Cohen, Joplin & The Legend of the Chelsea Hotel

With the new cover from Lana Del Ray sweeping the internet; the magic, the folklore and the locker-room whispers surrounding Leonard Cohen's original "Chelsea Hotel #2" should not be forgotten.
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Bob Dylan lived in suite #2011. Madonna stayed in suite #882 during the early eighties. Charles Bukowski stayed in the hotel. So did Mark Twain and William S. Burroughs. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there. Jackson Pollock stayed there as did Tom Waits, Brendan Behan, most of the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in one of the suites. Several survivors of the Titanic even stayed at the hotel because of its proximity to Pier 54, where the White Star Line planned to dock the liner when it arrived in New York.

The Chelsea Hotel, located in the Manhattan neighbourhood of Chelsea, has seen its share of beat poets and hippie folksters, wide-eyed acid heads and apocalyptic burn outs, high-price hookers and guttersnipe tramps. In its 250+ suites, it has housed the famous and the obscure, the living and the dead. And of the countless legends that have emerged from its crude, marble hallways, perhaps the most enchanting is that of two lovers: Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen.

On March 23rd, 1972, Cohen, who was 38-years-old at the time, debuted a song during the third show of his Royal Albert Hall concert series in London, England. He recorded the same song two years later during the sessions for this 1974 album, New Skin For The Old Ceremony. He would play the song thousands of times throughout the rest of his career, in fact, he plays it still. He has never been able to live it down. The song's lyrics make mention of a woman 'giving him head', offering a rare glimpse into Cohen's secretive love life. The song is Chelsea Hotel #2 and the woman was the late Janis Joplin.

Cohen lived in suite #424 at the hotel when he wasn't at his home in Montreal or his cottage on the Greek Island of Hydra. Joplin lived in suite #411. They would often run into each other in the hotel by chance. One night, after encountering each other in the hotel elevator, a short, sexual affair began. The opening verse sheds light on the encounter:

"I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel

You were talking so brave and so sweet

Giving me head on the unmade bed

While the limousines wait in the street."

In the liner notes for his 1975 greatest hits complication, Some Notes On The Songs, Cohen claims to have begun writing the song in 1971 in a Polynesian restaurant in Miami, but he didn't finish it until later while in Asmara, Ethiopia just before the throne was overturned.

On May 25th, 1976, two years after he recorded it, Cohen introduced the song to his audience in Montreux, Switzerland with the following prologue.


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"A long time ago there was a hotel in New York City where a lot of musicians used to stay. Among them there was a very great singer, a woman. I used to bump into her in the elevator about three in the morning, completely by mistake. She wasn't looking for me. I think she was looking for Kris Kristofferson. And I wasn't looking for her. I was looking for...Brigitte Bardot. Anyhow, we fell into each other's arms through some process of elimination, which is the process by which most things happen and I loved...There's music going on here that is not my own. How delightful. How delightful to hear music that is not my own. Bring it up...Last time I saw her was on 23d Street. She said, "Hey man, you in town to read poetry for old ladies?" That was her view of my career. Anyhow, there was no sense of ambiguity or division in her relation with her audience, with her public, and after she split, after she died, I wrote this song for her, Janis Joplin."

Cohen's kissing-and-telling would haunt him for years. He described his carelessness as "an indiscretion for which I'm very sorry." In a 1994 interview with BBC Radio 1, Cohen made an all-too-late apology: "I used the line 'giving me head on an unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street', and I’ve always disliked the locker-room approach to these matters, I’ve never spoken in any concrete terms of a woman with whom I’ve had any intimate relationships. I named Janis Joplin in that song. I don't know when it started, but I connected her name with the song, and I've been feeling very bad about that ever since. And if there is some way of apologising to a ghost, I want to apologise now for having committed that indiscretion."

In a long-lost interview from September of 1969, Joplin spoke about her fast and loose sexual lifestyle, only subtly touching on Cohen:

"Sometimes, you know, you’re with someone and you’re convinced that they have something to… to tell you. Or, you know… you want to be with them.  So maybe nothing’s happening, but you keep telling yourself something’s happening.  You know, innate communication.  He’s just not saying anything.  He’s moody or something.  So you keep being there, pulling, giving, rapping, you know.  And then, all of a sudden about four o’clock in the morning you realise that, flat ass, this motherfucker’s just lying there.  He’s not balling me. I mean, that really happened to me.  Really heavy, like slam-in-the-face it happened.  Twice.  Jim Morrison and Leonard Cohen.  And it’s strange ’cause they were the only two that I can think of, like prominent people, that I tried to… without really liking them up front, just because I knew who they were and wanted to know them… And then they both gave me nothing… but I don’t know what that means.  Maybe it just means they were on a bummer."

While her words are electric and enlightening in true Joplin fashion, any nuggets regarding the Chelsea Hotel incident are vague at best. In fact, if you really analyse her words, you could take from it that nothing really happened at all between her and Cohen — reducing the fairy tale of New York to mere He said, She said gossip. 

Perhaps American singer-songwriter Patti Smith said it best: "There's hardly been an artist who has lived in the Chelsea that was not in some way captured by its flair."