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Bed Rock

Phoenix Hotel
Leave Me Alone: Touring is hard on musicians. 'They want some sleep,' the Phoenix Hotel's Miriam Cullen says.

No more TVs out the window or elevator bangs. Today's rock stars want peace and quiet when they stay in San Francisco hotels

By Steve Bjerklie

It comes down to these: scrunched panties in a baggie. The baggie is clutched by Faye Dunaway. Faye Dunaway is dressed in a nightie. Faye Dunaway is standing in the doorway of Chip Conley's hideaway grotto office at the Phoenix Hotel on Eddy Street. Faye Dunaway knocks; it is 7:30 in the morning, and she thinks maybe Chip Conley's first coffee hasn't hit the buzzer yet. Faye Dunaway wants Chip to perform a service for her. Chip Conley is apprehensive, then--the caffeine begins to tingle--accommodating.

Of course he is accommodating; Chip Conley is a hotelier. Faye Dunaway lifts her baggie. "Where can I wash these?" Conley accommodates, even smiles. "I will do it for you," Conley answers.

And that, friends, is rock & roll in the '90s.

The movie star was staying at the Phoenix with her rock-star boy-toy of the hour. "She's really a rock & roll groupie," says Conley, who built the Joie de Vivre chain of theme hotels after creating the ultra-hip Phoenix from the shell of a rundown Tenderloin roach palace called the Caravan. "But the things I remember most about meeting her that morning are that it was really early and I wasn't in a very good mood, and all of a sudden here's Faye Dunaway in a nightie in my doorway. And you know, she didn't look half bad that early, not at all."

Conley once baby-sat Sinéad O'Connor's new baby when she had to do a show at Slim's ("They were both bald"). He made sure performance artist Karen Finley and photographer Andre Serrano (of "Piss Christ" fame), both NEA wild childs, found each other when they happened to be staying at the Phoenix at the same time. He brought film director Wim Wenders and Laurie Anderson together in the Phoenix courtyard. He fended off groupies hungry for a touch of Kurt Cobain.

But what about televisions getting tossed out room windows a la Cocksucker Blues, the show-all Robert Frank film about the '69 Rolling Stones tour? What about trashed rooms and sex in elevators? What about the sex-drugs-and-rock-&-roll mantra?

Those days are long gone, receded into the blue-lit past where rock & roll myths are born. Now, says Phoenix general manager Miriam Cullen, rock stars want peace and quiet. "I've really noticed a change in the people in the bands. They're more responsible, not into drugs to the same degree. I don't think they can afford to be crazy."

So much money rides on a rock band's ascendancy these days that bad-boy behavior, once encouraged by the music industry as part of rock & roll's attraction, is dissed as a sign of lack of interest in becoming a star. "There are always parties, of course," Cullen says, "but they're pretty tame. This is a hard life for these musicians. They're on the road all the time. They want some sleep. I've found that they actually have a great understanding of hotel life, better than the tourists. For some of the bands we've become their home away from home. They're not likely to burn up the furniture here or shoot the TV."

The Prescott and Triton, as well as the Phoenix, have developed something of a niche catering to music, entertainment and political celebrities. "We've had Madonna, Alice in Chains, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the president of Iceland," says Karyl Bridgewater, director of sales and marketing for the Prescott. "And Cal Ripken, the Staple Singers, a lot of rap groups. One time Johnny Cochran and Robert Shapiro were both staying here at the same time and ran into each other in the elevator, which was sort of a tense situation. Then I had to go up and pour wine for Cochran and listen to him talk about himself for an hour. Finally I said, 'Mr. Cochran, I have to take care of Mr. Shapiro now.' "

Most of the celebrities who stay at the Prescott book under aliases, but they're often recognized by business guests. "Businessmen can be the biggest groupies of all," Bridgewater says. "We had some who got so excited when they ran into Ray Davies, who was here for three weeks in 1996 when he played the Alcazar Theater. They said, 'Tell us when he's here again and we'll schedule our next meeting around it.' "

Bridgewater agrees that, more than anything, celebrities want space and calm. "A bottle of water, a bowl of fruit, nothing fancy. Ru Paul stays here, and when he does, he doesn't dress like a woman. He hates dressing like a woman. That's a shtick. He never comes with a bunch of women's clothes. He doesn't want the attention. He's this really tall man who dresses like a man when he's offstage."

Thirty years ago, rock & roll was a lifestyle brought along on the road like a stack of amps. Now even younger bands understand the split between being an onstage entertainer and an offstage regular person--well, most of them do, most of the time, anyway. A big-name reggae band ("I can't tell you who because they're still out there, and they're still big," says Larry Broughton, former night manager at the Phoenix and now a Joie de Vivre vice president) decided one night that all of the Phoenix's potted plants needed watering, so every one of them got thrown into the hotel's swimming pool. And one morning, Keanu Reeves, at the Phoenix with his band Dogstar, bathed brunching pool-side guests with a mighty cannonball off the diving board. "It was not appreciated," according to Broughton.

The older rock musicians who enjoyed the old lifestyle can be sweethearts or assholes, depending. Bridgewater tells the story of the time the Make-A-Wish Foundation booked a room at the Prescott for a 16-year-old boy who was dying of leukemia. He wanted to meet Neil Young. "But Neil wouldn't meet him, and that really pissed me off. In fact, I snuck a note to Herb Caen about it, and he put it into his column. The kid's second choice was Bob Dylan, who happened to be playing in Berkeley that weekend. Dylan took great care of the kid. The kid and his family went over to the show in a big limo, Dylan invited them backstage and spent a lot of time talking to them. Later I met the family in Postrio [which is housed in the Prescott], and that boy, who has since died, was so happy. Bob Dylan had really made his day. Herb Caen put that in, too."

Perhaps more than any other hotel in the country, the Phoenix reflects the change in music from lifestyle to business. It had to; Chip Conley created the Phoenix to cater to the music industry specifically. The biggest rooms aren't reserved for the biggest stars, they're for tour managers. The management suites come equipped with dedicated fax line and fax machines, enough space for small parties, and lots of soft furniture. "The tour managers live in those rooms," Miriam Cullen says. "They want to be comfortable. Sometimes they never go out when they're here." The Phoenix's parking lot is one of the few hotel lots in any city with bus space. "You can't believe how important that can be," Cullen reports. "We really try hard to take care of bus drivers and tour managers."

Conley especially enjoys bringing artists together who haven't met before or who have admired each other's work without getting to know each other. "When Karen Finley and Serrano met here, that was great for both of them because they were both having a lot of trouble with the NEA at the time and getting a lot of heat from politicians. Meeting here by chance gave them the opportunity to share notes and come up with strategies. We try to create an environment where those kinds of chance meetings between creative people are the most productive."

One time, though, a chance meeting didn't happen--and at least one party wound up regretting it. Some years ago, the Phoenix accidentally booked John F. Kennedy Jr. and Deborah Harry in the same room for the same night. The mistake was discovered before either checked in, and nothing was said until a few weeks ago, when Harry was at the Phoenix again. "We told her about the mix-up," manager Cullen says, "and I thought she'd just sort of shrug. But you know, she not only thought it was very funny, she was really thrilled by the whole situation. She was actually sorry it didn't happen. John F. Kennedy Jr. and Deborah Harry. Can you imagine?"

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From the November 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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