I was introduced to this song through Rufus Wainwraight, who performed it at a tribute concert in Sydney in 2005. Rufus version is actually better than the original, in my opinon. Over the years many other artists have covered the song, Lana Del Ray being the most recent.
Cohen has admitted writing the song about a meeting with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel in NYC, a revelation which he later regretting making. In an interview with BBC in 1994, he said it was “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.”
As with most of Cohen’s songs, the lyric is poetic and beautiful, so the phrase he’s so ashamed of is right in the beginning of the song: “…giving me head on an unmade bed, while the limousines waited in the streets”. ‘
Janis Joplin was later interviewed about the song and her meeting with Leonard. According to her, he sexual encounter wasn’t a very productive one:
“Sometimes, you know, you’re with someone and you’re convinced that they have something to… to tell you. Or, you know… you want to be with them. So maybe nothing’s happening, but you keep telling yourself something’s happening. You know, innate communication. He’s just not saying anything. He’s moody or something. So you keep being there, pulling, giving, rapping, you know. And then, all of a sudden about four o’clock in the morning you realize that, flat ass, this motherfucker’s just lying there”.
The number #2 in the title has nothing to do with the room where he was staying, as I believed for a long time. Instead it’s a reference to the order of versions of songs that he wrote. So there’s actually an original Chelsea Hotel #1 , which was never recorded but only performed live. In large parts it’s the same song, but it’s shortened significantly. I prefer #2, for that reason.
The song was not written in NYC, but rather in Ethiopia (!) where Leonard Cohen went in 1974, “looking for a suntan”.
“It rained, including in the Sinai desert, but through this whole period I had my little guitar with me, and it was then I felt the songs emerging – at least, the conclusions that I had been carrying in manuscript form for the last four or five years, from hotel room to hotel room”.
There seems to be something magical about the Chelsea Hotel itself, if you study the list of musicians who have had the hotel as their permanent home. Instead of giving you the full list, I think 3 names are sufficient: Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix. And Alice Cooper.