I first paid close attention to Leonard Cohen’s song “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” in the summer of 2012, at an outdoor concert by Rufus Wainwright at the harbor-side pavilion here in Boston. I’d heard Cohen’s own version of the song before then, as well as Lloyd Cole’s upbeat guitar-pop rendition, with the Dylanesque cadences of its delivery, on 1991’s Leonard Cohen tribute CD I’m Your Fan. Rufus performed the song (which is also included on his album Want Two) as a duet with Cohen’s son Adam, the show’s opening act.
Hearing the lyrics sung by an unabashedly gay performer like Wainwright, who also happens to be the biological father of one of Leonard Cohen’s grandchildren, is probably what made me take notice. The song fits Rufus’s persona perfectly and bends to suit a different context while always retaining its original shape. That’s probably one quality that makes a song truly great; it lends its flexibility to a wide variety of performers who cover it, without sacrificing the integrity of the initial creation. Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” is another song that does this always, and I’ve never heard a bad interpretation of it.
“Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” of course, is lodged deep in rock mythology, a memory of Cohen’s overnight liaison with Janis Joplin. Like many of his best songs, it’s steeped in an intense yet also casual longing. The song’s setting, grand yet bohemian, old-school yet contemporary, arranges its manifold legendary associations around the opening lyric: “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel.” Our memories are contained by the ghosts of the spaces in which the remembered experiences first occurred, and when we return to those spaces, which continue to change over time, we bring the memories back to those spaces with us. Cohen’s memory of Joplin is a snapshot (or short film) of their time together in the Chelsea Hotel, and any subsequent visit, or even a photograph of the place, might revive the memory of her again. The lyrics are like a Cavafy poem that a straight man would write. Cohen certainly knew Cavafy’s writing because a song on his 2001 album Ten New Songs is based on one of Cavafy’s poems. Cohen himself published almost as many books of poetry as the number of albums he recorded.
The lyrics of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” are constructed on the shifting surfaces of desire: “You were talking so brave and so sweet, / Giving me head on the unmade bed / While the limousines wait in the street.” Romantic, sexual, disarrayed, and glamorous, the images clash and complement each other in a way that’s both timeless and timelessly cool. The present-tense verb “wait” in the line about the limousines idling in the street clearly plays with this idea, suspending the desire and the memory itself eternally in time, even though Cohen is singing about the distant past.
“Those were the reasons and that was New York.” The music business had brought them there and brought them together (“We were running for the money and the flesh”), for better or worse. It was the late 1960s. The years between then and the song’s release in 1974 would be years of tremendous loss, fallout from a war escalated beyond all control and a long litany of drug-related deaths, facts that further fixate the erotic memory. “And that was called love for the workers in song, / Probably still is for those of them left.” A night of great sex is what a musician would expect, but it’s still a kind of love, then and today, but especially then, at the height of the sexual revolution. Joplin was just one of many famous musicians who died young at age 27, Cohen was among the survivors, and the phrase “those of them left” takes on a whole new meaning now, with the majority of musical artists struggling harder to stay afloat and keep creating in our digital era.
Joplin’s departure in the song is a relaxed shrug and a heartbreaking refusal. We know the story, and it doesn’t need to be said outright, so it’s sublimated instead:
“Ah but you got away, didn’t you babe,
You just turned your back on the crowd.
You got away, I never once heard you say,
I need you, I don’t need you,
I need you, I don’t need you,
And all of that jiving around.”
I’ve always wondered if the repetition of “I need you, I don’t need you” is more than just an example of the lovers’ bickering and wavering that they never got around to, but rather a kind of conversational response, with the singer’s “I don’t need you” as a counterpoint, a forlorn way of addressing the memory itself. It’s as though he’s saying, just like we didn’t need the emotional games that we never had a chance to play, I don’t need to remember you this way. It’s also as if Joplin is saying that she never needed what the world could never really give her.
Then in the next verse, Cohen’s memory again overtakes the singer’s distant stance like a gentle wave washing back over him: “You told me again you preferred handsome men, / But for me you would make an exception.” It’s such an interesting turn, this unusual point of bonding; they don’t fit in with the image-conscious rock stars surrounding them, and that difference is one thing that attracted them to each other. “And clenching your fist for the ones like us / Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty” suggests another layer of meaning as well, in that beauty is one of the most enduring themes of popular music and art, yet physical beauty itself is never fairly distributed and doesn’t even last for those to whom it’s granted. In the end, however, art prevails anyway, with a sly inward smile: “You fixed yourself and said, ‘Well, never mind, / We are ugly, but we have the music.’”
The song’s denouement covers more ground in four lines than some songwriters’ entire catalogs, as the singer connects cultural history with his own relationships and memories:
“I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
That’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.”
At first the image of those “fallen robins” might seem a little sexist, drawing on the tradition of comparing women to birds, until remembering the orange color of Janis Joplin’s hair. And again, the early disappearance of so many young musicians in that era was tragically persistent enough that one could conceivably lose count, a notion that Cohen seems willing to let go of, whereas the cultural fixation on celebrities who died young would only become more fervent, nostalgic, and exploitative as generations passed. Nevertheless, the song’s closing line, “I don’t even think of you that often,” registers as quietly true, yet at the same time isn’t true at all. The entire song is a detailed resurrection of an unforgettable memory. Permanently cast in the mold of popular music, that memory is continually repeated, continually relived, both as a poem and a song, a private reverie and a public statement, revived and consumed, revived and consuming.
Despite this willful repetition — lift and move the needle back to replay the track, click refresh on the YouTube video — the song’s rich internal signifiers are also half-empty now. Janis Joplin is long gone, Leonard Cohen is just recently gone, and the old Chelsea Hotel is gone now, too, closed for renovations, soon to be upscaled and gentrified, no longer an infamous bohemian enclave but your typical downtown luxury establishment. The only figures left in the song’s insular hotel room will be us, just as Leonard Cohen intended for it to be someday.