Barton with a specific kind of closure, thanks mostly to Hill’s ability to tap into such universal feelings of longing and despair. To Hill, it represents Trinidad, Colorado, and to Barton, the Chelsea Hotel. And to anyone who’s lived in or loved New York City, the song is the perfect reflection of the evolution it has undergone, for better or worse. Even with the sense that it’s all vanishing, one backward glance is all we need to remind ourselves that something else is bound to appear in its place.
Carrie Ashley Hill plays a free show at Bowery Electric tonight, Wednesday November 12th, at 7 p.m.