Phoenix Hotel

If you had asked me how my life would turn out in 1989, when I was in the prime of my youth and still studying French at University of San Francisco, I never would have imagined myself saying, “I’m going to be cleaning up after Kurt Cobain’s various binges at a scumbag hotel in the Tenderloin.” But so it was to be in 1994, a year that offered Cobain some of his last restless months, that I would be saying just that to anyone who would listen to me run my mouth at one of the bars nearby, where I would regularly get shit-faced before and after my shifts in order to cope. I thought that with French I would be able to be an international man of the world, not a man who only saw the comings and goings of national fuckfaces like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I never liked their music, and wasn’t really a fan of Nirvana’s either. Hole was respectable enough, but that was, for me, initially because of an unexpected friendship with Eric Erlandson, who would often take me to the Viper Room or the Chateau Marmont during his days of dating Drew Barrymore. That was after Kurt’s death though. In the time before my glamorous existence was limited to toilet brushes, brash check-ins and fishing syringes and underwear out of the 69 pool. A pool that Courtney Love so often enjoyed skinny dipping in.

It was after her night swims that she would take to her and Kurt’s room and go about the frenetic process of writing, whether lyrics or deranged wedding vows. The kind that people would eventually falsely interpret to be those of Kurt’s fraught mind–calling her the “bitch with the zits,” as they so would have liked to believe he would. Because yes, Courtney got, and gets, a bad rap. But she’s not all cuntery and volatility. There were moments when her vulnerability was so clear to me that I wondered how everyone else couldn’t see it. Then again, they hadn’t watched her vomit on the pavement beside the pool every night during her stay at the Phoenix. She made it look almost endearing. Almost. Kurt was too busy battling his own demons to much care or notice the stains that daily plagued my job description. You have to remember that the Phoenix wasn’t yet a sought after “boutique hotel,” so much as a con for musicians who wanted free massages with their hotel stay. Don’t ask me why this seemed worth the tradeoff of venturing into a human cess pool, as it wasn’t as though any of our “masseuses” looked like Kate Moss or whatever heroin chic prototype was attractive at that moment in pop culture. But maybe the feel of another person’s touch was rarer to these men than one might assume. Sure, there were the groupies and their associated “love,” but these musicians never got the same release from meaningless sex that they did from a massage at the Phoenix.

A few months before Courtney would be reading Kurt’s suicide note aloud to the press, I found myself working a rare peaceful shift at the front desk. I even managed to find time to pore over an advanced copy of Prozac Nation that my girlfriend insisted I read so as to better understand her. I couldn’t begrudge her for forcing me to read the slop, though. She was, after all, dating Beck’s description of a “Loser.” I had nothing to offer her, other than the ability to recite Racine in French. Women really will forgive you any of your faults if you can just show them your romantic side now and again. I guess that’s why Courtney forgave Kurt for wearing pajamas to their wedding. Then again, her ensemble of a satin and lace dress formerly owned by Frances Farmer probably meant more ill fortune than the pajamas. But it’s not the wedding that concerns me. It’s that piece of paper–that Phoenix stationery with the dripping-in-sarcasm vows–that does. The one with those derisive, self-deprecating descriptions. I still don’t know why people assumed Kurt had written: “Do you Kurt Cobain take Courtney Michelle Love to be your lawful shredded wife. Even when she’s a bitch with zits and siphoning all yr money for doping and whoring.” He was never capable of that level of contempt. That was always Courtney’s brand. In fact, songs like “Heart-Shaped Box” were the musings of a teddy bear in comparison to what Hole came up with and how it was presented. On that day when I was sitting there, reading the line, “That is all I want in life: for this pain to seem purposeful,” Kurt sauntered by the desk in more of a resigned daze than usual. I didn’t try to get his attention, even though the partially open suitcase was an indication that he was obviously checking out, whether it was officially documented or not. Aware that Courtney still lingered somewhere on the premises, possibly and very likely in a state of undress, I set the book down and went to go find her. To ask her if she was planning to leave as well. Believe it or not, she was always the more approachable one between the two of them. Cackling and caressing me as she cooed, “Zach, tell me something in French again,” Courtney, for all her grotesquerie, was very successful in her flirtations. That’s precisely how she finagled me and my penis into the top right corner room that day. It was in between guests and no one had cleaned it yet. Employees of the Phoenix were very lax about their time tables and responsibilities. It’s what gave us such an edge. And still made me wonder why anyone would want a complimentary massage from the joint. At that time, it shocked me that people weren’t afraid of getting AIDS from mere contact with one of our skeevy workers. Because remember, people still treated AIDS as a form of leprosy. Though slightly less so than they did in the mid and late 80s. Just goes to show how desperate we can get for the feel of human contact.

A few words and a few sips from her flask was really all it took for me to say yes. Thoughts of my depressive girlfriend’s reaction to the discovery of such a tryst clearly not a consideration. Nor was the thought of Kurt’s equally as depressive nature to Courtney as she slid my erection into her mouth.

As she loosened up further with a requisite heroin injection when it was all finished, I lit a cigarette and contemplated what the fuck I was doing. With her, in this hotel. I knew Eric would be furious with me if he found out, too. He was the one who had warned me about her, himself having fallen prey to her “raw animal energy.” God, I was so cliche. The help banging the rich damaged girl. I had to get out of that room, but it was then I heard her muttering those deranged wedding vows to herself, the very ones that the public would be privy to twenty years later, just when it seemed she was finally being exonerated. It was the echo of her voice in my head saying those words that made me understand something no one else ever could about her: she wanted to be worthy of Kurt’s love, yet knew she never could be. She wanted to not be a piece of shit prone to the temptations of a life that revolved around rock n’ roll in its purest form. That’s why she went crazy, was susceptible to such erratic behavior and rampant use of Rohypnol in addition to heroin. She just wanted to forget that she couldn’t be the person Kurt needed. Maybe in some fucked up Natural Born Killers version of a 50s TV show. But not in the 90s. And not at the Phoenix. A hotel that most definitely warrants the same mantra as Las Vegas.

About a month later, I quit. It wasn’t long after that news of Kurt’s suicide shook the entire world to its fragile, whiny core. I was on a trip to Paris with my Phoenix blood money savings, reciting Racine to my girlfriend, who I never told of my indiscretion until the note was released to the media, setting off something within me that prompted me to confess to her. It ended our marriage. And now I just recite Racine to myself in the dead of night at the Wythe Hotel, where the closest thing resembling a rock star that walks in is a 20-year-old with a trust fund worth more than even what Kurt would have made in his lifetime.

Except in one case that twenty-something with a trust fund was Frances Bean and Courtney herself in accompaniment. When the latter approached the desk to check in, she didn’t recognize me. And I didn’t feel inclined to lash out at her for destroying my only chance at till death do us part. A phrase that was made far more literal in her case.


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