Leonard Cohen was in a deflated mood in the late 1960s as he had departed his home in Montreal, Canada, in search of a career as a folk singer in New York, much like his contemporary Bob Dylan had done some six years prior. Cohen had spent his early years throughout the early 1950s and ‘60s in pursuit of a career in literature having been an esteemed poet and writer in his years at school and university where he won the Chester MacNaghten Literary Competition for his poetry entry in 1951. This early success and passion for writing led Cohen to pursue this difficult career path, and throughout the next 15 years, he made a number of earnest efforts, mainly in poetry, publishing a number of books that were met with varying levels of critical enthusiasm.
Cohen’s move to New York in 1967 came at a time when he had lost hope in becoming a well renowned and successful poet and instead looked to try his hand at music. Finding himself among the underground creative bustle of New York, Cohen brushed shoulders with Andy Warhol’s creative troupe in the “Factory” which included art-rock band The Velvet Underground and Nico. Inspired by the wealth of artist expression he was exposed to in New York, he set about recording the poetic songs that would make up his 1967 debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen.
During much of this time, the struggling creative would spend his nights at the infamous Chelsea Hotel. The imposing redbrick building sits on West 23rd Street and holds a rich history, the details of which have likely been made public to a tip-of-the-iceberg extent. Since its 1885 birth, the building has been home to literary giants such as Mark Twain, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock. It was within these walls too that Arthur C. Clarke wrote his masterpiece ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.
By the 1960s the Chelsea Hotel had become the epicentre for emerging rock talent, with fleeting visits from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and Dylan himself. It was here at the Chelsea Hotel where Leonard Cohen first met fellow singer-songwriter, Janis Joplin. The dark and elusive character presented by Cohen at the time lay like a trap summoning Joplin into his heart.
Upon entering the lift from the lobby to the rooms above, Cohen was joined by a beautiful and gregarious woman – Joplin had entered his life. Cohen recalled 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.”
After striking up this friendly conversation, the pair made their way back to Cohen’s room and there started their short romance with each other. This one night romance had an effect that has echoed through the years in Cohen’s beautiful song ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’ which, while he wouldn’t admit it until years had passed, was written for her and the electrifying evening they shared each other’s company.
Joplin once said of the brief but powerful romance: “[It was] 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”.
Tragically, the pair only met up only a few more times before Joplin’s untimely death in 1970 from an accidental heroin overdose. It appears Leonard Cohen had lingering feelings for Joplin that he didn’t get a chance to express to her. Some of these romantic feelings were revealed in ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’. However, Cohen’s greatest regret from this experience is the “indiscretion” shown in the song. The lyrics detail parts of the sexual side of the encounter at the Chelsea Hotel; Cohen later expressed his regrets: “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, it’s an indiscretion for which I’m very sorry, and if there is some way of apologising to the ghost, I want to apologise now, for having committed that indiscretion.”
I too hope that Joplin wouldn’t have taken this indiscretion too seriously and would have laughed it off in her light-hearted and jovial manner. Who knows, perhaps in some untold afterlife the pair are back in the hotel putting an end to past regrets over a couple of Cohen’s famous “Red Needle” cocktails.