The Story Behind The Song: Leonard Cohen’s ode to Janis Joplin, ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’
The illustrious Chelsea Hotel, not famed for its stunning service or wonderful views, is instead a cesspit of literary and musical genius. In one of its bohemian rooms lived, for a time, a struggling poet and singer Leonard Cohen. In another, he would spend the night with Janis Joplin and write one of his most famous songs, ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’.
In our weekly feature, we look at the story behind the song and with Cohen’s posthumous album due out very soon, we thought we’d look back at one of his classics. Featured on his 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony its an unabashed and unashamed depiction of a time, a moment in history, when two of music’s greatest crossed paths.
Located at 222 West 23rd Street, the confrontational redbrick ran along the block and demanded an appreciation of its gothic grandeur. The Chelsea Hotel is as much a pivotal figure in music and literature as the bustling brains that occupy its rooms. Geniuses of the fields such as Mark Twain, Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, and Jackson Pollock. Arthur Miller, the luminary playwright, says it all as efficiently as you’d expect, saying, “No vacuum cleaners, no rules, no shame.”
It was within these walls that Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was the home to Patti Smith on many occasions, it would provide sanctuary for Jack Kerouac to type out his novel On The Road on a ridiculously long scroll of paper. In the sixties, it would provide a creative hub for some of the decade’s most prominent artists; Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, and Jefferson Airplane all penning songs with the Chelsea as a main protagonist. And, it was the scene and the subject for one of Leonard Cohen’s most poignantly perfect pieces of work.
At the time, in the spring of 1968, Cohen wasn’t in the best of shape career-wise. Having not really made his name in either of his desired fields of literature or music he had begun to float away from the pack. To begin to nurture his dark, mysterious and moody role of the chronicler, the observer, the bard. This sadness had driven him out of the Hotel to find sustenance for his aching body if not his mind.
He reflected later at a concert, “It was a dismal evening in New York City,” he made his way to a run-down diner “I had a cheeseburger; it didn’t help at all,” he said with a sardonic smile. With food in his belly, he sought nourishment and neglect for his soul and headed to the Greenwich Village bar, famous for its creative minds, “I went to the White Horse Tavern looking for Dylan Thomas, but Dylan Thomas was dead.”
It was enough to find Cohen in a dismal state when he crossed the famous lobby of The Chelsea Hotel. Bristling with talent and the electrifying buzz of fame, filled to the brim with rent-money paintings from its guests the Hotel’s lift was notoriously tricky. While Cohen did usual Fonzie impression on the troublesome controls, a wild-haired, fiercely confident woman entered the lift. The current resident of Room 411 – the singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, and one of the voices of her generation – Janis Joplin.
Cohen gathered his courage and decided to use the slow pace of the lift to engage in some conversation with this shining light of womanhood. He remembered in 1988, “I said to her, ‘Are you looking for someone?’ She said ‘Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.’ I said, ‘Little lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.’ Those were generous times. Even though she knew that I was someone shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never let on. Great generosity prevailed in those doom decades.”
The pair would make their way to Cohen’s room 424 and share a short romance together, the details of which are shared in Cohen’s song. Though he didn’t admit the object of the song’s affections to be Janis until years after her death. Joplin once said the pair’s romance hit her very hard, “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.” They only saw each other a handful of times after this first meeting before Joplin died.
When Joplin passed away the ‘Hallelujah’ singer soon found himself reminiscing about the night he once spent with the great and powerful Janis Joplin. Soon, as they often did with Cohen, words began to form on the page. In the song, he remembers her majesty, her wit, her uncontrollable freedom, and her desire. But there is one line in the song that Cohen regrets because of the song’s association to Joplin. He once called it his biggest indiscretion and wishes he could take it back, so we won’t focus in it.
Though that lyric, in particular, does feel a bit shameless – not in its act but in its placement – the lyrics in the song speak to a fiery and romantic if not fleeting experience between the two. An experience that is mirrored by the uncertainty and excitement of the New York that Cohen depicts.
The use of humor, of deadpan delicacy, and the vulnerability of freedom that Cohen conveys makes it an idiosyncratic masterpiece of casual human connection. Even without Joplin’s untimely death, it is unlikely that this pair, so different in their outlook and their approach, would ever have made it as a couple.