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The Chelsea Hotel in New York city is where Cohen lived when he wasn't at his home in Montreal or his cottage on the Greek Island of Hydra. He chose the Chelsea because he heard he would meet people with a similar artistic bent, which he did. When introducing this song in concert, he would often tell a story about meeting a famous singer in an elevator of the Chelsea, which led to the sexual encounter he describes in this song. In Leonard's Greatest Hits (1997) album notes he says: "I wrote this for an American singer who died a while ago. She used to stay at the Chelsea, too. I began it at a bar in a Polynesian restaurant in Miami in 1971 and finished it in Asmara, Ethiopia just before the throne was overturned. Ron Cornelius helped me with a chord change in an earlier version."
Leonard Cohen has admitted that he wrote this song about an affair he had with Janis Joplin, although since her death, he has come to regret actually linking her name with the song. In a 1994 BBC radio interview, Cohen referred to it as "the sole indiscretion in my professional life." He added regarding his kiss and tell: "Looking back I'm sorry I did because there are some lines in it that are extremely intimate." (thanks, Shannon - Kathleen, GA, for above 2)
Ron Cornelius is a guitarist who played on sessions with many artists, including Johnny Cash, Loudon Wainwright III and Bob Dylan. Before branching out into production and music publishing, he served as Leonard Cohen's band leader for 4 albums. Ron gave us this response regarding his role in writing this song:
"He claims that I helped him with a chord change in writing an earlier version of this song. The truth is that I co-wrote the song with him on an airplane (8hrs) from New York to Shannon, Ireland. The reason it has a No.2 behind it is that he tried to cheat me out of my share by recopyrighting it that way (he changed nothing) - it was just "Chelsea Hotel." Anyone can check out the writer credits by contacting BMI to get the truthful writer credits. I ran his band for a long time (worldwide), played on his records, and have nothing but honest input to look back on - Leonard can't say that!!!"
Lana Del Rey covered the song for a single release. Her vocals-and-acoustic guitar version was released on March 27, 2013, accompanied by a nostalgic music video, which sees her performing the track with a microphone in a dimly lit room.
Al Jourgensen of Ministry
In the name of song explanation, Al talks about scoring heroin for William Burroughs, and that's not even the most shocking story in this one.