Over the past year or two, recordings have emerged of an earlier version of Leonard Cohen’s song Chelsea Hotel — notably at 1HeckofaGuy.com whose owner publishes an endless stream of Cohen trivia, memorabilia, and occasionally something that might even be important:

Here is a link (while I figure out how to embed this video):

http://1heckofaguy.com/2011/08/01/new-video-chelsea-hotel-1-by-leonard-cohen/

At the same time, on the French Leonard Cohen site, a compilation of Leonard’s concert introductions for this song also appeared. As early as 1976, but mainly since 1979, he has been publicly admitting Chelsea Hotel was written for Joplin. Up to then, apparently, their fateful encounter was kept secret. On his 1979 Field Commander Cohen concert tour, beginning with the concert in Bonn, Germany, and afterwards in cities all over the UK, Cohen told the story of how he bumped into Joplin in the elevator of the Chelsea, and by ‘some process of elimination’ ended up in bed with her.

If you go to this site you will see versions of this story told by Leonard over the years, and if you pay attention it becomes obvious that crucial details sometimes change from one telling to the next: http://www.leonardcohen-prologues.com/chelsea_hotel.htm

For example, at one point at a concert in Amsterdam,(10/30/1980) he says when he met her in the elevator he did not know who she was:

“Once upon a time, there was a hotel in New York City. There was an elevator in that hotel. One evening, about three in the morning, I met a young woman in that hotel. I didn’t know who she was. It turned out she was a very great singer. It was a very dismal evening in New York City. I’d been to the Bronco Burger. I had a cheeseburger. It didn’t help at all. … Ah, I got back to the elevator and there she was. She wasn’t looking for me either. She was looking for Kris Kristofferson  … I later found out she was Janis Joplin and we fell into each other’s arms through some divine process of elimination, which makes a compassion out of indifference. And after she died, I wrote this song for her. It’s called “The Chelsea Hotel.

Now this 1980 version seems highly doubtful. Unless in those days Leonard really did spend all his time across the street at Bronco Burger, or, as he states elsewhere, in the automat, pushing buttons and watching the food fly out at him —

“On 23d Street there was an automat. That’s a fast food establishment. You put a coin in the wall and piece of pie comes rushing out at you …… extremely high velocity. I wrote a quatrain about that automat. … “I wandered into the automat – Wearing a kind of religious hat – The peas were round and the pancakes were flat – I pray God in Heaven to keep it like that” … In the Chelsea Hotel, there were a lot of musicians who used to stay there. I remember Phil Ochs … lot of musicians who aren’t with us any longer … and there was Jimi Hendrix, there was Tim Buckley.”

Back in 1967, he would have us believe he was a lonely poet wandering around New York trying to break into music, and doing lots of drugs. That’s probably true — he was known back then as “Leonard, the lude freak” but he was not really lonely. He knew many people, many of whom did not trust him. I think his tale of lonely drug addiction is part truth and part alibi, a cover story for his main occupation. Which was intelligence gathering.

It also makes no sense that he had never heard of Janis Joplin in 1967 while he was staying in the same hotel with her and many other people in the music business. However there is no real need debate this because Leonard’s French site offers documentation from a Paris, 6-6-1976, concert four years earlier, where he stated clearly that he had been watching her for some time before their fateful encounter in the elevator, and knew who she was:

“I also used to see her across the street at the Bronco Burger.A hamburger joint.It’s not there any more. Anyhow I used to watch her in there (..) she was watching to see if people would put her songs  on the juke-box.(..) and she was a truly great (..).There was something gr eat about her attitude towards her public.(..) no ambiguity.”

So either in 1976 he was merely spinning a fancy tale about he  ‘used to watch her’ hang around the jukebox at Bronco Burger– or he was stating a fact at the time: that he used to watch her. In 1976, he hadn’t ironed out all the kinks in the story, such as: Why would he be watching her? Because maybe that’s what he did for a living in the sixties? Perhaps that’s why many people found him strange and creepy?

In 1980, in Amsterdam, he decided to change that detail. and gave a sanitized version: that when he met her in the elevator he did not recognize the famous singer, whom he describes as a ‘beautiful woman’ in one telling, and elsewhere as rather unattractive with bad skin and knotted, curling hair. Of course this poor waif wouldn’t have introduced herself. And so these two strangers just fell into bed by a process of elimination —

Except that according to the 1976 Paris concert she already knew him. In an earlier encounter on 24th Street, she had greeted him as the square Canadian poet that he was known to be in those days:

“I was in 24th Street NYC she said ‘Hey man, you’re in town to read poetry to old ladies.’ She had a very refreshing view of my career. After she died i wrote this song for her, Janis Joplin.”

(It seems this has been a theme. More recently in an interview he talks about meeting Mick Jagger in New York, who asked if he was there to give a “poetry reading’ — obviously a subtle putdown and slanted reminder that he was not a rock star. That Leonard attributes this comment to more than one sixties idol could be due to poetic licence,  a bad memory, or stored resentment at being seen as an outsider by the beautiful people.)

It’s not just details about his encounters and alleged ‘relationship’ with Janis Joplin that got revised over the years, but how and when and where he says he wrote the song.  In 1979, for example, he told filmmaker Harry Rasky that he started writing it in ‘the very late sixties:

I began that song, I would say ah, the very late sixties. I’m not quite sure when I began that song. There is a version of it that I made in 1972, that I never released (*). It went through a lot of changes. I don’t think it was ready to record until 1974 (**). My meeting Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel was the genesis or the seed of the song. It went through a lot of changes. That’s about it.’

However, in communist Poland 1985, he tells a different rambling tale of how he wrote the first line in a Polynesian restaurant in Miami in the early 70s:

“And we spent a little time together, and I loved the way that she sang, and she died, for some odd reason, and some time later, I think I was sitting at a bar in a Polynesian restaurant in Miami Beach – I don’t know what I was doing there either… I just move from hotel to hotel and from bar to bar, and by the grace of the One above occasionally a song comes. And I remember sitting at this particularly obnoxious Polynesian Restaurant, where they served a kind of coconut drink that was particularly lethal and sinister which contained no alcohol but a certain chemical that demoralized you entirely. 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.”

The Miami Polynesian bar with its fake ceramic coconuts and poisoned drinks is mentioned in other concert introductions, while the phrase, ‘for some odd reason’ – by which he seems to leap over the cause of her death — pops out again in another account of how he really wrote Chelsea Hotel in a hotel in Ethiopia, soon to become Eritrea, on the eve of the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime:

“A couple of years after she died I was in a Polynesian restaurant in Miami and the thought of her was very strong. I started writing that lyric and finished it in a town in the north of Ethiopia. I went there after the Yom Kippur War for some odd reason, and I ended up in the Imperial Hotel finishing that song, getting the last chorus: “I need you, I don’t need you, and all that jiving around.”

Might the “odd reason” for his presence in the Ethiopian town which also was a CIA base at the time, just ahead of a historic regime change, be that he had joined the Israeli army as an intelligence officer in 1973, after arriving there a few days ahead of the “surprise attack” by Egypt.  In 1974 Israel was sending operatives across the Red Sea to Ethiopia to assist in destabilizing the ruling regime. I’d bet the real reason our Leonard chose Asmara to begin writing his next batch of songs, for the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony — he had indeed shed his skin, and had made powerful friends in Israel,namely Ariel Sharon and Moishe Dayan.

But back to the late Janis Joplin, portrayed in a demeaning light in a song that was to go through several versions before he decided it was finally safe to record in 1974 as Chelsea Hotel #2.

Tel Aviv, April 19, 1972 was where he first performed Chelsea Hotel #1 — which he introduced by saying it had been written “a couple of weeks ago” — which seems to contradict the story of how he wrote it in a bar in Miami, since he had been touring Europe before coming to Israel — but let’s not be picky.

However, going by Cohen’s own assertion (borne out by his successful lawsuit over theft of the melody to Famous Blue Raincoat some years ago)  that places inspire songs — how do we explain the references to fishing by a stream in Tennessee in the Tel Aviv video, unless Chelsea Hotel was actually begun much earlier, e.g. when Cohen was staying in a cabin in the woods near Nashville after recording Songs of Love and Hate in a studio there? Isn’t that the most likely source of those rambling, pointless lines about fishing, which were later cut, perhaps because they were too specific and point to the song being written in Tennessee in the fall of 1970, a few weeks or days before Joplin died.

Next question: exactly how long before she died did he write that first line: “I remember you well from the Chelsea Hotel”? Answer: that sounds to me like an obvious pickup line aimed at a woman you had not seen in a couple of years and wanted to flatter: “You were famous, your heart was a legend.” It’s certainly not hard to come up with a line like that. Compared to the seesawing about dates and locations and all those digressions into coconut cocktails at mysterious Mafia-owned Polynesian restaurants in Miami, the most logical explanation is that he began the song while Joplin was still alive and staying the Landmark Motel, doing drugs and getting over her latest humiliating rejection by Kris Kristofferson.

He looked her up there, and played it for her the night she died.

Listening to Chelsea Hotel #1, there is no getting around the impression that it was written by someone who witnessed her last moments in the throes of the overdose that carried her away. I can’t imagine listening to this version and not thinking that. In fact, the original  was likely suppressed (except for that single performance in Israel) because it basically screams “I was there, I fucked her, I killed her.”

I can’t be the only one who has thought this, surely. Unless you believe Leonard’s songs are just random collections of meaningless froth, it’s embarrassingly obvious and I am sure Leonard is not happy that the earlier version has been found and heard by thousands of fans:

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were talking so brave and so sweet
Giving me head on the unmade bed
While the limousines wait in the street.

Those were the reasons and that was New York.
I was running for the money and the flesh
I was running for the money and the flesh
That was called love, for the workers in song
And it still is for those of us left.

Oh but you got away, didn’t you baby
You just threw it all to the ground
You got away, they can’t pay you now
For making your sweet little sound, come on make it, baby
Making your sweet little sound, let’s all do it
Making your sweet little sound, I can hear it
Making your sweet little sound

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
Then I went to Tennessee
Sittin’ by the creek with Willie Yore
And Kit Marley came to visit me

For those were the reasons and that was New York.
I was running for the money and the flesh
That was called love for the workers in song
And it still is for the few of us left.

Oh but you got away, didn’t you baby
You just threw it all to the ground
You got away on your deepest dream
Making your sweet little sound on the jukebox
Making your sweet little sound on transistor radio
Making your sweet little sound, for the royalties
Making your sweet little sound, let me follow you
Making your sweet little song, let me follow you
Making your sweet little song, don’t leave me now
Making your sweet little song, all the way now
Giving me head on the unmade bed
A great surprise lying with you, baby
Making your sweet little sound.

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
That was the winter of ‘67
My friends of that year, they were trying to go queer
And me, I was just getting even.

Those were the reasons and that was New York
I was running for the fucking money and the flesh
That was called love for the workers in song
And it still is for the few of us left.

Ah but you got away, didn’t you baby
You just turn your back on the pain
You got away on your wildest dream
Racing the midnight train, I can see it
Racing the midnight train with no clothes on, baby
See all your (?) torn on the ground
All of your clothing, no piece to cover you
Shining your eyes in my deepest corner
Shining your eyes in my darkest corner
Racing the midnight train, I can’t catch you baby
Racing the midnight train.

*****

It seems all to likely that Cohen was caught off guard and revealed the truth in the 1979 Harry Rasky interview, which was also filmed. In the video Rasky asks Cohen to talk about his relationship with Janis Joplin, and Cohen becomes nervous and evasive. His eyes gaze off to the left, and it is clear from his body language that he barely knew her. He even admits it. This begs the question: why would he be moved by the death of a woman he hardly knew in life, to write a song about her in which the most vivid lines appear to describe her last moments as she drifted out of this world on a fatal overdose? Was he the one who delivered the drugs to her motel room that day? Admittedy, this is my fantasy, but it makes more sense than the official fantasy that people have swallowed without question.

“Hello Janis. This is Leonard Cohen. We have to stop meeting like this.”

“Leonard who? Oh yeah, I remember you. The poet.”

“I just got in from Nashville and I wanted to play you my new song. It’s about you and me and the Chelsea Hotel.”

“Okay, sure. And by the way, have you got anything else with you?”

“Little lady, you’re in luck –”

“Come on up.”

***********

Janis Joplin died on Ocfober 4, 1970

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janeadamsart

Ramesh 1

During my visit to Ramesh in Mumbai, in early 1999, I witnessed the following conversation with Leonard Cohen, and bought the tape.
After I got home, I made this transcript:

Ramesh – You live in a Zen monastery, I am told?

Leonard – That’s correct, yes.

For how long, three or four years?

I’ve been associated with this institution for about thirty years – and about four and a half years ago, I was ordained as a monk.

I see. I see. Would you say it is a pretty stiff discipline?

It’s – very rigorous.

But you like it?

Not particularly, no.

Well that is honest. So what I would like to ask is this: the understanding before you came here, and what I talk about – how does it compare?

It was the resonance between the two models, yours and my teachers’, that led me to study your books with some diligence…

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