If there’s one building that evokes the tragedy and poetry of the golden age of recorded music, it is undoubtedly the Chelsea Hotel in New York. In the days it accepted long-term residents, the hotel hosted countless musicians, actors, and artists at the peak of their careers. You’re likely familiar with the seemingly endless list of notable people who lived and died within its walls. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey during his stay, Allan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso had lengthy political discussions there, and room 205 witnessed both the murder of Nancy Spungen at the hands of Sid Vicious and the death of the poet Dylan Thomas. No wonder people think the place is haunted.
The hotel is much a part of the history of popular American music as Muddy Waters. With its imposing red-brick facade and serpentine corridors, it has hosted almost all of music’s most iconic figures, including the great Leonard Cohen. The singer-songwriter came to the hotel at a time when it was something of a HQ for the biggest names in the music industry: “I had heard about the Chelsea Hotel as being a place where I might meet people of my own kind. And I did. It was a grand, mad place,” Cohen described. One of the people he met was a young woman known to the world as Janis Joplin, and their meeting, inside one of the hotel’s art deco elevators, would inspire Cohen to write one of his most famous songs.
During his introduction to ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ at a 1988 New York City concert, Cohen described the encounter: “A thousand years ago I lived at this hotel in NYC. I was a frequent rider of the elevator on this hotel. I will continuously leave my room and come back. I was an expert on the buttons of that elevator. One of the few technologies I really ever mastered.”
Adding: “The door opened. I walked in. Put my finger right on the button. No hesitation. Great sense of mastery in those days. Late in the morning, early in the evening. I noticed a young woman in that elevator. She was riding it with as much delight as I was. Even though she commanded huge audiences, riding that elevator was the only thing she really knew how to do.”
Cohen gathered his courage and said to Joplin: “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 led on. Great generosity prevailed in those doom decades. Anyhow, I wrote this song for Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel.”
However, Cohen would later come to regret his decision to write a song that so obviously references the night he and Joplin spent together in the Chelsea Hotel: “There was the sole indiscretion, in my professional life, that I deeply regret, because I associated a woman’s name with a song, and in the song I mentioned, 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. And 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.”
Well, if it was Joplin’s ghost he was looking for, perhaps he should have returned to the Chelsea Hotel.