During Leonard Cohen’s 1985 Various Positions tour, the legendary singer-songwriter landed in Warsaw and delivered a simply perfect performance of his 1974 hit ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, it’s a song imbued with the passion of the bohemian lifestyle Cohen had drawn so close to his heart.
Cohen arrived in Poland at a very tricky time for the nation, guiding their hands over the crossroads. The communist state was under Soviet control and martial law was still in effect, with dissidents still being jailed and the country’s climate threatening to boil over at any minute. It meant that rock shows tended to avoid the nation when plotting their European tours.
It was something that would’ve concerned Cohen when creating his tour path but he decided at the last minute to book a gig at the Congress Hall at the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, perhaps as an act of defiance or prophetic poetry. While Cohen was in commercial decline during the tour, his iconoclasm was steadily on the rise and the tickets for his show went extremely quickly.
The singer opened the show with ‘Bird on the Wire,’ and addressed the political divide between his homeland and Poland: “I come from a country where we do not have the same struggles as you have,” he said. “I respect your struggles. And it may surprise you, but I respect both sides of this struggle. It seems to be that in Europe there needs to be a left foot and a right foot to move forward. And I would like to say to you, to the leaders of the left, and the leaders of the right, I sing for everyone. My song has no flag, my song has no party.”
There’s plenty of footage from this particular show. Not only because it was professionally filmed but because of the crowd’s determination to revel in the capitalist joy of rock and roll. One of the show’s most poignant moments came when Cohen chose to perform ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’.
Famous for its muse, Cohen usually performed the song accompanied by back-up singers, such was his distaste for his own vocal prowess. But in this performance, he stripped it all back and delivered a simply stunning rendition of ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ which he dedicated to Janis Joplin.
He prefaced the song by saying: “Every concert that I give, I dedicate this song to a great American singer that I met one night in an elevator in a shabby hotel in New York City,” he told the crowd. “I think she was looking for Kris Kristofferson. I told her that I was Kris Kristofferson. But she said, ‘I thought he was bigger.’ I said that I used to be bigger, but I’d been sick. And we spent a little time together. … And I remember writing on one of their very badly designed napkins, ‘I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel…’ so I dedicate this song to one of the great singers, Janis Joplin.”
A few years later and Cohen spoke of the brief love affair he had with Janis Joplin, offering a different vision of their meeting as he saw Joplin in the hotel lobby and decided to make his play. “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 on it.
Revealing the song’s muse was a regret that would follow Cohen to his grave. The singer often remarked how he wished he hadn’t shared the personal relationship they shared. However, with the revelation, it makes for a more engrossing performance all the same.